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Learning Delivery, Technology

Portals to a Digital Learning Future

The rise of digital technology has opened the door for another look at learning portals. To make the most of them, focus on the learner experience.

Employees increasingly expect their workplace learning to mimic their personal digital experiences. They want to consume content quickly and easily, from a variety of sources. They expect to share and rate it, and have it dynamically pushed to them based on their needs and likes.

Organizations also expect much from their learning environments. Managing formal and informal learning is a given, and today’s learning platform must demonstrate the impact learning makes on the business, whether it’s a coaching session, YouTube video or blog post.

If you recognize these challenges as your own, a custom learning portal could be a solution. But what is a learning portal?

Put simply, it’s a one-stop gateway to a set of learning resources that brings together the elements of a learning strategy to increase effectiveness. For learners, it’s the go-to place to meet a certain need. Under the hood, it may comprise many different platforms but the learner’s journey through them via this gateway should feel seamless.

Technically, it could be:

  • A dedicated area of your corporate intranet with links to resources.
  • A layer that sits above your LMS creating a more learner-centered experience.
  • An established platform that is customized and configured.
  • A bespoke architecture creating a learning ecosystem that integrates many platforms such as other HR systems, CRM and social and internal tools.

When to Consider a Learning Portal

When and if to develop a learning portal should be driven by your own business challenges, opportunities and needs. Common uses include:

  • Developing the skills of a specific audience such as new hires or first-time leaders.
  • Spearheading a campaign or business initiative, such as launching a new customer-focused strategy.
  • Curating all your content on a particular subject. Portals can be effective tools for collecting product knowledge, for example.
  • Creating a specialized center of excellence, such as a professional development program in engineering.

In essence, consider a custom portal when your current platforms or potential off-the-shelf systems cannot deliver what you need. But how do you know what you need?

Start by first understanding the needs of your organization and users and analyzing the problem the portal is trying to solve. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Stephen Blackford, head of systems engineering at Transport for London, the operator of public transport services and transport infrastructure for the capital of the United Kingdom, described the business challenge his agency is addressing through its learning portal this way.

“Upgrading systems infrastructure to meet strategic needs while at the same time maintaining services puts TfL in the role of system integrator every time a change is made,” he said. “Our challenge was how to uplift the system integration capability of the business through increasing awareness and system integration skills in a wide range of roles.”

Once you’ve identified your challenge, ask:

  • What do learners need to do that your existing systems doesn’t provide?
  • How many entry points do they use to access learning resources?
  • Do you understand the company’s learning technology landscape?
  • Do you have capability to manage a portal with content authors, managers, administrators and moderators?
  • What tasks will they need to perform?
  • How will you achieve and measure learner engagement?

Engaging companywide stakeholders to answer these questions will help establish if a custom portal is needed and if so, how to build a business case. Understanding the challenges helps you plan for them.

Identifying and Overcoming Challenges

Simply putting all your resources into one place won’t solve your business challenge. Taking a cue from software development, learning organizations should invest in the design of learner experience, or LX.

Learning organizations need to be willing to look at the entire learning journey and redesign how employees engage with content. Good interface design is part of it but LX involves more than just good visual experience. It also means understanding learner motivation and behavior as much  as how to structure your site.

UX, or user experience, may be the term many people are familiar with — and established UX approaches are important — but UX design needs to be augmented with an understanding of how people learn and how to design effective and engaging learning experiences.

The LX challenge is balancing between depth — everything the organization wants to include in the proposed portal — and “signposting,” or clear learner pathways. The emphasis should be on the X or experience. Getting the balance right is essential and shouldn’t be sidestepped or abbreviated. That principle underlined TfL’s approach to developing its portal.

“We spent a lot of time up front storyboarding the site before producing anything real and that has paid great dividends” said Blackford.

LX design is a discipline for specialists and investing in the skills of a good designer up front can reap long-term rewards.

