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Are there drawbacks to being an early adopter?

This post was written by Bruce Woods and first appeared on the LINE blog on 1st September 2011.

Bruce Woods, Director at LINE, looks at the adoption of technology-enabled learning in the professional services sector and finds that, while being an early adopter in learning innovation brings many advantages, it also has consequences – which many firms are now dealing with.

Professional services is a large and diverse industry, containing many different types of organisations. Despite their diversity, however, organisations in the sector have many common issues; issues which have driven them, in the main, to become early and enthusiastic adopters of new learning technologies. For this reason, it’s probably fair to say that one tends to see more examples of mature use of learning innovation in this sector than elsewhere.

At the same time, there are drawbacks that can come with being an early adopter, and professional service firms are finding that they have to do some refocusing of their learning strategies as technology-supported learning moves out of its initial, pioneering phase and becomes ‘business-as-usual’.

Intangibility and brand

It might seem difficult to generalise about a sector that covers such a diverse range of businesses – including, fairly obviously, law firms, management consultancies and accountancy practices; but also outsourcing operations, technology integrators and a wide range of specialised services. However, all these companies share some broad issues when it comes to learning and development, which is why it makes absolute sense for LINE to have formed a business unit to cater for their particular needs.

Some of the major issues they have in common flow from the intangibility of what they offer. A service, by definition, cannot be seen or touched. So how do customers know how to choose one service provider over another? In most cases the tangible signals that indicate service quality and value come largely from personal interaction. A service business therefore can only express its brand effectively, and differentiate itself from competitors, through its people. Learning and development is of critical importance in building a service brand.

This is true of all service businesses, to a degree – what I’ve said in the preceding paragraph comes straight out of marketing 101 – however it’s particularly the case within professional services, where the service being delivered is of high value, and is often delivered by a qualified individual operating at a considerable level of professional expertise. In contrast to a hotel business, for instance, where premises also play a big part, this professional expertise forms a sizeable chunk of the customer experience.

This is a very competitive industry and one where clients tend to have low switching costs. Professional service firms tend to differentiate themselves around the quality of their staff, but also around something different and, in a way, even more intangible: their culture. Since professional qualifications by definition have a degree of interchangeabilty about them, firms need to demonstrate that they have a distinctive approach that sets them apart. Internal communications, training and knowledge management are critical functions within these firms in achieving that, which are wired directly into their competitiveness and brand image.

A further factor putting pressure on the L&D function is the high level of mergers and acquisitions activity within the sector. This makes for a continual influx of new people from acquired firms who may well have different ideas about things; putting pressure on maintaining a unique culture, and creating a need for training and communications that will help them ‘get’ the brand for which they are now front-line ambassadors.

Knowledge workers drive greater learning maturity

At a very basic level, professional service firms have a lot of highly educated, self-motivated learners to service, with big information needs. To put it more simply: they have a lot of knowledge workers. This fact alone has tended to make these companies early adopters of learning technologies – firstly, because they have had to respond to the increasing speed of business in a networked, always-on world by getting the right knowledge and information to their employees wherever they may be; and secondly because the nature of their workforce has found them better placed to embrace technology than companies in other sectors where there have been barriers of basic IT literacy and poor infrastructure to overcome.

This advantage has in many cases resulted in a more mature use of learning innovation, since firms have had more years of experience and experimentation through which to hone their approach. LINE’s Learning Architectures model, for instance, which draws on behaviours and attributes associated with mature users of technology and innovation, has found ready acceptance within many organisations in this sector. Concepts such as the 70/20/10 model and informal learning are widely known about, and organisations are used to using a wide range of technology tools to aid learning, not just the self-paced online modules which directly replace classroom training courses.

However, there are some drawbacks that come with being an early adopter.

Leading and bleeding?

The sector was relatively early into mobile. Blackberry has been a very popular brand with its end-users historically, largely because of the facility with which its devices handle email. As a result, Blackberry devices are extremely prevalent among the employees within professional services firms. However, the development of smartphones took a big leap forward with the introduction of the iPhone, and Blackberry has been playing catch-up ever since. Its devices do not tend to make ideal platforms for m-learning – in comparison to iPhone and Android smartphones – meaning that the use of technology-supported learning experiences constraints within the sector, faced with a learner population equipped in this way.

It should be said however, that this situation is changing rapidly, with iOS devices gaining more traction within this user population. Where the iPhone was previously considered as something of a ‘lifestyle’ product by IT departments, in comparison to the more business-focused Blackberry, it is now being taken more seriously as productivity tool, and consequently is being more requested by knowledge workers.

A similar pattern of first-mover disadvantage is seen with rapid e-learning. Professional service firms were early adopters of rapid authoring tools such as Articulate, and quick to set-up in-house development capabilities for rapid production of learning content. While Rapid undoubtedly has its place in the learning armoury, organisations have found that it doesn’t always provide an optimal solution to some of the knottier training problems that L&D departments face.

In particular, professional service firms often have quite ‘dry’ content that their learners need help to engage with. Bringing this dry material to life can often require considerable creative flair and a more hi-end production approach – capabilities more often found within external agencies. Issues of culture and change, such as those thrown up by mergers and acquisition, as mentioned above, can also make quite taxing demands on L&D, often requiring a blended approach informed by a nuanced understanding of the change management process; again, not a brief that rapid, in-house production teams are necessarily set up to respond to.

As a result, LINE is tending to see an increased willingness to outsource development of learning programmes than previously within this sector, as awareness grows that technology supported learning innovation is not the blunt instrument it has previously been taken to be in some quarters!

Conclusion

Early adopters in many walks of life face the problem that they are more liable to buy early into new ideas and technical formats that subsequently turn out not to stand the test of time. Interestingly, however, the drawbacks associated with this more adventurous mindset do not cancel out the benefits of first-mover advantage so it would be wrong to place too much emphasis on the problems we have outlined here associated with being an early adopter in learning technologies. In both the cases we have discussed, it is really a case of mid-course corrections and readjustments being made, rather than wasted investments. The work of Towards Maturity shows very clearly that more mature organisations achieve far higher business benefits from their use of technology innovation than those farther back along the curve – and greater maturity, by definition, is more likely to be achieved sooner by those with the more adventurous mindset associated with early adopters.

We are particularly pleased, therefore, at LINE, to be an organisation that early adopters actively seek out for support with their learning programmes, and continue to be stimulated by, and very proud of, our work with clients in the professional services sector.