Long reads

Why Google is your most important learning tool

28 Mar 2019 By Susie Finch

Every employee has a smartphone – and they increasingly turn to it rather than traditional workplace learning. Should L&D embrace or resist the revolution?

The ubiquity of the smartphone in modern business seems so complete today in 2019 it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves most of us hadn’t seen one until around 15 years ago. Today, 87 per cent of the UK population has instant access to almost the entirety of global knowledge in their pockets. 

Google, the most visited website in the world, registers 40,000 searches every second. But while the effects of smartphone penetration on social discourse, general civility or children’s education have been endlessly debated, the impact of the iPhone and its ilk on the way employees learn the skills they need for their job is just as important, particularly for the L&D departments who must curate, understand and – to some degree, at least – oversee learning.

It is now an automatic and unconscious reaction to ‘Google’ anything we do not understand, or that we want to learn better. Trying to control the process feels like Canute trying to hold back the waves. But not all learning professionals approach the topic in the same way. 

Some are mistrustful of self-directed search, believing its lack of quality control will lower the quality of knowledge. Others, like Sam Taylor – a learning professional who has worked at Barclaycard, Tesco Academy and Hitachi Rail Europe – are viewing it as an opportunity to evolve the L&D function. “Most of the time, L&D don’t know what their learners are doing any more,” she says. “But why do you need to police it? You don’t.” Her “dream”, she adds, “is to be in a position where staff don’t need me any more, I’m almost trying to do myself out of a job. It’s not that L&D disappears but it takes a different focus.”

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome before practitioners like Taylor achieve their utopia. They may have to persuade managers that smartphone use is legitimate, and that tracking people’s every Google search in the workplace will be impossible. Similarly, employees may need encouragement to use tools like Google and YouTube guilt-free. There are also questions over whether employers should pay for data usage or even entire phone contracts if staff are learning away from their desktops.  And in the era of fake news, how do you ensure the sources people use are authoritative and accurate? 

Andy Lancaster, the CIPD’s head of learning and development content, says the fast-evolving situation challenges our very perception of what learning is. “We need to help leaders and managers recognise that if someone is using a smart device, it may be for a very valid reason,” says Lancaster. He points out that often, the most powerful technology learners have in the workplace is owned by them, not the organisation. “When they’re using their own technology, it’s often seen as wasting time,” he says. In reality, the smartphones in learners’ hands connect them not just to answers and resources but to a wider community, encompassing a range of differing opinions which can be of real benefit.

James Barton, online learning manager at Royal Mail, agrees: “We think we’re a large organisation of 150,000 people but you’ve got billions of people on the internet. Our problems are not unique, and actually there will be organisations doing stuff that we do, in the same kind of field, slightly better, who will already have found solutions.”

Learners’ use of Google, in this context, requires a different way of thinking about learning and the choices practitioners make, as well as the resources they provide. Organisations like Here Technologies, for example, have dropped training on Microsoft Office products. After all, the thinking goes, why would you offer something that is freely available with a quick Google search? 

Equally, Google can’t provide everything learners need. It may help you create a pivot table or solve a problem if you’re stuck using Excel, but it lacks context and it can’t solve your specific organisational issues. When it comes to soft skills, for example, search can help locate tips and hints – Googling ‘time management’ reveals five billion results, for starters – but it is far less effective at putting them into action. 

Barton is trying to change the training culture at Royal Mail, but it doesn’t happen overnight, he adds. “I think it’s fair to say that we’re a training organisation desperately trying to escape from being a training organisation,” he says. He aspires instead to help staff and the business solve day-to-day problems, and he sees self-directed learning as part of the solution. 

In his quest to transform L&D, Barton says it’s employees themselves that are often reluctant to make the change: “A lot of people are really comfortable with using things like YouTube and Google because it’s what they do at home. But they come to work and it’s like a switch flips and they become different people…and they think the business should be providing something.” He cites an employee who recently completed a piece of online learning and then asked: “When are we getting the real training?”

