Last week I got to spend a day and a half at the Learning Technologies exhibition in London, and had many interesting conversations. As I’ve commented before, learning tech feels like a strange parallel universe where intranets barely exist, so would this year’s show be different?
Something borrowed, something blue
There is a concern in Learning and Development (L&D) that too many organisations throw e-learning at anything that looks like a problem. E-learning is, I suppose, the core of “learning technology” and naturally there were many designers, developers, providers, aggregators, distributors and Learning Management Systems on display.
Looking at these learning delivery tools, I couldn’t shake the impression of follow-the-leader (or next big thing), and lots of solutions for apparent problems. There were many LMS or LXP designs with card-based designs, and a good proportion of them were coloured blue. I might have suffered a mild case of déjà vu, especially since many also included functionality to “favourite” items—something we introduced at Barclays nearly six years ago.
It feels that no-one has addressed what I call the playlist problem. It doesn’t take long for favourites to become unmanageable, and I didn’t see approaches for sharing playlists of recommended learning, for managers or HR people to add or manage other items. Neither did I see course rating or feeding back to raise standards. The LMS stands are some of the busiest, and finding the right people to talk to is hard when you’re not a corporate buyer.
people in their broader needs
It’s always nice to find surprises at a trade show, and I had a few “do people really pay for that?” moments. Of course, there are very tangible needs for products that handle learner management, co-ordination for trainers and bookings, testing and invigilation. Similarly, tools for coaching and mentoring can be valuable, but I struggle to see how well they can work as a destination rather than being integrated into the digital workplace.
There were lots of apps aimed at front-line workers, particularly aimed at collaboration. It’s hard to tell from a cursory look, but Yoobic could be as useful as the likes of SpeakAp and LumApps. Looking at Squadify, I began thinking about the benefits of a low-cost ready-to-launch app: could it be used to as a temperature spot-check across a business before designing bespoke training?
Meeting-meets-collaborative-sketching app Klaxoon was there too, making its pitch as a training tool.
One practical tool that I found was WhatFix. It’s an overlay tool that kind provide all kinds of contextual help, and appears useful in creating other forms of training too.
I believe that there is only going to be more learning content to manage, as it becomes easier to build individual learning resources or curate en masse. Aside from the many libraries of content (courses, microlearning, videos, ebooks and even ebook summaries), there were tools for authoring, animating, managing assets, documentation, and probably a lot more. These resources appeared to be dedicated to learning, but clearly run the risk of duplicated content.
If I were feeling ungenerous, I’d say there seemed to be even more ways of accumulating content debt, and building an even less manageable library of resources. Some of these things are possible within a digital workplace, while other tools need to show greater potential for integration.
content to connectivity
Learning technologies are built on connectivity, indeed LMSes would be pointless without protocols like SCORM and xAPI. So it puzzles me why too often they tend to be a destination and not open to integration into other tools. It was good to see LMS365 exhibiting again, but the team were kept busy by a continuous stream of attendees, so it proved difficult to see how the product has developed. I note the recent announcement of their new partnership with Content Formula, and hope to see some interesting integrations.
In many respects, the most exciting thing I saw was Signature’s PROPEL platform which makes the connections between LMSes for you. This could be for a migration, or it could be to unify learning management systems across an organisation. It appears possible to connect disparate sources of training, or even create tools to bring useful learning information into the intranet.
I didn’t see as much as I’d hoped for enterprise social network integrations, and only a handful of chatbots were on display. One tool combining the two is Filtered’s AI-powered Magpie (this article shows it working in Teams), their stand was consistently busy, so I take that as a good sign of both the product and the level of overall interest.
Another company talking about AI is Elephants Don’t Forget. which supports learning with mini quizzes and reminders that adapt on the fly to employees’ answers and other factors. It’s the kind of thing that could integrate well onto intranet home pages or on more “doing” parts of the intranet. It’s important to know where training is most or least effective, and I also enjoyed talking to Watershed which provides an analytics platform. It can extend the idea of training data through the likes of xAPI to all kinds of employee interactions, and could lead to useful and timely insights.
Most telling was the first seminar I attended. Social training tools and content company Hive curated a good discussion on how to create a culture of learning. Many of their points weren’t about learning, but went beyond L&D into change and adoption.
