Friday, June 21, 2013

Innovation in learning and talent: is there any really happening out there?

At our recent Symposium event, one of the sessions focused on innovation in learning and talent and it was a discussion that yielded some interesting results. One of the first things that became apparent was the differing levels of knowledge regarding innovations in the learning technology space. Some attendees had very limited awareness of innovations, even those that have had a fair amount of publicity, such as Open Badges or the TinCan API, while others were actively assessing the opportunities offered and identifying pilot opportunities. It clearly illustrated that there is quite a difference in how much L&D professionals are focussing on the latest trends and how much they matter to them (or they have the time to dedicate to this beyond managing the demands of their immediate day job).

One of the earliest and most valid points made during the session is that innovation is really all about context. What feels groundbreaking for one organisation is not innovative at all by another’s standards! What seems mundane in one organisation is groundbreaking in another. Many learning technology teams are hampered in their quest for innovation either by the broader organisational culture, resistance in the wider L&D community or by a lack of budget to pilot opportunities. It’s a fact that some organisations struggle to embrace change as readily as others, so something that really starts to “push the boundaries” can feel risky, both to the senior management, as well as the learners themselves. Also with the rate of change in business today there could be something said for allowing an innovation to be truly embedded before investing time and effort elsewhere. Hans de Zwart from Shell has created an interesting “Innovation Manifesto” to help an area of the business be more innovative.

Beam me up...

When asked about their innovations, one attendee working for an engineering company described a room with a Star Trek-esque holo deck built especially for training simulations and experiential learning. Clearly this was a significant investment by the company (and needless to say most people were impressed!) but there were other innovations, that although more modest, had greater appeal across all sectors and industries.

One such example was an internal feedback app that’s been developed for use in the classroom. It’s designed to be used on mobile devices during live training sessions so that learners can give their feedback in real time on what’s working and what’s not. Trainers can then adapt their content and the direction of the session as they go to maximize the value of the sessions. This was very popular amongst attendees and appealed due to its simplicity and relative ease of implementation.

Another straightforward ‘innovation’ included transitioning from paper based training materials to using mobile devices. A simple calculation comparing the the savings on printed training materials versus thecost of purchasing iPads was all that was needed in one organisation. The saving was worked out to be more than enough and the tablets are now being used to support classroom training with great feedback from learners.

It’s not just about the technology

An excellent point was made about half way through the session that innovation doesn’t have to be about technology. One organisation is completely changing its L&D processes to a more blended approach and the innovation here is much more about strategy and behaviour change than the use of any new learning technologies.

Overall it was felt that innovations in our everyday life – both technological and behavioural – mean that L&D has no choice but to at least try to innovate in order to try and keep up with the broader changes as a whole. The availability of free content for example means that L&D has the new role of curator as well as creator of information and resources. Whilst we might use curation tools to help us to do this, the skill set is actually more around filtering and prioritising which information to share and which to pass by, rather than being about the technologies themselves.

What was concerning was that very few of those attended had a structured process for managing innovation and moving solutions from a research phase through to pilot and then to deployment. This is something we have advised some organisations on and have a structured 5 stage process for managing innovation, moving from “Ones to Watch” through to “Business as Usual”. There are clear business rules regarding how innovations move from each stage and suggested actions for those in each category. This helps organisations prioritise their efforts and clearly articulate why some innovations are worth investigating earlier than others.

Don’t believe the hype

For many of the participants, despite much of the hype around learning and talent innovations such as Avatars, MOOCs, Open Badges, TinCan and even mobile learning, there was little evidence on display that these are a priority. However, the concepts behind these innovations – collaboration, learner rewards and recognition, greater access and flexibility – are of interest. But the organisations represented in this session were not overly concerned about keeping up with the Jones’s or being an early adopter of the newest solutiuons. Whilst some saw the benefits of being first, many also identified the inherent risks involved too.

Instead, the focus is very much on ‘Can this innovation truly help L&D deliver better value to its customers’? Where technology, change and innovation can demonstrate its worth (and L&D can clearly articulate this) then it will happen (budget allowing) but innovation for innovations’ sake, I‘m glad to say, seems not to be a fad that we’ll be writing about any time soon.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Cross-border Learning and Talent in Europe

Whether it’s a talent strategy, management process or a solution, what does cross-European or global deployment really mean?

Does it mean responding to the diversity of peoples and cultures in different countries and businesses or the imposition on of a single overarching and mandated approach for all?  Does it mean single, homogenous processes or the provision of frameworks that allow local organisations to flourish?  And what is the fine line that separates them?  And makes them efficient and effective?

The sad fact for many strategic Learning and Talent initiatives is that they are focused on homogenised, mono cultures and standardised approaches rather than the realities and needs or different geographies and market maturities.  The common response to diversity is not differentiation – but to drive conformity.  The problem is that this conformity may not just be inappropriate, it may be illegal - for example if it breaks German Workers Council rules or French regulatory reporting requirements. 

