5 reasons why learning needs to get the omnichannel

By John Helmer May 23, 2016

Graphic to illustrate Retail in LearningOops, here comes a buzzword. And surely we need another one of those like we need a hole in the head. But there’s a serious idea behind this one – the omnichannel – an idea that was born in the world of retail, but which has important implications for learning and communications across all business sectors.

Omnichannel has become a thing in retail because major shopping brands have seen changes in customer behaviour – around the huge proliferation of smartphone use and the convergence of physical and virtual spaces – that are seriously disrupting their markets.

According to Google, 82% of smartphone users turn to their phones inside a store when making purchase decisions. And that process of decision making is highly likely to blend visits to a store with visits to a website. A process of research that starts on smartphone might end up with purchase in a shop around the corner – or vice versa. And it might also involve use of a tablet and a desktop PC along the way.

Infographic giving statistics for consumer use of the omnichannel in purchase decisions

This is where shoppers live now, in the omnichannel, moving seamlessly between physical spaces in the real world and spaces accessed virtually, through a screen. It’s where we all live.

Meanwhile, the big shopping brands, many of them, are struggling to move from the previous paradigm of multichannel retailing – selling through a variety of sales channels with not much connection between them – to omnichannel retailing: integrating physical and digital channels to offer a seamless and unified customer experience.

Getting the omnichannel is all about a shift of perspective, a different awareness. It tells you that you’re looking at thing through the wrong end of the telescope when you focus on ‘delivery through multiple channels’. What you should be thinking about is the customer experience, and how you can engineer seamless hand-offs from one channel to another. It’s looking at things from the customer’s point of view. It’s about letting go of the illusion that, as a retailer, you choose the channels through which to communicate with your consumer. The consumer makes the choice – be it FaceBook, Amazon, Google or wherever. So you can’t afford to think ‘multi-‘, you have to think ‘omni-‘.

There is a hard economic reality to this. Because if you aren’t there in the customer experience; facilitating it, enabling it; someone else will be – one of the disruptive competitors in your own supply chain, for instance; someone who is doing a better job of forging a direct relationship with your customer (typically, through social media) than you are. In this talk on YouTube, Mitch Joel tells retailers why, ‘this new war for the direct relationship is with everyone in the value chain of what you offer to your customer.’

So the drive to offer a seamless customer experience across the omnichannel is not just an aspiration for retailers: it’s a life-or-death necessity.

Learning in Retail

Clearly, a strategy that gives so much importance to hand-offs between the various customer touch points is going to make demands on the knowledge and skills of staff in retail – not only on the frontline but right across the value chain. This new dynamic places demands on learning and communications within the retail sector that organisations have never had to grapple with before.

Showrooms staff in some retail organisations will have to be tooled up to face a shopper, with smartphone in hand, who might know more about the company’s products and marketing than they do. Increasing amounts of learning – product training, for instance – as well as raw information and real-time data, have to be offered ‘just-in-time’ and directly into the workflow. Mobile technology allows this to happen, but it would be a mistake to focus on something called mobile learning, to the exclusion of other available channels. Learning has to be omnichannel too.

In addition, learning and comms are increasingly being required for new audiences in the value chain – to suppliers at one end, and customers themselves at the other.

We are very conscious of these developments at Lumesse, because we have a unit focused on retail and these are exactly the challenges we are successfully helping clients to overcome.

Why this matters for all business sectors – five reasons

Up to now I have been hinting fairly heavily that the issues here go way beyond the bounds of the retail sector. The omnichannel might have been born out of retail, but it doesn’t stop within retail.

So perhaps it is time I stopped hinting and started spelling out why you, as a learning professional, need to care about the omnichannel, even if you work in Finance, Pharmaceuticals, Manufacturing – or any other business sector.

Here are five reasons.

1. The way people learn online has a lot in common with the way they shop

There is a generic similarity between the activities of shopping and learning. This is recognized in the language of L&D. We talk about ‘acquiring’ knowledge or skills. Certain types of training are said to be ‘transactional’. And these similarities are even more marked online.

Of course, buying shoes isn’t really anything like learning to lead an organisation – but at the heart of both activities nowadays, if only on a process level, is an exchange of information.

