Employees need to know how to surface and share knowledge. That’s the biggest learning and development challenge facing start-up companies, according to technology investor Frank Meehan.
Organisations of all sizes can learn much from the experience of start-up companies, said Meehan, talking about the future of workplace learning at this year’s World of Learning conference.
“Collaboration – getting learners working together – is really important for engagement.” Piers Lea, chief strategy officer, LEO
“People will actively avoid learning opportunities you provide for them if they have the wrong mindset.” Matthew Syed, author Black Box Thinking.
“I am a believer in adults learning from and with each other.” Ben Betts, CEO, HT2
“L&D has to own its own importance. We can’t be peripheral. We need to be in the heart of the business.” Callum Petrie, HR director, Philips Lighting
“Whatever the future of work holds there will not be a one-size fits all learning solution.” Robin Hoyle, author of Informal Learning in Organisations.
Start-ups are not big enough to have learning and development (L&D) teams, so tend to use technology to share knowledge. They use tools such as Slack, which he describes as “email on steroids”.
Slack, in which users create chat streams, is a powerful communication tool that can help reduce the number of emails colleagues receive. The problem is that people start talking about “inconsequential crap”, added Meehan.
Like other social networks, chats appear on screen as a chronological feed of updates, which makes it is easy for strong learning points to be buried soon after they have been shared.
However, these tools still have a value for organisations – enabling employees to share information that would otherwise be hidden in private conversations within email.
For example, a senior executive in an Asian bank was due to meet a technology company to talk about blockchain, a new technology that is set to shake up banking.
The executive wanted to know more about the technology ahead of the meeting so he needed to talk to colleagues with a good understanding of the topic.
The executive knew there was a blockchain chat group in the company’s Slack channel, so he asked the most active members of the chat for some insights ahead of his meeting.
He was so impressed with the information he was given that the bank set up a blockchain working group to investigate how it could use the technology, made up of the Slack chat participants. Had those initial blockchain conversations and the knowledge sharing taken place on email, that executive would never have discovered this source of knowledge.
As teams in larger companies become increasingly distributed and project-focused then chat tools such as Yammer and WhatsApp, and social networks like Yammer and Chatter, become increasingly important for sharing knowledge. The challenge for organisations is how to access the really useful and important information.
For Ben Betts, CEO at social learning platform provider HT2, the answer is to weave in a social element to all parts of the learning experience. The act of sharing, he said, helps refine an individual’s learning.
Betts gave an example of how his client Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) created a massive open online course (MOOC) called “Brilliant conversations” to look at how employees around the world could give better feedback.
The course was built on bite-sized pieces of content and Socratic questions (a complex questioning technique designed to draw out deeper responses) to provoke conversation and discussion amongst participants.
It also featured some game mechanics so that participation was rewarded with points. The course was five weeks long and participants could drop into it at any time. Betts says completion is not the goal for this type of learning experience. Instead, the focus is on participation, connection and discussion.
Of the 3,461 registered users, 2,081 were active (at least once a week for the duration of the course). IHG found that, as the weeks passed, employees spent more time in the course. In week one, the average time spent on the course was 17 minutes and by week five that had risen to 33 minutes.
The MOOC used xAPI technology, which tracks all user activity in the course. From this data IHG were able to capture three levels of learner output. By the end of the course, 35% of participants had read or learned something, 53% had committed to putting what they had learned into action and 12% had actually acted on it.
Betts said that the success of the course was down to relevant, bite-sized content, good questions to provoke participation and the use of game mechanics to help nudge people along.
Social learning should be a part of an agile way of delivering learning. Just make sure you plan in social activities, do them and measure the impact, he advised.
For Travis Perkins, a new video-based approach to learning delivery required the L&D team to “leave our egos on the table”, according to Louise Powell, head of skills development at Travis Perkins Group.
The company, which runs a range of DIY retail brands as well as a building supplies company, adopted a video strategy for a number of reasons.
These included providing easily accessible content for employees, who are dispersed in numerous locations around the UK. It also wanted to extract knowledge and insights from subject experts. Many of the company’s 30,000 employees have been with the company for many years and hold a lot of knowledge about their roles and the industry.
It also wanted content that could be consumed at any time and on any device. Many employees are counter-based in shops so their learning, which happens at the counter, gets interrupted.
Video is now threaded through all aspects of learning delivery. And, for face-to-face training, the company has flipped the classroom experience so that employees watch content that was previously delivered in the classroom ahead of the training session.
The face-to-face part of the learning experience then focuses on related questions and discussions.
Subject experts are interviewed for the company’s ‘Did you know?’ series, in which employees from around the business share their knowledge in short talking-heads videos.
Powell shared an example of the impact video has had on the business. In one retail unit the new starter staff turnover rate was 58%. After some investigation, Powell’s team learned that new starters didn’t fully understand the sales process and how their commission worked.
This lack of knowledge and ability to sell the product was traced back to the company induction which included a costly face to face element.
Powell’s team revamped the process using videos to create a learning pathway for new starters. The result? As well as cost savings from reduced face to face training, the video approach has helped reduce attrition by 40% – down to 18% in the first six months.
Powell told delegates that the shift to video meant that the in-house L&D team had to develop new skills.
“We had an e-learning team but had to refresh their knowledge away from the Powerpoint ‘click next’ style of learning.
“That means creating more interactive content and developing our technical and creative skills,” she explained.
Learning how to learn
This focus on new skills for L&D was picked up by Sukh Pabial, head of organisation design at One Housing.
He told delegates that L&D teams need to understand what adult learning looks like. “How do we design solutions which actually include adult learning principles?
“That is going to involve giving access to knowledge and information that people can consume in their way, as they need to. And also provide them with an environment where they can discuss what they have learned.”
Laura Overton, CEO at benchmarking organisation Towards Maturity, echoed Pabial’s sentiment.
In order to be ready for the future of learning, she said, L&D professionals need a range of new skills, including the ability to: communicate; market learning; facilitate collaboration; and help the organisation to “learn how to learn”.
The future of learning is about connecting and engaging employees, and about supporting performance, making it far more than simply delivering classes.