April is a transitional month for America’s favorite pastime. Spring training is behind us, and the regular season commences. Every year, Major League Baseball moves from simulation and practice to high-stakes performance. But how do they – and how can learners in your organization – move from learning and practicing to performing on the job?
Camped out in the temperate climates of Arizona and Florida, baseball players learn, practice, simulate and demonstrate their skills without the repercussions of the regular season. But with their training behind them, players take their positions on the fields of ballparks across the country and go to work. Will they remember what they learned during training? Will they be able to apply the tips and strategies that their coaches taught them? When a player finds himself in a hitting slump or up against a new pitcher, will he know how to deal with the situation? Will he hit a home run? Regardless of how prepared he may feel, no player will remember and apply absolutely everything learned and practiced during spring training.
This same challenge is faced by every organization’s employees. As the knowledge economy develops, workers are increasingly expected to retain more and more mission-critical knowledge. E-mail, intranets, portals, e-learning, classroom training, knowledge bases, brown-bag luncheons, kiosks, posters and newsletters are all communication vehicles that companies use to deliver information to their workforce. How does an employee sort through the massive quantities of information to learn and apply the knowledge that will improve performance? Unless companies begin recruiting only from among the ranks of Mensa members, they will need to find a different model for deploying knowledge.
What’s Wrong With Today’s Rules?
The technology exists today to develop a different model. But what are the problems with today’s model?
- Identifying Learning Needs: When the question, “What type of knowledge would most increase your performance?” is posed on employee surveys, the most common response from almost all employee categories is, “I don’t know.” Most workers don’t even understand how their individual performance is measured, much less understand what they need to do or learn to improve their performance.
- Accessing Knowledge and Learning: When a worker or manager identifies a knowledge or development need, the challenge in most organizations is knowing where to find what they need. Resources include the learning management system (LMS), the corporate intranet, the Internet, various knowledge bases, co-workers, subject-matter experts and more. The average adult has an attention span of 10 seconds to locate desired information when scanning a Web page. If they don’t find what they need, they leave – and never return.
- Tracking: The vast majority of both formal and informal learning that takes place within an organization is not tracked. The majority of recorded webcasts, training documents, quick reference guides, data sheets, sales tools and even rapid e-learning courses are consumed and never tracked by organizations. The result? Most organizations don’t know the percentage of workers in even the most critical roles who possess the knowledge to perform that role at optimal levels.
- Accountability and Verification: Once a learning need is identified and the appropriate content is determined, most organizations are unable to verify whether an employee has actually comprehended and retained the content. Again, the mission-critical knowledge transfer is left to chance even for the most important roles in the organization.
The New Game
Over the past three decades, organizations have focused enormous resources on optimizing the supply chain, ensuring that the necessary part is in the right place at the right time to prevent production stoppages. Materials resource planning (MRP) has led to dramatic productivity increases through a reduction in wasted material, time and machinery. Currently, MRP is in its fourth generation, and many organizations are striving for a supply chain that meets the 99.8 percent efficiency standard. In contrast to these impressive levels of supply-chain efficiency, the average sales rep spends roughly 10 percent of his or her time on selling activities. Imagine if a manufacturing line was in production only 10 percent of the time. The plant would likely be shut down and production consolidated with other sites.
Demographic, social and technological factors also have changed the game. At the CLO Symposium in Spring 2004, Jeanne Meister of Accenture Learning said that time-to-market has shrunk by 50 percent over the past 10 years. She also said that evidence shows that half of all employee skills are outdated in three to five years. In combination, these two factors have created an inflection point for knowledge in the workplace, defined by the increasing pace of work, which itself requires ever more fluid and dynamic knowledge.
Simultaneously, the economy has shifted its focus from products to knowledge, and people have replaced tangible assets as the primary value of most organizations. But while it took time to plan and improve manufacturing processes, we are only in the beginning stages of optimizing workforce performance. Today’s learning executives need to know how to optimize the performance of the workforce by identifying, delivering and tracking just enough personalized learning when and where an employee needs it.
The New Model
There was a period when the combination of e-learning and LMSs seemed to be the answer to this new challenge of the knowledge economy. Information could now be produced once and deployed multiple times around the world. While this is true in theory, in practice it looks different. Many learning executives have learned the hard way that simply building and deploying leading-edge courses and an LMS does not mean that employees will take the learning they need. Simply building a course or LMS does not guarantee that employees will show up for the learning. It takes more – much more.
Effectively addressing the inflection point requires more than just access to learning. Learning also must be relevant, prescriptive and delivered at the point of need. There are two types of learning that meet these criteria: contextual learning and event-based architecture.
