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Technology as driver and enabler in learning transformation

This post was written by John Helmer and Steve Barden and first appeared on the LINE blog on 23rd October 2013.

As part of our older professionalcontinuing look at The New Learning Organisation, Steve Barden and John Helmer discuss the challenges and opportunities that technology creates for L&D. There is a huge amount that technology can do to support L&D in transforming the practice of learning within their organisations. However, while it continues to create exciting opportunities for learning professionals, there is no ignoring the fact that technology also provides them with a fair amount of pain. Like most areas of our professional and personal lives, learning is being disrupted by technology. The effects of this disruption can be unpredictable, unexpected – and not always pleasant. But don’t be blinded! In this post we give some reasons for why it often seems to create difficulties, and point the way towards having an easier relationship with technological change in the context of learning transformation.

Technology is both driver & enabler

An under-appreciated point about technology is that while it functions as a powerful enabler for learning, it is also a driver of change within organisations to which L&D must respond, (see 5 drivers of learning transformation on this blog). Ironically, of course, the solution to these problems is often the deployment of an appropriate piece of on-line learning. Technology can cause problems – but it is also used to try and solve them. Several years ago, for instance, organisations began to notice that their product cycles were accelerating due to the impact of technological change. Production times were shortening for all sorts of consumer products from clothing to cars. This created a problem downstream for those who had to handle, market, sell and support the new products – because the traditional means of getting the necessary knowledge into the appropriate heads, through face-to-face training, was in many cases simply not viable. Although e-learning seemed to provide an answer, the three months needed to produce bespoke e-learning in those days was simply too slow. Equally, the purchase of off-the-shelf content just didn’t resonate either without extensive contextualisation. In response, so-called ‘rapid e-learning’ emerged to fill the gap: a new generation of authoring tools that cut production times for online learning, and allowed product knowledge to keep pace with the market. Technology caused the problem: technology solved it. Fast forward a few years, however, and the picture becomes more complex. The new technology pain point is around adoption of smart phones and tablets by the workforce. Over a relatively brief period of years, the habits of large parts of the working population have changed quite fundamentally around what used to be called ICT: what once sat immovably on the desktop is now in pockets, briefcases and handbags, moving in and out of the organisation with users. 67.8% (Ovum) of smartphone-owning employees bring their own smartphone to work and a fifth do it in spite of an anti-BYOD policy. IT departments struggle to retain control in this situation – and BYOD and CYOD schemes signal a new, changed set of boundary lines between the personal and the professional. At the same time new social tools are changing consumer behaviours around content and information in a way that further fuzzes these boundary lines. L&D also struggles. A whole new set of expectations are coming from staff about how work-related knowledge and information should be provided to them. Meanwhile, up in the C-Suite, other expectations have been raised around mobile, concerning the potential for productivity gains and a further upping of the tempo of working, which also come straight back to the learning department. This time the same tool that causes the problem – the mobile device – is the one that seems to offer the solution. However, now the answers are harder to find; because expectations are being stoked not just by Apple, Android and (to an increasing degree) Microsoft, but also by all the freely available services that come to users down the channel these devices provide: iTunes, Wikipedia, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, etc. And the modern L&D department needs to have the capabilities to meet content expectations based on the sort of experience provided by these large-scale consumer-facing tech brands with their massive user bases. The conclusion we draw from these two examples is that the gap between technology as a driver and technology as an enabler is shortening – dramatically. Technology-as-problem and technology-as-solution now seem close to being concurrent, in fact. Recognising the potency of technology as a driver, and responding to it in kind, learning professionals might often feel that they doomed to be permanently on the back foot as a result. However, there is nothing inevitable about this situation. The example given by high-performing organisations in Towards Maturity’s benchmarking study shows that L&D does not have to be reactive on technology. However, avoiding this reactive stance and a getting firmly into the driving seat (rather than being caught in the technological headlights) can involve a few shifts in mindset for L&D.

Riding the hype cycle

One of these shifts lies in a recognition that, whatever the shape of your learning provision, technology is an important driver of learning needs for your organisation and needs to be closely monitored. At a high level, analytical tools such as Gartner Hype Cycles provide an important early warning system for L&D.  This type of approach, focusing on adoption and viability of new technologies (rather than the marvellous uses they might have) helps you strip away some of the hype around particular technologies and take a realistic view of how long it might be before they:

  • Start impacting your organization in ways that could generate new learning needs or affect existing ones
  • Become viable and useful in helping meet the learning needs within your organisation

Closer to the ground, learner surveys are an important and under-used tool in discovering how your people actually get the knowledge they need, and in particular what technologies they might already being using that you are not aware of.

Engaging with disruptive effects

A further important shift in thinking is an appreciation of how the disruptive effects of technology are impacting your learning department now, in ways that might not be immediately obvious, and the implications this has for future strategy.