Learning Technologies – a digital workplace perspective

Long exposure image of the Learning Technologies exhibition hall at Excel

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.

Serving 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.

Whatfix presentation describing the impact of using WhatFix: user adoption increase from 10% to 50%; data accuracy increased by 20%; training creation reduced from 80 hours to 3; time taken to make changes from hours to less than 10 minutes.

One practical tool that I found was WhatFix. It’s an overlay tool that provides 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.

Content, content everywhere…

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.

From 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.

Conclusion

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.

Lessons from Learning – the post

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.

These are the kind of skills regarded as important in the 2018 Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum:

  • Analytical thinking and innovation
  • Active learning and learning strategies
  • Creativity
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem solving

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.

Microservices

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.

Mobile

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.

Video

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

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. 

Chatbots

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.

Gamification

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. 

Big Data

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.

Everything you know about learning is wrong…and what might that mean?

Nick Shackleton-Jones on stage

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.

Slide "but when to do which". A spectrum of activities going from Push or 'care less' to Pull or 'care more' respectively: experience, story, animation, guide, checklist.

Below "Push": The organisation wants me to: be convinced, feel inspired or engaged, and understand why.

Below "Pull": I want: support and guidance, simple practical stuff, to understand how

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.

Nick Shackleton-Jones is @shackletonjones on Twitter and his book How People Learn is available from publishers Kogan Page, or order it from your local independent bookshop.

Lessons from Learning – IntraTeam 2019

Further links, reference materials, and slides will appear here.

References

Jane Hart’s Seamless Working and Learning www.modernworkplacelearning.com/cild/introduction/a-working-and-learning-environment/

Josh Bersin: The Hybrid Jobs Revolution joshbersin.com/2019/01/want-to-make-more-money-join-the-hybrid-jobs-revolution/

Please see Intranet Now 2018: Lessons from Learning for further references used in this presentation.

Intranet Now 2018: Lessons from Learning

Lessons form Learning: How to make an intranet more useful

Thank you talk all of the attendees to Intranet Now 2018 for your contribution to the event.

Here are my slides from the event, on the subject of how the integration of learning can make an intranet more useful.

 

I would value your questions and comments as I plan to continue studying and writing about the intersection between intranets and learning. I hope to find out what best practice looks like.

Here are a few links to people and articles that helped me prepare for this talk.

Links

Josh Bersin

A New Paradigm For Corporate Training: Learning In The Flow of Work is an interesting description of the learning technology market, and how it’s changing.
https://joshbersin.com/2018/06/a-new-paradigm-for-corporate-training-learning-in-the-flow-of-work/

The Learning Experience Platform (LXP) Market Expands covers the rise of tools that replace or supplement LMSes that better reflect the way people learn, and the needs they have for recording their learning.
https://joshbersin.com/2018/09/the-learning-experience-platform-lxp-market-expands/

Top Tools for Learning

Jane Hart’s annual list of the most used tools for learning. It might be a surprise to see YouTube and Powerpoint as the number ones in Personal and Professional Learning (PPL)  and Workplace Learning (WPL)  respectively, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.
https://www.toptools4learning.com/home/

Lee Bryant: Bridging the Digital Skills Gap in the Digital Workplace

In-depth article on digital skills in the workplace. Lee’s writing is recommended.
https://postshift.com/bridging-the-digital-skills-gap-in-the-digital-workplace/

Also, from PostShift, Caroline Boyd wrote Designing Scalable Learning for the Digital Age

Elizabeth Marsh: The Digital Workplace Skills Framework

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/digital-workplace-skills-framework-free-in-depth-report-marsh/

A Digital Europe needs Digital Skills

Best practices from around the EU
http://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/digital-europe-needs-digital-skills-best-practices-around-eu

Indispensable

A short blog post with some good quotes, and a brief overview of the burgeoning workplace training industry.
https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/indispensable-marc-zao-sanders/

The future of work is scalable learning

Interview with John Hagel of the Deloitte Center for the Edge
http://www.marginalia.online/the-future-of-work-is-scalable-learning/

Personal Knowledge Mastery

Harold Jarche writes broadly on learning, and PKM is the technique he has developed. I have found some value in this, but others speak very highly of it.
https://jarche.com/pkm/

