A sales manager has a meeting scheduled for tomorrow with a new prospect and needs critical customer and marketplace information to prepare. To obtain the information, he has the following options: call a colleague; run an Internet search; or search his personal information, files and e-mail for relevant content. Though the answer will depend on the individual and the learning resources the company makes available, as a sales manager with limited time, he will opt for what is the most convenient, effective and reliable.
If he knows someone in the market intelligence community, he may seek them out as an initial step. Otherwise, he will simply turn to some search engine like Google or Yahoo to efficiently address his knowledge needs.
Why? Because in an increasingly on-demand world, employees need information in real time. Customers expect responses in real time. The sales cycle requires access to market trends in real time. And when organizations cannot or do not make critical learning content available in real time, individuals resort to the click-through ease of the Internet.
The need to nurture a learning-friendly corporate culture cannot be overemphasized when considering the existing marketplace. “Today’s economy is an innovation economy,” the White House Web site reports. “Two-thirds of America’s economic growth in the 1990s resulted from the introduction of new technologies—and 60 percent of the new jobs of the 21st century require post-secondary education held by only one-third of America’s workforce. We need to close the skills gap in America. Not enough workers are being trained quickly enough to take advantage of many of the new jobs that are being created.”
Individuals are faced not only with changing technology, but also with learning the skills required to effectively perform their jobs.
Research firm Forrester also points to training programs as a competitive edge for companies. A Forrester report on IT employment states, “Odds are that we will once again be in an environment where demand outstrips supply, especially in highly sought-after skill areas like Java programming, Web services and security, to name a few. Companies should proactively be employing retention strategies, creating training and development plans and establishing recruiting pipelines well in advance of need.”
Ironically, while skill development is more important than ever before, employees have less time than ever for formalized learning. Indeed, in today’s market economy, individuals operate with a high level of business urgency and very little time to learn. There is such a consistent and rapid churn of skills and knowledge required to maintain job performance that learning can no longer be provided as a set of events.
Learning must evolve into more pervasively accessible forms of performance support, and it must transition into a seamless set of resources that are integrated into work. This is what creates the appeal for search engines like Google or Yahoo. But the enterprise can do far better for the individual than just-in-time Internet information access. The enterprise can be more directive, more specific and far more aware of the individual’s needs, job role and situation.
In response to the requirements of an on-demand world, organizations must set out to create an environment where employees can more easily learn what they need, when they need it, and apply that knowledge, understanding and experience for their own benefit as well as the company’s.
To foster an adaptive learning culture, learning must offer employees two critical elements: proximity, which defines the ease of access and level of integration provided to learning resources; and relevancy, which defines the likelihood that what is provided addresses the immediate learning needs of the individuals who require workflow-based context for that experience.
Proximity and relevancy are critical factors to ensure that learning is enabling productivity gains in a rapidly changing market environment. Individuals who cannot quickly respond to opportunities or solve problems are destined for mediocrity.
When faced with quickly entering a keyword into a search engine or picking up the phone or a book, on-demand learners will almost always opt for the path of least resistance, which is why investments made in formal learning are having less and less value to the enterprise. Unless companies can provide more attractive alternatives that offer the promise of proximity and relevancy, learners will not use the resources organizations provide.
More Than a Click: The Future of Learning
Adding proximity and relevancy to a learning environment can be compared to the difference between riding a bike and driving a car. Relevancy requires context, which adds a new dimension by providing an understanding of the individual performing the work. Context answers the following questions: Who is the individual? What is his job role? How much experience does she have? Education? Industry knowledge? Where does he perform his work? What is she doing now?
Learning environments that consider relevancy, context and proximity will significantly empower the learner to be more effective on the job. In the future, the learner will have the ability to choose when to learn, what to learn and how to learn in environments that are not always formalized or traditional.
Learning is rapidly evolving at the organizational level to tap not only the Internet, but also technology and human expertise. Forward-thinking companies are finding that rethinking the role of existing technology—such as instant messaging, the employee portal or directory and mobile devices—can open new learning doors.
For example, a marketing manager planning a product rollout might use the electronic employee directory to identify the product expert to help her address her business objectives. This manager can then use an instant messaging program to contact that expert as she develops her plan. Or a sales representative in the pharmaceutical industry might use his PDA to access FDA approval updates while in the field. His company can use the technology in his pocket to feed him information critical to his job function, in a context where the information is valuable. This is a glimpse into the future of learning.
Three characteristics of learning will define the future and embody contextualized learning that individuals can easily access:
- Organizational Learning: What if the enterprise could take first-year managers and improve their competencies to perform like managers with five years of experience? Certain experiences contribute to developing those competencies more than others do. Enterprises can pinpoint which experiences have more impact in getting people to the next competency level by creating learning experiences that leverage best practices to catalyze the skill requirements for a given role or area of responsibility. Organiza-tions that are able to increase the rate of adoption of new information and best practices will have more success and greater value in the market.
