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Right time, right place: the power of digital learning

Right time, right place: the power of digital learning
Published: May 8, 2019
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How to use learning technology to transform organisational learning

Learning technology is everywhere because digital tools are now everywhere, invading our working lives and obliging us to make decisions about platforms, apps, news readers, social media and more. Learning and development professionals have tough choices to make from a dizzying array of options.

One of the huge benefits of digital technology isn’t often discussed: the democratisation of learning. Learning used to be just for those high potentials or top talent that seemed worth investing in. Technology now offers the opportunity for anyone to learn, anywhere, at any time. Technology could help liberate the brilliance of all employees, not just the chosen few.

These opportunities are timely because the scale of the challenges facing all organisations is huge. Every client we speak to finds themselves in highly competitive/high change environments where they have to adapt quickly to dynamic market conditions. Many senior teams are having to place high risk bets on the future, aware that they could be wrong but also knowing that they have to act.

At the centre of all successful organisational life is the ability to learn. All change is learning. All unsuccessful organisational change has, at its root, an inability or unwillingness to learn. To grow is to learn. To adapt is to learn. To innovate is to learn.

Imagine what could happen to our organisations if we could use learning technology to democratise learning and help people and their organisations adapt, innovate and grow? The opportunity is there, but it seems we are collectively struggling to realise the potential. What do we need to do differently?

One size doesn’t fit all

One of the teasing aspects of new technology is the promise of the ‘one-stop shop’. This is the idea that there is a killer app out there just waiting to be found and that, once deployed, all organisational learning problems will be solved. Instead we need to think of an ecology or ecosystem of learning technologies that connect together to meet different learning needs. For example, the need for employees to be successfully inducted, to meet basic health and safety requirements or functional ‘how to’ training is amenable to basic knowledge transfer systems. Computers are great at this, storing vast catalogues of video material, PowerPoint decks and Word documents in knowledge bases easily accessed at the point of need.

Computers are also great at collecting data which is critical for compliance training and for running basic tests of understanding, gathering all sorts of user data and helping administer formal learning programmes.

These systems are not so useful for supporting the development of deeper technical or people-based expertise (including so-called soft skills or meta-skills). Here organisations need to be able to design deliberate learning journeys that combine a range of content and process to support social learning, the transfer of tacit or implicit knowledge and building experience as the foundation for expertise. We need a type of learning technology that can support this type of learning need.

From solo learning to collective learning

Most learning technology is designed for single individuals to consume content from a screen: solo learning. But this is only relevant if the learning need is a knowledge gap and the performance outcome depends on individual action alone. But the most pervasive and critical organisational performance issues cannot be addressed by the skills or expertise of an individual actor.

We hear a lot about personalised learning, about employees being able to access learning at the point of need and so on. All this language preferences the individual, positioning them as the fulcrum around which learning technology is built. But the high change/highly competitive pressures facing all organisations require collective responses from teams, from networks, from formal and informal groups and from collaborations and cooperation. Collective performance must mean collective learning.

Towards machine/human learning centaurs

The most successful chess players are ‘centaurs’. Centaurs combine human and machine expertise, working together to design winning strategies. Looking ahead, we are all going to be working alongside machines of different kinds, combining human and AI minds to solve problems and create new products and services. In the near term we need learning technologies that can support individuals, groups and networks to learn as they work together. Such learning technology supports employees to learn from each other, from deliberate practice and from experience alongside curated digital content. The screen could act as a learning coach; it could help connect learners who are not in the same location, it could propel learners into new experiences or structure new interactions, and it could help groups or individuals reflect on their practice and review progress.

Smart learning technology provides the learner with relevant and appropriate content at the appropriate point in a learning journey to maximise engagement and application. Learning technology could and should become something that works alongside us, helping us apply learning to improve performance and helping us and our organisations to adapt, to grow and to innovate.

Learning technologies should be part of the solution, not just another problem to add to the list. At Impact we are working to develop new learning technology that supports organisations to liberate the brilliance of everyone; tech that acts as a learning coach to individuals, groups, teams and networks. We have our first application, air, and are on a learning journey of our own to help clients rise to their challenges.

Grahame Broadbelt is Head of Global Communications, Research and Development at Impact