Robin is the Head of Learning Innovation for global sales, negotiations and communications training company, Huthwaite International. He has been involved in digital learning in some form or other for more than 30 years and continues to design award-winning learning experiences, using technology and digital learning where these tools add value.
When I speak to L&D folk about digital learning, the reaction goes through a predictable cycle.
Instantly people are pretty upbeat. They talk about plans in the pipeline, things they have seen elsewhere, new breakthroughs they’ve seen showcased at a conference or exhibition. I prompt them gently away from future thinking and the enthusiasm seems to wane a little.
A few will tell you all about the fantastic app they launched last year or the new learning platform that delivers 70:20:10 or their new mobile bite-sized learning.
As the conversation progresses, the shine recedes further. The bright eyes fade a little, the smile becomes a little more fixed, the voice becomes a little quieter.
Eventually, the stories turn from high expectations of a bright new future to the crushing disappointments of an underwhelming past. Hopes and aspirations become marooned on the storm-lashed outcrop of experience.
Why does this happen? Why do so many L&D people feel let down by their digital learning tools? (And for that matter, why does the discussion about digital always default to tools and technology?)
I think there are four factors, and by understanding each of them you can avoid digital disappointment.
Factor 1: digital doesn’t do it for you (and doesn’t do it all)
I frequently see organisations assume that, having created a whizzy digital learning programme, platform or experience, the job is done. As they prepare to send their evening wear to the dry cleaners in advance of the inevitable awards dinner invites, they may have missed the most important element.
Why should anyone use this?
It is a fact that, for many target users of digital learning, there is an expectation that they will make time in their busy schedule to complete a module, curate some content or engage with the content curated/created by their peers.
Assuming they can find time during the working day, it will be a few minutes here or half an hour there. For many it will be a weary opening of the laptop after the kids are in bed.
Not only is that a pretty big ask, but for many their daily work involves staring at a screen. Now we’ve given them another task to do which – guess what? – involves staring at a screen.
Most digital learning is just another way of sharing content. Whether that is the well-researched, carefully structured contribution of the world’s leading expert or the opinions and views of someone who works in the next cubicle, it’s still content.
If design, utility and desirability don’t match up to the digital world our users inhabit the rest of the time, then it will be seen negatively.
Unless your digital learning is exclusively focused on software training, the chances are your system will require your people to do something different beyond the digital learning environment you have created. You know, in the real world with real colleagues, customers and partners.
So even if they have found the time to engage with your carefully created digital learning platform, it’s still only part of the task. In my experience, it’s not even the lion’s share.
If we’re trying to improve performance (and we should be) then that will involve new skills, new processes, new behaviours and these will only be honed and developed by trying them out. First in a safe space where people can be encouraged to experiment, try new things and fail safely and then in the workplace where failure may have consequences. To make that move to their day-to-day work, people will require support.
While some of that may be mediated via your all singing all dancing digital platform, real people, offering real feedback in the aftermath of real experiences will be required (even if they’re on the other side of a digital interface).
Factor 2: digital is a mindset not a technology or a platform
If digital materials and platforms are a driver for activity in the real world we need to think about the mindset of those who will benefit. I would argue, we need to think about that mindset rather more than we need to think whether it is platform X or authoring tool Y.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some hygiene factors here. Clearly, a clunky environment in which users don’t know what they should do or where they can find what they need won’t be widely used – or at least not for long.
But I have seen even the most rudimentary digital space being very well used. It seems that concerns over user experience can be set aside if there is a value to continued engagement.
However, if the platform has an award-winning UX design, it still won’t get much traction unless people recognise that a significant component of their continued skills development requires effort from them. This seems like common sense, but in some organisations the training gnomes are entirely responsible for capability improvement.
Engaging with any kind of digital resource or digital platform requires individuals with an internal drive to want to find out new things, learn new stuff and update their own skills. Preferably this sentiment represents a universal set of values. Without that culture, your digital learning strategy is pretty moribund.
Factor 3: digital is ubiquitous (and most of it is pretty smart)
In marketing and product development terms we serve what can be described as an informed consumer base. Apps, digital content, social media tools and the whole of the internet now reside in most people’s pocket.
It’s a tough act to follow. If design, utility and desirability don’t match up to the digital world our users inhabit the rest of the time, then it will be seen negatively.
This means that a clear purpose, easy accessibility and simple functionality are not nice to haves or the source of high status. Those are entry-level requirements. Good is tougher still and the threshold of what good is, keeps on getting higher.
Give people a route to sharing their ideas and describing their experience. Engage people in both asking questions and answering those of their peers.
For example, recent explosions in the use of video on consumer platforms leads our users to expect similarly visual content. Essentially, whatever digital learning strategy you create, expect to have to renew and reinvent the approach on a regular basis – with constant improvements interspersed with occasional big ticket innovations justifying a relaunch and marketing campaign to re-engage with your target audiences. (You did have a marketing campaign at the start didn’t you? And I mean campaign, not just a single launch announcement.)
As well as setting a pretty high benchmark, other concerns about the digital world will also leak into your digital learning.
If some of your people are seeking a digital detox or concerned about privacy, trolling or the data surveillance economy, their negativity about all things digital will inevitably leak into their attitudes to the learning you provide. No digital platform is an island.
Factor 4: digital isn’t just for content
I still see adverts for digital platforms and providers and case studies of digital innovations that perceive digital as a one-way street. Since the earliest days of the web (1994) people have been creating what we now refer to as blogs. Since 1998, internet users have been able to comment and share opinions, resources and ideas.
The idea that over 20 years later, digital learning strategies are modelled on a lending library rather than a debating chamber, seems odd to say the least.
Give people a route to sharing their ideas and describing their experience. Engage people in both asking questions and answering those of their peers. Offer people a place to share insights and you will have more insights.
Of course, those who are concerned about the accuracy of the web and the presence of fake news or alternative facts have a point. If you are going to open things up (and you should) be prepared to have your fact checkers in place.
The same people who spread fake news on Facebook (see here for more) may well be the same people who work for you and access your digital learning platform. You may think that truth will rise to the surface because of self-policing or the wisdom of crowds. If recent fake news stories have told us anything, it is that the bigger the crowd, the dumber it is.
From the stories I hear, I’d say that digital learning has suffered a fate common to many areas of innovation – it has over-promised and under-delivered. I don’t blame the innovators. They are often realistic about current limitations and the future development roadmap.
The real hype-meisters are the early adopters. Desperate not to be seen as gullible or imprudent, they brandish their adoption of new platforms as evidence of their innate hip-ness. Zeitgeist? Pah, we meet the zeitgeist on the way back.
If a man with a zealous gleam in his eye and a penchant for trendy facial hair and unconventional working attire recommends a digital platform, a large pinch of salt may be advisable.
So, my final recommendation for avoiding digital disappointment? Under promise and over deliver.
Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good recommendation, full stop.