Personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptops and mobile phones are virtually a requirement to keep up with the growing job demands of today’s fast-paced business environment. Increasingly, advancements in these mobile devices are making them even more practical not only for on-the-go communication, but also for on-demand information sharing, training and learning. As companies explore ways to link learning with organizational priorities, productivity and business objectives, these devices are becoming the perfect tools for just-in-time learning.
Just as PDAs and laptops have allowed professionals to communicate while they are working “mobile” or on the road, these tools also enhance the benefits of e-learning by making vital learning material, once available only from the desktop, accessible while learners are in a cab on the way to an important sales meeting or waiting to board an airplane, for example. Just a few minutes of “dead time,” which are often wasted, can be transformed into incremental ongoing learning opportunities.
While mobile learning (m-learning) is a valuable solution for any occupation, there is increasing value in its role in field-force enablement. Typically, customer-facing employees learn via a traditional classroom setting, but many agents are already carrying handheld tools for field-force automation that can now include m-learning. If a company uses those tools for learning, it can move up to 15 percent to 20 percent of learning delivery to the field on-demand—creating a direct link to employee productivity and efficiency.
Having the option of m-learning allows workers to get into the field more quickly and learn on the job. Workers can refer to “byte-sized” learning materials as questions or problems occur, or as they need to revisit lessons learned in the classroom. For instance, if a delivery person runs into an unexpected problem that he has not yet faced or was not taught in classroom training–or he simply forgot–he can use his mobile device to access the task-based learning he needs at that specific time. He can receive just-in-time information, any time, any place. Whether the employee is accessing the m-learning material for remedial purposes or for the first time, the information is at his fingertips.
Imagine a delivery person en route, making several stops and delivering time-sensitive packages over the course of eight to 10 hours. She uses a PDA to check the inventory status, find out her schedule and find the address of the next delivery. She can even communicate with the warehouse if she encounters a problem such as a traffic jam or an accident. Likewise, if a high-priority delivery needs to be made at the last minute, her home office can log that information into the delivery schedule seamlessly, without having to physically catch her on a phone. Today, this is known as field-force automation. However, the same device that provides the information crucial to the daily job routine also can be used for learning purposes.
Field-Force Automation and Enablement
Once field-force employees begin using their PDAs for learning purposes, they begin tapping into the power of field-force enablement. While field-force automation streamlines the tasks that were once done manually–such as inventory and scheduling–field-force enablement provides the content and critical information that prepares workers for the field. Field-force enablement helps them to better troubleshoot challenges, communicate with the local company “hub” and receive learning materials vital to job functions.
There are three primary ways that m-learning can help turn field-force automation into field-force enablement. Mobile learning enables workers in the field to:
- Learn how to use a new device being deployed.
- Learn how to use the applications being deployed.
- Receive ongoing training, corporate communications and critical job-role information on the fly.
While the first two capabilities are “initiative-” or “task-” based deployments, the third capability provides a new conduit to impact how companies train, enable and communicate to the staff on the front line.
If organizations can redesign traditional field-force training to include 80 percent of learning in the classroom and 20 percent in the field, it can impact revenue and profits through time saved and greater employee productivity by getting employees enabled and into the field sooner.
For the employer, m-learning offers another way to deliver content as well as the opportunity to embed learning into everyday work flow. By adopting new content-development tools and processes that address m-learning, employers can develop learning material and critical communications once and deliver them consistently in many ways, such as creating small, consumable bytes of content–also known as learning objects–that can be delivered equally well to people in the office or field-force and sales teams.
While learning objects have been the subject of much discussion for several years, m-learning drives home the need for them. What would have been “nice to have” in the past becomes an imperative for people on the go. For example, if a shipping company adopts a new Symbol handheld device to automate inventory tracking, conducting a seminar or classroom course to train employees can result in hours spent away from work. With m-learning capabilities loaded onto the device, employees can take it into the field, turn it on and walk through an automated training module that gets them up to speed quickly and seamlessly. Similarly, new applications can be added easily and without extensive training time back in the office. Not only is the worker more productive, but costs also have been avoided with the elimination of travel and “out of territory” time.
Mobile learning also can act as a tool for bringing back- and front-office applications to the front-line field force and sales force.