Walking around the exhibition, I kept feeling that learning tech risks solving problems that have already been solved, and potentially creating multiple shadow digital workplaces. This suggests to me that there are much better opportunities for conversations and co-operation between L&D, intranet and digital workplace, HR, Comms, IT, compliance and more.
Everything I’ve argued, for example in Lessons from Learning – the post, suggests there’s plenty of room in the digital workplace for learning, but there’s a long way to go to make room in learning for the digital workplace.
In 2019, I was thrilled to be invited to present my talk Lessons in Learning to the IntraTeam conference in Copenhagen. This is a summary of the majority of the talk, where I argued that intranet professionals need to pay more attention to learning and development.
This talk originates a year before at IntraTeam Event 2018, as I found myself asking why almost no-one was talking about the connection between intranets and learning. The project I’d been working on, the Barclays Global Curriculum, had earned an Intranet Innovation Award in 2015, but I didn’t see people building upon that. The same month, I’d been to the Learning Technologies exhibition in London which felt like a world where intranets didn’t exist.
You have new mandatory training…
For some people, compulsory training is their only experience of the Learning Management System… and quite possibly their only exposure to learning and development. Yet, and I’m guilty of this, all too often the link to the LMS is tucked away into a remote corner of the intranet.
The more I looked at things, the more it became clear that we need to look beyond learning as purely about developing people and skills, but as something to drive change and develop the collaboration that will define the digital workplace.
And we need to make sure the intranet is core to the business, its people, the digital workplace, continuous change, the learning it has to do.
So, why learning?
I particularly like Satya Nadella’s characterisation of the turnaround at Microsoft as moving from a “know it all culture” to a “learn it all culture”.
It isn’t enough for businesses to become faster, cheaper, or more efficient. John Hagel at the Deloitte Center for the Edge argues “large organizations need to shift from providing scalable efficiency to providing scalable learning.”
And it’s about skills too. Kelly Palmer, the Chief Learning Officer at Degreed, says most CEOs think that they will need to re-skill a quarter of their workforce to be “future ready”.
For me, these are about building a culture where staff development goes beyond box ticking, so that employees are informed, engaged, and have the skills to help the organisation sense and adjust to changes in the world.
They say these in-demand skills will become more competitive and costly for companies and “there is an opportunity to support the upskilling of their current workforce toward new (and technologically reorganized) higher-skilled roles to ensure that their workforce achieves its full potential.”
In Future-proofing the Workforce, Adecco describes “the acquisition of skills as a means of future-proofing” and recommend employers “awaken a sense of responsibility in workers. ” It quotes a professional training provider, General Assembly “if companies decide to reskill and redeploy employees instead of laying off and rehiring, they could save up to $136,000 per person.”
Both reports talk abort building a learning culture, but does that belong in learning and development, change management, internal communications or elsewhere? It’s certainly not something we can do in a tool that people go to once or twice a year.
So, I’d like to contend that a well-designed intranet can contribute to building a stronger learning culture in many ways.
The Barclays Global Academies project came out of the then leadership’s desire to rebuild its public reputation, and part of this would be to improve the workplace culture, particularly in teamwork, self-management and leadership skills.
My involvement came initially at the SharePoint development level, but I was involved in a lot of the contributions to the overall user experience, content flows, and nearly all of the tools for administration.
The project started with lists of items pointing to resources in the LMS and elsewhere, but user testing revealed how users scrolled past the item titles. Then a team member suggested a Pinterest-style card layout, which I was able to prototype using live data. It made the same content stand out, and immediately more useful, especially when we built in “pin” and sort functionality.
To be truly useful, the Global Curriculum, as it was then called, could not be all things to all people. The vision was to build academies with curated content for specific employee groups, each built on the foundation of the existing shared content.
I was one of a small team making this work in SharePoint, but a lot of others were involved, including: UX designers, content strategists and copywriters, designers, project and channels managers, a search specialist, learning experts including curriculum specialists, trainers, training designers and others.
And that brings me to my first lesson.
Lesson 1: You cannot do this on your own…
…but you, as an intranet manager, can do a lot, and this is why I think this is the first step.
Talk to the people involved in training
Start investigating their pain points
Use your skills in governance, content design and interaction design to help make a difference
Look for broader themes and commonalities
And keep looking wider, for the skills that are being under-represented, for the knowledge that can unlock the potential in your organisation – and turn it into one of continuous improvement
And use your intranet as a shop window
If you’re not using your intranet to talk more about your people, their skills, and what’s exciting and possible, then building learning into your news processes is definitely your next step.
