Your employees are increasingly mobile. Is your learning?
A combination of driving growth and innovation, and maintaining productivity while ensuring alignment across organizations are often key issues for business leaders. Yet many formal learning initiatives, where the bulk of learning investments are made, are either not strategically aligned or don’t take into consideration the constraints on people’s time by re-engineering how they produce, deliver and encourage formal and informal learning. With a significant proportion of the workforce already mobile and the trend on the rise, the question is not whether mobile learning should be part of the learning strategy, but how.
Over the past three years, mobile learning has primarily focused on repurposing content and distributing it on personal digital assistants (PDAs). It’s time to rethink how workers communicate, collaborate and learn, especially as a growing number of workers are now very comfortable with and expect to use technology that enables just-in-time, just-for-me, anytime, anyplace learning. The result will be more effective learning that is aligned with business processes and workflows, with much greater business impact than traditional training.
Eilif Trondsen, Ph.D., director of the learning on demand program at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence, recently articulated key trends pointing to the need and opportunity in mobile learning in SRI’s “Bulletin: Mobile Learning Revisited.” Trends in employment point to increasing mobility and the use of mobile devices on the job to accomplish tasks such as customer relationship management (CRM) and increasingly for various tasks in supply chain management, such as tracking and managing production, inventory and shipping. People need to stay connected and informed while multitasking on the move. In-Stat/MDR, a provider of research, assessments of advanced communications equipment and services, estimates that the number of remote and mobile workers’ including frequent business travelers, mobile office workers, telecommuters, remote branch office employees, multi-site workers and non-office workers, will reach approximately 94 million by the start of 2005. That number accounts for nearly 40 percent of all U.S. employment.
Trends in corporate restructuring, including outsourcing and the demands placed on employees to get more done with less people, are having an unintended impact: driving down the demand for traditional training courses. Estimates show that the average number of training days completed in the United States per person per year is down to two days. People just don’t have the time to sit in epic workshops or even follow through with their commitments to attend shorter ones. Yet 75 percent of CEOs surveyed in 2004 by IBM said employee education is the most critical success factor relative to other people issues. How many people cancel a few days before a workshop because they are too busy or were called to do another project? Do any simply admit to thinking that they won’t get enough value to justify being off the job for even a short time? This is exacerbated by an outdated curriculum that hasn’t taken advantage of technology or ensured that the right people are in the right course at the right time, and has failed to support the growing trend of informal and workflow learning, all of which can be supported with mobile learning strategies.
Technology Eases Deployment
Look around at homes, offices, coffee shops, cars, trains and airports. What do you see? Mobile gadgets are everywhere! The past two years have seen an explosion of mobile devices, demonstrated by the explosive popularity of the Apple iPod, the Blackberry and more cell phones (some with PDA features, Web browsers, e-mail, cameras and video capabilities) in use than ever. Laptops have gotten lighter, have a longer battery life and now connect wirelessly to high-speed networks at thousands of “hot spots” and increasingly in homes with wireless broadband. The possibilities seem endless.
Producing learning content for multiple devices that will work regardless of where the learner is located is now a built-in capability for at least one-third of learning content management systems (LCMSs), and audio and video can now be recorded and edited more easily at lower cost. Further, advancements in tools such as Macromedia’s Flash enable developers around the world to build advanced games, learning and other applications for cell phones and other mobile devices.
The devices have gotten more powerful, more ubiquitous and are now easier to connect to high-speed networks. The ability to build content and applications for them also has advanced. What are we waiting for?
Reaching Mobile Employees
A workforce that is on the move and working in different locations poses a challenge, but keeping these employees informed and engaged enables faster detection of opportunities and problems, and working together can help to further develop collaborative solutions.
Many mobile learning projects from around the world have been more focused on repurposing existing content to work on a mobile device than redesigning or building new learning processes to solve specific business-driven learning needs. This is starting to change with new applications and ideas that look beyond content deployment to increasing collaboration and real-time information sharing with significant results.
Enabling employees to get the information and learning they need in the format, device and time frame they want, while being able to collaborate and learn from one another to create and share knowledge, is the key to performance.
Online Communities, Moblogging and Podcasting
For several years now, organizations have been using online communities in which workers monitor and discuss what’s happening via instant messaging, document sharing and discussion boards. Web-based solutions enable connection anytime, anywhere. What’s new is the act of opening these up to customers or others in the supply chain for instant feedback and meaningful dialogue that promotes better customer retention, builds an understanding of consumer needs and helps the business analyze processes. Output from these communities to mobile devices is possible, so people don’t have to be online to be connected to the buzz. A similar technology that is often used quite differently is blogging. Blogging (a word derived from the term “Web log”) enables employees to publish information to a Web site. When this process is accomplished from a cell phone, PDA or laptop, it becomes “moblogging” (mobile blogging).
Content such as photos (for example, of a competitor’s products), voice (an elated reaction to a successful sales call that promotes enthusiasm and morale) and text is easy to publish in real time to a Web site that can be accessed remotely. All of this could be summarized and pushed via e-mail or browsed. Of course, security and guidelines are important to address, but a low-cost way to enable employees to interact, be informed and publish relevant information on-the-go can enable organizations to make faster, better decisions.
A related approach that is growing in popularity is podcasting (a combination of the words iPod, a portable audio player,and broadcasting). There already is free content out there that would benefit managers, but creating your own is quick and easy, and it could be deployed by the corporate communications and learning teams. Content could include audio from business leaders, leadership programs, cultural change content and so on, and it would be available whether the employee is at home, in the car listening to a CD, on the move with an mp3 player, or using a cell phone that is mp3-enabled. At least one organization in the United Kingdom is considering handing out iPods containing preloaded lectures and discussions at the end of key workshops. This would cost less than 1 percent of the expense of the course.
The Classroom Revisited
Many CLOs are re-invigorating classroom training to get better results and returns on learning investments. Classrooms must be properly equipped and enabled to take advantage of technology that allows more people to participate in the learning process while getting more out of the content created. Inexpensive webcams or higher-end cameras can be used to film lectures in unobtrusive ways that can then be viewed live or asynchronously by mobile workers around the world. With wireless laptops and PDAs connecting at high speeds in coffee shops, airports and homes, it is possible to view key presentations during moments of downtime and get more out of the original lecture or discussion.
A webcam also enables users to contribute to learning sessions and participate in collaborative learning regardless of their location. In addition, if experts no longer have to travel to the workshop, they are more likely to share their expertise because it doesn’t take them from work to contribute their time. There are a few easy-to-implement software tools out there that can help you produce and manage learning that can be captured, shared and reused in a continuous loop that raises the level of knowledge. This same technology can enable instant videoconferencing with shared whiteboards, which supports the trend toward peer-to-peer informal learning.
Using an automated short message service (SMS) distribution system that ties into your corporate directories, text messages can be sent out to reinforce key concepts or provide last-minute instructions. Combining IM groups, text message and e-mail subscription lists at the end of learning events, whether virtual or physical, is a method to continue the dialogue and learning. Some organizations and universities have started using text messages to poll and test learners in the classroom or after. Blackberry-type devices also can be used to reach participants and keep them engaged.
Blended learning approaches that utilize mobile phones are an opportunity to reach employees on a computing device that is always with them. Questions often come up when discussing the viability of using mobile phones for learning. In Marc Prensky’s book, “Digital Game-Based Learning,” he summarizes types of learning that are possible on mobile phones. “There are many different kinds of learning and many processes that we use to learn, but among the most frequent, time-tested and effective of these are listening, observing, imitating, questioning, reflecting, trying, estimating, predicting, hypothesizing and practicing,” he writes. “All of these learning processes can be done through our cell phones.”
Another untapped opportunity for learning with phones is the creation and use of engaging mobile phone-based games that can introduce key cultural, ethical and strategic concepts, or reinforce or build key concepts. Prensky and many others are major proponents, and the exploration of games for learning continues to be a hot topic.
This is an emerging field with dozens of universities and corporations partnering to find ways to enhance learning by using the physical location and context of the learner as part of the learning process. Known as “augmented reality” in the United States, it is more commonly referred to as “ambient learning” in Europe. A great example of this is the location-based learning project produced through a partnership of Symbol, MIT and a top learning and technology firm. The system automatically delivers just-in-time content to a handset based on the worker’s location in the manufacturing facility and checks to see if they have the right equipment and qualification. The greatest growth in ambient learning has been in Europe, where corporations, higher education institutions and museums are using it to deliver information, learning and peer interactions and for team-building events. It may sound a bit far out, but consider that by the end of 2005, all cell phones sold in the United States will have to have location-based detection capability for emergency 911 calls. Also, Microsoft revealed that its Longhorn operating system, currently under development, will have location-aware software components.
Intrigued? Take Action!
Taking action now will enable your organization to take advantage of the capabilities of mobile learning in a way that benefits your employees, organization and shareholders. Here are suggestions to begin rethinking how mobile technology can produce results for your organization.
The best place to start is by experiencing firsthand what it’s like to get the information you need in the format and location you want. Here are some ideas:
- Blackberry users: Subscribe to an e-mail news feed to keep informed on a topic of interest. There are several that focus on mobile technologies that reinforce the points made above. Consider what else you would like to have in your palm, and how polling and delivering content to learners might add value.
- PDA users: Try AvantGo, a free service that downloads the news and content of your choice. Take a look at lessons produced by Learn 2 Hand teaching language and other skills. Try connecting to a Wi-Fi network to view video and audio news clips. Think of the message or content most valuable to your employees that you could have produced for next to nothing.
- Cell phone users: Go to your carrier’s Web site and see what services and content are available and explore the capabilities of your phone. While your company may not support downloading games or accessing location-based content, try it with your own phone. Consider how sharing photos might be used in a leadership development course.
- Mp3 audio player users: Try an audio book. You can find them both for free and, of course, for a fee. Does your device record audio? Many do. Explore how these might these be used for learning.
- Tablet PC and Wi-Fi-enabled laptop users: Subscribe to an interesting blog and listen to some podcasting content. Use a webcam to stay in touch with your family or team. Experiment with using virtual classroom type software that best supports video with shared whiteboards and try some audiovisual ideas.
With experience exploring mobile learning yourself, discuss mobile technology strategy with your CIO on an ongoing basis. Understand what’s available and what’s planned, and point out the business drivers. Strive to find internal supporters to further enable and leverage existing technology investments.
Build collaborative partnerships with leading experts who can make sense of these nascent technologies and help you explore how these approaches could support your learning strategies and business priorities. With your internal champions in place and support of your IT leadership, tap into this network once you’ve picked the high-gain business needs to address and get started.
Ron Edwards is the president of Ambient Performance, and his “be where the eyeballs are” approach to mobile learning is serving as a catalyst for business leaders globally. Ron can be reached at email@example.com.Filed under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Talent Management, Technology