Learning solutions for the connected employee

Jonathan Archibald, Head of Technical Development at next generation learning expert Brightwave, shares his experience of creating learning solutions that meet the needs and, crucially, the expectations of today’s learners. This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Inside Learning Technologies & Skills magazine.

In his keynote speech at Learning Technologies 2014, Brian Solis spoke about Generation C being the “Connected Consumer”, and that this is a generation not defined by age. It’s defined by how their lives and their minds have adjusted to rely on their connected technology devices. They have changed their habits, their thought processes and their muscle memory, to fully embrace the digital life.

Naturally as people change, we also see a shift in the way people learn and retain information. For these people spending a few hours learning something months in advance of needing to use it is alien. We expect the information to be at our finger tips when we need to use it, when we can get access to it we feel empowered but when we can’t we feel let down and lost.
Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of Needs, updated for the connected employee

A first-hand example of this happened in the office a few weeks ago. I was busy working away when I came up against a complex programming problem that I did not know how to solve. Within a few seconds, I had a browser open and was searching for the solution. But the site where the answer to the problem was located was offline (Stackoverflow.com in this case). I was lost, not sure what to do. I kept refreshing the page and hoping it would come back up so I could carry on working. After a few minutes of this I looked up to see the rest of my team all having a similar issue. We were all stuck, connection to our ‘Cloud brain’ was broken.

Ten minutes later the site was back up and we were working again, but it really brought home to me how much we have changed over the years. Moving from consuming large text books and manuals, in the hope of retaining everything, to today where we retain the important parts around methodologies and problem solving but outsource the detail to the cloud.

It’s easy to think of this as a step backwards but it’s not, it’s the opposite. We are more productive and more engaged than before (minor network issues and site crashes aside). My mind is kept clear to worry about what we are actually trying to solve rather than trying to remember everything. A connected employee can do their job faster and better. A connected employee has instant access to the best minds in the industry – and the best minds in history – and never has to rely on their own best guess alone.

The problem is that the vast majority of employee training and knowledge materials provided by employers are built for the old the model: knowledge retention. These fixed, inflexible systems have little relevance for the connected employee and the ways they expect to access and assimilate new information. As a result, they are extremely unpopular and employees have to be forced into using them. Connected workers have to be constantly pushed to use their workplace learning resources, in stark contrast to the addictive ‘pull’ of their favourite consumer apps and platforms.

The solution? A total learning system that allows the connected employee to do the following:

Get the best and most up to date information from the cloud to your employee in the least time and effort as possible, at the point they need it.

So how do you approach a learning solution of this kind?

Developing learning solutions and platforms according to this principle has been a key driver for Brightwave and my major occupation for nearly two years. In that time I’ve had to challenge a lot of my assumptions about how connected learners in organisations really learn, and what systems are appropriate to their requirements. I’ve had to free myself from the mind-set of the traditional e-learning course and consider a number of fresh issues that matter greatly when developing a solution that combines formal with social and collaborative learning.

I learned myself that without understanding key areas, it’s impossible to create learning solutions that turn the preferences and expectations of the connected learner to the benefit of the organisation. Without making sure these deceptively simple details are taken care of, a Generation C learner is not going to be satisfied by your offering, nor will they engage with the learning process. In which case, we’re back where we started in terms of the limitations of the static e-learning course.

  • Capturing content: At the heart of a powerful learning system is great learning content. For Generation C, this means the system needs to provide a great way for capturing content – not simply launching it. You need to be able to easily add courses and formal learning resources but users also need to be able to create and add their own. The organisation needs to be able to manage it easily, curate and categorise content, regardless of the form it takes. The slicker and simpler it is for learners to capture content, the better the quality, volume and value of the resources and information they will bring in. In other words, make using the system a pleasure for the user and they will add richer content – ensuring better semantic tagging to improve search and storage of key resources.
  • Search indexing and algorithms: The search system has to be brilliant. Users expect Google-level accuracy, and will be underwhelmed by anything less. Without a decent search engine, users will be unable to find the content they need, rendering your system useless. Getting the search algorithms and indexing running well is a tricky and continuous process of refinement and experimentation. The system should allow you to provide contextual results based on what the users are looking at and how they are interacting with the resources on the system. If they are looking at something interesting, why not provide them with a selection of related resources? Personalisation is powerful.
  • Multi-device support: The learning system needs to fit into the daily lives of your users. This means software needs to work seamlessly on as many devices as possible. And not just ‘working’ – it needs to work well, and be designed as-native for the appropriate form. Native apps are best but responsive design is also an option. Choosing the right technology here is vital: when considering native apps, you need to consider cross publishing frameworks to share your code base between iOS, Android and Windows phones, which will significantly reduce the cost of development and deployment. Responsive design for applications is tricky to get right. It’s harder than producing a responsive brochure site, with its own set of unique considerations. But done well it can give a powerful effect. If the product or platform you’re exploring is mature it may support both a responsive site and native apps.
  • Load times: For Generation C, waiting around for pages to load is pure hell. If they have to wait more than a second or two they will be off looking for the information somewhere else, or tweeting about having to wait. There’s lots of things one can do to speed things up, from compressing scripts and optimising code to reducing images and using content delivery networks.

Getting these things right will form a solid foundation for creating a great system for connected employees. But at all times you have to keep in sight that developing products for this new generation is a continuous and collaborative process. You need to learn from the end-users (your learners). Measure their behaviours and analyse their preferences, and improve your system continuously in an ongoing programme of updates, refinement and evolution.

Some final words of warning: bolting a forum or chat stream onto a traditional learning management system or labelling your old intranet as a ‘social learning platform’ is not going to be enough, no matter how you finesse the rebranding.

Box ticking is not an option either: just saying you have a mobile app is not enough. If you’re going to have one it needs to work, really work, for Generation C. Don’t forget that connected learners are also connected consumers – their expectations are high and if they are not satisfied, they will go elsewhere for what they need.

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