Lesson 2: Sharpen up your comms
When we bring in learning of all kinds, we can start to create a home page that is about positive growth, and shows the business as it might become. “New security training is available” is dull, but it can be rewritten to make it relevant and give it a point such as “Learn to protect your team and clients”. It gets even better when you make it about people and feel personal. Here “Security Wise Saira saves client £80k” celebrates the success of successful training. There is almost always a training angle in a good news story.
Start reinforcing the message that learning is part of the business
Promote employee-driven activities such as Communities of Practice (CoPs), and be public in your commitment to industry standards. My made up headline “make it big in big data” demonstrates company investment, a vision of the future business, and potential opportunities for staff.
However, the more you explore learning, the more you’ll discover it’s a personal thing and it scales badly.
Lesson 3: Curation is king
Curation, as I see it, is finding a balance between helping people explore huge amounts of training material, and giving them the kind of expert guidance that helps them do their jobs.
There is a huge amount of training material out there, and it’s only going to grow as the cost of creating it comes down. I’ve heard training professionals say their number one competitor is YouTube.
At its simplest, you should use your experts as curators to design better starting points, and use your understanding of users and their needs to create something of value.
Build on information architecture principles to help people find the right materials
But also make it easy for users to explore
A successful project will outlive the current corporate structure, so make sure you build in flexibility
Use organisational expertise to create learning journeys
These may be simple sequences or more complex decision trees
They may be long programmes
A skills diagnostic tool may help get people to the right training
Ensure search helps people find the results they need
Remember, employees may be self-conscious about the training they’re doing or admitting to gaps in their knowledge. They may need reassuring that they won’t be judged for following prescribed training.
Even if you don’t have access to domain experts, then there are other shortcuts that can go a long way to helping. A “Workshop finder” connects people with potential courses close to where they work. Do watch out, these can be a real struggle to keep up to date without proper resources and commitment from your stakeholders.
Lesson 4: Allow room to grow
What we built over 6 years scaled from a proof of concept, to a single site and then several. Then after consolidation work, we were able to extend it to 30 with an optimised roll-out process.
It was a huge benefit to have had to start with a very limited scope, and even to be limited by what we could do within SharePoint. It forced us to be creative, and it gave us time to understand our content, how people were using it, and how we could improve what we were offering.
A connected intranet platform
Naturally, the impact starts on the home page page but goes beyond that. Relevant links put learning materials in front of every user wherever they are doing work, especially where an employee needs specific training. With proper consideration for use cases, that would include mobile platforms.
It feels strange to look at all the benefits of a digitally-connected workplace, and then force everything onto a single platform, or a series of single platforms. What appears to be a single web page or app could be integrating information from all kinds of sources. Imagine the value in a travel booking page being able to tell you that you need to complete risk assessment training for your destination.
Corporate leaders love the idea of employees doing their training on the bus or at home, in their own time, of course! But it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve heard people disappointed with the results, and I’ve heard of others who were thrilled and say it drove up staff engagement.
And that goes for video too. Get it wrong and you’ve got video after video of men in suits telling you how important something is, yet it’s buried at the bottom of the page after all those videos. James Robertson, a long time ago, highlighted an incredibly popular video from an Australian supermarket showing colleagues how to use the staple function on their photocopiers – it’s something simple that meets a real need.
Virtual and Augmented Reality
I think we’re still learning about AR and VR. Geert Nijs from KBC talked at IntraTeam in 2018 about his adventures with VR and shared some valuable lessons. Also, look out for an interesting video showing Verizon use of VR to train store staff in how to react to armed robberies.
Microlearning is a broad name for training materials that are short, but hopefully of practical value. I think you can include short quizzes and other tools to help reinforce training.
Everyone was talking about Chatbots last year, but perhaps they’ve still got a way to go before they’re really useful and so much depends on the AI behind them. Talking with vendors at the Learning Technology show, one vendor was excited at how much data they had, another was far more cautious. The big question that organisations are waking up to, is who owns that data?
