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In Real Life: Navigating the Learning Alt-Tech Landscape

by JD Dillon

February 21, 2017

Column

by JD Dillon

February 21, 2017

“The evolution of learning technology shows no signs of slowing down. As concepts like machine learning, augmented intelligence, data interoperability, and mixed realities redefine the consumer space, their workplace applications—and plenty of new vendors—won’t be far behind. L&D pros must improve their understanding of the learning technology landscape so they can make the best ongoing decisions for their organizations.”

Do you have a recommendation for a good iOS calendar app? I’ve been trying to find a new one since Microsoft sunset Sunrise (RIP). I’ve tried six or seven apps over the past six months and just haven’t found the right fit for how I prefer to manage my time, especially as I use different calendars for Axonify, LearnGeek, and personal activities. Given that a search for the word “calendar” in the App Store yields eleventy-billion results, I need some help finding the right technology.

My odyssey to find the right calendar app feels very like navigating the enterprise learning technology landscape nowadays. When I first started in L&D (you know—way back in the days when Facebook required a .edu email address), you just picked from the big LMS vendors and cobbled together a SharePoint site as your core learning tech. Actually, HR and IT usually made it even easier by “gifting” you the “learning part” of the talent management suite they decided to buy without your input. There weren’t that many options anyway, so we just did what we could with what we were given. Our focus wasn’t so much on the user-facing tech as it was on the authoring tools in those days.

Now I can’t go a week without hearing about a new platform from a vendor that cleverly removed a vowel in its name to make sure you know it’s high-tech. Depending on how you define “learning technology,” there are hundreds to thousands of platforms from which to choose. Video portals. Microlearning platforms. Coaching software. LMSs. LRSs. CMSs. Enterprise social networks. Employee knowledge platforms. Even within each alternative category, vendors offer varying features, packaging, and price points. Options are almost always a great thing, and this learning technology explosion is clearly based on the realization that legacy systems haven’t provided the value companies demand. But, in real life, how can L&D pros be expected to make the right decision for the long-term benefit of their organization, given the breakneck pace of modern technology?

Yes, there are a few people who work in this space and sell their reporting and services to L&D teams to help them overcome the noise. However, even if you hire professional help, it’s still your responsibility to make the best possible decisions for your organization. Consultants may do a great job, but they don’t know your business. They aren’t part of your culture. And your employees won’t go looking for the consultants when the selected technology fails to help them do their jobs better. So, rather than just acquiescing to an external opinion, L&D pros must be capable of navigating the learning alt-tech landscape.

Plug into the network

You can’t keep up on your own. It’s just not possible. Just as I need help to find the right calendar app (seriously, suggestions welcomed), L&D pros must leverage the strength of the professional community to find right-fit solutions. Otherwise, you’ll be at the mercy of the vendors with the biggest marketing budgets and shiniest customer logos. Professional organizations, including The eLearning Guild, are a great place to start. Events like Learning Solutions Conference & Expo and DevLearn provide you with the opportunity to get more hands-on familiarity with the latest learning technology.

For even more regular updates, get out of your bubble and build a global personal learning network (PLN) via social tools like Twitter and LinkedIn. Remember when I mentioned how often I hear about new learning platforms? Most of that intel comes my way via my curated Twitter feed. Without these trusted sources, I’d get lost in the sea of marketing and buzzwords too. When I have a question about a particular tech, I can blast it out to a group of like-minded pros who collectively have a lot more practical experience than I do. If you’re new to the L&D online network, start with Jane Hart and add new connections from there.

Design the experience first

I read a number of RFPs as part of my role, and they almost always confuse me. Companies submit spreadsheets with row after row of feature requirements, but they almost never add up to a cohesive, modern learning experience for the end users. Maintaining awareness of the latest and greatest in learning tech can certainly make you more informed when it comes time to go shopping, but it shouldn’t dictate how you support your people.

Rather than lead with features, work with your stakeholders and employees to understand the learning experience(s) that would best drive measurable business results within your organization. Design an experience that aligns with the right-fit learning principles, such as the 70:20:10 framework, and can grow with your employees as organizational priorities shift and the work changes. Then, look for technologies that can bring this experience to life and/or inform it to make it even better. Don’t just ask vendors to tell you what they do. Explain your desired experience, and challenge them to show how they can make it work.

