Tech broke the workforce – can tech fix it? Report from the Think Tank

By John Helmer April 30, 2015

If it is really true that we live in a VUCA world then technology change is one of the key forces that has produced it. Digital technology is a major driver of change in the workforce – not just through the new tools and affordances it provides, which people need to be trained to get the best from, but also though the way it disrupts markets, collapses time and geography, reshaping organisations in the process and challenging established ways of doing things.

Luckily, digital technology doesn’t just cause problems for L&D. It also provides powerful tools to help solve those problems. But doing digital learning effectively is hard – as we discovered in the first of our reports from this Think Tank. Part of the reason why it is hard is that when you start using digital to do a job, it seems to have an inbuilt tendency to change the nature of that job. Which itself throws up problems.

So is technology more of an enabler for L&D or a problem? We asked the question two ways. Firstly, we put it to a wide sample of L&D professionals at the Learning Technologies Exhibition.

Chart showing survey result: 80% say tech enables learning

The vast majority, it is clear, see technology in a positive light. Which raises the question of why, according to Towards Maturity’s research, such a relatively small number of L&D people seem to be really expert in deploying it effectively?

To drill into this question further, we posed it to an invited group of L&D leaders in a ‘Think Tank’ facilitated discussion conducted under Chatham House rules.

Delegates were from organisations including Lloyds Banking Group, Mærsk, MOD, Pragma, Towards Maturity, Trafigura, TUI, and Vodafone.

The result was up a frank, no-holds-barred discussion from which one point emerged very clearly. When you bring digital technology to bear on learning challenges, it changes the way you have to think about learning – and this is not a change that happened in 1998 and has remained fixed in stone ever since, though certain themes have persistent. Change is constant in this space, and liable to remain so for the foreseeable future. Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from the Think Tank discussion

  • Digital tech is enabling knowledge transfer in ways that are not always like-for-like replacements of traditional physical-world activities
  • Digital learning is putting pressure on silo boundaries (e.g. that between training and comms) – or dissolving them altogether
  • Digital’s tendency to aggregate and commoditise content means big changes for learning, which has traditionally been heavily content-based
  • Digital enables many things that simply weren’t possible before – challenging L&D to grasp some big opportunities in, for instance, better transfer of learning into the workplace
  • L&D needs to learn the new dynamic of fast response and adaptation in order to make the most of digital learning
  • This new dynamic puts pressure on suppliers as well, to adapt to the new ways in which their top deck clients are operating

Technology as an enabler of learning

  • Digital tech is enabling knowledge transfer in ways that are not always like-for-like replacements of traditional physical-world activities, but new forms of knowledge sharing.

Just a few of the more non-traditional examples our delegates shared with us of how they are doing this included:

  • User-generated content (UGC)
  • Online video to capture the knowledge of inhouse SMEs and share it around the organization
  • An app to help sales staff motivate themselves during the working day, with a WhatsApp-style social media feature built in to link them into their network
  • An app to help managers in a retail network give customer-facing staff observational feedback to be used in customer conversations

It is notable that much of this activity is produced in-house, with no input from learning suppliers. And where suppliers are involved – as with app or video production – it isn’t always a learning company.

One of our delegates gave us his three principles for using technology – speed, simplicity and trust. ‘Everything we do has got to be fast, it’s got to be simple and we’ve got to trust it. So for me, when it comes to the learning space, that’s the quickest learning bites you can deliver, in the most straightforward manner and with content that is realistic, credible, believable and pragmatic. That’s the big shift for me.’

He was inspired by the example of Nick Shackleton-Jones at BP, who sent a video crew around the world filmed 800 best practice video clips. ‘We’ve got a lot of the knowledge already in-house and we can recycle that and curate it ourselves without needing to bring in vendors’. Consequently, he wants all his current technology platform investments (e.g. learning portal, LMS) to be able to capture content. This sort of user-generated content, he feels, is bound to scare suppliers (more of them later).