Contextual learning is made possible through advanced portal technology that enables employees to access learning content that specifically addresses their questions at the exact moment that they need the information. Context-sensitive help and a variety of performance improvement tools do this as well. The difference between these and today’s contextualization capabilities is the portal’s ability to understand who is performing the task and to deliver more relevant, personalized content. Contextualization capabilities look at the following:
- Roles: Who is this person? What types of permission is he granted in the system?
- Responsibilities: What type of work does this person do? What is her job, department, location? What products does she sell? What customers is she responsible for?
- Tasks: What is he doing right now? What did he do yesterday?
- Historical Data: What products has she previously sold? What training has she taken? What skills and competencies does she already possess? What was her last performance review rating?
- Analytics: How is he performing over time? Where does he need improvement? Where are his strengths?
CLO columnist Jay Cross, of the Internet Time Group, writes, “Gone are the days when training directors were supposed to guess what people needed to know to do their jobs. That was a fool’s errand. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Finally, technology has advanced to the point that the work environment can identify who needs to know what right now and deliver that knowledge in real time. Automatically. It’s a win-win-win situation.”
Consider how this new model could impact sales training. Most organizations deliver sales training via a combination of new-hire training, ad hoc topical courses delivered throughout the year and an annual sales meeting. New-hire sales training is typically quite generic and teaches all sales reps roughly the same thing: the organization’s sales model, tools, systems and product information. Ad hoc sales training delivers more specific topical courses typically developed around selling a particular product or service. Of the three types of training, the annual sales meeting presents the sales reps the greatest opportunity to select tracks or courses that are relevant to their role and needs. These methods of sales training serve their purposes, but none matches content to the sales reps” individual needs when they need it most.
Imagine the following: A rep begins the process of tracking a sales opportunity in the customer relationship management (CRM) system, which she is accessing through the company portal. She enters the ID number for a product that she has never sold before. The contextualization tool immediately displays product and sales information that is prescriptive to her individual sales and training history. Content is pushed to her based on her job code, location, industry sector, sales history, training history and success selling similar products in the past.
The publish and subscribe capabilities of today’s portals make this possible. By taking data from multiple sources (HRMS, LMS, CRM or data warehouses), contextualization tools can analyze a wide variety of information and push highly relevant content to the learner. Therefore, as the sales rep begins to track a new sales opportunity, the portal automatically displays links to the following:
- The LMS to enroll in an introductory product training course.
- A one-hour recorded webcast on how to successfully sell the product.
- A quick reference guide on selling strategies for the customer’s industry.
- Product spec sheets.
- The names of the sales reps who have been the most successful at selling this product.
The other development that will transform the model for learning delivery is event-based architecture. Many of the most sophisticated LMSs are built around an architecture that is designed to receive incoming triggers from external source systems that indicate a potential training need. The LMS receives the trigger, analyzes the information and determines whether to push training to the employee. Examples for the use of such functionality are numerous:
- A customer buys a new product and needs training, and the LMS recommends several product introduction courses.
- A sales rep gets a new opportunity, and the LMS enrolls him in the right sales training course.
- A customer service rep escalates too many calls to her manager, and the LMS recommends a call-resolution course.
- A call-center analyst’s average call close time exceeds a predefined threshold, and the LMS recommends training to improve case management skills.
The power of this technology resides in the automation of the needs identification. MLB Hall of Famer Yogi Berra once said, “How can you hit and think at the same time?” The same can be said for most work. In the midst of a sales deal, customer call or product implementation, people do not effectively ask themselves, “What training would improve my performance, and how do I find it?” They are focused on the task, not the means to improving their performance of that task. Event-based architecture can perform this analysis for the worker by identifying needs and prescribing the appropriate blended learning training plan.
Some LMSs make integration easier than others. Those that are built using Web services make the publication and subscription of data between systems easier to implement and maintain. This type of event-based integration between the LMS and a source system is not something to build and maintain for every learning-related event across the organization. The key to success is targeting those roles, transactions and metrics that have a direct and significant impact on business performance. For many organizations, these roles are either revenue-generating roles, such as sales, or customer-facing roles, such as call-center agents.
Knowledge is more than power – it drives business performance. When deployed using the prescriptive, contextual capabilities of today’s leading technologies, organizations can begin to manage knowledge across the enterprise in a new way. The key to unleashing performance in the workforce is the ability to link mission-critical information to work. The technology is here. The model must now change to hit the home run.
Heidi Spirgi is president and co-founder of Knowledge Infusion, and has more than 10 years of experience in the human capital management technology industry. Greg Thompson has been a learning professional for more than 15 years in various organizational roles for PeopleSoft, Mitsubishi Corp.,Amano International and Selnate Schools. They can be reached at email@example.com.