In the near future, m-learning may provide companies the opportunity to reduce employee turnover. There is a direct linkage between workforce turnover and lack of proper training. In industries such as retail–where training new staff can cost thousands–high turnover rates cut directly into profitability and productivity. For example, many former electronics retail employees complain that they were ill-prepared to help customers or answer questions when on the retail floor.
To address these challenges, companies traditionally have new employees spend several hours in a back office reading a binder or accessing a learning portal to study various products and processes. The products are not in front of the employee, and for a worker such as an electronics retail associate, there are often hundreds of products to understand that are changing frequently.
Consider how m-learning could impact this approach. A retailer could provide associates with handheld PDAs with built-in bar-code scanners. This simple device provides employees the opportunity to start and finish on-demand training on the sales floor. Workers find a product, scan a bar code and take a five- to 10-minute training module in front of the product as they work—better utilizing small gaps of time between customers. Likewise, that same sales associate can work with a customer who expresses interest in two products by scanning both bar codes, observing differences between the products and helping the customer make an informed decision with just-in-time information. The employer can quickly and seamlessly introduce new products, train employees while they work, provide immediate learning and improve the quality of the customer interaction.
In the future, technology such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags may provide an excellent opportunity for sales and field force learning. Today, RFID tags function simply as identifiers, but tomorrow, they may well contain the specific technical and sales training on that product. This means that the RFID tag could populate the corporate learning system as the palette of products arrives at the store. For example, when a warehouse receives a shipment of new printers or computers, the RFID scanners will first automatically register them in inventory. Then, those same tags might carry critical handling information. The workers in the warehouse would know instantaneously if there are special storage instructions, such as room temperature, moisture or positioning of the product.
As the warehouse workers learn how to handle and store these new products, the RFID scanners also could pull learning modules off the tags and send pre-developed learning objects to a centralized learning management system (LMS). Once loaded into the LMS, the modules are available to the employees on the sales floor before the new products have even come off the truck.
In both the warehouse and sales floor examples, the lines between a traditional front-office process and customer service are blurred with sales- and field-force training. Everyday work activity merges with e-learning to create a situation that benefits the customer, the employee and the overall organization. In other industries, learning may blur with investor relations, supply chain management, competitive assessment or knowledge management.
In addition to linking with back-office functions and providing just-in-time training opportunities, m-learning also can create customized learning opportunities through a function called “profiled notification.”
Profiled notification assures learners that any time they receive learning information, the content is important to their job roles—information tailored to each learner.
Profiled notification matches an individual to appropriate content by linking existing data such as HR files to a person’s personally specified interests. HR data provides a basic foundation of an individual’s position and potential learning needs, such as title, job role, business unit and management level. Once that foundation is laid, the learner creates a self-prescribed profile, including qualifications such as geographic region, customer accounts, subject expertise, interests, preferred means of notification and job challenges. The self-created profile ensures that learners only receive the most relevant information.
Profiled notification requires organizing and tagging content, so that it can be easily aligned with a learner’s profile. The more organized the content and the better profiled the employees, the more effective profiled notification will be.
Once the content is organized and the individual is profiled, the learner is instantly notified, either through e-mail or a message sent to a mobile phone, when relevant content is available. If the device has the capabilities, learners can download the content immediately. For many employees, this just-in-time information could be the difference between making a sale and losing a potential new customer.
Transitioning to Mobile Learning
The possibilities for mobile learning are endless, and the market is already primed for adoption of these learning capabilities. Cell phones, handheld computers and PDAs have the capabilities today to support learning. Imagine the implications of mobile learning for other industries. In pharmaceuticals, a sales associate could receive instantaneous notification of an FDA drug approval just before meeting with a customer. For the military, soldiers might receive mission-critical information and briefings in the field. For a finance manager, it might mean unobtrusively providing mortgage-rate updates during a customer meeting.
However, the first step toward becoming a mobilized learning organization is to become a learning organization. Before diving into an m-learning program, organizations also must align their learning objectives and take inventory of their current capabilities. Companies need to understand job roles, employee needs and business priorities, and then locate and repurpose existing content if a mobile learning program is to be effective. Once those assessments are in place, a new world of delivery and communication will empower companies to create a competitive workforce for the 21st century.
Christopher T. von Koschembahr has been responsible for many of IBM’s first solutions and successes in what was then called Distance Learning. He continues to be a leader in IBM’s e-learning transformation. Most recently, he created the first m-learning solutions at IBM. He can be reached at email@example.com.