L&D and Google: searching for success?

Google on tablet
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Robin Hoyle
Senior Consultant
Learnworks Ltd
Columnist
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Robin Hoyle is a writer, trainer and consultant. He is the author of Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement and Informal Learning in Organizations; how to create a continuous learning culture both published by Kogan Page.

For 13 years, Towards Maturity has been comparing the performance of those they describe as ‘Top Deck’ learning organisations with other employers who may have been somewhat slower in embracing L&D good practice.

They have gathered an impressive data set and have identified a number of trends, tactics and strategies which organisations could and should consider if they wish to bring their L&D practices in line with the very best.

Certainly, Toward Maturity’s excellent 2016 benchmark report ‘Unlocking Potential’ gives many of us in L&D food for thought.

It challenges some of the assumptions we may have had about what learners want and need and how we can best provide them with support to build their capability at work.

Alongside the benchmark report, Towards Maturity publish other studies, including their Learner Voice report.  This reflects on what learners say about how they learn and how they want to learn at work.  For me there are two interesting findings from this year’s Learner Voice.

The first is that ‘millennials’ is an over-used and abused term in L&D. 

It turns out that those under 30 (the usual definition of the so-called millennial generation) are not that different from the rest of us. 

Who knew?

I’ve written about the kind of ageist nonsense which is undermined by this research before. It is terrific to see others joining me in my teeth-gnashing frustration with pat generalisations.

The second thing which stood out for me was the number of learners who classify the use of search engines and web resources as an important workplace experience which aids their ability to perform. 

This makes sense – when we have so much information available at the click of a mouse it would be foolish not to use it.

Across all age groups more than 63% of learners rely on Google when they need to find something out and for 31-40 year olds, that number rises to more that three out of four.

Do you have an easy way for your people quickly to find the knowledge which your organisation prizes and values?

There is one issue here, of course, which is that Google confers no competitive advantage – it is available to everyone.

The company which relies on Google providing the answers its people need is going to struggle to do things significantly differently from their competitors.

But there is another, more concerning issue with relying on Google.

In my most recent TrainingZone column, I wrote about the issues faced by L&D in a post-truth world.

Concerns about differentiating facts from fantasy, the legitimate from the lies, has been made even more acute by a recent project undertaken by Stanford University.

In the project, conducted over 18 months, researchers found that school and college students were unable to distinguish fake news from those stories which came from reliable and authoritative sources.  Many didn’t know the difference between sponsored content and news.

What is perhaps worse is that researchers found that “high production values, links to reputable news organizations and polished “About” pages had the ability to sway students into believing without very much scepticism the contents of the site.”

In other words, if the pages were well designed what they contain must be true.

Again, I have written about this before.  My first ever contribution to TrainingZone – seven years ago – was called Can We Trust The Web?

This blog argued that lack of editorial controls, referencing or citations and the ability of everyone with a web connection to post content means that we are prey to the slickly produced, seeming authority of smart graphics. We are easily duped.

We are also lazy.

A little while ago I participated in a MOOC organised by the exceptional team at HT2 whose Curatr platform hosted a fascinating learning opportunity for those wanting to see how the platform worked and the potential it held.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that we will stop employees from using search engines to find quick answers.

One discussion thread was sparked by the inclusion of an academic paper – curated by the team behind the MOOC and designed to stimulate thought, discussion and potential action by those involved.

There weren’t that many comments on the piece but one stuck with me.  This was from an experienced L&D professional who said: “Just looking at the article Is enough. I don’t even want to attempt to try and read it. Boring layout, small print, long title. A chunk of red text. Where is the dustbin option?”

This was a paper published by Harvard University.  It seems it isn’t simply teenagers who favour style over substance.

There are numerous other Google issues. If you’re feeling brave click here to see how Google algorithms have started recommending some pretty unpleasant websites and their auto-complete function seems to have been hijacked by the holocaust deniers and those who occupy the gruesome depths of the far-right.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that we will stop employees from using search engines to find quick answers. I know we have all – me included – delegated memory to the ubiquitous ability of being able to look things up.

But as L&D teams we do need to take some action to protect our people and our organisations from misinformation found online.

We also need to protect our organisational uniqueness – focusing on the information which we would want our people to have because it is both born of our corporate experience and contributes to our differentiation.

What we know makes us who we are.

The first action I would propose is that we address the web-illiteracy found by the Stanford researchers. 

During any kind of learning intervention, can we build in a ‘don’t believe all you read’ session? Assemble a list of websites and online locations which have trusted content.  Ask people to contribute to that list.  Find a great source? Validate its veracity and then share it with colleagues, co-developing your trusted site-list with learners, specialists and colleagues.

My second action is to recognise that our corporate wisdom can also be categorised, indexed and made searchable.

Do you have an easy way for your people quickly to find the knowledge which your organisation prizes and values? Is it searchable, up to date and relevant?

As anyone knows who has wrestled with an inefficient intranet this is far from simple.

But the alternative is individuals searching potentially unreliable or downright untrue sources for information which diminishes your organisation’s uniqueness. 

Worth making the effort to get it right?

Thought so.

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By Susith
14th Dec 2016 12:23

First of all, thank you for writing this 'against the grain' article. Most L&D/HR forums are filled with what I call 'riding the wave' articles, so it's refreshing to see someone taking a challenging stance to the status quo.

In my opinion, the phrase should change to 'don’t believe anything you read' - because let's face it... no website, news article, book, parchment, wall painting, etc., has ever been perfect and completely true. All forms of messages (including your article and my own comment) includes a degree of biasness that twists the truth.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong in telling people 'what to read'. However I think we should NOT tell people 'what not to read'. Let them read anything and everything - encourage them to think critically; go find other sources if they don't have enough information; challenge the existing sources (like Robin has); and come to their own conclusions.

Yes we will all make mistakes through that way of finding the truth (or the closest possible version of it), but that is how the world's knowledge has always grown and evolved - by people making mistakes and correcting each other on the way - not by getting it right all the time.

Thanks (2)
04th Jan 2017 10:40

Thanks for your comments Susith and sorry for not responding sooner.
I think you have something there in terms of encouraging scepticism. I don't want to tell people what not to read but to recommend options which are, shall we say, more reliable.
However, point taken, 'truth' evolves.

Thanks (1)
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14th Jun 2017 07:22

thank you for writing this 'against the grain' article.it's refreshing to see someone taking a challenging stance to the status quo.

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