As part of our continuing look at The New Learning Organisation, Steve Barden and John Helmer explore the disruptive effects of technology on the learning function and give seven recommendations for making the best use of it in transforming learning.
We hear a lot about what technology can do to support and enable learning, but not so much about the disruptive effects it causes for L&D. Technology wears a double face, as we explained in our previous post on this subject, being both a driver and an enabler. A technology such as mobile, for instance, provides a lot of powerful opportunities for learning, but at the same time is disruptive of established practices within learning departments, and may appear to contradict deeply held beliefs and theories about what constitutes good organisational learning.
We believe that making the most of learning technologies involves engaging with and understanding fully these disruptive effects – which can be unpredictable, unexpected – and not always pleasant.
In this post we give some reasons for why technology often seems to create difficulties for L&D, and give practical advice points for embracing and making the most of technological change in the context of learning transformation.
Disruptive effects of technology on L&D
Typically, in situations where digital technology impacts established industries or practice areas, the early stages produce relatively little real disruption. Physical processes and products get replaced on a like-for-like basis by digital ones. For example, Email significantly replaced ‘snail mail’, and in the same way, ebooks are replacing print books. The content of those books and messages hasn’t changed that much in the process, however.
Similarly in training, the first area where digital technology achieved major traction was with the advent of learning management systems, which automated many administrative functions previously carried out through paper-based systems by humans. eCourses replaced some classroom training courses – but we still had courses, teaching much the same things, and structured similarly, according to time-honoured instructional theory. This wasn’t an entirely painless process – jobs were lost – but it didn’t actually produce much disruption to the way learning departments were run and organised.
The second wave of digital disruption is something different. However, bringing changes that are often more subtle can take longer to manifest themselves – but which when they do, have the character of a paradigm shift. Rather than bringing changes that result in fewer people round the table, this secondary type of disruption often threatens to throw the table out the window altogether.
Email didn’t change writing habits much, but then along came Web 2.0 and social media, and suddenly completely new forms of messaging were coming into being. Email changed the way our messages were carried, but social media went further and changed the form and content of those messages as well.
An example of this two-stage process of disruption from the world of learning would be the development of the SCORM standard. SCORM 2.1 reproduced the traditional training model online, recording data on attendances, completions and quiz scores, and sending them to the LMS. Tin Can API (Experience API) disrupts this model completely, recording all types of learning activities including informal learning and sending the data to an LRS where it can be combined with other data streams to show outcomes in performance and changes in behavior. SCORM 2.1 changed the wrapper: Tin Can API also changes what’s inside the wrapper.
These second-order types of technological changes are more disruptive because they call for structural changes in a market or practice area. So let’s look at a few of the ways in which technology is driving learning and organizational transformation.
One big but not highly visible change that technology has made in the L&D landscape is in budgeting. Classroom training is by and large cheap to develop, but expensive to deliver. With ‘e’ it’s usually the other way round: costs are front-loaded in design and development. This changes the risk factors associated with investing in change, which can make for sleepless nights in learning departments.
Learning technologies are still often sold in on the basis that they will cut training costs, however the economies to be found are usually economies of scale in delivery – meaning that e-learning only really begins to fulfill its ROI expectations at scale (ie not in proof-of-concept pilots). High risk and large scale mean that such investments tend to have more visibility at strategic level within the organisation. This is not a level at which L&D has played, historically (more of that later), with the result that heads of learning can find themselves out of their comfort zone as they attempt to bring learning technology into mainstream use.
Second-order digital disruption, as we have seen, changes not only the wrapper, but also what is within the wrapper. In the organisational context, this effect can put pressure on discipline boundaries: suddenly training doesn’t look like training at all, but like something quite different – corporate communications, perhaps, or knowledge management.
Say you have created a learning programme for sales staff to be delivered on a tablet that can accessed in the place of work. It make sense to put a lot of detailed product information on there too – searchable, so that it can be accessed at will – to help your salespeople sell your complicated products to customers. You might also want videos demonstrating advanced features, which can be shown to potential customer within the sales situation … and of course you would want all this content accessible through a common interface.
But who within the organisation then gets to sign off on the programme? Marketing will want a say, since it supplied the videos and the brand is at stake. IT will want to know about these devices it is being asked to support. The knowledge manager who maintains the technical product library will have a beef. HR might want to be satisfied that the learning fits its new competency framework. Suddenly the programme has a lot of stakeholders.
For a one-off programme, such a complex stakeholder map might be manageable (given enough meetings), but the transformed learning department will have to deal with this situation of blurred boundaries more frequently as ‘transformed learning’ becomes business-as-usual. Leading and managing learning within this type of organisation begins to require a lot more interdepartmental liaison, which in turn calls for a more explicit and considered governance structure for learning – and thus a more strategic role for L&D.
So a fairly simple idea – delivering knowledge into the workplace via a mobile device – turns out to have strategic consequences for L&D.
Another disruptive effect of digital technology is to lessen the extent to which information and knowledge are pushed to staff, and to increase opportunities for staff to pull the information and knowledge they need selectively from the organisation’s data banks, at the time and in the place where the need for it arises.
