How many apps do you have on your phone? I have 196. No, I don’t actually use all 196. But the 20 to 30 I consistently use made me think about the way many people use technology nowadays. One tool simply cannot solve all of our problems. For example, I use Facebook Messenger to chat with friends. Google helps me find information about literally anything. Twitter is the center of my L&D network. OpenTable helps me get a table for two on Saturday night. We have become familiar with working in a technology ecosystem in which we use specific tools to solve specific problems.
The same multi-tool concept exists at work. Email. POS. CRM. LMS. HRIS. Portal. Chat. The list of platforms an employee uses to do their job can balloon into the dozens. But, while we live harmoniously with 200 smartphone apps, we often struggle to balance the technology ecosystem at work. Employees who have never taken an iPhone class now “require” workplace training to tell them which application to use to solve a problem and how to make it function. Complicated single sign-on setups and integrations are necessary to help employees move information within the organization, and this is usually still difficult to do without issue.
This may sound like an IT problem, but it’s also a vital consideration for L&D. Most (if not all) of these workplace tools support learning and performance in some way. For too long, the learning management system (LMS) has defined corporate training technology. As a result, L&D has limited its focus to courses and other resources that can be delivered and formally tracked in the enterprise LMS. Value has been defined by completions and catalog size. Many L&D pros now operate with a mentality that is the exact opposite of their real-world approach to technology. They’re looking for one platform to rule them all (+10 if you get the Lord of the Rings reference). Not only has traditional learning technology fallen well short of this objective, but I believe it’s simply unrealistic given the dynamic needs of the modern workplace.
How can L&D escape the limitations of the LMS and effectively leverage a multi-technology learning ecosystem? And how can this be done without a pile of resources, money and IT support? Here are a few practical suggestions based on my experience leading enterprise learning technology teams.
Start with the user experience
Let’s begin by looking at the day-to-day employee experience. How do we want to enable people to improve their performance, and how does technology play a role in these experiences? This starts with the resources employees use every day. No matter how many courses you have available online, the LMS is not typically a platform that requires daily or even weekly touches. Consider enterprise tools that reach all employees as well as function-specific technology.
- How do each of these tools already support learning in the context of work?
- How can you integrate learning and support resources into the existing ecosystem?
- How could you potentially improve their experience when using existing technology?
- How can you reduce the number of clicks or unique tools necessary to get something done?
- How can we make it easier for employees to understand the purpose of and access each tool?
For example, I recently partnered with a large US retailer to assess the way employees’ access on-the-job support resources. We literally timed employees as they went from their position in the store to the closest computer and navigated through the 10+ clicks needed to download and print a simple job aid. We then facilitated a relatively simple transition and moved the same information to a searchable knowledge repository within a platform they already had. Employees still had to make the trek back to the computer, but they could now find the same information in half the time with only 2 clicks. Rather than immediately hunting for new technology and attempting to introduce mobile devices, we found a simple but meaningful way to improve the employee experience as a first step.
Take a look around
In the retail example I just shared, we took advantage of existing technology. This has been a theme throughout my career, as I haven’t always been provided with the resources necessary to solve every timely problem we have uncovered as an L&D team. Sound familiar? When you work in a large organization, there’s always a chance that someone else has faced a similar problem and already taken steps to address it. So, before you begin exploring new tools, you should make the effort to assess your company’s complete existing toolset.
To take advantage of available technology, L&D teams must expand their focus to consider tools that support learning but are not labeled as such (aka non-LMS). For example, if you want to leverage video in your solutions, have you engaged your marketing team to find out how they are delivering video in their customer-facing initiatives? L&D must think creatively to provide an improved experience for employees regardless of the prescribed purpose of available technology. Using existing tools can also help you bypass piles of red tape and build your ecosystem more quickly.
Leverage familiar behaviors
I started this article by exploring the difference between multi-technology ecosystems at work and at home. Consumer technology has inspired a set of behaviors within the people we support as L&D. Searches, likes, status updates, logins, comments, posts, links and streaming are familiar concepts across all demographics. Workplace technology continues to confound employees because it fails to make meaningful use of these behaviors. When building a multi-technology ecosystem, L&D must select tools that have distinct purposes within the flow of work and feel familiar to the average employee. At the same time, L&D pros should maintain awareness of prevailing consumer technology and how it may be changing user behaviors.
Let’s go back to my retail example. Employees were forced to navigate through an online page tree to find information in their legacy technology. In other words, they had to know where a specific job aid was stored based on department and click through a series of folders to find the document. When’s the last time you had to click through a series of folders to find something on the internet? While this may be a familiar concept in the workplace, it’s an antiquated behavior in everyday life. Therefore, we switched to a technology that is grounded in a Google-like search experience. Even less technical employees still know how to conduct a basic keyword search, and our field tests proved that this real-world behavior could be easily applied without formal training.
Align tools to how people REALLY learn
Last month, I facilitated an activity with an L&D team in which we examined how people learn every day. Here’s the list we came up with:
- Subject matter experts
My follow-up question was “How does your ecosystem enable the various ways people learn?” Traditional workplace learning technology, especially the LMS, focuses on the “Training” part. The rest often takes place without help from L&D. When building a technology ecosystem, L&D teams must align to the ways people really learn. This requires an understanding of the organization’s culture and workflow to ensure the most valuable learning opportunities can be maximized. For example, if mentorship is of particular importance, your selected technology should provide visibility to people’s knowledge and experience to help identify potential mentors. This also requires flexibility within the selected toolset, as learning preferences vary by employee, topic, and situation.
Prove concepts before making investments
Technology is expensive. Implementing new tools can also be complicated based on your organization’s procurement and IT policies. Even the simplest tool requires adjustment within the employee workflow and therefore must be accompanied by a change management strategy. Therefore, it’s important to validate the use case for new technology before investing the time and effort required to implement the tool.
During my time in L&D with Kaplan Higher and Professional Education, we heavily explored the value of shared knowledge as the foundation of our learning and performance strategy. We were looking for ways to enable employees to share information across the company, but existing technology wasn’t getting it done. Rather than launch a new enterprise platform, we found a simple wiki that was already in minimal use within the organization. We selected this particular tool because it met our basic user experience criteria. It also had an extremely low barrier to entry and was quite cheap when compared to other platforms. While functionality was a bit limited, the wiki helped us prove the value of a single-source approach to shared workplace knowledge. Two years and 30,000 articles later, we had a much stronger understanding of how the concept could be successfully applied to support performance in our organization and began exploring more complex and powerful tools.
Just as you need more than one app to get the most out of your smartphone, one platform cannot solve every problem your employees will face on the job. Rather than conduct extensive searches with the false belief that “this is going to be the one,” L&D must take advantage of right-fit technology to enable learning experiences that will most benefit their organization. We must work with partners across our organizations to architect ecosystems that makes sense to our end users and enable our desired performance outcomes.
What technology are you using to support workplace learning besides the traditional LMS? How do you make sure these tools work together to enable a learning ecosystem that enables your employees?
NOTE: I originally wrote this article as a guest blog post for Mimeo.