A mind-boggling 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated every day. Although much of it is machine-generated, in the workplace, we are drowning in YouTube videos, blogs and other user-generated content. The answer for many organizations has been lightweight curation, essentially siphoning off the ocean of user-generated content into relevant “buckets.” Making user-generated content searchable and accessible, these employers believe, can enhance employee skills and competencies.

Our work in corporate learning and development, however, leads us to a different conclusion. Simply making user-generated content searchable is not the answer – especially when people don’t know what to search, make errors in searching or assume they don’t need to search out information. A better first step is to use advanced adaptive learning technology to develop people’s foundational knowledge such that it becomes second nature, achieving what’s known as automaticity.

With automaticity in competencies that are crucial to their roles and responsibilities, employees can access highly relevant and sometimes mission-critical knowledge and skills far more quickly and accurately than they can look up user-generated content.

The Curse of User-Generated Content

At first glance, it appears to be a blessing: a plethora of how-to instruction, including short videos and reference documents, that can be cheaply and easily made and uploaded by “experts” across the company.

One large industrial company relied on such user-generated content to capture knowledge from across the organization. It wasn’t randomly generated but made in response to specific requests to support work processes. Later, an inventory of that searchable content revealed a shocking statistic: Eighty percent of those videos and instructional materials had never been looked at.

It’s a common problem we see across the corporate learning landscape: Simply building user-generated content doesn’t guarantee anyone will come. Yet more than 80 percent of organizations continue to rely on user-generated content for learning and development.

User-generated content won’t promote learning if people don’t know what to search for – or if they assume (often incorrectly) they don’t need to, because they know the information already. The latter scenario is an example of unconscious incompetence, when people believe they have knowledge that they, in fact, do not have. Studies show that employees are unconsciously incompetent in as much as 20 to 40 percent of the areas that are critical to their performance.

The greater curse is when the creators of user-generated content themselves are unconsciously incompetent in some of their knowledge areas. Then, the technology just makes it easier and faster to spread incorrect information and deviations from best practices.

Automaticity: Faster Than a Searchable Database

A better solution is to focus learning on achieving automaticity in “must-have” knowledge and skill areas that are critical to each job. These competencies can vary greatly in scope and difficulty, from the person who doesn’t need to think about the position of the keys on the keyboard to the surgeon who instinctively knows what to do to save a patient during surgery.

One of the best examples of mission-critical automaticity is when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger used his knowledge and split-second reactions to avoid catastrophe and safely land his aircraft on the Hudson River, saving the lives of every passenger and crew member on board. If Sullenberger had needed to take the time to search for information on what to do, the outcome would doubtless have been different.

Automaticity appears in more common work situations, too. Do you want your salespeople’s default response to a customer question to be, “Let me get back to you,” because they need to look up the answer? Or your physician’s response to be, “Let me google that for you?” Automaticity is an underappreciated goal that can be easily achieved with advanced adaptive learning technology. Biological models based on how the brain learns are particularly well suited to identifying and filling knowledge gaps and correcting and replacing faulty assumptions (their unconscious incompetence).

To improve accuracy, productivity and achievement of mission-critical skills, employees cannot solely rely on databases of user-generated content. What organizations need is a systematic way to identify knowledge gaps and teach competencies in a time-efficient and engaging manner. That’s the proven potential of advanced adaptative learning technology: helping people achieve automaticity in what they need to know and the confidence to put that knowledge into action.