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Do you need a mobile strategy?

This post was written by Steve Barden and first appeared on the LINE blog on 16th August 2013.

There is now more access to the web via smartphone and tablet than from desktops and laptops. At the global level, the statistics are mind-boggling. Worldwide, 20 billion apps were consumed last year; that’s slightly more than three for every person on the planet. In the UK we are particularly avid users of mobile technology. 78% won’t leave home without their phones , and we are seeing these devices dominate not only our domestic existences, but also our working lives. Mobile has penetrated the enterprise. The BYOD phenomenon shows clearly that a lot of this push is coming from the grass roots up. People grow so attached to their favoured personal devices that they want to use them at work as well as at home. But the C-suite gets it as well: top management sees potential efficiencies and productivity boosts coming from mobile. When it comes to using these devices for communications, support and learning therefore, L&D finds itself facing pressure from both ends of the organisation to adopt. The word comes down from the top that training documentation will be replaced by tablets. Meanwhile the new intake of graduates is asking why they can’t access the induction programme on your LMS via their smartphones. In many organisations it is not a case of when mobile will happen, or how fast – it’s already happened. You therefore have two stances you can take towards the challenge of mobile. You can be reactive; fighting fires and launching tactical campaigns as demand arises. But very soon, you will face a host of problems. If you decide to create an app, for instance, how do you make it available in a secure and efficient way – and if you create more than one, how do you make sure the right people in the organisation get pointed towards the right app? How do you make sure your m-learning can be accessed by the particular devices your target learners are using? How do you update and refresh the content? Fundamental, apparently quite simple steps become quite difficult when you come to encounter them without having thought through them first in a planned way. The other stance you can take is to be pro-active. To create a strategy for mobile communications, support and learning. If you do so your life will eventually be a lot easier, and your efforts will undoubtedly have stronger results for the business. You will find yourself in something of an elite group, however. Although research in the US shows that organisations are buying the promise of mobile, with more than 70% having pilots in progress, less than 30% have an enterprise strategy for mobile learning.

What is the right strategy?

Not having a strategy at all is clearly a bad thing. So let’s assume that you are in the more sensible 30% that wants to take a planned, strategic approach. The question then arises of what is the right strategy to adopt? A strategy is not something you buy off the shelf. Fairly obviously, the right strategy is the one that is right for your organisation, taking into account all the relevant factors about the circumstances, both internal and external, it finds itself in. Leaving aside the purely bespoke side of strategy creation however, we would like to say that there are specific key considerations that need to be part of your decision-making; critical areas and issues you need to take into account in your planning. There is nothing random about this selection: it is based on our work with clients on mobile strategy and our continuous scanning of the marketplace. For a start, here are three important areas you will need to deal with head on:

  • Integration
  • Scale
  • Future-proofing

Integration

It ought to go without saying that whatever new mobile capability you are bringing into your learning and development activities needs to be integrated with existing systems and processes – both technically and in terms of workflow. However, more and more, mobile learning is just as much about communications and support as it is about instruction. If you are not already transitioning to the more architectural, 70/20/10 view of the world that we have described in our series of Learning Architectures papers, you might well find that bringing mobile into the picture creates tensions. A traditional training effort focused solely on formal, structured interventions will struggle to adapt to the more just-in-time/just-enough style of content delivery that suits mobile. Other parts of the organisation (comms, marketing, IT) might feel you are encroaching on their territory. Be aware that you will face technical integration issues – support applications absolutely need to be integrated with data in existing systems – but you might also have some high-level questions to address about your over-all learning strategy, and a job of communication to do within your organisation.

Scale

Pilots are one thing: roll-outs are another. If you have the vision and strategy right, you should be able to scale your pilot quickly. If not, you may face real challenges when it is out in the wild. In the context of a pilot, where all you might be after is a proof of concept, it is possible to scope the project in a way that insulates it from wider organisational pressures. Operating at scale, however, might bring in a host of other considerations. You might have to deal with a wider range of target devices, for instance, on different operating systems. If yours is a multinational organisation you will be likely to have to deal with the peculiarities of different network operators, different cultural norms around mobile use, different languages and characters sets, etc. In areas of patchy internet reception there could be a call for alternative means of getting out the message (e.g. pdf or printed sheets). There could also be a requirement for localisation of the parts of the content to suit particular conditions and needs on the ground. This latter requirement is eminently doable with mobile, as are all the other variations we have mentioned. However, if the choices you made when setting up your pilot didn’t at least take into account the possibility of these factors coming into play, you might well have painted yourself into a corner with the particular development route, authoring tool, publishing platform or distribution management solution you have chosen. Such errors of planning (or lack of) can prove to be extremely costly further down the track if you need to make a switch of direction in a hurry. Having a strategy at the outset that encompasses the full potential scale of your aspirations will stop you becoming the victim of your success when your pilot hits the mark and there is pressure for a full and speedy roll-out.

