by Katie Kuehner-Hebert
February 26, 2014
With the rise of mobile technology, many learning executives are saying mobile is the innovative delivery method of choice when it comes to getting content to employees.
But just because millions of people use tablets and smartphones in their personal lives doesn’t mean all types of workplace learning can adapt to the medium effectively. As mobile learning use matures, organizations are figuring out where it makes the most sense — and, perhaps more important, where it does not.
That said, mobile learning is on the rise: 17 percent of U.S. learning organizations surveyed in an April report from Bersin by Deloitte, a learning and development research firm, deploy the learning delivery method, and 31 percent of large organizations use mobile in their learning strategy.
Further, more e-learning vendors are dovetailing existing products to support mobile, employing tools such as Adobe Captivate, Articulate Presenter or Lectora to create HTML5 content that can work in any form, said David Mallon, Bersin by Deloitte’s head of research.
Still, obstacles remain, namely debate about whether the organization or the learner should provide the devices. In these cases, cost is a factor, but so are device standardization and security concerns. Also, who pays for employees accessing learning content during their off hours?
“Too many organizations thought they could just bring the content they already had onto a mobile device and force fit it into a smartphone or tablet,” Mallon said. “But so much e-learning is done with Flash, and that creates a problem on mobile devices. It’s becoming easier to work with, but features are still lost, and it breaks a lot.”
For example, Mallon mentioned financial services firms proposing employees take compliance training on their smartphones while commuting. He said the firms couldn’t get them to read two-hour courses on such small devices. The most effective use of mobile appears to be performance support, a learning method that enables field workers to access content.
Mallon said progressive learning practitioners who have moved beyond basic experimentation realize a realistic potential for mobile learning in large part by leveraging the unique capabilities devices offer rather than trying to apply it broadly.
Working Out the Kinks
Companies Experiment With Mobile
Most clients of Skillsoft Corp., a Nashua, N.H e-learning company, are still experimenting with mobile learning, according to Tim Hildreth, the firm’s vice president of product management. But as demand increases, Skillsoft will either release mobile-friendly content or retrofit existing products that make sense on mobile.
On smartphones, clients want shorter forms of content, text messaging reminders and video, said Pam Boiros, Skillsoft’s vice president of corporate marketing. For tablets, users can have a more immersive experience with games or simulations.
Either way, while organizations might consider using mobile apps for games or simulations on company-issued devices, e-learning content still needs to be mobile optimized. “It’s definitely an investment to support apps for all different platforms, and clients are also wedded to those vendors and their requirements for their operating systems,” Boiros said.
Kevin Cavanaugh, vice president of IBM Corp.’s Smarter Workforce business unit, said learning on mobile devices should be less structured informal learning because the modality works best for people on the go.
“Boston Children’s Hospital is transforming how pediatric medicine is taught and practiced around the world with an informal and formal learning system for nurses, doctors and other medical practitioners,” he said. “There was an incident in which a baby was delivered, but was turning blue, and hospital workers were having trouble getting the ventilation machine to work. With mobile learning, they managed to get to information from a system expert that showed them how to get the ventilator fixed within minutes to save the baby.”
IBM is also working to make mobile learning seamless with other modalities so workers can access content on desktops, follow up on tablets and finish on smartphones.
But some companies are encountering headwinds.
“The major barrier for corporations to mobile is that millions of dollars of legacy content is sitting in Flash, and they can’t automatically put it on mobile devices. But we’re seeing a lot of video on mobile for training, and the majority of new content is video … which is likely to have forward compatibility with any new technology,” said Rory Cameron, senior vice president of corporate development and emerging platforms at Callidus Software Inc.
Organizations are also challenged when tracking mobile learning within existing learning management systems. This is especially true if content is provided via mobile apps, said Robert Gadd, co-founder and president of OnPoint Digital Inc., an e-learning and m-learning platform company in Savannah, Ga. “The favored app-centric approach to mobile mandates the use of newer and more flexible tools, interfaces and ways to interact with the today’s learning content.”
A unique advantage of mobile learning is the ability to transition workers into content contributors. “Using a mobile device’s camera, video and audio capabilities makes it a snap to capture an image of something, interview a customer or verbally record a set of findings,” said Katherine Guest, OnPoint’s co-founder and chief marketing officer. The company is also using user-generated content effectively for peer training and compliance tracking.