Also, do you really need mature bureaucratic processes,  when part of the company you are servicing is effectively a “start-up”?  Whilst they might be right for a mature business, they could just be the thing that stifles growth for an embryonic new part of your business. This is one of the biggest challenges for the delivery of cross-organisational talent strategies.

How do you enable businesses in a way that is focussed on their operating realities, but get the efficiencies of a standardised approach?  How do you impose symmetry and consistency onto an inconsistent and asymmetrical world?  Even though HR often tries, is it even possible? 

A good example, of this is the instigation of a global, HR shared services operations as part of the Ulrich Model.  Many global HR operations use this model as their foundation and the creation of central, single processing model for HR transactions – serviced within a global HR shared services group. 

Whilst this may be all well and good for controlling the costs associated with managing HR, and be the dominant received wisdom for how HR operates; blindly following this approach, especially on a cross-European or global basis can drive some very dubious decisions.  Top of the tree for this is Performance Management.  HR frequently instigates annual appraisal processes that feed bonus payments and compensation and rewards.  A standardised approach, with one size fits all.  But the nature of those processes is often frequently at odds with the speed of business – you only have to look at sales targets and structures needed to support dynamic and fast moving sales cycles. 

So why wouldn’t you look to create differentiated approaches for other groups too? The answer has been partly because the service model and supporting systems are unable to support the necessary diversity of process and approach. 

In recent years things have changed significantly.  Solutions have become much more configurable and more flexible – without needing high costs of external consultants to set things up for you.  But the legacy view of ERP-style HR systems runs deep reinforcing the desire from some (often IT) for mono-answers to Talent and Learning questions, deployed globally. Whilst these stagnant approaches are deeply entrenched in the corporate psyche, we will continue to need to ask:

  • Why do pan-European projects fail to engage local audiences effectively?
  • Why do so few global companies really build effective cross-geography learning and talent deployment strategies that can deal with multiple languages, legal and cultural differences?
  • How can local business driven and the centralised learning and talent needs really be accommodated by philosophies and systems that champion cost efficiency at the cost of effectiveness.
  • Where the answers to these questions remain unsatisfactorily, the proliferation of local or departmental solutions rather than true cross-organisational solutions will continue to be a huge issue.

David Wilson, Elearnity’s founder and Managing Director, will be discussing Elearnity’s research on the realities and strategies for cross-European Talent and Learning at a webinar with NetDimensions on June 26th at 2pm BST. Click here for registration.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Metrics That Matter – Reflections from our Elearnity Roundtable Event

What metrics matter when measuring learning & talent?

At our Symposium roundtable last month one of the hot topics for discussion and debate was "What Metrics Matter when measuring Learning and Talent Development (L&TD) and how does that differ from what L&D, in particular, typically measure.  I had the pleasure of facilitating the discussion and taking the notes.   

Below is a sense of how the conversation evolved.  Naturally, the names and company references have been removed to protect the innocent and guilty...

So, What Metrics Matter?


Whilst L&D typically, and some might say predictably, measure themselves through training quality questionnaires, volumetrics of delivery and measure competencies,  to assess the capability of their organisation.  What was interesting was this measurement became more opaque as we moved closer to exploring the tangible business results that L&TD efforts actually deliver.

There was an interesting pooling of consensus between those who would argue that L&TD can never deliver definitive outcomes and those who would say that if you don’t have a measurable business impact – then your whole operation is totally questionable.

The view was, that ultimately all of the, navel gazing about quality of learning experience is an necessary evil – it is an important part of the L&TD professionals arsenal to validate the quality of that they do.  So, whilst it would be easy to belittle their importance they are essential.

The issue is do they  REALLY matter?


The thoughts were that, Yes they do – but they aren’t the priority.  Any customer should be instrumental in shaping their services through feedback.   But, is it what the business wants?  On one level it is.  But there was a BIG BUT!  Whilst, providing quality and volume is part of issue, the really BIG elephant in the room is -  Does what you do make a difference to the performance of your business?

If it didn’t, clearly you are on rocky ground, pure and simple, because if you aren’t making a real impact with your resources, then your competitors inevitably will.  And, the really big risk is that by failing to focus on the outcomes, and focussing too much on the inputs, you eventually get "out-competed" in your market place.   So, whilst there is serendipity to learning that means people make connections and can make massive leaps – this should not be at the cost of not investing in planned and impactful L&TD interventions.  We can’t trust in chance.  Yes, we need the freedom to encourage a learning culture, and elements of open development, but we also need to deliver targeted, measurable and tangible business results.

So again...  what metrics matter?


Interestingly, in order to target efforts effectively and efficiently, L&TD need to start to harness BIG and little data – you need benchmarks of “real” business performance, “real analysis” of what creates business success.  Not to create a cookie cutter of employees, but to provide them with the additional knowledge, tools and techniques that will help them succeed, and to quickly skill your teams to take advantage of new opportunities.

