This field continues to grow with innovative ways to school employees.
By Brent Skinner
During the founding days of Jethro Tull, Ian Anderson picked up the flute only after becoming frustrated with his inability to match Eric Clapton’s prowess at electric guitar. Put another way, the defining characteristic of one of classic rock’s most enduring acts came to be on account of the front man’s realization that an unconventional platform for his artistic expression was just better.
So how does this musical motif relate to employee training? As of late, an unconventional platform is on its way to prove superior versus traditional training methodologies. Users and providers of online learning are experiencing an after-the-fact epiphany that social media—though not necessarily intended for learning—may surpass conventional platforms as a technology to reach employees and actually get them to want to learn online. Yes, there remains plenty of room in the market space for the electric guitars of online learning platforms, which are increasingly SaaS-based. For certain applications, however, the preferable vehicle to deliver online learning has become social media.
The Concept of Learning Technology Must Change
“We need a massive revolution in the learning industry, both in the way people get content, and the way they are trained,” says Tom Graunke, co-founder and CEO of StormWind Studios. “We’ve been using the same format and process for the past fifteen years. So much has changed, and yet, learning hasn’t. Why can’t learning be much more like a movie, and less like a book?”
StormWind Studios is a creator and producer of high-definition live and recorded video, both for technical applications and for product training. The company advocates not only placing this kind of dynamic learning content on social media, but also moving away from older, clunky platforms ill-equipped to deliver exciting training content.
“Are the existing learning platforms out there effective?” Graunke asks. “Sure, you can track your users and their activity, but they have to log in, and it can be very boring for them. On the other hand, are there new platforms for learning, but they’re just not called learning platforms? Platforms like Facebook.”
Social Media: The Next Learning Platform
Social media isn’t called a learning platform, but it might as well be. Organizations should access what they already have that employees visit frequently—a Facebook page, a YouTube account, a LinkedIn Group—that could serve as a platform.
“Over the next three to five years, traditional learning platforms will need to radically change their approach, or they’re going to go away,” says Graunke. “The look and feel of their systems must change. They’re very static, text-based and unattractive, not user-friendly, very structured—very unlike social media, which users are now accustomed to. And they need to accommodate the kind of content that social media so easily does. For instance, a new training video posted on a site like YouTube is easily tweeted on Twitter and shared on Facebook. But within the framework of legacy learning platforms, as they exist currently, these things aren’t possible.”
The Learning Platforms Popularity Contest
Sixty-one percent of organizations use video-based content as a learning technology, a choice whose popularity has increased more than twofold since 2008. This finding is according to Towards Maturity’s 2011 benchmark study Accelerating Performance. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of the 643 organizations that Towards Maturity surveyed use virtual classrooms, virtual meetings, and the like. Learning portals are used by 47 percent and learning management systems (LMS) by 71 percent.
Last year, Aberdeen Group took a similar dip into determining the types of learning tools used most, taking particular interest in organization it had determined were best at utilizing learning technologies. For instance, just 50 percent of the best-performing organizations that Aberdeen surveyed use an LMS and just 39 percent use virtual classroom technology. Best-performing organizations (63 percent) are actually more likely to use online learning portals, according to Aberdeen’s report, Online Learning: Unleashing Collaboration, Unlocking Results.
Social Learning Platforms Deliver Results
What neither finding appears to directly admit is that social media is a technology platform for learning. But Aberdeen does reveal this: Organizations that use learning-related social networking (i.e. social learning) report meeting more organizational goals (80 percent vs. 77 percent), improved employee engagement (67 percent vs. 63 percent) and performance (49 percent vs. 41 percent), and better bench strength (54 percent vs. 43 percent).
Are these huge differences? No, but they’re discernible, and Aberdeen’s findings aren’t alone. Based on the same data used in Accelerating Performance, Towards Maturity’s Boosting Business Agility report reveals that organizations benefiting from learning technologies are far more likely to use social media as a learning platform. Forty-six percent see an increase in employee engagement. As well, the learning itself benefits, with 46 percent seeing an improvement in communication between learners and 62 percent seeing improvements in communication between the learners and the tutors.
Despite the clear benefits, organizations surveyed for Towards Maturity’s report hesitate in moving their learning to social media platforms. For instance, 71 percent say that barriers attributable to IT infrastructure and security slow the move to mobile technologies, often part and parcel of social media, and 65 percent cite these concerns as directly restricting their organizations’ ability to use social media for learning.
Learning on the Inside
An alternative is to create a self-contained, robust social media networking structure within the organization itself. Such are the capabilities of internal mobility systems, which are internal platforms or software that emulate the look and feel of well-known social media outlets. Career Mobilizer, an employee-centric, SaaS-based social application developed by the California start-up UpMo, provides this kind of environment. UpMo’s internal mobility system is the industry’s first employee-centric one. Available in Q1 of 2012 is another early entrant in this field, SilkRoad Point, a knowledge-sharing platform that synthesizes technology for social networking, collaboration, and talent management. Point affords employees a social networking platform from which they may learn, acquiring insight and knowledge to increase productivity and performance. Point is designed to work with GreenLight, affording users an additional layer of learning through social interactions, collaboration, and sharing of expertise.
“The main reason clients use an LMS is to manage their compliance-driven training,” says Chris Lennon, director of performance and learning solutions at SilkRoad.
Organizations don’t have to go all-in with social media. Often, they just don’t have the luxury. They need to comply with government regulations, and the control of an LMS helps them to manage that.
But take SilkRoad’s GreenLight, which has recently been ranked in the Champion quadrant in the latest learning management solution vendor landscape report from Info-Tech Research Group. “GreenLight is really good at helping companies manage their compliance,” says Lennon. It also provides several methods for the delivery of learning content, and these include customized video training, standalone courses and instructor-led classroom lesson plans, which together create an engaging, blended learning experience.
Best-performing companies tend to incorporate a blend in the platforms and content they employ for learning, according to Aberdeen. “SaaS models, I think, have really taken a firm foothold in the market,” says Richard Klingshirn, managing director for learning services at Affiliated Computer Services Inc. (ACS), a Xerox Company. “Clients are really singing the praises of working with a SaaS platform, and letting someone else worry about the minutia related to keeping it functioning. They prefer to pay the subscription over paying the license for premise-based solutions. They’re also starting to realize that, while every organization is different, the learning management function is not so mission-critical that it needs to be totally customized to meet any one organization’s needs. The first- and second-generation solutions were premise-based and companies did customize them. They were wonderful, but became a burden. Getting into functionality, it’s finally become all about the user experience.”
It is worth noting that top quartile performing organizations, according to Towards Maturity, are more likely than others to incorporate learning portals (75 percent), SaaS (37 percent), and cloud-based content (34 percent) in the mix.
The internal development of learning platforms that fit within larger talent management suites continues, as does the acquisition of smaller, best-of-breed providers by large HR technology companies seeking to round out their all-in-one solutions. At press time, SAP acquired SuccessFactors (see page 8). Meanwhile, recent moves by other large players, such as ADP and Taleo, further this ethos.
Forty-two years on, Jethro Tull still performs. Anderson’s unconventional instrument for the delivery of rock music persists in its appeal. But Clapton still performs, too, and the electric guitar continues to be the go-to instrument. Over the next several years, a similar scenario may unfold for learning platform technologies, with social media facilitating learning in new ways. But conventional approaches nevertheless persist and evolve in ways that remain helpful to their users.