Special Report: Learning Providers in the Know, in the Now

Taking advice from the Beatles, the various components of the learning and development community have been working to “come together.”

In August 2014, Skillsoft Corp. announced plans to purchase SumTotal Systems Inc. from Vista Equity Partners, one of many acquisitions in the training software provider’s history. The decision came after a 10-year partnership between the two vendors.

John Ambrose, Skillsoft’s senior vice president of strategy and corporate development, said the two companies have a shared view of the industry’s evolution. Training is becoming more pivotal as businesses recognize learning and development as imperative, not optional, to success.

As employee development continues to grow as a must-have function in the workplace, organizations are merging learning programs with daily routine, mobile access and on-demand content. Meanwhile, training initiatives in general are becoming more robust as a way to tackle the growing skills gap.

“There’s a learning crisis in the marketplace,” Ambrose said. “It needs a big, bold solution. That’s where we think the combination of the companies puts us in a position that gives us the scale, global footprint and focus to create an entirely new chapter for learning and talent development.”

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Hot List: Trainnig Providers
Listed Alphabetically; compiled by Laura Walsh

The crisis Ambrose speaks of relates to the U.S. LaborDepartment’s October 2014 report that although job openings climbed by 230,000 to 4.84 million in the past 12 months, hiring had fallen 294,000 to 4.64 million. Jackie Funk, SumTotal’s senior vice president of global marketing, said the growth gap points to a deficit in skilled employees — something that can only be fixed if businesses make learning a core function.

Organizations “might have employees who are capable right in their existing workforce or they might be looking to hire, but if they don’t have a system in place that helps them grow, they’re not going to be as successful,” Funk said. “Historically, people have seen learning as a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. We have to make sure the business leaders in the organizations understand that this isn’t an optional exercise anymore.” 

As development programs become more critical to business, learning providers are seeing a greater emphasis placed on integrating learning approaches into a single system instead of a collection of different teaching methods that work separately from each other.

Kieran King, Skillsoft’s global vice president of loyalty strategy, calls this new format “continuous learning,” explaining thatorganizations are moving from event-centric approaches in their learning to “an enterprise ecosystem in a 365-degree learning experience” that bonds in-person training and personal, on-demand delivery through mobile apps and e-learning.

Social, mobile, formal, informal and e-learning no longer exist in their own compartments but are mixed together to form a single resource employees can access at any time through any channel. The focus isn’t on the medium, but on accessibility and the learner’s experience.

Sam Herring, CEO of technology provider and consultancy firm Intrepid Learning, said the learner experience is the new top priority. “That’s the headline for me on everything, a real focus on the learner experience vs. broadcasting content from on high,” he said. “That’s been done for decades, but now we have the opportunity to engage learners.”

I Want It All and I Want It Now

Immediacy has crept into almost every facet of life, from finding information using a smartphone’s browser to possibly receiving Amazon.com orders via drone just hours after clicking “submit order.” Learning hasn’t been spared.

“We’re at a point of no return,” King said. “This notion of ‘I need it now’ has left an indelible imprint on what the learner brings to bear in terms of their expectations.”

To meet those anticipations, training providers focus more on adaptability rather than novelty in delivery methods, contributing to the integration of programs. The more teaching methods feed off each other, the easier it is to streamline content between them.

Those delivery channels are changing — technology continues improving and the “next big thing” title changes hands constantly. But one thing has remained the same: Consumers, meaning learners, want customization, and training providers have to keep up with it.

Ambrose gave the example of using smartwatches in the future to make sure employees can get compliance training fast and on demand. Imagine a factory worker going to drive a forklift without passing a compliance course; the employee’s smartwatch connects to a management system and denies access to that area of the factory until the wearer takes the 15-minute course. The compliance course is also offered via the wrist-worn technology.

But despite that “Jetsons”-like image of the future, not every training provider is going to prioritize building new learning tools, just as not every company is going to be interested or financially capable of implementing them. The learning industry faces the changes in what clients demand with a wide array of reactions.

“You will have some [organizations] who continue to produce the best buggy whip when there are no longer horse-drawn carriages,” said Tracy Cox, director of performance consulting at Raytheon Professional Services. “On the other hand, you’re going to have people who are already rolling out an automobile before there’s a huge demand for it because they know the demand is coming.”

Cox said there were dangers to blindly transitioning to the newest and shiniest delivery methods because they might not be the most efficient ways to meet learning objectives. After all, not every lesson can be taught on a mobile phone.

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'Train' Is A-rollin'
Source: Bersin by Deloitte's Corporate Learning Factbook, 2014

That said, integration is a very real and universal need in the industry and can also help provide a safer way to introduce new technologies or social-based programs because there are other options out there. It also makes delivery systems more adaptable to consumer needs, not just based on preference but also on logistics.

A single learning system unites disparateemployees in global and fragmented workforces under one learning umbrella, which makes programs faster, more efficient and cheaper.

Measuring the Methods

Even with a smaller price tag, however, organizations are going to want to know where their money is best put to use. In an integrated system, that means finding out what methods benefit and attract the most employees.

But even those analytics are changing.

“Ten years ago there was a fascination around what kind of media types or learning modalities do generations prefer,” Skillsoft’s King said. “That is incredibly passé right now. We have one massive ‘Now Generation’ that has expectations of ‘I want what I want when I want it in the format I want.’ Whether you’re 60 or 16, there’s no such thing as agenerational view toward learning delivery type.”

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Ins and outs of SPending on Learning
Source: Association for Talent Development's 2013 "State of the Industry Report
A survey of 425 organizations of diverse size and industry

Instead, analytics have to look at what methods best deliver what needs to be taught, rather than what’s getting the most use. King and Cox both said learning is now being run as a business with the same expectations for analytics, and that will only continue in 2015.

Intrepid’s Herring said the industry is just starting to use behavioral analytics, which study what paths people take when doing self-directed learning, who social leaders are in an organization and how they interact with others, how design impacts content assessments and what types of instruction get the best learner response.

For example, one of Intrepid’s e-learning programs includes what Herring calls a “glue tile,” a key in the beginning of a program that explains how the following components fit together. Behavior analytics show that 80 percent of those who read the tile completed the learning path all the way until the end, while only 10 percent of those who didn’t read it finished.

“We’re no longer just guessing about what people are doing,” Herring said. “We’re able to see in black and white what learning sets are more popular and how people amplify on them socially.”

This special report originally appeared in Talent Management's sister publication, Workforce.