We’re almost ready to share the latest edition of our popular UK Learning Trends Index with you. Over the past few weeks we’ve been knee-deep in Excel spreadsheets, conducting some serious number crunching! As we gear up to publish the full report later this month, here’s a sneak peak at one of the key findings from this year’s report.

It’s all about optimism bias

Optimism bias is a natural quirk of human behaviour. It describes the tendency to believe that our future performance will be much better than our previous performance. Cognitive neuroscientist and TED speaker Tali Sharot explains that our brains are hard-wired to look on the bright side. Think optimist, not pessimist. [1]

L&D practitioners are certainly not immune to the effects of this phenomenon. What’s more, the results of our latest Learning Trends survey confirm that optimism bias is alive and well in many L&D departments today.

Always look on the bright side

While you might think it’s great to always look on the bright side of things, the problem with optimism bias is that it results in a distorted view of reality. You may firmly believe your L&D department smells of roses when, in reality, things are rather different. When optimism bias affects business functions such as L&D, it can have a negative impact, creating a sense of ‘tunnel vision’, which reduces the ability of L&D practitioners to objectively self-reflect on their performance and take action to improve.

Let’s take a look at the data


The Learning Trends Index gathers data from UK-based L&D practitioners about their function’s overall performance, ability, impact and status. It’s important to say here that the data we gather is L&D’s own self-reported views and opinions.

Two of the key things we ask L&D leaders to tell us about are:

    1. Their perceived ability to meet the learning needs of the wider business.
    1. Their perception of L&D’s impact upon corporate performance.

The findings are interesting. It’s fair to say that senior L&D leaders remain extremely optimistic about their performance in these two critical areas:

    • 43% predict that their ability to meet learning needs will get better in the near future.

    • 58% say that L&D’s impact on corporate performance will improve in the near future.

These are two of the strongest positive trends we find across the whole Index.

A history of optimism

The great thing about the UK Learning Trends Index is that it’s not only a snapshot of how things are in the L&D world right now. We’ve got five whole years of data to look back over, and it shows just how strong L&D’s optimism bias has been. Just take a look at the green trend lines on the following graphs. They show the percentage of senior L&D leaders who say that their ability to meet learning needs and their impact on corporate performance will be ‘better’ in the coming six months.

Impact on corporate performance:

From this it’s clear that L&D is pretty positive about its performance in these two areas. But, that’s only half the story. We need to put these self-reported findings into context. We can do this by comparing L&D’s own view with external opinions of its performance from across the wider business.

The other side of the coin

A number of L&D commentators point out the mismatch that exists between L&D perception and awareness of its own performance and the business reality. For example, John McGurk, the CIPD Head of Scotland says:

“I am often amazed at how much disconnect there is between an L&D function and what is going on in the organisation.” [2]

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) recently found that 45% of CEOs said they were dissatisfied with measures of success for L&D. [3] Furthermore, a survey from the Corporate Leadership Council reports that 56% of managers believe that shutting down their organisation’s L&D function would have no discernable impact on performance – hardly a response any business function wants to hear. [4]

In addition, research from L&D consultancy Profitability found that 44% of organisational leaders want to see improved alignment to business strategy from their L&D function, suggesting that this is an area where L&D is currently falling short of expectations. [5] Furthermore, one in two (49%) organisational leaders feel that there is still significant work to be done in improving the business impact of the L&D function. [6]

All of this is at odds with L&D’s own view.

It begs the question whether L&D’s propensity for optimism bias is partly to blame for this mismatch between internal and external views of its performance? A major problem with optimism bias is that it can blind us from realising that improvement is needed, and taking corrective action to improve performance. Despite this, there are ways to tackle optimism bias …

Five killer questions to challenge optimism bias

We think that asking the following questions are a great starting point for an L&D function that wants to take a more proactive approach to assessing and reviewing internal performance:

    1. What evidence and feedback do we have about our own performance as an L&D function?
    1. How can we consider this evidence and feedback in an objective, unbiased way?
    1. How do we build in opportunities for regular review and reflection to our everyday practice?
    1. How can we adopt a process of continuous improvement rather than adhering to the status quo?
    1. How can we take steps to review and assess our own internal skill set to identify areas of weakness and take steps towards improvement?

Stay tuned for the full report

If you’d like to get your hands on the full UK Learning Trends report, please get in touch with us at support@goodpractice.com.

About me

I’m Content and Lead Research Editor here at GoodPractice Towers. I spend my days creating different types of content for our toolkits and coming up with ideas to make our content stand out from the crowd. I get involved in GoodPractice’s ongoing programme of research, such as our recent report on 70:20:10 and of course our annual UK Learning Trends Report. I am also our resident party and events planner and colleagues tell me I make a mean cup of tea!

Follow me on Twitter for more news and updates – @GPStefScott

    • Coloured glasses image credit: Flickr Yasmeen (accessed 1 May 2015).
    • Sunset image credit: Flickr Sam Bald (accessed 1 May 2015).
    • Data scrabble image credit: Flickr Justgrimes (accessed 1 May 2015).
    • Pound coin image credit: Flickr joey ormsby (accessed 1 May 2015).


[1] Tali Sharot, ‘The Optimism Bias’, TED 2012. Available at: www.ted.com/talks/tali_sharot_the_optimism_bias?language=en (accessed 20 March 2015).

[2] An interview with John McGurk, CIPD Advisor on LTD, ‘Learning and Development: Seeking a Renewed Focus?’ White Paper 12/01 (October 2012). The Centre for Performance-Led HR, Lancaster University Business School, Martin Hird and Paul Sparrow. Available at: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/media/lancaster-university/content-assets/documents/lums/cphr/LDWP.pdf (accessed 21 March 2015).

[3] Jack Phillips and Patti Phillips, ‘Measuring What Matters: How CEOs View Learning Success’ (2009). Available at: https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/TD/TD-Archive/2009/08/Measuring-What-Matters-How-CEOs-View-Learning-Success (accessed 13 March 2015).

[4] Corporate Executive Board, ‘Sharpening the Business Impact of L&D’ (2010). Available at: www.executiveboard.com/exbd-resources/pdf/human-resources/learning-development/Sharpening-the-Business-Impact-of-LD.pdf (accessed 13 March 2015).

[5] Profitability L&D Services, ‘Learning With Impact: How L&D Can Deliver Better Business Results’ (May 2014). Available at: www.profitability.com/images/uploads/resources/learning_with_impact_-_research_2014.pdf (accessed 20 March 2015).

[6] Ibid.