Future-proofing

Your solutions for mobile need to work for tomorrow’s devices, audiences, systems and infrastructure, as well as today’s. Whatever decisions you make today need to be flexible and adaptable to be able to take account of new device form factors, screen resolutions and even core functionality . This might seem like a tall order. It might even seem to require that you don a cape and carry a crystal ball. Technology futures are notoriously difficult to predict, and mobile in particular is a young, emerging area; highly volatile and fast-changing. However, so is weather, and you wouldn’t plan a village fete without at least a glance at the long-range weather forecast. As with weather, the further you move forward from the present moment into the future, the less predictable things become. Getting a good fix on the current trends and drivers in mobile should help you plan fairly reliably for the next two to three years ahead. Beyond that, you need to look in a bit more depth at some underlying technology drivers, and consult knowledgeable opinion about the way things are going and likely to go (we have a few wise heads within LINE, you can call on, needless to say). That might give you a good fix on what is possible and likely in technology development. What is harder to predict – the element that generates most uncertainty in future-gazing – is what will be acceptable to and popular with users five years hence. Who knew that SMS would take off in the way it did? Not the technology companies. Who could have predicted that Twitter, for instance, would become so big and influential? Looking forward, will Google Glass become the major disrupter many think it is going to be? Will voice control of mobile devices ever become mainstream behaviour? If you knew how to predict user behaviour five years ahead of time, you could get rich. But you are not Marty McFly. The best you can do is to look at all the evidence that can be gathered from reputable sources, take expert advice, and make a call. You might not achieve certainty, but you will not have stinted in limiting risk for your strategy – and along the way you will almost certainly manage to avoid some of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the unwary.

Your key decisions

In a paper of this kind there is not space to go into all the points your strategy needs to touch on in detail. We have summarised what we see as the eight key areas in the panel in this section however. Treat this as a checklist, and make sure you have all these areas covered off. Further chapters in this guide will give more detail about particular issues in design and technology you need to consider. However it is worth mentioning two fundamental items that ‘top and tail’ the strategy process: defining your business needs and measuring your success – and a further strategic consideration that will impact globally dispersed organisations in particular.

What will mobile deliver for your business?

Defining the business need is a particularly critical area. There are many ways to think about how mobile can benefit the business, but an important thing to focus on is how it can be used to help people do their jobs better. For LINE this means looking at a spectrum of capabilities across communications, performance support and learning. You might want to use mobile to:

  • Communicate with staff more effectively
  • Support them in their day-to-day work
  • Help them learn

You might want to use it to improve their:

  • Speed to competence
  • Retention
  • Performance

Measuring success

Whatever the benefits you want to achieve with your strategy, it is important to determine at the outset how you are going to measure its success. The right strategy identifies critical success factors that will help you do this, aligning end-user benefits and expectations with the needs of the business.

Global versus Local

Corporates with geographically dispersed workforces face well-documented problems in ensuring the consistency of training across all territories, particularly when it comes to ‘soft’ areas like employees’ understanding of the organisation’s brand values and beliefs. However, just as keenly felt is the importance of catering for local variations in practice and differing needs on the ground. Often this leads to perceived conflict between what is mandated from the centre and what is needed at the periphery. A ‘not-invented-here’ attitude can prejudice uptake and engagement. While the benefit of technology in delivering a consistent message across a global organisation is much trumpeted, technology platforms often fail to take account of the need for local variation in design and content. As mobile learning and communication solutions begin to be rolled out at scale, there is danger that this vital dynamic gets overlooked. Our solution, LINEstream, can cater for these differences – and enable updating of the material without rewriting changes – but be aware that not every platform has this capability.

Looking forward

Strategies should always be forward-looking, so before we leave the subject of strategy, here are some parting thoughts about how we see things developing. To describe this, we need to look at mobile communications, support and learning in the broader context of training transformation. If we step back two years, there was a lot of talk about moving from ‘just-in-case’ learning to ‘just-in-time’. With the advent of mobile as a serious and usable component in the tech toolkit, it is now possible to project that movement further forward as represented in the diagram below, to just-enough and just-for-me learning. In other words, mobile is one of the forces helping to drive towards more personalised learning. flow chart Returning to our theme of integration, it is important to see this process as additive rather than competitive. We still have formal, structured, immersive learning, but we have more informal and ad-hoc types as well. This is opening up a spectrum of ‘hi-fi’ and ‘lo-fi’ learning experiences, where the type of uses made of learning content will call for different design approaches. Our traditional pedagogies might not help us in navigating this new world. Not all the interactivity we design for will be about engagement. Some of it, especially that delivered through mobile devices, will involve providing personalised support for an abstracted, multi-tasking user. Not all of it will be interaction that we are in control of – the prevalence and popularity of social media has driven an expectation that there will be a ‘back channel’ in almost any type of online interaction; giving the user opportunity to share, rank, comment and perhaps even re-contextualise in unforeseen ways any content you provide. A whole class of new user expectations along this line needs somehow to be squared with a training culture that is still struggling to emerge from its old command-and-control, behaviourist roots. These are important ideas to hang onto as we move to talk in more depth about design and technology. mobile strategy: 8 considerations