Don’t get stuck on integration

I often hear L&D and IT pros harping on platform integration. If the tech won’t plug directly into the organization’s existing toys, then it won’t make the cut. In a perfect world, every app would integrate with every other app. However, that’s just not the case, given the array of technologies available and limited standards for nuanced functionality. Keep in mind that people function in their own multi-technology ecosystems every day. For example, I have 200-plus apps on my iPhone—30 that I use on a daily basis. Yet, I somehow manage to get by without heavy integration or single sign-on.

Integration should be prioritized based on the desire to simplify the user and administrator experiences (in that order). However, with the exception of low-hanging fruit like account management and user authentication, formal integration can often be more trouble than it’s worth and should therefore not become the deciding factor. Your experience architecture should take considerations such as user access and data collection into account and find ways to make it work, even if there is a little more administrative effort necessary. Don’t underestimate your employees when it comes to their ability to balance various tools with their purposes. They do it every day on their own devices.

Use consumer tech criteria

How do you decide which apps to keep on your phone? If you’re like me, you look for simple design, meaningful features, consistent updates, and a little bit of “wow” factor. In addition, you probably recognize that you get what you pay for. You can only expect so much from a free app, so you look for clear ROI if you have to spend any money. Why don’t we apply the same criteria to our learning technology decisions? Yes, the stakes are a lot higher than a $4.99 app download, but the overall technology experience shouldn’t be that far off.

We’re talking about enterprise learning and performance technology, not 3-D rendering software. All of your employees—regardless of tech savviness—will be expected to use these tools on the job. Simplicity should drive your selection process. And that’s simplicity to the average end user, not the L&D team. Rather than buying the kitchen sink of learning tech, identify differentiating features that will enable your learning experience design. Ask vendors how often they release updates. If they aren’t on at least a monthly schedule, I’d be concerned about their ability to keep pace with the industry. And these update processes should mirror consumer technology. They shouldn’t require considerable time and effort to execute. The days of months-long update projects and test scripts are over thanks to the cloud. Finally, don’t assume that “cheaper with enough features” is better. Rather than focus on up-front expense, look at the potential ongoing ROI on your technology purchase. This shift will help you reposition L&D from cost center to bottom-line profit generator in the minds of your stakeholders.

Talk to current and past customers

Marketers and salespeople are great at what they do. Well, some of them are great. They know they have a great product, and they believe it can help you solve your problems. Unfortunately, they’re sometimes wrong (on both counts). It’s easy to get distracted by flashy promo materials and big-name logos. But it’s what’s behind the marketing that really matters to your employees and their development.

If you’re considering a vendor, talk to their current and past customers. Don’t limit your exploration to the one or two approved customer names the vendor provides. Dig deep to find organizations with similar use cases and experience designs. If a customer decided to leave the vendor, what drove the decision? Was it them or the vendor? Do the factors that led to this decision relate to your experience design? In my experience, technology providers that can make a real impact aren’t shy about sharing their customer lists (minus the handful of organizations that don’t allow their affiliation to be known for legal reasons). 

Hire partners, not products

I can put all of the technology providers I’ve worked with over the years into two groups. There were the ones that required a support ticket and a fee before I could talk to them after the purchasing process was complete. Then there were the ones that just wouldn’t go away because they acted like they were just as invested in my success with their technology as I was. Guess which group I prefer.

The role technology plays in our lives is a constantly shifting proposition. This is just as true at work. With all of the demands on our L&D capacity, we need to find the right partners who can help us navigate the always-changing learning technology landscape. Therefore, in addition to a platform’s capabilities and packaging, research their ongoing support and success processes. Will they be there when you need a strategic thought partner? Can they help you understand how their platform fits into your larger learning and performance ecosystem? Even the simplest technology can prove invaluable when it’s elevated by knowledgeable and experienced partners who invest in your long-term success.

The rate of change is as fast as ever—maybe faster

The evolution of learning technology shows no signs of slowing down. As concepts like machine learning, augmented intelligence, data interoperability, and mixed realities redefine the consumer space, their workplace applications—and plenty of new vendors—won’t be far behind. L&D pros must improve their understanding of the learning-technology landscape so they can make the best ongoing decisions for their organizations. Otherwise, we risk repeating our past mistakes and getting stuck with enterprise tools that employees do their best to avoid. Technology-enabled learning is a reality of the modern workplace, and we must therefore empower our people with the right tools as part of a well-designed learning and performance support experience.

From the editor: Want more?

JD Dillon will present three sessions at the Guild’s Learning Solutions and Ecosystem conferences co-located in Orlando next month:


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Great article very timely for me! Have you tried the native iOS calendar app? I really like the Siri integration.
Thanks! I keep trying the iOS app on and off, just never quite does it for me, especially with my desire for app integrations.
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