It’s also important to think carefully about content and context in developing a portal. Portals can fall foul by trying to be everything to everyone. If learners can’t quickly personalize their experience they’ll disengage. On the other hand, a one-stop shop needs to be comprehensive.

Context is key. Everything in a portal needs a quick, high-level overview: what it is, what it will help learners do, how long it will take as well as its ranking or rating. In the age of self-directed learning, this context helps learners make decisions quickly.

“Make time in your project to gather all the raw material and develop it to integrate it with the portal,” said TfL’s Blackford. “It’s not just about curating what is there — it has to fit within the context of what the portal is designed to achieve.”

CLOs considering a learning portal also need to think about delivery, implementation and ongoing maintenance. Beyond LX designers, learning organizations need business analysts, software architects and developers, graphic designers and a designated product owner, among other roles. Does that capability reside in house and what can be outsourced to a trusted supplier?

The role of product owner in particular is pivotal. Portal development requires input from multiple stakeholders, oftentimes with competing agendas and priorities. Like a portal itself, the product owner is the linchpin in the system, someone who can secure buy-in from all the necessary areas of the business.

Then there is maintenance. “If your portal doesn’t have a shelf life then it’s a living entity that will need to be sustained indefinitely,” Blackford said. “Ask yourself: Does your requirement have a sell-by date or do you want it to grow and evolve? Who maintains and moderates it? What about the face-to-face elements? How do you upskill new tutors going forward? All of these considerations need to be factored in up front.”

Project scope and cost can vary dramatically. The keys to containing both are thorough, up-front planning and piloting. Know where you want to go from the start but understand that if you’re building a portal from scratch getting there will take time and patience while you build, iterate and refine the portal.

One alternative for the cost-conscious is the existing LMS. Assuming the LMS is modern, it may be possible to make it serve as a portal by using its APIs to hook up with other systems. Building a simple portal in front of it can help learners self-manage their learning.

Maximizing the Results

As with most learning initiatives, planning is critical to make the most of an investment in a learning portal. A thorough needs analysis should tell you where learners are now and where you want to take them. There will be many different and individualized ways of getting there. Plan for this diversity by analyzing possible use cases for your portal and then design and test for them. This effort will inform LX design, curriculum structure and what elements to include. It will also aid in shaping the context you provide to bring learner journeys together.

Beta testing is an established technique for testing and refining software. Similarly, learning organizations looking to develop a portal should pilot and test concepts early with a user group. It’s important not to think of a custom portal as a finished product but rather an evolving concept. Piloting also helps learning departments explore boundaries and try different techniques.

“You’ll get a negative reaction to some things but that’s a way of working out where the boundaries are for your workforce,” said Blackford. “If we hadn’t piloted [TfL’s portal] we might have been too conservative and not taken risks. Then you’re back at square one with a traditional course catalog that turns people off.”

How you ultimately measure the impact of your learning portal on your organization depends on your technical solution. There are two levels to effective measurement. At minimum, measure how people are using the portal and track how often they visit, how much time they spend and what they look at. This data can be used to improve LX and identify potential problem areas. For example, are learners not visiting a particular page because they can’t find it?

The other level of measurement is at the overall initiative level. This involves tracing the link between learning and a change in the business results. This complex activity requires strategic planning to build a chain of evidence. Key questions to answer include:

  • What business outcomes are you looking to achieve?
  • How does learning affect these outcomes?
  • What training is in place to manage employee performance in this area?
  • What tools, processes and people are in place to measure performance?
  • Can you map the chain of evidence from employee (and their training, performance and team’s performance) to the impact on the business?

Portals have potential to deliver measurable results if strategically designed around business and learner needs. A well-designed portal can become your learners’ go-to place but it should also help them find go-to people, whether that’s for technical support or more sophisticated mentoring.

Done well, a portal should provide more than just a one-stop shop for learning. It enables learning organizations to create a linked learning ecosystem that has the potential to measurably improve learning engagement and impact.  

Kathryn Fleet is a learning consultant for LEO, a provider of learning services and strategy. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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