Yogi Berra said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Although that creative statement of the obvious causes both a chuckle and reflection for many who hear it, it is the profound reality in the case of high-tech learning for traditionally low-tech positions. This is a new and exciting period in which digital learning technologies have finally evolved from futuristic science fiction to current practical reality.
For more than 10 years, learning professionals have been talking about integrating “high-tech” into their businesses “in the future” – and now the future is here. Just three years ago, you could develop powerful interactive learning technologically, but it couldn’t be used easily. Now, technology has advanced to the point where aspiration and reality are closer than ever. What was futuristic is now the norm.
To take full advantage of any powerful shift, we must start by changing a mindset that no longer serves us well and see the real possibilities before they become obvious to everyone.
The two critical mental mind shifts we must make to take advantage of this change are that high-tech learning is practical now, and traditional low-tech employees are truly high-tech learners today.
Businesses traditionally considered low-tech (e.g., restaurants, hotels, consumer service business and retail) are in the middle of a training revolution. Low-tech workers are demanding high-tech training. Today, high-tech training for low-tech jobs is about what’s possible for employees everywhere.
The technology that redefines possibilities has matured, and this revolution is happening right now. If your business isn’t considering implementing high-tech training within two years, you’ll definitely be at a disadvantage.
Who Are Today’s Low-Tech Workers?
When most people talk about low-tech jobs, they assume the difficulty of the work and the intelligence of the worker are connected. It’s time to rethink that.
Many of these jobs might not require college degrees, but the people in them are far ahead of their counterparts from several years ago in their ability to access, understand, process and apply information. We have a new class of employees, and the notion they are less savvy is wrong.
Virtually all of today’s younger workers (and a surprising number of older ones) are undeniably tech-smart. Thanks to the Internet, communication technologies and sophisticated computer games, even agricultural workers – far from stores and restaurants – now have at least basic technological abilities. So, to be relevant to all employees at all levels, training low-techs with high-tech must be less about generations and educational levels and more about how we live our lives.
The “low-tech” individuals in these jobs should have that label changed to “screen-agers.” They represent the generations of people who now access most of their information, conduct their personal relationships, find entertainment (gaming) and basically conduct a large portion of their lives with technology or online.
Consider this: According to Pew Research Center Publications, the typical 21-year-old (who was in kindergarten the year the World Wide Web was launched) has logged 5,000 hours of video games, sent or received 250,000 digital messages, talked 10,000 hours on a cell phone and spent 3,500 hours online.
If this isn’t enough data to refocus your mindset on the immediate opportunity within high-tech learning, try this simple test: Find someone younger than 30 who reads a newspaper. A well-known futurist commented recently, “I don’t know a single person under 30 who reads a newspaper or watches the nightly news – the primary sources of information for the generation now leading many of our businesses.”
Young people use technology as the common, normal way to interact via the Internet, text messaging and video. They require learning to be fun and gamelike. If we can turn learning in that direction, it’s no longer high-tech but “common-tech.” Instead of thinking, “How will I do well at this new job?” people now arrive at a new workplace wondering, “How are they going to engage me in this work?”
Why Learning Needs to Change
Many of us have been arrogant in designing learning and training, going about it in the way we thought people should learn. Even early versions of e-learning placed technology above the way people want to access, explore and make sense of information. Instead, we should have been working to match education to the needs of the great majority of people who access information nontraditionally.
Their preference – more accurately, their demand – is for staying connected, multitasking, assembling random information into patterns and using technology as entertainment and for learning. These individuals don’t expect to spend a lifetime in one career, let alone with one company. To them, work is a game in which decisions must be made at lightning speed, it’s normal to fail before you succeed, and learning is informal and done on the fly.
Although old-style employers might pigeonhole employees in low-tech jobs as low-tech people, the new workers are just as disappointed with workplace learning because it doesn’t line up with their expectations. We force them into old-time learning, when their everyday life is far beyond this. Living daily with YouTube and MySpace seems high-tech in theory, but for constant users, it’s common-tech, simply because they are comfortable with it. Because they are programmed to pay attention to several things at once, a one-dimensional training program won’t keep their interest.
Even though we still have unemployed workers, many low-tech jobs are going unfilled. Aligning the technology in people’s lives with the training technology in the workplace might be the answer to closing this skill gap.
We also have the problem of low-tech trainers. Once, young people came to a job and learned the ropes from a veteran. Now, they arrive immersed in the digital world, and our manual-and-lecture systems are not just alien but hopelessly dated.
