Reflecting on the Past to Handle the Future in Learning and Performance

Ed Francis
Managing Director, Digital Interactive, Root

Every new year brings hundreds of predictions and thoughts about future trends. Just five years ago, Josh Bersin predicted that the LMS market would be booming, yet last month Richard Nantel predicted the demise of the LMS. In this issue of the Watercooler, Dr. James Canton (page 1) presents a more nuanced picture based on the changing nature of the workforce and the “overwhelming innovation juggernaut of new technology.”

In the area of learning and performance programs, the proliferation of social media, gaming, and mobile devices has generated a great deal of excitement. With the Millennials entering the workforce, everyone wants to be on the cutting edge, but it is equally important to keep in mind the cornerstones of the past. Organizations feel a sense of urgency about quickly adopting cutting-edge tools and learning techniques, but there are inherent risks and increased expenses involved. Often, it is good to take a measured approach to addressing trends to determine which is fad and which will produce business results. Let’s take a deep breath, step back from the complexity, and look carefully at the trends involving the Millennials and how to address them.

Who are These People?

The issue is simpler if we make one safe assumption: Millennials will not overwhelm the current workforce in the next few years. Even though there are millions in the job market today, the Gen Xers and Baby Boomers still make the rules. With this in mind, the first measured action to take is to help transition the Millennials into the workplace. One of the biggest gaps we’ve observed with new hire training and orientation is the lack of some very basic competencies that are still essential – such as accountability, critical thinking, grooming, and even etiquette. An effective learning and performance program will address these areas.

When we think of Millennials, we think of texting, Facebook, Twitter, and mobile computing. While revolutionary, these are essentially enablers to learning and performance, much as the telephone, the punch card, the personal computer, the laptop – and yes, even the Commodore 64 – were innovative enablers of their respective eras. The question is, “How can we use these enablers to enhance known ways in which people learn?” The obvious answer is speed and access to information…which is little different from open-book tests. Less obvious answers include using multimedia story lines, or modern-day parables, to help increase retention, or replacing specific instructions with guiding values to allow learners to synthesize information rather than memorize. This doesn’t apply to all content areas, but organizations do tend to provide overly detailed content that can be painfully accessed via two-and-a-half-inch screens. The goal is honorable: mitigate the risk of failure. But the results can be harmful: lack of critical thinking skills. An effective learning and performance program doesn’t provide all the answers. It challenges people to think.

Design vs. Technology

A final point – gaming and game theory is closely associated with Millennials, but game theory has been around since the 1930s, with a focus on systems thinking, collaboration, and the end user. Adopting gaming doesn’t mean installing Nintendo Wiis in the workplace; it means using the concepts that make game theory effective.

Dave Ferrier, who leads Training and Development at Comcast, recently commented to Root about integrating video game design into the world of IT services. He said, “Why are so many applications designed to make sense to the guy who programmed them but not to the person who uses them? Good games allow you to pick them up, start playing, die without too much of a penalty, and then hit reset. But we spend three weeks training our agents how to use our billing system and they still make significant mistakes. I’ve seen M&Ps that are 46 steps long to perform a single activity. Even the most diabolical puzzle game wouldn’t inflict 46 steps on a player to solve it!”

Dave’s words bring to mind a very important lesson: When trying to quickly react to technology trends, even the most effective learning and performance program won’t help a poorly designed system or workflow.