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Learning and development: The final Frontier


Francis Marshall explores the boom in technology-related learning and warns L&D that it's about time they took the plunge.

Technology populism, today’s younger generation of employees, and an increasingly mobile and connected workforce are driving the rise of technology use for learning in the workplace. But with so many new learning mediums available, choosing the most appropriate tools can be a daunting task. In the first of a series of three columns I will be looking at the rise of technology, the key trends emerging in L&D, and how to set about integrating new mediums within your L&D strategy. 

Engaging the technology junkie

Without doubt, technology is becoming an increasingly large part of everyday life. An AOL survey of 4,000 email users in the United States found that 46% were ‘hooked’ on email and almost 60% checked email in the bathroom! And in the workplace too, technology continues to change the way we communicate, collaborate and learn.  

As L&D professionals, it is essential that we keep pace with emerging trends and embrace the needs of today’s technology savvy learners and Generation Y. While I wouldn’t advocate embracing every passing fad, we need to be open to exploring new tools, and then ruthlessly testing their merits to ensure they meet training needs.

"While organisations have been quick to grasp the marketing possibilities of social networking tools like Twitter, the potential of such media for L&D is only just being explored."
Indeed, a major European survey carried out by Cegos earlier this year showed that learners want to see more elearning, blended learning and collaborative tools like blogs, forums and wikis put into use within their organisation in the next three years. However, what the survey also highlighted was a growing gap between what learners want and what L&D is actually planning to provide.

Breaking new ground

Training today is all about learner engagement and the embracing of web-driven technologies. If we are to make our mark as a profession, we must ensure we listen to what learners want and think about which tools and techniques can add the most value to the organisation.
The choice of ways to gain new knowledge and skills is growing phenomenally. According to a recent study by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), half of managers use online videos to develop new skills, a third use social networking sites to boost knowledge, and around a quarter use ebooks and online discussion forums for learning.

Training has clearly evolved during the past few years and is set to undergo yet more transformation. The biggest area of growth is likely to be Web 2.0 technologies and social networks, driven by the Generation Y effect and the proliferation of social media tools like Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn and Twitter. Forrester Research estimates that the global enterprise market for Web 2.0 technologies will reach a staggering US$4.6 billion by 2013. The analyst house also predicts that serious games will take off in the next five years.

"In the workplace too, technology continues to change the way we communicate, collaborate and learn."

It is fair to say that while organisations have generally been quick to grasp the marketing possibilities of social networking tools like Twitter, the potential of such media for L&D is only just being explored. In my next column I will be looking at the use of these tools for learning in more detail and how one can go about implementing them.

DIY learning

Another key trend that is emerging in L&D is Do-It-Yourself (DIY) learning. Essentially this involves the use of collaborative tools like corporate wikis, employee blogs and forums from which employees can ‘pick and mix’ their learning. Such tools enable employees to access dynamic content from subject experts across the organisation and across the world, and tap into an enterprise-wide knowledge pool. Success in creating a DIY environment hinges on establishing a culture of collaborative and cooperative learning, where people are empowered to contribute and share their knowledge and skills across the organisation.

Bite-sized learning in the form of elearning and blended learning will continue to become an increasingly important part of organisational learning strategies during the next few years. Modules are becoming shorter and shorter – around 30-35 minutes with podcasts typically around the ten minute mark. This means learners can get to the nuts and bolts more quickly, as well as making this learning medium more effective for today’s increasingly mobile workforce.
Indeed, mobile learning – the ability to learn anytime, anywhere - has advanced in such significant ways as a result of rapidly increasing bandwidth from modern cellular networks that it is now on the edge of widespread use in the corporate environment. According to analysts Bersin & Associates, 14% of US organisations are already delivering learning on mobile platforms and 15% are using podcasting for training purposes today.
Few can argue that technology-driven learning brings a host of benefits to the training function. As well as speeding up learning, making training more accessible to a wider audience, and delivering significant cost benefits over more traditional learning practices, it enables employees to be more productive. Why? Because learning fits more seamlessly around day to day work activities – all important in today’s economic climate.

Interestingly, a recent study by Professor Brent Coker at the University of Melbourne found that workers who use the web for entertainment while at work — whether they're tweeting, watching YouTube videos, shopping, or catching up with the news — are 9% more productive than those who don't. The reason is simple - people need quick breaks in order to maintain a high level of concentration throughout the day. So what an opportunity this is for training to weave innovative, bite-sized elearning training modules into the learner’s everyday workplace.

"As L&D professionals, it is essential that we keep pace with emerging trends and embrace the needs of today’s technology savvy learners and Generation Y."
Clearly, there is a growing choice of technology-led tools becoming available that have the potential to enhance the learning experience – from virtual classrooms in the 3D virtual world of Second Life, to immersive games to model management scenarios, and to knowledge sharing tools such as corporate wikis. But which tools are ultimately going to be the most effective in an L&D environment?
When considering a new technique as part of your L&D strategy, I believe it is vitally important to test and fail fast. You need to have clear criteria of what you want to achieve and deliver from the outset. The best place to start, is to ruthlessly test new tools among your talent pool as these high performing individuals are likely to be the most committed to providing critical feedback. Only once clear objectives and return on investment criteria have been established should one consider rolling out new methods to employees across the organisation – something I will discuss in my next column.
And how can new technologies add the most value within your organisation? Research by Thomson Reuters shows that only 10% of learning comes from formal training, with 20% coming from management coaching and the remaining 70% being informal learning. Clearly, it is within the 70% informal learning bracket where L&D implementations of emerging learning techniques can make the biggest impact.

Francis Marshall is the managing director of Cegos UK part of Europe’s largest learning and development organisation.  Francis is an NLP practitioner and is active as a senior level consultant within the fields of management, leadership and executive coaching.

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