If technology is used for workplace training at all, it’s “taught” to the new worker by someone who learned the technology just a few years ago and who probably is far less comfortable with it than the new employee. Our trainers are “digital immigrants” teaching “digital natives.”
The reality is that personal information access and business information access are coming together. This means we can begin to look at more relevant, powerful ways for people to learn.
High-tech training might well be today’s employers’ Happy Meal – we need to move from “How do we present the food so kids will eat it?” to “How do we present the information in a way that employees will want to absorb it?” We do this in the same way: giving them the content in the way they want to receive it.
Teaching People in the Way They Want to Learn
Everyone is changing how they get their information. According to Journalism.com, today, only about half of the U.S population reads newspapers, and that percentage is dropping every day. Online news is faster, more up-to-date and more in-depth, and being online allows you to research stories and related information. Also, you can choose your own content and deliverer.
In the same way, when children (who play computer games in their free time and learn what they’re interested in on the Internet) get to school, they open a traditional textbook, listen to lectures and are totally bored. They don’t internalize learning as it has been done traditionally, and they intuitively recognize its limitations because they have experienced better. They are not learning-disabled. Rather, they recognize that most schools are teaching-disabled. Most workplace training approaches are equally inadequate in maximizing the potential of the learner.
The way we get information at home is much more high-tech than workplace information sharing and common learning approaches. Manuals and classroom training are outdated, and they lag in how we access information in our everyday lives. Technology can be a vital link in connecting personal life and work life, a powerful integration tool. With high-tech learning, business challenges and people development can be aligned rather than mismatched to create better business results.
How High-Tech Learning Is Changing Business
Businesses are asking, “How will high-tech training help our business grow? Will it work for us? What does this new access to technology allow us to do?”
The first hurdle is narrow-mindedness. Old-fashioned business trainers likely have the wrong idea of high-tech access. If they’ve been refusing to embrace the new reality, it might be because their primary experience with technology was with those overcomplicated, frustrating precursors of today’s technology, and this gets in the way of appreciating the benefits.
And there are many benefits. We aren’t just talking about leader-led talking-head video presentations, PowerPoint presentations or putting your entire training manual on a computer screen. The new high-tech training allows you to incorporate interactivity, and it facilitates discovery and other types of learning.
Once training information is actually internalized, new employees might have a clearer mental picture of how to apply what they’ve learned to their work. Gamelike learning allows people to practice in a safe environment and comprehensively apply their knowledge over and over. Repetition and targeted feedback allow them to successfully execute those skills before going out to work with customers. Branching simulations work like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books – they’re entertaining, challenging and work well with unenthusiastic learners.
Employers also have the ability to track who’s completed each training area and how well they did. Employees can adjust the training time to job duties, as they can stop and start learning modules according to store traffic and deadlines with no disruption to workflow.
High-tech learning makes sense because employees can learn a job, practice, be coached on it and receive feedback on performance in a short period of time. This blended kind of learning combines simulated environments, facts and coaching for the personal touch. There might be a higher front-end cost, but businesses attest that it pays off in the long run.
Where Do We Go From Here?
If high-tech learning isn’t part of your training system now, you need to consider changing that. Here are some places to start:
1. Look at YouTube, MySpace and other high-traffic Internet information exchanges and challenge your assumption about how the average person engages, communicates and learns. Then, see what is possible for you.
2. Look at what technology allows. You might think you don’t have enough bandwidth or the programs are too expensive. There are many creative ways to create great engagement that don’t require significant bandwidth.
3. Look at your competition. What are they using to train people? Consider the dangers if you get behind. If someone else is training people like yours in a better way, will you lose valuable employees? And what will be the effect on your customers or clients?
4. Look at your employees. Do you really know who they are? Do you know where they are technologically? They might know far more than you expect. Perhaps they know more than you do.
5. Look at the benefits to your business if you can leverage technology to accelerate your training and learning programs. How much faster could you get trainees on the job? How much better prepared can they be to handle every type of job challenge?
The term “low-tech employee” is really a misnomer. The opportunity lies in matching up new ways of delivering learning with the expectations and methods of today. Organizations that can accomplish this put themselves in the driver’s seat on using learning as a competitive advantage.
Jim Haudan is president and CEO of Root Learning. Rich Berens is vice president of client services at Root Learning. They can be reached at email@example.com.
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