Why is this disruptive? Because once again, taking advantage of a pretty straightforward opportunity offered by technology turns out to have repercussions for both learning governance and learner behaviours.
There’s nothing new about people at work being able to access the knowledge resources of the organisation to help them when they come up against, for instance, a procedure they don’t know how to carry out, or a concept they don’t understand. ‘Look it up in the manual’, or ‘try the intranet’ or ‘talk to such-and-such an expert, he/she knows all about that’, are standard line manager responses to everyday knowledge gaps encountered by their staff.
Never before, however, have organisations had the ability to put all that information and knowledge, all those contacts, in someone’s pocket. Digital technology hasn’t revolutionised information pull, it has just taken a huge amount of friction out of the process, though the effects of that are profound.
That dog-eared manual might be locked in a filing cabinet 60 miles away, and anyway is likely to be out-of-date, or have lost a few vital pages. Now it’s in your pocket and it’s searchable. That expert is now just a text message away, wherever you happen to be. Suddenly, there is a whole bunch of stuff you can potentially find out instantly – and, by implication, there is a whole bunch of stuff you no longer need to remember or ‘learn’. But the implications of structuring, organising and accessing the right piece of information are not insignificant and not traditionally part of L&D’s remit.
The potential for this level of ‘information pull’ to replace large amounts of ‘just-in-case’ briefings and training days, and what now looks like a historic over-reliance on staff being able to memorise information they might not need for months or even years. We believe this shift changes the landscape of organisational learning considerably.
But making it work effectively can involve a huge shift, in turn, for L&D.
Say you’re a forty-something Head of Learning who got into training because you were good in front of people: charismatic, convincing, good at holding an audience and interesting them in what you have to say. All that is still important, but in order to drag your learning department into the 21st Century you might also need to know now about information architecture, theory of media, usability, technology standards, technical integration, etc. etc. (you might be well served by technology suppliers, but you still need to know enough about their stuff in order to manage them).
And it gets worse. The next generation of personal technologies – wearable, scannable, user-sensitive and location-aware – will be able to automate a lot of knowledge ‘push’ based on the working context; on the task that is being performed and the particular circumstances in which is it is being performed. Suddenly, systems design becomes a major part of supporting employees in their day-to-day performance. Does/should L&D own that? Is it equipped with the right capabilities, as a department, to own that? The New Learning Organisation is a much more integrated enterprise.
Neither does the shift in how you operate day-to-day stop at the boundaries of your own discipline. Making ‘information pull’ systems work will probably involve reaching out to other areas within the organisation – because you have once again crossed a turf boundary, or need to draw on the specialised skillsets within IT, marketing, KM, etc. … Which brings us back to learning governance.
It is widely acknowledged that L&D skillsets are changing, but somehow to say that alone is not quite enough: the culture of learning is changing too. And that has profound effects.
Digital technology is decreasing friction in many types of knowledge acquisition, but it is also doing other things to increase the tempo of organisational learning. Timescales are collapsing within certain transactional aspects of training/learning. This is not just about reducing time taken to complete a learning process, but also about eliding or even knocking out steps in a process.
Traditionally, instruction, assessment and remediation were discrete activities, which might have been carried out by different individuals or institutions and separated in time by days, weeks or even years. A state-of-the-art adaptive learning system will typically bring the three together. Based on a pre-test, instruction can be dynamically reconstituted to suit the individual learner’s knowledge gaps, presenting only relevant content. Continuous assessment allows instant remediation, and learners can repeat individual modules until they achieve pass scores.
The more sophisticated adaptive systems can restructure learning content at a high level of granularity according to how learners interact with individual pages or screens.
This intense personalisation of learning is yielding impressive savings of time, and moving from a situation where learning is measured by time spent by the learner to one where it is measured by attainment of defined competencies.
Old style learning departments that are still structured around a model where needs analysis leads to learning design, followed by bulk delivery of a standardised, homogenous body of content, will struggle to benefit from these advances – as will L&D departments that fall behind the curve in their understanding of what technology makes possible in collapsing learning time. Take heed! New Learning Organisations are constantly reviewing the technology landscape.
Uncertain tech environment
As well as the difficulties caused by disruptive forces, L&D also has to struggle with the uncertainties of the technology market.
Despite steady growth over the last decade and growing adoption of its products and services, the learning technologies industry remains a niche market. As such it suffers from a lack of analyst oversight, immature and in some cases under-documented products, lack of barriers to market entry for the unscrupulous and occasional instability in even reputable supplier companies, which can fail or get taken over.
Serious, mature consumers of learning technologies are mostly larger companies, whereas the average supplier company is an SME, a disparity of scale and culture that sometimes makes for difficulties in communication.
But not all the technologies that organisations use to help with learning are specialised products, by any means. L&D often has to piggyback on enterprise platforms that have multiple other uses (e.g Sharepoint, MAMs, MDMs) making for both utility and compromises. Sometimes L&D will need to leverage non-proprietary products and will find itself at the mercy of tech behemoths such as Apple and Google. Using Apple’s public app store to launch learning apps, for instance, can be a frustrating business, requiring licenses to be bought and delays while your apps are be judged worthy of appearance on the public app store – pain that the behemoth in question is usually too behemoth-like even to see.
