Keeping Pace

At this year's conference, Josh Bersin is slated to explore some of the more dramatic ways technology is transforming today's learning function.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012
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Josh Bersin's session at this year's HR Technology® Conference features a fairly straightforward title: Learning Systems: Where Are We Now? But, as those attending it will no doubt learn, the challenges facing HR leaders on the learning-and-development front haven't been this complex and formidable in a very long time.

During his 75-minute workshop on Oct. 9, Bersin, president and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Bersin & Associates, will -- among other things -- walk his audience through a few of the more notable changes that have taken place in the $13.6 billion learning-and-development market in recent years.

Near the top of Bersin's list is the proliferation of new types of content and learning approaches. The market, he says, is no longer just about e-learning and instructor-led training; it's now about delivering and publishing videos, self-authored content by other employees and social learning experiences.

"The amount of content has gone up in orders of magnitude," Bersin says, adding that many companies today have way too much of it. "They have webcasts, they have documents, they have training materials, they have audiotapes and videotapes -- to say nothing of the virtual classroom and all the content that's there."

At the same time, Bersin points out, the universe of learning-management-system vendors has consolidated. Whereas there used to be 30 or 40 vendors thriving in that space, he says, today, there's just a fraction of that number.

First, he says, bigger vendors started to buy up small vendors; then, the talent-management vendors began to buy them up. So today, he says, there are very few stand-alone LMS vendors investing in new tools that support the large pool of learning content in existence today.

Because of this, Bersin says, training departments have been forced to "lash together" their old-fashioned LMSs -- which typically aren't very good at leveraging these new capabilities -- with tools from start-ups and their own IT departments; then, they need to try to get these to successfully work together.

Bersin also notes that, as educational institutions start to "wake up to the concept of e-learning," there's more and more pressure on training leaders to respond with more robust and relevant offerings.

"Employees are noticing what's out there on the public Internet -- and they're looking at their own stuff and saying, 'Wow! We're really behind.' So it's dramatically increased the need for training departments to re-engineer their learning functions."

Bersin notes the market hasn't been this tumultuous since the early '90s, when technology couldn't keep up with the market. "I think that's where we are today," he says. "Solutions haven't caught up with the needs of corporations."

If it isn't already the case, Bersin says, technology expertise has to be a core competency of training leaders. "Not only do you need to have a grasp of instructional design, assessment and training processes, you also have to understand video and video editing, simulations and gaming -- and how to put all of these on an iPad."

Bersin also believes the emergence of new collaborative technologies are, in certain ways, changing the dynamic between training and IT.

"If my IT department is buying, say, Chatter, Jive, Yammer or SharePoint, and I'm the training guy and I want to buy Adobe Connect or GoToMeeting," he says, "I'm now going to have to fight with IT or just use what they've already bought, since training is just a small part of what the market [for collaboration]."

Vendor Response

Collaboration, Bersin says, is one of several areas of learning and development in which innovation is very much alive and well.

Much of the innovation is specifically coming out of the small start-ups, not the bigger companies, he says.

Many of the larger providers in talent management, Bersin says, are focused on building an integrated platform and have therefore been slower to innovate in areas such as social learning and collaboration. Exceptions include vendors such as Saba, SilkRoad and perhaps SAP and its SuccessFactors and Plateau units, which have "some cool stuff they're working on."

At the HR Technology® Conference, Bersin says, he's going to educate attendees about the state of learning and development, explore various solutions that fit into different segments of the market and provide examples of companies that are successfully bringing an assortment of pieces together.

If there ever was a time for training leaders to rethink their learning-technology architecture, he says, it's now. "The old buy-an-LMS-and-let-everyone-use-it [approach] isn't enough anymore," he says.

Informal learning tools, knowledge sharing, collaboration and video sharing have as much, if not more, impact on learning than formal training these days, Bersin says. "We've reached a point in everyday life where we, as human beings, have been conditioned to interact online," he says. "As much as people like to go to classes, they are much more likely today to gravitate to things online."

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In the early days, he says, technology-enabled training was simply an add-on to the instructor-led training. "Now, it's the other way around," he says. "Instructor-led training is just one of many interventions that includes a range of technology-based tools to get your jobs done."

Bersin points out that mobile technologies are helping to drive this transformation.

"Five, six, seven years ago, if you wanted to do mobile learning, you had to take a bunch of training content, buy a bunch of tools and then re-author them for the BlackBerry, iPhone and all of the other devices," he says. "But that's no longer the case today."

If you're not putting content on mobile devices, he adds, it's 50 percent less likely people will get it these days.

Key Skills

In light of these developments, Bersin says, training departments themselves must acquire a whole new skill set.

First, he says, they need to get a better handle on the various roles of employees.

"It used to be you taught a class on a certain date and people either showed up or didn't," he says. "Classes were developed around a topic, not a role, and people self-selected to be there. But now that content is being delivered directly to people on their jobs, we need to know what their role is."

Training departments, Bersin says, have to become very familiar with the people they're training so they can put in place not just training, but the support tools and informal learning experiences that are relevant to them.

According to Bersin & Associates research, he says, only 13 percent or 14 percent of the companies indicate they have a good handle on this.

Nowadays, Bersin says, training organizations are essentially about capability development. "What are the capabilities we need in our organizations now to be successful? Which ones are strategic? Which ones are tactical? And then, how can I assemble the tools to build those capabilities in partnership with all of the talent management we're doing? How can I do that globally? How can I do that with modern technology? How can I do that in conjunction with all of the new skills that are needed?"

To be sure, none of these are easy questions to answer. But, that said, Bersin believes the ability for organizations to successfully arrive at meaningful responses to these and other issues can be a huge asset in today's uncertain world.

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