Purchasing consumer goods, whether the goods be holidays, headphones or halloumi cheese, usually starts with some kind of information search. And many consumer purchases are, fundamentally, exchanges of information. When you buy a movie, a software program or a plane ticket, you are purchasing information. And the money you are buying it with (now that currencies are no longer tied to gold, or cowry shells) is also just that: information. You’ll have heard this type of reasoning before.

But what’s important to appreciate is that information is also the raw material out of which we build knowledge and skills when we learn stuff. And digital technology has given us a new, common infrastructure for movement and exchange of any type of information at all – from betting odds to the human genome.

So changes of human behavior around information – which is what the omnichannel idea is talking about – affect every field of human endeavour in which dynamic information exchanges play a part. None more so than learning.

2. Learners are acting like shoppers

The rise of the self-directed learner is a well documented phenomenon in the world of L&D, and it comes along with a new set of challenges for the learning profession. When you can’t compel attendance and attention, how can you ensure that employees engage with the learning programmes you are supplying?

As our recent Think Tank report reveals (‘Beyond the course: workplace learning in a post-course world’), the answer is that you start trying to think like a marketer (and marketers today are obsessed with the omnichannel). You become very focused on getting more insights about your learners and finding out what motivates them.

Urgency is given to this shift by the fact that increasing numbers of employees within organisations have woken up to the fact that they now have a choice about what and how they learn – and who they get it from. Employees who aren’t getting what they need from their organization are increasingly voting with their feet.

Earlier this year learning benchmarking experts Towards Maturity surveyed individuals who have paid for their own learning and found than fewer than half of them (42%) felt that their companies provided relevant online learning for their job roles.

A picture emerged from the research of employees frustrated with the learning they were being offered, feeling unsupported in their career aims by the organisation, and turning to Google, MOOCs and external for-profit providers to pursue their own personal development.

In this situation, L&D risks loses the direct relationship with learners to ‘competitors’ within its own supply chain (sound familiar?).

3. ‘Blended learning’ doesn’t cut it any more

Combining digital and face-to-face learning has been a problem ever since the advent of web-delivered e-learning, with early attempts at bolting online modules onto instructor-led programmes having mixed success. As digital channels began to proliferate, greater complexity came into the task. We looked for new ways to structure programmes – learning architectures, pathways, journeys, patterns … But all of these approaches assumed a learning architect in control of selecting (and in many cases providing) the definitive mix of channels through which learning would be delivered.

Our own insights-based approach favours a different perspective on this challenge – one which is closer in spirit to omnichannel retailing. Learner insights tell us where the learners actually are, the channels they actively want to use, and as far as possible, we try to take the learning to them, with a strong focus on the learner experience.

(If we wanted to be fancy about this we could call it omnichannel learning!)

4. Learning is migrating into the workflow

Part of the initial value proposition of e-learning was that it should lead to less hours carved out of the working week.

But in fulfilling this promise – taking learning out of the company training centre (now sold off or demolished) and delivering it into workplaces – few anticipated quite how far this progress could go.

Mobility puts digital learning into the hands at last of that fairly huge proportion of the workforce that isn’t shackled every moment of the working day to a desktop computer. Technology mediates a lot of our meetings nowadays, and tablets have brought digital into a whole raft of working interactions. Learning is moving every closer to the working situation, and will increasingly become intimately bound up within workflow itself.

And the infrastructure that will increasingly enable this? The Omnichannel.

5. The omnichannel is an infrastructure for learning

If your customer-facing organisation has built an infrastructure to address the omnichannel, there is an opportunity to turn that back and use it as an infrastructure for learning. A lot of what the customer needs to know about your brand, your products and services, the employee needs to know too – and vice versa. Many companies now invest in customer learning – and learning for other parts of the value chain too – suppliers and partners. Connections forged across the organisation in addressing the omnichannel can be exploited to help the flow of knowledge for all these stakeholders.

In a wider sense, the omnichannel is itself an infrastructure for learning. The social channels that everybody has access to can be used to support learning campaigns, in the spirit of ‘being where the learner is’ rather than expecting them always to come to places that L&D provides.

Much focus has been given in the learning technologies world to building a dedicated, proprietary infrastructure for learning in past years, but increasingly learning professionals are waking up the potential of leveraging the omnichannel as well, to grow reach and engagement for learning.

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