Blurred lines

  • Digital learning is putting pressure on silo boundaries, or dissolving them altogether.

One example of using technology as an enabler cited in our discussion, which involved use of an e-newsletter, showed clearly how L&D can easily find itself staying across organisational boundaries – in this case into the area of comms: is an e-newsletter learning or communication?

The affordances of digital technology, coupled with the perennial need to operate in lean, agile and cost-effective ways, will inevitably drive L&D to piggyback on existing channels within the organisation. With a big, multi-functional piece of software like Sharepoint, which can do many of the things learning platforms have within their spec, this inevitably brings up the silo issue – but in some organisations this sort of boundary crossing happens so frequently now that it is hardly an issue: ‘The lines are all blurred now. Silos are being broken down’.

Conversely, because of the availability of organisational licenses for such all-encompassing systems, L&D occasionally has to fight quite hard to be allowed to procure more specialised LMS platforms from a learning supplier, where the big system cannot do all that is needed.

It also seems that a 70:20:10 view of the world tends to make such blurring of the lines inevitable. Since training’s traditional area of responsibility lies firmly in the 10%, any attempts to facilitate or support the 20 and the 70 are bound to bring L&D into areas where other functions (e.g. comms, marketing, HR, knowledge management) have jurisdiction.

Forget 70:20:10 – here comes 24:25:51

  • Digital enables many things that simply weren’t possible before – challenging L&D to grasp some big opportunities in, for instance, better transfer of learning into the workplace.

Just what the learning world needs, we hear you gasp, another set of baffling numerals. But bear with us. The 24:25:51 formulation, which came out of some US research done a decade ago, is all about transfer of learning into the workplace, recently a much discussed topic in instructional design circles (where the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is much quoted), and something digital technology is much more suited to enable, it turns out, than familiar course-based training models.

One of our delegates described how he put this into action.

‘24% of learning happens before the person comes to the classroom – so it’s in the prep. 25% of learning happens in a classroom … but 51% happens afterwards. So I spent many years … shifting the bulk of our learning into learning support after the event. We saw tremendous results in the three months afterwards. Our [learners] left us, we stayed in touch with them, we had follow-up webinars, one-to-one coaching with the same trainer – and we actually saw massive results.’

This led onto a discussion about the difference between competence and capability. ‘We tend to think because we’ve trained somebody, they’re capable. You’ve just given them a set of skills [and] that makes them competent.’ What makes them capable is the experience they gain afterwards, when they attempt to apply those skills in a real life situation. They may go wrong and have to adjust things, might get some coaching to guide them thorough this iterative process of gaining experience. ‘We deliver competent people out of training, they’re not capable until they’ve been had that life experience’.

In other words, all the real learning happens after the course is over. Digital technology – particularly now that it is becoming more personal, more portable and more social – presents a unique opportunity to bridge that gap between learning events and application of the learning. ‘We can use technology to enhance that competence and that capability’.

‘Most learning is 80% generic’

  • Digital’s tendency to aggregate and commoditise content means big changes for learning, which has traditionally been heavily content-based.

Digital technology has a rough-handed way with published content that is currently shaking up business models right across the information industries. However, the most noticeable effect of this for L&D is a good one. There is an awful lot of useful learning content readily available online, for free or at very low cost. ‘You’ve got all the knowledge and learning out there you want, if you look for it’. It’s the looking for it, however, that turns out to be the problem.

There’s just too much content: discovery is a major issue. The quality is highly variable: provenance and context are not always easy to gauge … on top of which, even if it is high quality learning content, it could be badly ‘off-message’ for a particular organisation.

Enter one of the most over-used words de nos jours, curation.

Curation turns out to be a key L&D skill in this new world. An increasing proportion of learning content that was once bought, licenced or commissioned is now curated instead. Resources are linked to from learning portals, learners are pointed towards appropriate MOOCs, and so on.

