Business Drivers for Real-Time Learning

rom the front line to the boardroom, there is a growing awareness among managers that significant productivity gains remain to be made in the area of human capital. Specifically, there is an increased focus by businesses to improve the quality of their wo

From the front line to the boardroom, there is a growing awareness among managers that significant productivity gains remain to be made in the area of human capital. Specifically, there is an increased focus by businesses to improve the quality of their workforce as well as provide them with the training, access to information and decision support that allows them to execute higher-value tasks with greater precision, quality and speed. Although traditional approaches to learning have made some impact on productivity and quality, the impact has arguably reached a plateau.

The concept of real-time or just-in-time learning, relative to other learning regimens, is quite new. The definition of what constitutes real-time learning still suffers from some ambiguity. To many, real-time learning is about the method of delivery and the notion that training courses can be delivered instantaneously. Others believe there is a fundamental shift taking place in the way businesses operate, and real-time learning is a natural response to this shift. The current paradigm of learning, represented by a linear progression from the brick-and-mortar classroom to the virtual classroom, no longer meets the needs of today’s dynamic enterprise. Real-time learning can be defined as more than just a single instance of training and testing conveniently delivered. Chief learning officers must consider that the next evolution in enterprise learning is a live, real-time operating environment that provides the right speed and flow of information support to employees as they perform their jobs and not just when in training mode. Real-time learning is about providing a productivity platform for employees by connecting them to the strategy, tactics, policies and procedures they need to accomplish increasingly complex tasks at the precise moment they need it. Simply put, real-time learning is about connecting the “know-how” to the “how-to.”

Business Drivers

There are several key business drivers influencing the need for CLOs to look differently at how they support their company’s workers. Most are relevant to every business, and understanding these drivers can help facilitate the internal discussion around real-time learning requirements with the CLO’s team and management peers. They include: requirements to increase productivity, the pace of change in business, corporate consolidation, the emergence of generation Y; and increased business complexity.

Requirements to Increase Productivity

According to Morgan Stanley Chief Economist Stephen Roach, “U.S. productivity is the holy grail of the global economy.” Productivity improvement is an endless mantra of most large enterprises, including government organizations. Companies previously made significant investments in technologies such as ERP, supply chain and CRM. Those investments provided efficiencies associated with automation and data flow. They then realized there were huge productivity gains from investment in their human capital. These investments manifested themselves in a variety of technologies and initiatives, including learning management and knowledge management. As investments in these more human-oriented technologies mature, the continued drive for productivity will push CLOs to examine new ways of making a direct and immediate impact on day-to-day operations. The CLO’s mindset will need to shift from development of employees to their enablement. Existing technology platforms designed to administer courses and curricula are simply not suited to real-time delivery of information in the context of the employee’s role. Those CLOs who embrace emerging methods (and content) for just-in-time delivery to tomorrow’s information worker will have significant impact on worker productivity.

The Pace of Change in Business

Commercial and government enterprises are required to respond rapidly to changes in their business driven by customers, competition, the global nature of business and compressed product life cycles. This dynamic environment requires the workforce to have access to new tools and best practices and to learn new ways of doing business more rapidly than ever. Current methods for learning content development and delivery lag behind the needs of the information worker. Taking the time to create new courseware or curricula in response to changes and then distributing them using standard LMS technologies is too slow. Information workers will require access to task-level information that supports their performance. This will drive CLOs to think differently about how they respond to the demands of the workforce.

Corporate Consolidation

Mergers and acquisitions will continue at a fast clip for several years as companies seek to increase market share, grow their technology footprint and expand into new markets. As a prerequisite for a successful merger, employees must rapidly learn the acquirer’s way of doing business. Your task as CLO is to ramp up 100, 1,000, even 10,000 or more new employees rapidly and effectively. This type of mass orientation and training is critical, and the faster you can disseminate key role-based information, the greater the positive impact on the business. Although existing methods allow for mass training either in person or virtually, you can’t stop the entire workforce to take them through the curriculum, and even if you could, the capacity of your employees to absorb content and put it to practical use can be limited. The requirement to speed on-ramping of acquired companies without interrupting the flow of business will drive changes in the way CLOs are expected to contribute to business integration.

The Emergence of Generation Y

Generation Y, ranging in age from early teens to mid-20s and numbering roughly 60 million, is the next talent pool. They are more computer-literate, more used to immediate gratification and generally more adaptive to change (and correspondingly more impatient) than previous cohorts. They expect instant access to information, and the way they learn is highly dependent on technology. This generation will likely change jobs during their early years as frequently as their preceding cohort, or every 2.9 years, between the ages of 25 and 34 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (See Figure 1.) On-boarding generation Y and continued frequent job turnover requires CLOs to adjust learning methods to meet employee needs, including the way information is packaged and delivered.

