The future of learning is digital—but are organisations ready to make the transition?
By Marta Chmielowicz
“The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organisation’s ability to learn faster than the competition.”
This idea was first introduced in 1990 by renowned author and organisational strategist Peter Senge, but remains as relevant as ever. In an increasingly dynamic, complex, and interconnected world, learning quickly and efficiently is key.
“The fact that most companies do not consider learning activities core and essential is a strategic mistake, especially when new skills are emerging so fast, skills are becoming obsolete at a faster rate than ever, and reskilling will be one the main recurring challenges of nearly every industry,” says Claudio Erba, founder and CEO of Docebo.
To keep up with the pace of change in today’s workplace, organisations need to adopt new digital learning technologies like video, micro-learning, and gamification—but this can present a major challenge. Embracing a diverse learning ecosystem that integrates both digital and traditional training tactics requires wide-scale organisational transformation that most companies struggle to undertake.
What are the barriers to the adoption of digital tools? According to Elementrix’s Digital Learning in Asia study of HR professionals in Singapore and Malaysia, organisations are facing two key challenges.
1. Budgetary lamentations. Organisations in Asia are struggling to gain the support of key stakeholders for learning programme evolution—and investment in new technologies is suffering as a result. In fact, the research suggests that 49 per cent of respondents consider senior management buy-in to be a barrier to the implementation of digital learning, and 62 per cent of respondents agreed that budget limitations are a challenge.
Although online training has become relatively common, with 61 per cent of organisations in Malaysia and 58 per cent of organisations in Singapore leveraging e-learning solutions, organisations are struggling to expand their digital toolkits.
“Online training such as videos is the most common technique I have seen in Asia,” says Laura Hunt, director of learning products and strategy at SAP SuccessFactors. “Some companies are trying to move toward gamification and interactive online training but finding the funding and resources to create that type of training is a challenge.”
2. Technical difficulties. Another challenge facing organisations that want to adopt digital learning technologies is the lack of necessary IT, learning experience design, and marketing skills across their learning and development (L&D) teams. In fact, Elementrix’s study shows that 69 per cent of HR professionals in Malaysia and 62 per cent in Singapore feel that the competencies of their L&D teams are lacking.
In addition, Hunt says that infrastructure challenges across Asia further exasperate the issue. “Internet speed is a concern in most areas and there are large areas in Asia that don’t have any connection,” says Hunt, citing small outer islands in the Philippines and Indonesia, and mining sites in the outback of Australia as examples. “This is out of the companies’ control, but something they must find a workaround for as they move forward.”
The problem of poor implementation is reflected in low user engagement. According to the research, over 60 per cent of survey respondents said that their employees’ engagement with existing digital technologies was either “low” or “medium,” and only 14 per cent said engagement was “high” across the workforce.
Whilst 84 per cent of organisations feel that incorporating digital capabilities into their L&D strategies is critical to organisational success, many are unsure of where to begin. Learning experts recommend four best practices:
1. Evaluate needs and competencies. A critical step to implementing a digital learning solution is assessing the competencies of existing L&D staff and the needs of employees.
“The first and easy question is whether the staff is comfortable and ready to embrace a digital solution,” says Hunt, recalling a time she worked with a company that purchased a learning management system (LMS) but encountered team leaders who refused to give up their outdated spreadsheets. “Secondly, I would ask if they know their audience of trainees. What are the demographics of the people they need to train? What does the training consist of?”
Hunt gives two examples that call for different approaches: Training a group of long-term employees for compliance may require a blend of instructor-led, online training, and some on the job training. But training recent graduates for sales roles might consist of only online, interactive training.
2. Gain senior buy-in. Whilst most HR professionals know that adopting digital training tools is the next frontier in agile learning and development, convincing senior executives to invest the time, resources, and energy to transition to digital remains a challenge.
According to George Aveling, chief reimagineer at Elementrix, part of the problem is that the ROI of learning initiatives can be difficult to measure and track. He suggests a concept called “visionary leadership,” or the act of presenting a forward-thinking vision of the organisation. Rather than seeking backward-looking ROI-based justifications for investment in new solutions, he suggests that HR professionals make a case for learning by presenting a future version of the organisation that is modern, disruptive, and competitive.
In contrast, Hunt believes that the key to success is connecting learning results with strategic business metrics.
“In the past, learning professionals have done ‘counting reports,’” she explains. “They were counting how many hours their instructors worked or how many learners were trained. Counting doesn’t mean results. What about counting the number of safety courses delivered, and then checking other systems to see if safety incidents went down after your training? What about tying sales training to CRM data? Then you are tying learning to impact on the business. L&D professionals know the training they provide is necessary and impactful, and they just need to use the data to sell themselves to the business!”
3. Develop L&D skills. Once an organisation decides to adopt a digital learning solution, HR professionals need to ensure that their L&D teams have the skills and competencies needed for smooth implementation.
With today’s complex learning solutions, these skills can be diverse and far-reaching. “We need philosophers that are also coders and coders that are philosophers,” says Docebo’s Erba. “In other words, people who have hard skills but also the innate creative desire to evolve and push boundaries and consider the previously unconsidered. Passion for technologies and fearlessness to experiment are also core factors.”
First, L&D professionals need to become comfortable experimenting with and operating a variety of learning technologies. Hunt emphasises that every team member become formally trained in the use of LMS systems and other learning software. “It’s important that they are reviewing updates for their system on a quarterly basis and applying them when needed. The biggest mistake I see is when organisations implement an LMS and then don’t keep up with the technology. Treat the LMS as a member of your team that needs quarterly development reviews.”
According to Aveling, it is also important that learning professionals understand how to engage with their audience. Whilst employees have traditionally been required to participate in learning initiatives as a compliance issue, today’s workers have more choice and flexibility than ever before when it comes to where and when to learn. This means that L&D departments have to learn to anticipate the types of content their employees are seeking.
“In order to engage learners, L&D needs to understand learners to a depth that it has never had to have in the past. It needs to understand how the learner audience learns, what is useful to the audience, and how to keep the learner engaged with the learning. This mindset is accompanied by a range of research skills to get close to and understand learners,” he says.
Learning teams also need to develop the marketing skills to communicate the value of learning initiatives and entice employees to participate.
4. Introduce the solution gradually. Training L&D teams is certainly important for success, but Erba says that organisations should also take care to introduce their new learning technologies slowly in a “start lean and grow” approach. By adopting a flexible solution that can be configured in different ways, HR professionals can experiment with various training strategies whilst easing the implementation process.