With so much content free, L&D has to make different sorts of decisions about where to spend money for best results. Trends like UGC and curation tend to make budget flow from products into ‘people costs’ and from transactional training procurement towards ‘the supplier who has the knowledge and expertise you don’t’. Products become services.

These deep, systemic trends also tend to point up the ‘reinvention of the wheel’ that characterises a lot of traditional training spend – as well as not-so-traditional training spend. In the 2,000s, one particular e-learning company created bespoke money laundering e-learning courses for several of the UK high street banks, drawing on virtually identical source materials – each one individually commissioned, built and paid for. One of our delegates who had worked for one of these banks described the experience of getting together with his opposite numbers and trying to foster a bit more collaboration. Agreement could not be reached.

As he said, most learning is 80% generic, and digital makes this ever more visible. With content becoming increasingly commoditised, therefore smart L&D professionals their focus and their budgets towards the 20% that is non-generic; a unique set of service values, for instance, brand difference, and motivating the people to learn for themselves. Learning becomes more about differentiation.

Speed, simplicity and trust

  • L&D needs to take on a new dynamic of fast response and adaptation in order to make the most of digital learning.

Our initial question of whether technology should be enabling or driving change was, in the opinion of one delegate, ‘really difficult to answer’. In one sense it comes down to whether L&D is being proactive or reactive on technology, and that can vary depending on the culture of the organisation. In a fast-moving, retail-focused telco, for instance, L&D will be playing catch-up; watching how the learners use technology and adapting and supporting the best of what they do themselves.

In a more set-in-its ways, public sector organisation, however, with a very ‘locked-down’ IT culture, use of innovative learning technology is liable to encounter a bit of push-back. One delegate recalled the example of an attempted roll-out of Yammer in such an organisation that was effectively killed by IT resistance.

L&D therefore needs to flex and be highly responsive in its use of technology. One size doesn’t fit all, but neither does one stance.

The organisation may have a rigid culture inimical to change, but there is also the culture of training itself to consider. Innovation puts a lot of pressure on the old model. Even working with the not-so-old models, L&D always seems to be using second-hand tools and structures somehow. With a representative of the forces around our table, it was pointed out that the military invented training as we know it, and most of the technical standards in online learning (not to mention the internet and even computers, thanks you Alan Turing); ‘we all use these things but are aware they were invented for a very different purpose’.

‘I don’t want the full Gucci stuff, I just want sufficient’

  • This new dynamic puts pressure on suppliers as well, to adapt to the new ways in which their top deck clients are operating.

It is clear from the above that new ways of working for L&D necessarily has to imply new ways of working for suppliers.

Clients want suppliers who will be problem solvers for them – rather than box shifters. They need nimble, cost-effective solutions that address the 20% of learning that is unique to their particular businesses – and help and advice in curating the 80% that isn’t. But it is difficult for suppliers all to work in that way ‘because they are not retained, they’re bought on demand’.

Meanwhile suppliers have the difficulty of catering to an L&D community which is not all on the same page. Top deck clients want something very different from the laggards.

‘Agility for the supplier is not always agility for the organisation’. Suppliers are accused of being neophiliac trend-hounds – always chasing the latest buzzword or blue-sky product launch from Google – while their client might be three updates back on Internet Explorer. ‘In the public sector we’re incremental: it has to be about taking the client on a journey, but doing it at their own pace.’

Market dynamics sometimes make matters difficult as well. While the client-side delegates around the table were unanimous in agreeing that service is more important to them than product, supplier businesses consistently look to IP (i.e. product) as the way to build value in their businesses and provide exit strategies for principals and investors.

‘How can you get a supplier that can just provide a solution to every problem,’ asks one delegate. ‘But does the buyer really want that degree of dependence anyway?’ counters another.

Clearly there is only one way of achieving the perfect happy medium, clients should choose Lumesse … at which point it is probably best to draw this last report from our latest Think Tank to a close!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *