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Your Brain on Apps

The sales of smartphones have now outpaced the sales of feature phones, according to media research company Nielsen, and that’s not going to slow down. This is a critical shift for organizations that want to increase performance by leveraging this explosion.

Mobile developer Chad Udell from mobile learning provider Float Mobile Learning said companies are finding success with executives, salespeople and field techs. “We may be set to enter the golden age as more companies follow these early adopters into mobile learning,” he said.

However, to take advantage of mobile, companies have to think differently about what m-learning means. Despite the moniker, m-learning largely is not about courses. Instead, it’s about augmenting formal learning and individual performance via the delivery of content, computational support and connections to others. Desktop capabilities are now on tap anywhere, as is the ability to take advantage of and respond to the context in which employees perform.

As humans, we have augmented our brains with technology to do things our minds don’t do well. While our brains are good at pattern matching and making meaning, we’ve used books to remember things we can’t recall perfectly, tools such as adding machines to compensate for limited memory, cameras and microphones to capture the world around us and mail and telephones to communicate with others at a distance. Digital technology has become the malleable augment to human brains.

This augmentation is available wherever and whenever we need. That’s the promise of mobile apps — one employee can have the augmentation how he or she wants it, and another can have it differently. Even if employees have the same role, work for the same company and own the same phone, it’s a safe bet that one employee would have a different suite of apps on his or her phone than another.

Both, however, will be using the phone. There is more Web access through mobile devices than through desktops, and there is an opportunity here to change how organizations address performance and learning.

Focus on Mobility
Mobile is a significant shift in how people act globally, and learning leaders should seek ways to take advantage of this. The first answer is to make a wireless network available so employees don’t have to use a phone signal. Isn’t it better for employees to be inside rather than standing outside taking a social media cigarette break?

Second, mobile formats should be an automatic part of the company’s content development processes. Learning leaders should make all possessed PDFs, audio and video files available for mobile access. The company’s portal or content management system vendor should have or be ready to deploy this capability.

“Learning content on mobile devices can also be provided in the classroom and accessed through laptops and desktops, so why call it m-learning?” said Jill Gardner, manager of learning technology platforms and operations at Disney. “Are learning games on mobile devices labeled as m-learning? No. They are games. Therefore, learning content on mobile devices is just that — instructional/educational content.”

Content has roles for learning and performance support, but the mobile model is different. M-learning, by and large, is not about courses on a phone. The first mobile learning opportunity is about augmenting and extending the course. Take bits and pieces and make them available when convenient and space them out over time. The event model — dumping a large amount of content in a small period of time — doesn’t align with how human brains work. Humans work much better with smaller chunks over time, which suits mobile delivery.

That same small chunks model also goes beyond formal learning. Books were developed because human brains don’t recall large volumes of information, but now learners can have that information wherever and whenever they need it. Learning leaders can provide job aids, fact sheets, references, checklists and other performance support tools wherever and whenever employees need them.

Learning leaders’ support doesn’t have to be passive, however. Just as desktops run interactive applications, so can handhelds. These apps can do complex calculations employees can’t do in their heads and through dialogues help serve as decision support. The next step is to consider custom applications that can benefit the organization. Just as United Airlines has moved flight safety checklists to iPads, learning leaders have to ask themselves where they can provide mobile support. What would help employees be more productive whenever and wherever they are?

As Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto suggests, there are many times employees benefit from support in critical procedures, but learning leaders shouldn’t try to replicate the desktop on a mobile device. Instead, figure out what is critical to success — the 20 percent of features that will meet 90 percent of needs. To do this leaders will have to minimize performance gaps across the organization and make performance support a part of both the area of responsibility and the solution space.

Another mobile device core capability is the ability to support communication. Sometimes employees don’t need content, they need a collaborator. When the need is infrequent or unique, it doesn’t always make sense to capture the content or develop a computational tool — connecting with the right person will suffice. With mobile learning, employees can have this capability when needed.

Just as companies have responsibilities beyond formal learning into performance support, learning leaders should consider how to facilitate constructive engagement among employees, as Tony Bingham and Marcia Conner discuss in The New Social Learning. While mobile is not the solution, it is an additional channel that makes this opportunity more broadly available. The action step here is to make the internal social network available via mobile, or put one in place. Learning leaders also will need a mobile policy about external social networks: What can and should employees be able to do with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter?

Capture the Opportunity
Capture the ability for these devices to detect the world around them. Human brains don’t always remember the exact details of a situation; smartphones and tablets, with cameras and audio recorders, can. Learners can record their own performances for later review or produce a representation of their understanding. Further, performers can capture and share situations where they would like help. With audio, photo and video records, companies can store and share contexts.

The capture possibilities go further. Increasingly, these devices know where an individual is, and when a destination will be reached. Each of these provides unique learning opportunities. The GPS capability when driving serves as a model: it knows where the driver is via satellite, and it knows where he or she wants to go because the driver has provided this information. It helps along the way, even compensating if a mistake is made. This is a performance support example, and a model for how mobile could be used to support goals. The system could know employees’ goals, such as learning the layout of a physical plant, and guide them through it.

Similarly, the device might know what problem an employee has been sent to deal with and give him or her a relevant trouble-shooting guide or remedy. Imagine an employee is sent to a site to diagnose a problem. He or she might have to return several times to bring diagnostic tools and repair information. Instead, a model device could identify the source of the problem, provide diagnostic procedures and tools and then repair procedures. A camera-equipped phone, for example, could even lay diagrams right on top of the screen displaying what the repair person is seeing, just as BMW is doing with auto repair.

The first steps for learning leaders to successfully deploy this is to make sure content is available, think of custom apps such as performance support tools and make the network mobile-usable. Companies doing this strategically are few, but awareness is rising.

Learning leaders should take their existing IT infrastructure applications — portals, enterprise resource planning systems and social media tools — and make them mobile accessible. Once social networks have been activated, leaders should think of context-specific solutions such as location guides and remote support.

The opportunity is new enough that possibilities are still being explored, but the indications are clear that there are benefits to be found. When a company such as Google is going mobile-first and desktop as an afterthought, there is no excuse. Learning professionals will have to work with IT to address their security concerns, and with legal to address issues around what can be said and shared, but these are easily solvable problems.

These steps are largely independent of learning, which brings up a bigger issue. Mobile is a cross-organization and cross-silo issue, which means it needs to be dealt with like a strategic issue. Learning leaders will either be piggybacking other initiatives or initiating their own strategy that will trigger a wider interest and requirement to align. Many endeavors can be vehicles for mobile, including the installation of a content management system, Wi-Fi network or portal.

Learning leaders will need to be part of the governance of any mobile initiative, or get broad representation on their mobile governance. If a mobile enabling initiative is happening elsewhere in the organization, they point out the learning and performance benefits and ask for a seat at the table. If it is already being driven by the learning team, they should recognize it’s a platform move bigger than learning and ask for participation in strategic oversight via a governing board by executives representing IT, legal, financial, communications, sales and operations.

Leaders may start with a one-off mobile initiative such as a tool or content rollout to get some experience, but will eventually need to make mobile a strategic initiative, where the steps taken provide foundations for further work. Mobile is a platform, and as such needs to be viewed in terms of investments, outcomes, alignments and relationships. Digital capability and learning will be decoupled, moving from time and location limitations to time and location sensitivity.

Clark Quinn is a senior director of learning technology solutions with the Internet Time Alliance via his company Quinnovation. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.