The ‘Lego-ization’ of Learning

By Sarah Fister Gale

Jan. 13, 2016

Analytics, machine learning, big data and the consumerization of content have transformed the way learning is delivered — and there is no going back.
While the information might be the same, the format it comes in is radically different, said Jennifer Stempel, a director at Deloitte Consulting. Think snackable chunks of learning that can be digested in three to five minutes, and massive content libraries that employees can access at will. “What people need to know hasn’t changed, but how they learn it has,” she said. “It’s about offering new platforms that enable employees to be in control of how they access learning.”
The increased focus on the need for training — it’s a top three priority for executives today according to Deloitte — coupled with the flurry of innovative new technologies and platforms to support learning have drawn a lot of attention and investment into the space. The global e-learning market was expected to reach $107 billion by 2015, up from about $32 billion in 2010; and the global market for learning management systems, or LMS, is expected to grow to more than $11 billion by 2020 from just over $4 billion in 2015.

Keep Your Workers Yearning to Continue Learning

By Richard Y. Hu
According to Bersin by Deloitte, U.S. corporations increased their spending on employee training by an average of 10 percent in 2014 (the fifth consecutive year of growth) as businesses responded to a growing skills gap in engineering, scientific and technical fields during the economic recovery. The largest portion of that money was spent on leadership development. But are companies doing it right by increasing their learning and development budgets? Here are some issues that human resources professionals should consider.
The understated importance of improving competitiveness: According to a 2010 study by the former Bersin & Associates titled “High-Impact Learning Culture: The Best 40 Practices for Creating an Empowered Enterprise,” companies that are better at skills and talent development have a competitive edge: They are 32 percent more likely to be first in a market, have 37 percent greater employee productivity, 34 percent greater response to customer needs, 26 percent greater ability to develop quality products, 58 percent more likely to have the skills necessary to meet future demands, and are 17 percent more likely to be a market share leader.
The (mis)perceived importance for retention and attraction of talent: On the other hand, learning and development opportunities can affect a company’s ability to attract and retain talent, though possibly not as much as HR professionals would believe. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Allied Van Lines, on average 23 percent of new employees will leave a company within a year. That survey also found that on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “very likely,” HR professionals believe that 58 percent of employees leave because of a lack of development opportunities.
Aligning the program’s goals with the company: Learning and development programs can service an unlimited array of skills and knowledge. As an HR professional, the first thing you should consider is how a training program would be aligned with your company’s overall business strategy and needs. For example, if your company is expanding internationally, how can your learning and development program allow your current workforce to succeed in new business environments abroad? On the other hand, if the company intends to hire new employees in other countries, how will you implement a learning and development program overseas that can help educate them in the culture of the company?
Setting metrics for the program: Other considerations include cost and being able to effectively evaluate the company’s return on investment. According to a 2010 McKinsey & Co. quarterly survey, only 8 percent of companies indicated they tracked the program’s returns on investments. However, no single set of metrics apply to every program so it must be tailored.
Choosing the right balance of programming: Finally, you should consider the appropriate balance of the types of activities in the program, which may use social and collaborative learning; widespread, but not overly reliant on electronic learning; and action learning); and limited trainer-led instruction.
Richard Y. Hu is an associate attorney at Taft, Stettinus & Hollister in Chicago. To comment, email
“It’s an exciting market right now, and there is a lot of disruption going on,” said Bill Pelster, a principal at Deloitte Consulting. The big vendors are rolling out a variety of new tools to make training easier to access and consume, and the market is crowded with new startups offering a host of innovative content forms, curation tools and platforms to support knowledge-sharing. “It will be an interesting year for M&A, and new products in this space.”
The Micro-learning Trend
While learning leaders haven’t given up on the classroom, more learning is done on the fly via computers, tablets and mobile apps. The way employees select and consume content has also changed. Even if the training they need is in a lengthy e-learning course, employees no longer feel obligated to follow it from start to finish, said Sue Rodeman, vice president of product marketing at Skillsoft. “There may be multiple five-minute videos in that 60-minute course, but they will only view the ones that are relevant right now,” she said. 
That means learning leaders — and the vendors who support them — are rethinking how to package learning content, how to make it more easily accessible and how to track its use. For years, one of the key performance measures for the training department has been the number of courses taken, but if employees don’t feel the need to complete courses, that metric doesn’t work. “With micro-learning, the completion concept is less important,” Rodeman said. “It’s more about measuring the impact to the business.”
The transition from full courses to tiny, training chunks has resulted in a number of new tools and content options from vendors, including short-form video options, access to massive open online courses, or MOOCs, gamification tools to drive engagement, cloud-based content storage to ease access, and social media platforms to foster knowledge-sharing and discussion across the organization. “Vendors are reinventing the platforms their customer use to deliver training,” Stempel said. 