Business Complexity

Today’s business operating environment is increasingly complex for workers to navigate. Not only has the pace of change increased, but regulatory pressure, competition and the tools that information workers have continue to evolve rapidly. Workers frequently balance several tasks among the multiple resources that support their performance, often with no clear preferred process. Business processes themselves are unclear, many of them constrained by regulations, and simply trying to find the information needed to perform one’s job wastes energy, time and money. Consequently, it is common to have multiple methods, some flawed, to accomplish specific tasks. As enterprises seek new ways to cut costs and improve productivity, they will streamline business processes and educate employees in real-time about those changes.

Preparing for Real-Time Learning

The move to this type of learning environment will look less like an evolution and more like a paradigm shift. Such a shift requires other elements to fall into place, including advancements in technology, the on-boarding of generation Y and retirement of the baby boomers. However, the benefits of a real-time environment as it’s framed here are tough to dispute, and those charged with learning, workforce development and succession planning can initiate a few practical steps to take advantage of the changing environment for their businesses.

Develop or Hire Learning Professionals With New Competencies

How far do we have to go? According to a recent report from The Conference Board, we still have quite a distance. “Only 31 percent of survey participants say that HR executives in their companies have a strong understanding of strategic key performance indicators. Even fewer (25 percent) surveyed consider their HR leaders capable of linking people measures to such indicators.” However, there is progress, as evidenced by several indicators, including the rise of the senior human capital officer to the C-suite, the outsourcing of non-critical HR tasks and the shift of administrative tasks to the employee’s immediate manager. As needs change, the learning organization will need to add new competency requirements to mid- and senior-level management responsible for executing learning strategy. Competencies can be used to refocus the learning organization on what’s really important and what it takes for them to be successful. CLOs will need to consider core competencies that include business process experience, business planning, strategic planning, finance and other operational expertise.

Get a Healthy Dose of Technology

Understanding technology is not the same as being a technologist. CLOs must be able to define comprehensive business requirements that support investments in learning and not just represent the trainer’s perspective. This is easier said than done, but this change in thinking and the additional skills in technology will come over time as learning management continues to be recruited from the operational side of the business. Old-guard learning technology companies are just beginning to beat the real-time learning drum while startups continue to innovate using the latest in technology. Take advantage of the emerging opportunity, as there will be no shortage of white papers and presentations and an endless parade of consultants to help you get it right—at least from their perspective.

Focus on the Business

The business drivers for real-time learning are strategic in nature, not tactical. Alignment of the learning function, whether it’s embedded in the human resources organization or not, is a current mantra of learning professionals. Before you can implement effective change, it is essential to understand what drives the enterprise. It’s not enough to understand learning’s impact on today’s key performance indicators. It does require CLOs to look three, five, even 10 years out to understand what the business, and its industry, will look like. It’s with that more advanced vision of the future operating environment that you can determine what real-time learning will mean to your organization.

The Right Size and the Right Content

A great deal of the best learning content is wrapped in the wrong package. When you’re in the middle of performing a task, you don’t have time to navigate through the LMS to review a lengthy online course when all you really need is just a few moments of specific content.

Timing of delivery should be key, but it’s largely ignored. Fully trained employees go back to their previous tasks and wait for their new skills to be required. A few weeks—or months—later they are required, and they’ve already forgotten much of what the company worked so hard to teach. In a real-time environment, a designer’s sensibility should be a bit different. Instead of asking, “How should I design a specific course?” they should ask, “What relevant content does the employee need at a specific point in time to help them do their jobs better?” Many experienced practitioners will not embrace this approach, and it might require new learning professionals to bring a different perspective on providing only the most precise information employees need to accomplish their jobs.

Connecting to Strategy

It is clear that there’s a fundamental shift taking place in how government and commercial enterprises operate. It’s equally clear that senior management is making more strategic investments in human capital with the expectation that they will significantly impact productivity. As learning professionals begin to respond to these changes, those on the forefront, perhaps early adopters, will look to real-time learning as the next evolution in enterprise learning. In this environment, employees will have access to information support as they are performing their jobs and not just when in training mode. Real-time learning will connect these employees to the strategy, tactics, policies and procedures in the context of their jobs so they can accomplish increasingly complex and higher-value tasks with greater speed, quality and precision.

David Austin is president and COO of Contextware Inc. He can be reached at