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How mobile learning challenges organisational silos

It’s getting to be something of a truism to point out that taking a physical-world process like training online, and exposing it to the interactive medium of the web, does not result in like-for-like equivalence. You might start with a physical world format – a course – but what you end up with can be something very different: an assembly of learning experiences in different technologies and modalities, around which human-to-human learning events are organised in a way that has a lot less to do with the classroom. Welcome to the world of learning architectures.

Never has it been more clear to me, this phenomenon of transformation that digital technologies bring about, than in the case of mobile learning. In fact, it might even be the case that mobile delivery will accelerate the changes we are already seeing in organisational learning and communications.

Why do I think this? Well let me give you an example …

Learning content in workflow: adventures in dealer training

I’ve been working in the automotive sector on dealer training, which is something of a speciality for LINE; studying how we can best use mobile learning. The work has provided a number of surprises.

Surprise one comes from seeing what actually happens when you use mobile devices to implement a principle which has become something of a cliché in our industry; delivering training ‘just in time’, rather than ‘just in case’.

In this particular case it meant not only more relevant, timely learning, integrated tightly within workflow, but also a change to the customer interaction. Video which was sent to the mobile device to demonstrate significant new product features of a new line of cars line could also be shared with the customer, to help with the sales process. The information made accessible to the salesroom staff could also be called up instantaneously to answer customer queries, on the fly. The customer interaction – in this case, a dealership employee showing a member of the public around the features and benefits of a potential new car purchase – becomes more data-rich, no longer being limited to the specific nuggets of information a salesperson can hold in their head (formidable data-crunchers though car salespeople already are) and also more media-rich. The videos have the high production value typical of the industry. In addition the information delivered is more accurate, more consistent in terms of brand message, and potentially more authoritative from the customer’s point of view.

Video proved to be an extremely popular tool from the learner’s point of view, but our initial choice of target device, a smart-phone, did not. The need for more screen real-estate caused by wanting to do full justice to the video, and also by the formidable amount of data involved in a car sale, led to a move to a touch-screen tablet – which proved to be ideal for this purpose.

Supervisors buy in to tablet learning

And here came the second big surprise. It was the managers who liked the tablets best. This flew in the face of normal expectations, which would be for the new device to find immediate user acceptance (salespeople love gadgets) accompanied by line manager resistance. Here it was the other way round: supervisors appreciated immediately the power of using tablets in this way, valuing them for the greater consistency and controllability they gave to the quality of sales interactions.

However, not all managers were equally on board with the concept. Some were horrified at the thought that a machine might replace the human element in the sale. Close research was therefore needed to define exactly how the interaction would work, and how the technology would find its place within this primarily human-to-human exchange (the thing to avoid, of course, being the type of three-cornered conversation summed up by the Little Britain catchphrase, ‘computer says no’!).

Organisational silos mean nothing to the customer!

A few managers feeling challenged by the introduction of an unfamiliar learning technology is something the well-practised consultant takes in his or her stride. A much broader and more unusual challenge was posed by our work, however. Was this actually training?

This arose from the way the programme was straddling traditional organisational boundaries: the ‘silo’ problem. In producing a piece of learning which was also used in the customer interaction, we found ourselves moving beyond the bounds of traditional training by at least a country mile – and well into the territory of sales and marketing. Where was it proper for ultimate authority to sit?

Looked at from the customer’s point of view this knotty (and ultimately perhaps unanswerable question) simply did not arise. For the customer it was not a problem at all. They simply encountered a far more knowledgeable salesperson, and got to see the gleaming new car not only there on the showroom floor, but in some appealing and informative videos, quickly gaining a strong sense of the vehicle’s character and defining features, as well as the benefits they might realise by forking out their hard-earned cash for one. And this is the point: from the customer’s point of view the experience is seamless. It’s simply a better buying experience. From the organisation’s point of view, however, it’s a potential ‘mare! Organisations are simply not organised this way; around what the 21st Century customer needs and requires, and all sorts of cross-functional understandings and processes have to go into realising it as we truly move into the era of mobile learning and communications, with the information and knowledge that employees need increasingly embedded within day-to-day working activity. This silo-busting effect is not only a challenge for organisations, but also, potentially, for suppliers too. Are we still a learning provider, or a comms company, they may ask themselves (not a problem for LINE, necessarily, since we have always positioned ourselves along this fault line)? They may find they have new or multiple stakeholders to deal with from different disciplines. To be honest, however, this is not something entirely new, but something that has been happening for a while in technology-enabled learning. It’s just that mobile delivery – which can serve both staff and customer needs – gives the whole thing a much keener edge.

On a technical level learning management systems hold little interest for managers in other areas of the organisation. Talk about a mobile content management and delivery system and it draws the attention of everyone.

 

Conclusion

In this post I’ve talked only about the automotive industry, but I’m aware that the issue I’m talking about goes much wider – many areas of retail, for instance, will see the relevance. I’d welcome as responses to this post any reflections from learning professionals who have come across examples from their own sectors and disciplines.

how mobile learning challenges organisational silos

This post was written by Sean Nugent and first appeared on the LINE blog on 8th September 2011.