Artificial Intelligence / Machine Learning
For those of us who’ve seen decades of promises of machine intelligence, it’s easy to be dismissive. I’d suggest AI is only as good as your data and models, but keep an eye out for simple enhancements such as image classification, auto-translation, plug-in sentiment analysis and meaning extraction.
Gamified training has been the next big thing for ages, but it is interesting to hear it is having some success, Vodafone Ukraine have recently been talking about using it to engage call-centre workers.
Whatever the technology, it will generate valuable usage data which we need back into the system, to continue to making it better.
Learning Experience Platform (LXP)
This is the big buzz in Learning Tech, in some respects the successor to the LMS. I see these as aggregating learning resources, testing and other elements, and illustrate the the real value in technology – to simplify the interfaces and bypass a lot of the fiddly stuff. But the LXP is still being sold as a destination.
What I’m trying to suggest is there’s [something] valuable in using technology as a uniting factor to help people work and learn in the same place.
This is how workplace learning expert Jane Hart sees it – she calls it a seamless working and learning environment – and I like it a lot.
This is my redrawing of Jane’s diagram with, at its core, a collaboration platform – Jane’s talking about Slack or Microsoft Teams – with here Learning and Development’s responsibilities on the right, and the tools for managing a user’s own learning, as well as for team learning and collaboration, on the left.
What I like most is the idea of employees managing their own learning. I’ve not touched on digital literacy, I do think it’s important, but I don’t think we should just be teaching digital skills for today’s technology, but also teaching the skills that will help people continue to learn as technology changes.
Intranets, whatever people say, bring incredible value, and it’s not just the emotional connections of news and company history, there’s a structural work-related element too. And we, as intranet professionals have a lot to contribute.
So, why learning? I’ve come to think that learning should be core to the digital workplace. It’s a massive area, yet we can start with a few small steps.
I believe only good can come out of closer integration between learning and the digital workplace.
Nick Shackleton-Jones is an entertaining and occasionally puckish speaker, and kept the Brighton audience for last night’s Tilt Talk on their toes with jokes, challenging questions, short activities and giant marshmallow-throwing.
And that wasn’t just playfulness, but illustrating one of Nick’s key points about how people learn: that we are much more likely to remember things when we are engaged and active. He joked that “something has gone horribly wrong”, that in spite of everything now known about learning, the audience was sitting there waiting to hear from “the sage on the stage.”
Drawing on differences between learning and education, Nick discussed the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve which, he argued, only shows “human memory is very good at throwing out rubbish.” And so, leads onto his particular theory as described in his book How People Learn.
Learning is emotional
In the Affective Context Model, Nick argues that learning is only made of emotional responses, from which the memories are reconstructed. This got me thinking about what might count as emotions, and also how I really got into cooking not from TV chefs and their overproduced programmes, but from the kind of shows that showed live cooking.
An important point here is that if we are engaged and motivated to learn, an educator merely needs to provide the resources. This is the Pull condition or what Nick calls “strong affective context”. In the “weak affective context” or Push condition, we need to provide experiences, narrative and more so that unmotivated learners become motivated.
Describing some of his work at BP, Nick described a very user-centred approach to understanding real needs. Don’t talk to stakeholders “about topics,” Nick says, “talk about what people need to do,” and then talk to those people about how to meet those needs.
In talks like this, we expect to hear about things that are exciting and innovative, but it was the inclusion of more ordinary tools that made me pay attention. These included factsheets and checklists that allow people to explore and understand a subject, and to help them take the right actions.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised as I’m a fan of tools built for explorability. The Design Process I helped build at BDP allowed different professionals to understand their responsibilities during any stage in a building’s design and construction. Also at BDP, redesigning the website, I made it a key principle that there would be no dead-ends in the primary information.
But, it’s not just about learning…
As I got to think about the importance of emotions in learning, it struck me that the same principles held true in internal communications and culture change. This shouldn’t have surprised me, as I’ve previously argued that learning is how organisations change.
It shouldn’t surprise me, or anyone working in learning, change, comms, or intranets, that this is all interconnected. We are all trying to win the limited attention of the same beleaguered employees, and that won’t work in the longer-term if the surprises become predictable.
That leaves listening and understanding as the tools we should all use. We can build tools that effectively support exploration and understanding, ones that can push users into the right learning, without creating too much noise for our colleagues. Choosing when and when not to use emotional hooks may be the most important thing we do.