Disruptive technologies regularly shake up our workplaces, changing everything from the way we perform simple tasks to how we communicate with one another. To keep pace, companies need workforces who pursue continual education in order to meet new demands as they arise. However, it's up to employers to provide the resources workers need to develop those skills. That old training VHS training from 1997? Not going to cut it.
Today's workers are also today's consumers, and they prefer to absorb information in new ways. Employees need their training like they need their Netflix – on demand.
"We've seen a lot of consumer habits invade the business world, and binge-watching is one example," says Shelley Osborne, head of learning and development (LD) for online learning platform Udemy. "Netflix and Amazon have given customers the power to program their own TV schedules, and employees now want the same freedom to decide for themselves what, when, where, and how they're going to learn."
These employee preferences mean employers need to move beyond one-size-fits-all training sessions at designated times and places.
"Any LD program must be flexible and responsive enough to meet individual needs and changing workplace conditions," Osborne says. "Learning needs to be woven into the way people perform their jobs, so it's not a scheduled event but an ongoing engagement."
The Workplace Isn't a Game – Or Is It?
More and more LD professionals are using gamification as a means to encourage voluntary employee participation in professional development initiatives. Gamification has been shown to improve employee focus, but it can also create undue anxiety if it isn't implemented correctly.
"The important thing is to understand what gamification is, what it isn't, and how it works," Osborne says. "In a work context, gamification is when we use game elements to motivate employees and influence their behavior. Game-based learning is when we use a game as part of the learning process. Problems arise when people think they can boost engagement and outcomes just by turning a boring exercise into a game or by setting up a leaderboard to drive competition."
Before gamifying anything and everything, LD professionals need to take a step back and ask if gamification is the right way to connect with employees in a given context.
"For example, some teams could find leaderboards off-putting or stressful," Osborne says. "If they haven't taken the time to define the behaviors they're trying to shape, LD people won't get the results they want from their 'fun' gamification tools, nor will they see lasting improvements in employee performance."
Speaking of games, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies have come to prominence recently in the consumer gaming world. It's likely these technologies will have an impact on workplace LD as well in the very near future.
"These technologies hold tremendous promise for delivering knowledge and understanding to workers precisely when and where they need it most," says Osborne.
Osborne notes that organizations in the manufacturing and healthcare industries are already adopting these immersive technologies to deliver information to employees wherever and whenever they might need it. It's only a matter of time before other industries follow suit.
Keeping Pace With the Speed of Technology
"Disruptive" is a buzzword for a reason. New technologies offer many benefits, but they also disrupt the status quo. Keeping up with the latest developments can be a challenge for even the most tech-oriented HR and LD departments.
"If companies want to enable personalized learning, they can't operate the same way they always have – taking months to develop, produce, and deliver new learning content, only to have it be already outdated," Osborne says.
Instead, businesses must be quicker and more flexible in developing, acquiring, or implementing new training resources. LD professionals should take a cue from programmers and developers to make this happen. In fact, many LD professionals already are starting to think like programmers, adopting "agile learning," a concept based on "agile software development."
"Rather than investing time creating content that's quickly outdated and too broad to be effective, LD teams should adopt an iterative process that enables them to release new content rapidly, then continue to refine and optimize it," Osborne says.
Osborne notes that data can be of significant value to agile learning initiatives.
"For example, LD could analyze the topics employees in certain roles usually train on, the order in which they take courses, and the average time of completion, and use that data to develop common learning paths," Osborne explains. "Data-driven algorithms can also make recommendations on what courses an employee should take next, taking the guesswork out of the hands of leaders too far away from that day-to-day work."
LD professionals need to remember that participation in a single training session isn't always enough. If it were, we could all skip college and just learn everything from YouTube.
Instead, employees need support and resources after training is complete to help them implement the skills they've learned into their daily work. One-on-one coaching and accountability partners are two ways that LD professionals can build post-training support into their programs.
"LD can't simply provide access to training content and just assume people will understand and retain it," Osborne says. "There needs to be an ongoing connection between the employee and their learning support network. Coaches need to stay close to and engaged with their employees. Like a sports coach, they need to observe employees practicing their skills and offer feedback and encouragement on the spot. To change behaviors, every manager must become an effective team leader – a coach engaged in continuous improvement."