They are also offering new tools to develop their own content pieces, and access to external content. Many of the bigger LMS companies and content providers are building out libraries of video-based material; the focus is on short stand-alone modules that can be repurposed in multiple courses. Jeff Carpenter, CEO of consultancy Caveo Learning likens these content chunks to Legos, which training departments can reconfigure to build a variety of courses. He notes that larger companies, like his client Dell Inc., have millions of pieces of content, so they have to start thinking about how to “design for reuse” if they want to stay nimble. “Otherwise, managing that volume of content will get unruly fast.”
Analytics Made Easy
Along with repurposing content, customers are also looking to vendors to help them streamline access to these bits and pieces of learning through better content curation tools. 
“There is so much content out there,” Rodeman said. And it’s not just the material in the training library. Employees are accessing external content, social media content, content produced by individual business units and informal bits of information shared between employees. “Companies need tools to better curate all of this information so the right content can get to the right people at the right time,” she said. 
“In today’s world, integration and aggregation of content is paramount,” said Nag Chandrashekar, vice president of learning and mobile product strategy at Saba Software Inc. “And it all has to interact seamlessly.”
There are a few small tech companies offering content curation tools, and vendors such as Skillsoft are building out their own offerings to make finding and accessing the right bit of content or knowledge easier. At the heart of this trend is analytics tools that enable companies to automate the content selection process for individual users, Rodeman said. Skillsoft is partnering with IBM to develop algorithms to assess learning needs and gaps and to make content recommendations. “We want to automate the process of figuring out what content is right for the learner,” Rodeman said. 
Vendors are also employing analytics to help customers predict future learning needs. Predictive analytics for learning has been a goal for training vendors and companies for the past several years, and it appears that these efforts are finally coming to fruition. In the past year, vendors have rolled out new dashboards, analytics tools and machine learning algorithms to predict needs. 
Saba for example, now offers TIM the Intelligent Mentor, a set of machine learning algorithms that respond to learner behavior and make recommendations on what content would be useful and help learning leaders track training usage. TIM “helps us see what people are using, and what actions to take,” said Saba customer Chris Salles, who is director of learning for Sally Beauty Holdings Inc. That has been especially valuable, as most of the company’s employees work in retail environments and might not have access to human resources managers to tell them what courses to take and when. 
Saba is now taking the analytics technology beyond the individual learner or organization, and incorporating benchmark data to give customers a broader perspective on how their learning efforts and results compare with their peers. For example, the data might show a company that it offers more instructor-led training than average, or its number of hours of training is higher or lower compared with industry standards, said Charles DeNault, senior director of product marketing at Saba. “Benchmarking will allow training managers to step outside their organizations, and help them see whether they are the exception or the rule. The benchmarking technology is still in the development phase, but Saba expects to have a few case studies out early this year.
Training When You Need It
With all of these technological advances, companies still need vendors to make these tools easy-to-use and accessible. Jesse Hartigan, national training manager for Dyson, the global vacuum cleaner company, said he initially chose Mindflash Technologies Inc. for his company’s LMS because “they had a free demo, and I was signed up and using it in 20 minutes.” He stayed with the provider because it continued to improve its offering adding tools that Dyson needed. The most important: a mobile app to support training in the field, which is vital for Dyson’s widely dispersed sales team. “Mobile is really important to us because one-third of our team is on the road all of the time.” He especially liked that employees could access things like PDFs and learning summaries on their mobile devices, which they can access right before a presentation or sales meeting. “It helps us reinforce consistency in our messaging,” he said.  
Source: Deloitte University Press "Global Human Capital Trends 2015"
Dyson isn’t alone. Mobile learning has been a popular trend in training for several years, and vendors have been steadily rolling out apps that enable trainees to access content anywhere and at anytime. LMS vendors, including Mindflash, Saba and Skillsoft all offer mobile for learning and learning management, and their customers are eager to adopt these features. Recent data from nonprofit benchmarking organization APQC show that half of all organizations expect to offer training via mobile devices by 2020. 
As companies adopt these technologies, also expect vendors to prove the value of their content and platforms to maintain their business. For Dyson, that’s all about “stickiness.” “If we are paying for content, it needs to add value,” Hartigan said. His team measures stickiness based on sales performance and watching trainees on the job. “That’s how we vet our training partners,” he said.
How to Choose
With all of these new technologies, it can be difficult for companies to know where to invest their training dollars. Sally Beauty’s Salles encourages companies to look for vendors that make the effort to understand the organization’s learning needs before they give a sales pitch. “It’s a relationship-based business,” he said. “Vendors should focus on your problems and how the product can solve them.”
Companies should also consider testing new technology with a few small pilot projects to see if it’s worth a broader investment, Deloitte’s Stempel added. “It’s a great way to test new technology, and to sell the concept internally to stakeholders if it works.”
And finally, don’t get so enamored with the technology and lose sight of what content the learner needs, said Elissa Tucker, research program manager at APQC. She notes that soft skills training and leadership development are the key challenges companies will face in the next five years, so they need to think about how the best training paradigms to help them close these gaps. “If you foster an environment of continuous learning where employees have tools to guide their own learning and development, you can begin to close these gaps.” 
Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago.

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