Most important, organizations have to tie mobile learning to business results, said Sarah Gilbert, president of meLearning Solutions in Atlanta. For instance, she said salespeople don’t always have time for games; they need learning in the moment instead. “Some organizations just don’t need mobile right now because it doesn’t fit a particular business need,” Gilbert said.
Firms Make Strides
Putting Mobile to Work
In 2012 Xerox Corp. began deploying a mobile learning strategy, and now roughly half of its e-learning content is tablet-friendly, said Steven Rath Morgan, the company’s manager of global learning process and solutions.
The company took hour-long e-learning courses and broke them down into 20- or 30-minute modules for tablets. This activity was rooted in a broader strategy to make learning more modular and content bite-sized, he said, “which we can stitch together in learning paths of personalized content targeted to the needs of our workforce.”
Xerox also began to encourage workers to share knowledge by generating their own videos on mobile devices using the Xstream Video streaming media platform. By the end of 2013, more than 30 percent of company content was user-generated video; the goal is to reach 70 percent by 2015.
Farmers Insurance Group began adopting a mobile learning strategy in 2011, partly because the delivery method appeals to its growing Gen Y workforce. Annette Thompson, senior vice president and chief learning officer at the University of Farmers, also said the method is ideal to supply learning to agents and representatives in the moment of need.
“When an agent walks into a beauty shop, they may want to quickly access the types of exposures that such a business might have,” Thompson said. “We might provide a product card that refreshes an agent’s memory on the types of coverage and other concerns that a beauty shop owner might have in mind.”
Likewise, claims representatives can learn about requirements to settle unusual claims via mobile devices, or whether there has been a change in endorsement to a client’s policy that changed the original terms, said Ilene Haber, Farmers’ head of learning and development for the claims department.
After a six-month pilot in 2011, Farmers now supplies more than 8,000 smartphones to its claims representatives. The University of Farmers also supplies reusable tablets to agents and employees who take weeklong classes. The effort saves the company about $100,000 annually in printed binders, said Art Dobrucki, Farmers’ director of learning strategy and performance.
In 2010, sales managers at Boston-based New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc. began considering the need for a mobile learning strategy. As of 2013, the footwear and apparel company has provided iPads to its sales force of roughly 200 people, some of whom are independent contractors, said Ashley Renzi, the company’s sales training and development manager.
This distribution format is better than bring your own device for New Balance because it is easier to secure, allows Renzi and her team to perform stronger user-acceptance testing when rolling out new functionality, and it confirms what content the sales force can access. “We don’t want unauthorized users to view information about new products or corporate strategies, so security is critical,” Renzi said.
Since its sales staff used their own mobile devices until 2012, New Balance created an app catalog that would function on one preferred device — the iPad — that all field sales associates could use. The more devices and applications, the less Renzi and her team would be able to create standard documentation and testing guidelines.
This year, New Balance aims to deploy all learning objects on its learning management system with offline compatibility, which will rely on the LMS functionality to have an offline mode. “This is a strategy that allows them to access learning 24/7,” Renzi said.
Yum Brands Inc. is experimenting with performance-support content for mobile devices during employee training before it opens one of its restaurants, which include Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.
“Because we open more than 1,500 restaurants per year in many in places where we have never operated before, including developing countries, it would be great if we could simulate what the job entails, how to perform core tasks and educate on operating standards before the restaurant was even built,” said Rob Lauber, vice president of the company’s Yum University.
Performance support, or just-in-time learning, also might prove useful when customers order products that aren’t listed on menus, so employees can quickly access how to make them.
In a 2012 pilot, Yum provided content via mobile learning to restaurant managers, and 89 percent said mobile performance support made their job easier or somewhat easier.
Lake Forest Graduate School of Management in Lake Forest, Ill., is offering mobile learning content for both students in its immersive master of business administration program and to employees in corporations that receive leadership training at the school.
Kathy Leck, the school’s vice president of corporate learning solutions, said the most important element in deploying a mobile learning strategy is measurement. Unless mobile learning is proven to be a convenient, cost-effective way to get content to employees when they need it — and employees are proven to improve performance as a result — the learning delivery method will fall flat.
“If people can’t apply the learning, I don’t care what device it’s on,” she said.