Long reads

Just-in-time learning

29 Mar 2017 By Marianne Calnan

Delivering learning exactly when it’s needed isn’t just common sense – it’s a revolution for the L&D department

You’re a sales assistant on the busy shop floor of a high street fashion retailer when colleagues start dropping like flies with a mystery virus. Tomorrow, your manager tells you, you’ll have to work in the returns department. Except you haven’t got any experience or knowledge of the processes and practices involved, and when you check the company’s learning calendar the next relevant training is more than a fortnight away.

It’s situations like these that are tailormade for just-in-time learning – the idea that the knowledge your employees need is best delivered when and how they can best consume it. That might mean a video viewed on the way to an important meeting, or an immersive e-learning course before a new project kicks off. But if the concept sounds far from revolutionary, the logistical hurdles that have to be navigated to make it a reality are significant.

“Just-in-time is about supporting learners’ needs at the point greater performance is required,” says Andy Lancaster, the CIPD’s head of learning and development content. “We’re seeing far more creative ways of helping people learn – including social and collaborative learning, and peer collaboration – and that’s really enabling this to happen. But learners need to be at the heart of the process.”

Just-in-time is a natural fit because it feeds into what we already know: that learning is most effective where there is a genuine practical application for the knowledge and when it takes place within the working environment. And with new technology as an enabler, the time is ripe.

Employees certainly know this. A CEB study found that 57 per cent expected learning to be more just-in-time than it was three years previously. Yet the latest benchmark study of L&D practice from Towards Maturity, Unlocking Potential, found that although 93 per cent of L&D professionals said they wanted to better integrate learning and work, just 15 per cent were doing so.

There are myriad barriers – from reliance on external providers to an organisational reluctance to part with the traditional way of doing things – but the good news is that being just-in-time doesn’t have to mean starting again. You probably have the tools and the people you need at your disposal – if you just follow a few simple steps.

1. Be proactive

“Communication is at the heart of just-in-time learning – it’s absolutely key,” says Sean McCready, director at distance learning provider ICS Learn. “Employers need to tell staff why they’re offering learning based on their knowledge of their talent pool. And the L&D department needs to communicate efficiently, as well as inform business leaders what staff want and need. Employees need to be given opportunities to tell their employer, typically through the L&D team, what their training and development requirements are. And line managers need to make sure their reports are informed and developed.”

Managers are a vital part of the process. “The most critical communication is between line managers and employees; L&D professionals are the facilitators who ensure they’re meeting the business’s needs by designing the right learning intervention in the right format,” says Suzy Roberts of Hymans Robertson.

If managers don’t support learning, or put roadblocks in the way of learning opportunities, the whole process falls apart. Troublingly, in Towards Maturity’s research 58 per cent of employees said their managers were reluctant to encourage new learning formats.

But get it right, with buy-in from the whole business, and the rewards are obvious – not least for L&D professionals, who go from mere facilitators of learning to what Lancaster and others call ‘performance consultants’ who are truly embedded in the business.

In this scenario, learning might be fronted by any part of the business. For example, when Yorkshire Building Society distributed a new smartphone to employees, the IT team created the training materials. “L&D had minimal involvement,” says Emma Barrow, senior manager for learning solutions.

2. Be organised

Just-in-time learning can’t be a free-for-all where bespoke solutions are summoned up in response to individual employee needs, no matter how tempting that sounds – apart from anything else, it would be prohibitively expensive to all but the Goldman Sachs of this world.

But it can be a catalogued, curated repository of content and solutions that’s available to individuals when they need it. “In one sense, just-in-time is almost a misnomer because the learning should always be available, rather than employers rushing to provide it so staff can use it just before they need to,” says McCready.

That could mean using a traditional learning management system. But Andrew Hurren, head of learning at energy provider npower, says his business prefers to use a bespoke social learning platform. “We find it makes it far easier to search for and access all types of learning content quickly and easily, and it provides valuable feedback.”

Brian Murphy, head of learning and leadership development EMEA at Citi, says his team follows two simple rules: “Put the power in employees’ hands and curate content based on their feedback. Employers need to think of learning as performance support, and consider what resources, tools and people can help staff do their job better, quicker and with more impact.”

3. Be bitesize

What just-in-time learning looks like will obviously differ depending on who you are and who your learners are. But the prevailing ethos is that shorter content is better – not least, says Towards Maturity founder and CEO Laura Overton, because the old-fashioned training course is too tricky logistically: “Employers just can’t remove people from the place they’re working anymore.”

Lancaster talks about considering your ‘minimum viable learning proposition’ – how can you make your content as lean and quick as possible, without sacrificing the quality and depth of information you need?

Hurren, meanwhile, says ease of consumption is paramount: “It needs to be accessed in the moment, whether it’s a video, an infographic, audio content or a short piece of e-learning.

“When designing the content, you need to get into the learner’s mind. They have a specific need become of some lack of knowledge, and you need to create something in a format that answers their questions. And it’s even better if you can allow people to save it for future reference, on a platform that has simple search functionality and is easy to access.”

4. Be mobile

Just 20 per cent of employees say they can currently access L&D content from their employer via a mobile device, according to Towards Maturity. When you consider how important smartphones have become in every other aspect of life, that’s a glaring discrepancy.

When Marks & Spencer realised it had contractors working in its stores who required compliance training at short notice – often because they were responding to urgent maintenance needs – it developed a registration process and content that was tailored for smartphones. So far, more than 34,000 people have completed it, at a cost of less than £6 per learner.

But Roberts sounds a note of caution. Content has to be “really creative and interactive” to work on a mobile, she says, and some forms of learning are unlikely to ever make the transition: “Some hotels I work with are giving staff smartphones so they can train on their way into work. That’s great, but people learn managerial or leadership skills best through some form of intervention where they have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know and improve on it through feedback. You can’t learn everything virtually.”

5. Be user-generated

The end goal of much social learning is to create a self-sustaining community of learners who will connect with each other and offer advice and support. That ethos can pervade just-in-time learning, too – anything that is co-created brings with it additional credibility, says Lancaster, who points to videos, podcasts and webinars as ways of encouraging employees to create and share their own content.

Penny Asher, director of executive education at the Open University Business School, says just-in-time creates self-directed learners by “instilling the confidence and motivation to learn by addressing specific knowledge and skills gaps as and when they arise”.

Where user-generated content fails to take off, in fact, it’s often because L&D practitioners lack faith in employees’ ability to “take control”. But Overton says they are often surprisingly adept. “L&D professionals do worry about it. But when you ask learners, they say they can self-direct – and they are more than capable of embracing just-in-time and finding things out for themselves.”

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