Digital transformation: More than meets the eye?

You already know where you are. And you know where you want to be. With any large-scale digital learning project, getting these two streams in balance is essential, says Brightwave MD Jonathan Archibald.

When embarking on a large-scale digital learning project two certain things should always be present. All being well – it’s not guaranteed! – the client knows where they and their organisation stand today. This is where they are.

They will also have a vision of near- and long-term future goals and successes. This is where they want to be.

Creating digital learning solutions that bridge that gap between the present and the future, between reality and ambition, from where they are now to where they want to be in a year’s time – is what I’ve done for a living for a decade and a half.
In that time the trade – or to be more specific the tools and techniques we have to work with to deliver our clients’ ambitions – have changed immeasurably.

The raw materials we have to work on to achieve our clients’ aims – we call these ‘learners’ – have changed far, far more.
Out of the learners and the tech, only one of them is under our direct control. We build the tech that helps us change and influence and align the learners to the client organisation’s end goals. Because of this proximity we are always looking at the tech – it’s what we can touch and what we’re directly responsible for. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that the learner is the object of our work, and an observed change in value-added learner behaviours is our success factor.

Connecting these two streams of interests is difficult, because we are dealing with things that naturally move at different speeds. Plus, there is a third complicating factor: the organisation itself.

The possibilities of digital learning, and edu-tech more widely, are moving as rapidly as the tech field itself. The rate of innovation is, unsurprisingly, overwhelming. In the right conditions, the learner is able to absorb and adapt to new ways of learning, thinking and working with an ease and effectiveness that is rarely less than astounding. Learners are attuned to change – it is the common theme of the last fifteen years of history.

This rapid evolution of effective workplace behaviours requires some important modifications to the old phrase: ‘If you build it they will come’. It’s less elegant, but closer to the truth would be ‘Build it – and change the culture or practice to adapt to it – then they might come!’

Why then does digital learning still have to work so hard to lead change within the organisation? In my experience the problem here is usually connected to the organisation’s ability to swiftly modify and upgrade itself in response to changing circumstances, changing priorities and changing technology. For many, the potential benefits of today’s learning technologies is light years away from what they can realistically do, and goes untapped because the wide-open vistas it promises to explore and exploit often can’t flourish within the crowded environs of existing organisational infrastructure.

Businesses which have an established culture of learning in the classroom will take time and investment to shift that activity or interaction into a digital learning ecosystem. Sometimes, it’s just too hard to go from where you are to where you want to be.

The more complex and established an organisation, the more difficult its transformation is. But these projects can seem like the great prizes too: the ones where transformation means something big, where our efforts can make a concrete change to the way a global super-corporation interacts with the world. These are the ones where transformation of the organisation can go on to transform everything.

Change takes these organisations like a wave, emanating from a certain point before rippling out to touch every corner, using its essential code-command directives – to expand, improve and optimise organisational systems – to restructure learners’ working habits. Transformation at this scale takes considerable energy and investment, and can be easily deferred if other priorities are nearer on the horizon. Any restructuring in today’s advanced economies is going to involve moving around knowledge and changing required behaviours – L&D should be at the heart of it, but our expertise is not enough to change the whole business alone.

And in this situation, more often than not you don’t need to, because far more value can be gained by just getting the basics right. Learning – although it might be delivered by an app – isn’t like an app or like any other consumer tech product. But tech thinking can be too optimistic and wild. Because we are technologists we can too often see the problems facing us as technical challenges to be overcome, and overlook the human process of learning.

Your favourite new app will use adaptive technology to grab tight and hold your attention. It will dazzle and delight you by genuinely enhancing your digital interactions and experiences. As amazing as this is, in learning it is fruitless if the basics are not in place. If your building blocks of learning content are not up to standard then you can have all the impressive tech in the world and it won’t make a difference – it just masks the problem. Your learners need to know how to change their behaviour and working practices in smarter, more productive directions. Aligning them to this goal is more a matter of messaging than technology.

The answer then isn’t something difficult or unknown, or something new or neglected – it is in fact the basis and guiding principle of all the good work that we have done in this industry over the past two decades. It’s about great design. It’s about taking a high level view to make intelligent decisions about the client’s learning strategy – and getting stuck into the nitty-gritty of how your learners will respond to your digital learning solution and accompanying blend.

A designer, like an engineer, is first and foremost a problem solver. The best design occurs within constraints: they are what give a project shape and context. Blank canvases offer the promise of total freedom, but too often can be a poison chalice, a distracting illusion that bends project priorities off course.

We should never accept ‘OK’ as good enough. The challenge is to push every boundary within those constraints until we are truly satisfied that we have achieved the best result possible. Regardless of the size of the project, the budget or the tech, this attitude and emphasis on good learning design make all the difference to the outcome.

This is just the environment we work in. We always have plenty to work with. We have worked under the tightest, lowest and most constrained conditions and still have pushed beyond what was thought to be possible.

Good L&D happens because of good design, close consultation, honest understanding of the clients’ varied learning needs and the project’s possibilities. You also need the experience to be able to know what to do about it!

Real transformation is about making incremental gains over time in a process of constant improvement. If something is not working, adjust it, change the approach and try again. Trust in the process and you will get there.

As digital learning designers and agents of change, this could be the most important thing that a grounding in technology has to teach us. And as we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible with learning tech, we simultaneously enjoy the rewards of changing the way we work and learn.

This article originally appeeared in the November 2016 edition of Inside Learning Technologies & Skills magazine.

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