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Learning & Development must learn from the business to succeed

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne January 13, 2016
Digital technology is transforming learning, but only when the foundations of people, process and alignment to business strategy are rock solid.

michael rochelle
Michael Rochelle

Technology is going to be totally irrelevant to learning unless you think how it’s going to be used. Bigger budget is not the answer. If you need a faster way to get to work, that doesn’t mean you buy a space shuttle – a Vespa would be better!

So says Michael Rochelle, chief strategy officer at research and analyst firm Brandon Hall. While digital technologies are making a massive impact on the learning and development (L&D) space, that doesn’t necessarily require a vast investment in technology. Technology is only ever a tool. What it requires first is investment in strategy, processes and people, according to Rochelle:

I’m a process guy and I’m a people guy, before technology. Understand what processes need to change and once you’ve done that, you need to look at the core competences of your people.

All technology does is bring in the ability to scale and you don’t want to scale a bad process and you don’t want technology to outstrip the core competencies of your people.

L&D has tended in the past to be too internally focused, creating courses that it hopes will be sticky. To Rochelle, this is like Tom Hanks in Castaway learning how to create fire – all very clever and commendable, but not very relevant when we operate in an environment where you can stick something in a microwave.

L&D professionals need to know exactly what the strategic aims of the business and what employees need to know to support those goals. That involves learning surveys, talking to employees and understanding the business pressure points.

Sounds straightforward, but according to Brandon Hall’s 2015 State of Learning & Development study, only 30% of companies say that their learning strategies are aligned to business goals. The good news is that 65% recognize that this is a priority.

Organizations also increasingly understand that learning is no longer the outcome, but just the beginning, notes Rochelle:

Learning is really driving better performance with people and performance is based on behavior and creating new ways of thinking and acting.

Employees’ expectations have also changed. They are looking for a quick fix to a specific requirement that they can learn and apply immediately.

So learning is shifting from a push mechanism, where learners are sent on classroom course by their managers, to a pull mechanism, where learners choose what and when they want to learn, and pick the format and the device. So they could watch a short video, go to a discussion forum or run a simulation to learn what they need.

Digital-influenced learning is immersive, immediate and relevant. The learners are in control, selecting what they need to learn at the point they need to learn it.

Rochelle likens this new world of technology-driven learning options to using cable or satellite TV. Employees will have a learning portal, through which they can pick and choose what and how they want to learn and flick between channels, says Rochelle:

You have all these streaming channels and depending on what you need to learn or what interests you or both, not only do you get an opportunity to pick which channel, but within each channel there’s different delivery patterns.

Like modern TV, learners can go back and view something again, fast-forward or scroll back to the information they need. They can pick a channel with in-depth news, or one where there’s news highlights – the same content can be re-engineered and repurposed for each channel. Increasingly, what learners want is specific information and that means chunking up content into bite-sized pieces.

It’s the job of technology to be able to quickly unveil what’s available and in what formats. If the primary delivery method is video, then there needs to be an easily accessible “click here for more information button” that will take the learner to a wiki or chatroom or some other place for more information. Rochelle expands:

It’s what I call the layering effect. My primary layer is video, but do I need a secondary layering of social or is there discussion forum or an expert? It’s like a Venn diagram of these overlapping circles.

More than the LMS

The Learning Management System (LMS) no longer the only player on the stage. That doesn’t mean that the LMS is for the heave-ho, but it now only part of the story and one element in what Rochelle calls a "learning ecosystem”:

I’m still a proponent of LMS, but I think the way to think of technology is as more of an ecosystem. You still need an LMS to deliver courses and you still need video conferences, but you also need technology to support gaming, simulation, augmented reality, social and these other types of modalities that are becoming increasingly used.

Each element of the ecosystem helps create a better learner experience. Rochelle believes that rather than a relay race, where the first leg is the authoring tool and the second is the LMS, today’s learning ecosystem needs to be a matrix:

It’s like a team attacking an obstacle course, all coming from different points of entry and overlapping. It needs a coordinated attack to a problem and the coordinated attack has to be agile and quickly unveiled to the learner.

For Rochelle, a long-time observer of the learning space, the “aha” moment, is the often overlooked effect of technology on the way content is developed:

If I am to support this new way of learning, then that means that authoring content developing and creating content can no longer be done in a constructional design, build-a-course kind of approach. The content has to be bite-sized and it has to be modular and it has to be able to repurposed and reconfigured.

As a result, the changes happening in second- and third-generation authoring tools are eclipsing anything that’s happening on the delivery side, believes Rochelle:

If I’m moving from speaking units of course to speaking in units of bite-sized content, I can’t do that with the way I look at things currently. That’s why you’re seeing second- and third-generation authoring tools.

Rochelle believes that it’s time for learning organizations to take a leaf out of marketing’s book and sell the idea of learning to the organization:

The technology has to be able to develop the idea, hold the idea, stream the idea, attract people back and be able to measure it.

L&D professionals then need to track what’s working and what needs tweaking and to think about better ways to deliver that content.

The pace of business change only ever seems to get faster. If L&D is going to be closer aligned to business, then it needs to find a way to keep pace.

My take

There’s a lot going on in L&D from a technology standpoint. What’s interesting is that activity is not about building a bigger and shinier LMS (though that doesn’t hurt), but about diversifying and finding new ways to deliver learning.

It’s about using content that is already around and repackaging it into a millennial-friendly, bite-sized format.Learning is becoming personalized, so that people choose the way they want to learn and then can cement that learning by using supplementary channels, such as online chat rooms.

The problem will be managing all these different elements and keeping up with the pace of change that’s required by the business.

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