- Empowered Learners: In the future, learners will be increasingly empowered to shape when, where and how they learn. Organizations will continue to define learning paths, assess value and reward outcomes in support of overall organizational objectives, but learners will have greater authority to determine what learning will most effectively enable them to make valuable and productive contributions to their organization. Learners will be intensely aware of what is a waste of their time and will stay clear of those options with increasing conviction of what does and does not provide value to them in their job. This does not suggest that classrooms will go away. It does suggest that learners will be more demanding of the classroom experience. In exchange for their time, learners will expect classroom activities to provide learning experiences that cannot be acquired through other means.
- Embedded Learning: The nature of work-embedded learning provides content in context—turning the whole learning paradigm on its head. Work-embedded learning considers the individual’s job role and experience level and is accessed as the individual performs work. It does not ask, “What am I going to teach you?” but “What work do you do?” and “What do you need?” When an enterprise looks at a work process and the individual’s role, it can come up with ways to deliver learning embedded into the job, and actually increase the consumption of learning in the organization.
Dimensions of Change for a Bright Learning Future
When creating a dynamic learning culture, it is not enough to simply “train” an employee. For an organization to evolve into an “on-demand” enterprise and address the organizational, empowered and embedded needs of the workforce, it must reinvent the role of learning by strategically evaluating five dimensions of change: organizational alignment; governance and management; design and delivery; technology; and culture.
Within the organization, not all job roles are valued equally. This may require a learning shift from skill emphasis to role emphasis. Instead of identifying a skill set and building a program around management skills, for example, role-implemented programs identify critical job roles, such as sales manager, and enable the individuals with the skills and capabilities to do their job more effectively.
Indeed, the most successful learning programs are those that align business priorities with individual job roles. For the organization, a focus on growth and innovation requires an ongoing alignment of learning initiatives to business priorities. For employees, when they understand how learning can directly impact performance, they are more engaged and motivated to participate in learning.
Governance and Management
Reinventing the role of learning requires innovative thinking at the governance level. Management should consider how learning officers can partner with the CIO, COO, business unit leaders and other key positions throughout the organization to develop comprehensive learning strategies that address pressing business problems. When enabled by executives and management who understand how learning can impact an organization, learning can deliver real business value and return on investment.
Traditionally, management implements learning in formalized fashions—in a classroom, in a mentoring role, through a book. When learning occurs away from work, we know that individuals only absorb a small percentage of the content. Some information may be stored and recalled for later use, but much of the content is lost immediately after the learning event.
When moving from formal to informal learning, management must also reconsider how it evaluates learning. In traditional learning events, success is measured by participation and learner satisfaction. In a contextualized learning environment, management must consider new methods for evaluating ROI, as it will be more difficult to measure these learning experiences as discrete events that generate standardized business value.
When management as a whole begins to think about learning as a part of workflow, they will begin to consider new options for governance and management of these business responsibilities, and this will result in greater value realized by the organization.
Design and Delivery
Today’s instructional design focuses on making more content available. However, implementing the future of learning requires adapted design and delivery that expands instruction to include more focus on learning that anticipates knowledge gaps, is embedded in work and centers on the learner.
Focusing on both proximity and relevancy will also move the design and delivery of learning from an emphasis on topics to an emphasis on tasks. In a task-based program, learning provides performance support rather than a formal event with a test.
Traditional learning looks at specific topics. A company might hold seminars on time management, sales techniques or management approaches. Conversely, a task-based paradigm considers what task the individual performs when she needs learning the most—again, asking the questions, “What work are you doing?” and “What do you need help with now?”
Thousands of companies already use technology that can quickly and easily be adapted for learning. Intranets, instant messenger programs, e-mail, cell phones, PDAs, portals, directories and other programs and devices are just a few of the technologies employees already use on a daily basis. These tools can enhance person-to-person interaction and create a pervasive learning environment that supports a vibrant learning culture.
To make a truly strategic change, companies must re-examine how they think about learning and foster the organizational culture accordingly.
Learning may be redefined to include anytime access to key subject-matter experts, as well as having just-in-time information via any workplace device, including handheld devices. Companies should ask how they can foster an environment that encourages the sharing of knowledge, best practices and critical information.
Moreover, companies should understand the geographic, language and cultural challenges that may exist when implementing a new learning program. Context-ualized content also means understanding the environment in which individuals work.
Where does all of this leave our sales manager? His work-flow and job-aligned learning options might expand to include notifications from his PDA with the most up-to-date information while in the field, instant messaging with subject-matter experts on the retail industry while preparing a presentation, access to best practices on the company intranet and more.
In the future, employees will be equipped for the unexpected as the on-demand enterprise develops a perpetual state of readiness for a changing market environment. The on-demand enterprise will not only have access to talented people, but will also accelerate the development of that talent within the company, ensuring consistent access to highly motivated and productive people who contribute to the greater good of the organization.
Steve Rae is vice president of services for IBM Learning Solutions, with more than 15 years of experience in the training and education industry. Tony O’Driscoll is a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he is responsible for driving innovation in learning to achieve IBM’s strategic objectives. For more information, e-mail Steve and Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.