The issue for L&TD is, they seldom have the skills or access to the real business performance data (as opposed to HR performance data), to help dig into the big issues and provide truly effective performance development consulting.

And this means we will continue to struggle to effectively target our resources and investment in what will really transform our businesses.  Having and using this information is a massive opportunity to really propel our organisations.  But, whilst we rely on our hearts and gut intuition about what we should be doing, and until we have real data and strong analysis to support our decisions – it was really only ever guess work – and guess work is rarely the basis of a successful business.

And with something as potentially transformational as Learning – what are we missing out on if we were only guessing, and at best, following the crowd?

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Blended Learning : Piece by Piece

At our recent Symposium one of the roundtable sessions I facilitated was on blended learning and what does this look like in corporate organisations in 2013. I was interested to see if the changes in learning and technology over the last couple of years had filtered down to the solutions that organisations are developing.

The term blended learning has always struck me as strange. Apart from making me think of cocktails, the image that springs to mind is one of producing consistency and uniformity with individual elements almost losing their identity to create the finished product. The best blended solutions, in my mind, are more like jigsaws with every element being carefully designed to fit snugly next its surrounding pieces and the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

What became clear very early on in the roundtable was that it is still difficult to create a good blended solution. It takes skill and time and often both of these are in short supply. Interestingly, one of the major obstacles was still felt to be the skills in the wider learning and development teams and their reluctance to incorporate online learning (in all its formats) into the blend. Some of this was due to lack of skills / understanding and some was felt to be due to an element of self interest and the need to preserve a reliance on classroom based solutions. Some companies have recognised the lack of internal expertise and outsourced the design process, although even in this case there still needs to be an element of involvement from the internal team. Others have tackled it head on and have introduced programmes to upskill team members.

As well as resistance from within the L&D community there can also be reluctance from learners themselves and often those present experienced extremes; where people in the same job roles and section of the organisation would go from whole-heartedly embracing the blend to rejecting it. It just shows that however carefully you develop the blend, you are unlikely to please everyone! What is particularly frustrating are learners who embrace technology with open arms in their private life but reject it in a corporate setting. Clearly for some people there are very different drivers in a social context versus a work one.

In terms of the benefits of blending there were two clear camps during the debate. One side saw the reason behind blending being about improving choice and putting the learner in charge. By giving people a choice they can select the elements of the blend that work best for them and fit with their needs and context. Blending is a means to making learning more accessible, flexible and aligned to the needs of the learner. This choice relates to the depth of learning required, as well as the choice of method. The other viewpoint was that blending is meeting the needs of the learner and it is less about offering choice but more about meeting the needs of the business, with blended solutions allowing people to improve their perform quicker and more efficiently. As one attendee said “Often there is no choice to blend. With time to competence shortening dramatcically there is the need deliver learning in the most effective and efficient manner. This often necessitates a blend with a mix of face to face and online methods”. Disappointingly there was little evidence of organisations measuring the success of the blend or identifying the value of differing components.

Is there a perfect blend?

There was general acceptance across the group, in line with current thinking, that organisations should adopt a more resource driven approach rather than structured courses. This is especially true for online solutions where more and more is being delivered as short nuggets in audio, video or text format. The role of learning and development professionals is becoming more focused on the curation of resources, rather than their creation. Although interestingly the group did not raise the challenges this presents within the community to have the skillset to do this effectively. How do you choose what are the best resources? How do you align these in a meaningful manner to help create effective learning pathways?

What was perhaps surprising for a group of professionals who are used to evangelising the use of technology was the need to recognise the importance of face to face contact in the blend. This though did not have to be classroom based and many participants discussed the importance that coaching and mentoring has in blended solutions. The role of technology is an enabler. What is really vital is to embed the behaviours to make blended learning successful. Learners must feel comfortable learning independently and the learning team has an important role in supporting them.

So what were the main things I would take away from the discussion?
• Blending is something that is well established in major organisations but many still find it difficult and the perfect blend probably doesn’t exist so don’t waste time trying to find it.

• Successful blended learning is an art not a science – context is important to understand whether your solution will be successful. Think carefully about the culture and the skills of the learners to engage with your blend. Don’t rush the process and think carefully about why you are including components and what /whose needs they are meeting.

• Successful solutions are about every component adding value. Focus on the outputs and remember to meet the business drivers for the blend – don’t blend for the sake of it!

Clearly there is now much more than ever, the opportunity to include technology elements in the blend and organisations are starting to grasp the opportunities that this offers. I’m certain as emerging approaches such as mobile learning becomes more embedded in organisations this will become a standard part of the mix. These opportunities though come with their own challenges and learning teams have to think through more clearly their role in creating successful blends and how they measure the value that these deliver, especially as more and more will involve informal learning methods.