Mobiles and machines: How L&D must move forward to drive performance

Learning and development professionals are frequently being told they need to get closer to the business, but how should they broaden their scope? Last month’s CIPD Learning and Development Show offered some food for thought. Martin Couzins reports.

It’s advice they’ve probably heard before, but have they acted on it?

Andy Lancaster, the CIPD’s head of learning and development content, told delegates at its recent Learning and Development Show that they need to stop operating in their own bubble and acknowledge that they’re part of a wider organisational ecosystem.

To do this, they need to focus on organisational context and learner context to ensure learning initiatives are relevant and support change. “That’s the only way we will drive performance, if we have those factors in place,” he said.

Self-directed learners

L&D’s main tool here is the smartphone, added Lancaster, who claimed that “our mission now is to drive the self-directed learner”.

These powerful pocket computers provide multiple ways to create, access and consume learning resources. They can be used to let employees create their own video content to share or to try streaming services such as Periscope, for one-to-one coaching.

As well as creating content, encourage employees to “go panning for gold”, said Lancaster. This means employees should be seeking out information, making sense of it and sharing it with their peers.

Companies would do well to get them to subscribe to podcasts for learning on the go, and if necessary, create their own content for employees, he advised.

And with the increasing availability of cheap headsets, it’s worth starting to explore apps that provide great virtual learning experiences. Employees can already use virtual reality to learn and practice skills such as public speaking, but they should be involved in more virtual learning.

Of course, this is all stuff that L&D should be doing not just for employees, but also for themselves.

To realise the potential of mobile learning, L&D must address how smartphones are perceived, Lancaster suggested, as in many organisations they are seen as a problem rather than part of a wider solution. It’s also crucial to ensure equality of access and opportunity, as not all employees will own a smartphone.

Prepare for working with machines

Smartphones present a lot of immediate opportunities for L&D. But looking to the future will require L&D to understand how humans and machines can work best together, according to Pash Reddy, head of L&D at Deloitte.

This is the focus of Reddy’s work. The consulting company has developed a robotics academy to build robots and to understand how humans will work with machines.

In part, the academy will focus on developing software engineers who can build machines. It will also develop the skills that employees will need to work with those machines.

Reddy claimed that to work effectively with machines, humans will need to be creative, innovative and entrepreneurial as well as being able to work in agile ways.

Deloitte’s L&D team has already created a bot called Emily that helps new starters with the onboarding and induction process.

Reddy added that new starters prefer to ask Emily for help rather than asking colleagues very basic questions.

Other projects include the automation of contract processes in financial services. Cognitive automation enables machines to process vast amounts of data quickly, which can generate huge amounts in savings.

Reddy said Deloitte needs its employees to work well with technology because the technology is here now. “The future is now and science fiction is science fact and we need to be able to cater for that in our learning strategies.”

The right technology for the right job

While considering the future impact of machines on their learning teams, L&D departments continue to grapple with the immediate challenge of identifying the best technology to support business performance.

In a lively and hard-hitting panel discussion, delegates were told that there was no silver-bullet solution to learning technologies.

“The most important part is knowing the challenge. Silver-bullet solutions do not work. Solving problems for your employees, that does work,” said David James, digital learning specialist at learning management system provider Looop.co.

Adam Harwood, a digital development partner at retailer ASOS, did just that. He first identified the challenges and motivations of employees. Then he used this insight to build a digital learning ecosystem made up of a range of technologies to meet the needs of employees.

The company knew that employees were motivated to get their job done well and to advance their careers, so it built an internal website that had the look and feel of its customer facing site and that made it as easy as possible to access relevant resources.

Harwood explained that this was a more difficult approach than purchasing a one-size-fits-all solution, but that the benefits have been much greater.

This focus on accessibility of resources was echoed by Barbara Thompson, a learning innovation consultant at PA Consulting Group.

She advised L&D to help employees find what they need to be able to do their jobs better. For most organisations, a Google-type search function would do the trick, she said: “Let’s fix search in the organisation – it won’t matter what systems you use as long as you can access information and resources very easily.”

Learning transfer

The most important part is knowing the challenge. Silver-bullet solutions do not work. Solving problems for your employees, that does work,” – David James, Looop.co

For all the focus on new technologies, L&D professionals still have work to do to turn learning into action. According to Paul Matthews, CEO of People Alchemy, there are a range of obstacles to transferring learning into practice.

These include understanding who needs learning and why, and getting better at “performance diagnostics” to make sure the right people are doing the learning for the right reason.

He also said that there was also too little focus on informal learning. Despite interest in models such as 70:20:10, L&D professionals have been slow to grasp the potential of learning, he claimed.

“Without handling informal learning or getting a grasp around that, L&D is not going to be able to manage learning transfer because most learning transfer activities happen out in the workflow and happen on an informal basis.”

Furthermore, by including stakeholders in the design of learning programmes, L&D can ensure those programmes are relevant, which means people are more likely to be motivated to use them.

Matthews reiterated that culture has to be right in order to enable effective learning transfer.

“What support are they getting from peers, from their manager, from the organisation? What support are they getting from online resources?” he said.

“Are they given the opportunity to practice, projects to work on and activities to experiment with? Are they given the latitude to practice and experiment without a blame culture? And are they given the time to do that?”

At a time of rapid change for organisations, the onus is now on L&D teams to support change and to support employees through that change. “It’s not business as normal, and we’ve known that for some time,” Lancaster concluded.

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