Why fresh approaches to L&D are presenting new problems

In the age of the smartphone and gamification, is a traditional approach still the best way for employees to learn? 

When Katie White set out to introduce a new learning platform to nationwide pub and dining chain Mitchells & Butlers, she had a strong idea of how she wanted to get employees on board. 

“I looked into the behaviours that lead us to be addicted to online games such as Candy Crush, or what makes Facebook so popular,” says the talent design and programmes manager, who has a research background in psychology, including addiction and reward. “Whatever system we ended up with, I wanted it to be in their ‘most accessed’ menu when they opened their phone.” 

Despite having more than 46,000 staff across 1,700 pubs and restaurants, frontline employees previously only tended to receive compliance training and any more advanced development initiatives were the preserve of managers. “Our front line is where we make the most difference to guests; they are our most important employees, but they were not getting a great learning experience,” says White. 

In 2015, the company deployed a new learning management system known as MABLE (Mitchells and Butlers Learning Environment), and White believes this has led to a cultural shift in how employees perceive learning. They gain points for completing learning modules but also for sharing or interacting with other workers on the system. 

“Structurally, there’s a gaming element but it’s successful because of the social aspect,” she says. Learning content is mobile-first, interactive and around two-thirds of staff access the system on their phone once a week. It may not be Candy Crush, but it’s definitely popular.  

Mitchells & Butlers’ journey reflects how many organisations have undertaken a quest for a learning management system (LMS) that better reflects their particular working environment and meets employees’ increasing expectations of what they’ll get from learning at work. And while many have decided they need an interactive solution, others are questioning whether, at a time when peer and social learning are supplanting traditional courses, they really need to access learning through a single point or keep a linear record of it in the first place.

Liam Butler, area vice president at software company SumTotal, a division of Skillsoft, says: “The traditional origins of LMS were in compliance – it was a way of ticking the box to show that people were certified to do their job. Now we’re not pushing information, employees are pulling it. Today, it might be on a smartphone and you don’t need to be trained on company systems, as they’re more intuitive.” 

Employees who in their home life expect to choose and access a whole TV season at the click of a button expect to find knowledge they need for their job in a similar way. According to Laura Overton, CEO of learning benchmarking company Towards Maturity, four-fifths of employers who participate in its learning ‘health check’ are still using an LMS for the functions that drove their initial investment – to store, deliver and track online courses. 

And while there’s much discussion about moving towards a more social, experience-led way of learning, Towards Maturity’s data suggests that fewer than three in 10 have deployed systems that can support this. 

“There’s a lot of talk and not much action. The L&D function is daunted,” she says. “The industry is trying to change but is overwhelmed and under-resourced to do it. They have to plan for the future but deliver today, and they still see a lot of value in their existing systems.” Those that are introducing more social and experiential functionality, she adds, are often doing so on top of their existing system. 

Wherever your organisation sits on this adoption curve, there’s value in either adapting your existing learning system or – if it’s a first-time investment – stepping back to consider how any new system will support people’s jobs, not just now but in the future. 

This was the approach taken by Vikkii Chamberlain, people development manager at St Leger Homes, which maintains housing stock for Doncaster Council. The whole organisation is undergoing a digital transformation programme and its new LMS, which is about to go live, needed to complement that. St Leger employs more than 800 people in 180 unique roles, many of them outside an office, so not surprisingly, Chamberlain had an extensive wish list. 

“Our main priority was to have a better log of what was happening with face-to-face learning, but we also wanted to give people the opportunity to not only do essential courses, but also things that interested or developed them,” she says. “We want to get to the point where employees can access learning ‘just in time’, so if you’re looking at a boiler, our specialists can download the latest information about that equipment on their phone. We want to use e-learning to enhance and embed what people did in the classroom – for example, doing some reading beforehand and then following up with further resources.” 

However, one of the challenges faced by companies looking to invest in learning systems is the sheer amount of content available. There may be online courses in the LMS and employees pursuing professional qualifications outside of this, not to mention the daily ‘how do I…?’ Google searches that provide practical support. 

“Organisations’ digital learning assets are all over the place, and the LMS is only one piece of this,” says Ben Betts, CEO of learning technology company HT2. He describes the evolution of learning systems as a shift from ‘you will learn’ in the 20th century, to gamification and nudging learners from the early 2000s, to an era today and in the future where people are learning all the time. 

“We’re moving away from this idea that if they’re not doing it on the system, they’re not learning,” he adds. 

From a technology perspective, protocols such as xAPI, which enables learning systems to speak to each other and learning experiences to be tracked, are helping HR teams get to grips with a multitude of options. White says this was her test of providers: “We wanted a level of interactivity where we could match business data to learning data. We’ll also be looking at using artificial intelligence to tailor content creation,” she says. 

Technology investment consultant Denis Barnard argues that pulling everything together can give organisations a better idea of their “learning capital” and make a clearer link between the learning itself and its influence on business results. He says: “Lots of companies run their L&D as a separate system – this is a mistake. You’ve got a lot of mixed media: online, on the job, cultural, onboarding, compliance. Should we not treat everything as learning capital?” 

This could mean something as simple as showing how sales went up after a learner viewed an information video on a particular product, or linking higher engagement scores to employees who underwent online coaching, he adds. 

Others, however, may feel that a truly egalitarian approach to learning means we cannot hope to house it all under one roof or keep tabs on who is learning what. To some, this represents an existential crisis in which the LMS is a symbol of the old way of doing things.

Andy Lancaster, head of L&D content at the CIPD, believes both a flexible system and approach will be crucial as the nature of work changes. “When it comes to the future of work, we’ve got to think about more creative ways to understand job roles,” he says. “We’ll need to use data and AI to provide content that people will access, to construct a learning environment that has real meaning.” 

With this in mind, organisations should look at systems that allow learners to connect with each other around their learning, he adds. “Interaction should be integral to the system – for example, embedding discussion in the flow of the learning, or giving employees the ability to share and co-create content.” 

Employees access what they need to get on with their job, but learning from others as they go augments this experience. 

Whether it’s an environment that uses machine learning to serve up the perfect YouTube video just when you need it, or a more streamlined way to store learning content, the most important question to ask is why you’re implementing a new system. “HR either evolves what it uses already or jumps on a fad,” says Barnard. “With an LMS, it comes back to why are we learning? Why is this particular skill important and how do we monitor whether that knowledge is being applied?” 

Something that helped St Leger Homes was when its learning provider asked the L&D team to describe its measures of success. Chamberlain says: “The main driver for us was not profit. We wanted something that ensured all our employees were fully compliant but also to have a system that would allow us to focus more on L&D delivery and support than administration.” 

Lancaster believes it’s time for learning professionals to embrace a more “constructive” learning philosophy where users are shaping their learning needs as part of a process rather than an end point to deliver learning. 

“You need to start with what learners need and not just what the organisation perceives it needs,” he concludes. “These are the people who will be engaging with the system day to day.” Keeping the user in mind – it’s not a new idea, but it remains crucial.