Anders Pink: How to curate content for learning

Also look out for the e-book “Content curation for learning”
https://blog.anderspink.com/2016/11/how-to-curate-content-for-learning/

Louise Downe: 15 principles of good service design

Technically nothing to do with learning, but everything to do with making a service useful and usable.
https://blog.louisedowne.com/2018/06/14/15-principles-of-good-service-design/

Learning Technologies 2018

Retro televisions on the GoodPractice stand at Learning Technologies 2018

In 2015, I attended the Learning Technologies show at Olympia, London, to try to better understand what was happening in an area adjacent my world of intranets, and what could be learned to improve the already award-winning Barclays Global Curriculum project. What I found was less adjacent, and more parallel. It felt like I was in a strange parallel universe where intranets didn’t really exist.

In spite of this, I learned a lot and was pleased to make it back to the exhibition after a gap of three years. Learning Technologies has moved on in that time.

It is notably bigger, and there is clearly more money involved than before. There is a lot of focus on types of training, and the trendy areas are video, animation and VR, but I can’t say I noticed any mention of augmented reality. One provider I spoke to discussed putting training into a song (they’ve even used company choirs in the past), and an escape room in VR. Naturally, there are also businesses building blended training programmes.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there is a lot of potential demand for training tools and services via mobile devices, and a lot of businesses are trying to fill it. One challenge is how to manage corporate training on personal phones and tablets. For all of the exhibitors talking about mobile, I saw nothing to suggest that there is an easy solution.

I would suggest there were more Learning Management Systems, and they don’t appear to be focusing on the trends of three years ago, of social tools and gamification. A couple of people I spoke to were pleased to see the passing of the frenzy for badges with everything. I only noticed one company talking about another former buzzword, xAPI (aka Tin Can API), which appears to be successfully helping businesses track the success of training, for example, in retail stores.

In 2015, I only noticed a handful of mentions of SharePoint or Office 365. By 2018, there were even fewer. I find it uncanny that a vast number of knowledge workers make use of SharePoint, but training isn’t being delivered to them on that platform.

One I did find, was a company whose LMS tightly integrates with 365. This sent my mind racing around the potential and ease of setting up Teams for different learning cohorts, with associated file storage and such – this substantially raises the potential for team-based learning. It was also good to see the potential of SharePoint’s search and card-type previews actually in use. They’re also using a chatbot interface to speed access to courses – instead of hundred of courses with leadership somewhere in the description, they list the top 10 leadership courses. I’m told that younger employees are unlikely to search, but will query a bot.

This challenge of finding the right training materials is central to the success of any service. At least one supplier of ebooks and other resources has tried to simplify that with integrations can be completed in as little as 15 minutes. Shorter, to-the-point, training materials can contribute a lot too, but perhaps you lose out on the big names.

While I find it strange that the Learning Technologies exhibition has such a blind spot to intranets and SharePoint, I feel it is perfectly understandable. The primary customers are in HR or even in their own domain. There’s also a loose, but natural, affiliation between the the providers of training, and the systems that make it possible. To take things further into the realm of the digital workplace requires a lot more time, effort, and thought.

A few more reflections on learning

There is no doubt in my mind that training tools and materials should be available from the front page of an intranet and throughout it. A commitment to learning is also good for communications and culture, it seems obvious that showing pride in the training materials can contribute to better employee attitudes and overall morale.

However, even with the best materials and company leadership, an employee needs supportive management. For someone without a desk or a laptop, finding a quiet space and/or device may be a challenge in its own right. This may be too disruptive for management who only regard face-to-face training as “real training”. Conversely, managers may dislike the hassle of losing staff time to away-days with an uncertain gain.

Consider the explosion in businesses offering video for use online. I’ve come to the view that we will see a similar demand and, therefore, provision of digital training. It will be up to HR and digital workplace professionals to ensure these materials are managed and curated in ways that lead to a better experience. If you’ve worked in a large organisation, you’re likely to have seen it drowning in courses, videos, ebooks and more.

It doesn’t surprise me that training and other learning materials are poorly represented in the digital workplace: it’s not easy to do this well. That’s why it’s such an opportunity.