When an organisation is built with a digital-first mindset, learners’ relationship with technology becomes even more fundamental. Digital bank Revolut launched in 2015 and grew initially without a formal learning function. Adam Harwood, its first L&D manager, sees his role as filling the gaps Google leaves behind. That means finding out what staff really need within the context of the organisation. 

“What makes someone a success here will be very different from what makes someone a success at another organisation,” he says. For example, he says, you can find general tips for career progression but Google can’t answer: “How do I progress at Revolut?” 

Harwood is creating digital content to answer contextual questions of that kind, using video interviews with people who work in the organisation. The same approach can also work for compliance, he believes, by using video of in-house experts who explain how they tackle specific issues. “Google can’t compete with you if you’re answering the specific questions that people need in the organisation,” says Harwood. “Answer the questions that Google can’t. But establish what questions your people are asking first.”

At Royal Mail, Barton is taking a similar approach: “Googled stuff is often 80 per cent right and all you need is 30 seconds at the beginning where somebody says, ‘this is the way this applies to you and your particular role in Royal Mail’. In the past, that’s stopped people from using it because it isn’t absolutely perfect – but it’s free and it does the 80 per cent. So either you set the context when you share it, or get your iPhone out and record somebody doing that. It’s not a big barrier.”

The business has plans for a curated online sales academy, built around free resources and in-house experts, to replace its more complex legacy system. “Within the parcel sales team there’ll be a standout sales person who knows certain bits better than anyone else. So why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?” says Barton.

The approach of L&D’s Google evangelists can be distilled, perhaps into three Cs: in-house creation, curation and collaboration. But Lancaster says the next stage is to integrate artificial intelligence into learning systems, to massively speed up how quickly content can be provided and to intuitively understand what learners need, perhaps before they even know themselves.

Some learning management systems are already using this Netflix-style approach to promote and categorise content, while Harwood is pursuing a ‘halfway house’ model which sees him produce and present resources aimed at speeding up onboarding by giving employees help at key milestones such as their first day or second week with the business. 

But not everything can be controlled centrally. Part of embracing the use of Google is accepting employees will find content off their own backs. The question is what they do with it. Towards Maturity research, for example, suggests that 70 per cent of UK employees are curating work-related content to some degree, but only 39 per cent share what they find.

This can be a frustration, and it’s a juggling act for L&D to give employees freedom while trying to prevent everyone independently solving the same challenge. Barton tries to meet this by encouraging individuals to share what helps them on Royal Mail’s Facebook-style internal social platform: “It’s about getting people into that habit of going out and finding stuff and then bringing it back and sharing it.”

He starts this process by signposting things he has created and curated himself, such as TED talks, which are aligned to management competencies. He hopes that giving people ready-curated content will help ‘warm them up’ to forage for themselves, rather than sweeping everything away and leaving them to it. And it is accompanied by curation guidelines on how to be an effective self-directed learner.

“You want a decent source [of information] – and it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to provide that,” says Barton. “But it’s how can we help people find the right kinds of places to go and to know when things are reputable and whether they’re suitable.”

“Not everything that gets to the top of the search engine is necessarily good – they’re either sponsored or have been tagged well,” adds Lancaster. “So I think there’s a real role for L&D teams to support learners in how to find great content, which is about how to use search engines really well.”

Ultimately, employees are naturally going to use Google, YouTube and a range of free resources to find the answers they need, whether you want them to or not – and that requires a shift in thinking. It’s an ongoing quest for L&D to prove value, and it exposes the different perceptions of what learning means to different groups. How would your managers feel if staff spent an hour on YouTube, for example? Is it valued in the same way as an hour of classroom training? 

“What’s broken is a culture where learning something job-related in work time could be perceived as anything other than good, purely because of the platform it is on,” says Barton. But just as it once seemed improbable a device for making phone calls could be a powerful learning tool, in another decade or so we may wonder why we ever saw workplace learning as something that needed to be centrally controlled in the first place.

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