Watching closely the corporate strategies of these tech behemoths thus becomes a new part of L&D’s role. To the extent that particular tools become central to your learning delivery, the destinies of the companies that make those tools becomes of close concern. So you now have two contrasting sources of worry – supplier companies that are too small to be relied on, and supplier companies that are too big to even see you.
This dependence on suppliers is exacerbated by the move to cloud computing. You may already be using tools that are running in the cloud without realising it – and so strong is this particular technology driver that you will increasingly be making choices between installed solutions and cloud alternatives; choices in which the risk/benefit equation is often finely balanced. While cloud offers learning departments the capability to deliver access anytime, anywhere, it also raises security worries. And what happens to your data when the relationship with a supplier of cloud-based services breaks down or ends?
These worries mean that it is vital to stay close to your IT department. In the New Learning Organisation, learning is integrated with IT, if not actually embedded.
Another unpleasant truth about the technology market to contend with is the fact that – vendor hype notwithstanding – there really is no such thing as ‘futureproof’. L&D is constantly called on to make judgements about which of the standards, protocols, computer languages, xml schemas and shiny new products presented at trade fairs will actually survive, and which are just vendor hype – or even ‘vapourware’.
Knowing which horse to back in this slightly disorderly race – monitoring the hype cycle – becomes an important part of the new L&D skill set.
Is L&D up to the job?
This post may appear to be a somewhat mercilessly clear-eyed look at the problems besetting L&D when it comes to technology; but what of L&D itself? Is it up the job of facing down these difficulties?
A far more rigorous and evidence-based approach to this question than we could attempt is carried out on an annual basis by Towards Maturity the benchmarking practice for learning innovation. This study shows that while there are pools of excellence, L&D lags, in general, in applying innovations – a verdict with which the CIPD’s annual Learning and Talent Development report would concur.
While we are being clear-eyed, it is worth looking at some possible reasons for this.
Many in L&D will struggle with the fact that they have an incomplete skillset for the job at hand. However, if nothing else, learning professionals ought really to be constant and fast learners – and surely a key attribute of effective leaders in a situation like this is providing and cultivating skills within your team that you don’t necessarily possess yourself. Making sure that L&D has the right skills and knowledge, however, does require a clear awareness of the knowledge gap – and the will to close that gap – both things that flow from mindset.
We have already hinted at the cultural and generational factors that tend to make trainers – inveterate ‘people persons’ – inherently averse to some of the technological byways that progress seems to want to force them into. But even where this is not the case, or has been overcome, L&D can face problems resulting from the historic structural position of training within organisations, which has rarely involved any sort of strategic dimension, let alone ‘a seat at top table’.
L&D is often castigated for being too tactical in its mindset, perhaps unfairly when you consider this historical situation. It is clear from everything we have said so far about the New Learning Organisation, however, that thinking of solutions only within the box of their own narrow discipline will not allow L&D to move forward and transform learning – or even be part of future learning. Here the historical low status of training creates a difficulty in engaging with the disruption we have talked about in this post at the level where its effects presents themselves – i.e. at the strategic level.
Arguably, L&D is also hampered by the lack of an appropriate conceptual/academic underpinning to guide it in this new world. The literature of instructional design – (Bloom, Gagne, etc.) is helpful only in so much as it addresses the instructional element of L&D, which as we have seen, is a declining proportion of the mix, and no longer presents itself always in quite the same form. To an extent, a transformed learning provision has to find its own handrails in cognitive science, media theory and other related disciplines.
And aside from the reputable authorities, there is also a degree of conceptual baggage that comes from the many pseudo-scientific, hype-driven or plain fraudulent approaches that have been such a feature of the training market in the past. L&D should be evidence-based, not myth-based, if it really to earn that seat at top table.
Seven tips for easing your technology pain points
- Learning governance (which we covered in this earlier post) is critical to addressing many of the structural and capability challenges we have outlined here. A well connected governance body will ensure proper integration of L&D to the business and ensure the strategic direction it needs for using IT.
- Develop an agile learning strategy that considers all aspects of the L&D remit for technology in a New Learning Organisation.
- Wherever possible piggyback on existing tech initiatives within the organisation – but keep the learning bit specific: avoid reinventing the wheel when a more generic but less immature software tool will do the job. Make sure the integration and implementation of such is fully tested and accepted by users.
- Monitor technology futures carefully – don’t fall for the hype – but have agreed, relevant criteria to judge their utility. Research, evidence-based, peer review, best-practice should be in your lexicon.
- Get someone onto your team who knows the technology intimately and learn from them – but don’t fall into the trap of believing that all techies know all technology nor recognise their utility to learning and performance
- The future will belong not to those who focus on the technology alone but to those who place it in the wider context of learning and see it as one element of a wider system transformation. Make sure you balance the learning design with the technology! Considering both in unison will ensure that you realise the full benefits.
- Don’t get sucked into the hype of the latest and greatest technology but use the research and consider carefully the true value of introducing any technology in terms of the learning and business benefits it will bring.