Automation is likely to transform the way we work. While the extent of its impact is up for debate, what just a few years ago sounded like the plot of a science fiction blockbuster now seems a likely eventuality: Automation could render vast swathes of our everyday working lives redundant. And it’s not just the blue-collar work that robots are coming for; technological advances can automate as many cognitive tasks as manual ones.
In its report “The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030,” Pearson listed financial clerks, financial specialists, and other office and administrative support workers as having a low probability for “future increased demand.” The same report listed customer service and elementary sales as occupations whose human days may well be numbered. The message to white-collar workers is clear: Reskill, or face a bleak future.
Ironically, one of the tools organizations are likely to need in order to facilitate reskilling on this scale is, itself, technology-based. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. companies already offer online training, and the global market for corporate e-learning is expected to grow by 13 percent year over year, according to Research and Markets. But this growth isn’t necessarily linked to success. Learner engagement in online courses remains pitifully low, with some sources suggesting that as many as 70 percent of participants drop out before the end.
As researchers Young Ju Joo, Kyu Yon Lim and Su Mi Kim surmised in a 2012 article, “Despite the rapid growth of e-learning in the corporate training sector, this has not always guaranteed an equivalent improvement in the quality of learning.” Online learners are often expected to carry out training in the context of their jobs, meaning they’re easily distracted by day-to-day tasks, and their concentration suffers.
If reskilling white-collar workers to meet the demands of a post-AI workplace relies on digital learning, it’s clear we need to rethink our approach, starting by pinpointing exactly why e-learning has such an engagement problem. All too often, the reasons given for offering online training over face-to-face learning are that it’s faster, cheaper and more convenient. All are true, but they’re not compelling enough to capture employees’ undivided attention. For something to be worth actively engaging in, employees need to believe that it will benefit them personally.
Bain & Co’s “Elements of Value” pyramid suggests that the value of any product or service lies in the type of need it addresses: functional, emotional, life-changing or social impact. Much like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these needs are nested on top of each other, with functional, as the most basic need, on the bottom and social impact sitting at the top of the pyramid.
From this point of view, traditional e-learning typically only addresses the most basic, functional needs: It informs, saves time and money, and reduces the effort it takes to attend training. All are important, but to capture the attention of our time-stretched white-collar employees, we need to look further up the pyramid.
Rather than “This course is going to quickly and painlessly communicate information you should know,” how about, “This experience is going to show you how to be better at your job; equip you with the skills you need to succeed in an increasingly competitive, automated work environment; and, ultimately, improve the lives of you, your customers and your colleagues”? Now there’s something worth sitting up and paying attention to.
It’s not just about the way a digital learning session is marketed; employees will quickly cotton on to false promises. When designing e-learning, we need to shift our thinking away from “What do I want to teach?” and toward “What do I want people to think, feel and do differently”? We need to stop seeing e-learning as a vehicle for knowledge transmission and start recognizing it as a platform for behavior change. And we need to employ clever digital facilitation techniques to make that change as easy as possible for the learner.
That means fewer talking heads and multiple-choice quizzes, which are both designed to impart knowledge. Instead, use environmental cues that encourage learners to put new skills into practice – for example, a calendar invite that prompts them to act at a pre-specified time or a desktop background that acts as a physical reminder of a new way of behaving. Adopt a “show; don’t tell” approach to videos: Demonstrate what great looks like or the consequences of inaction.
In many ways, we’re right to fear the technological invasion. But the flip side is that there are now a multitude of ways to connect with employees virtually and keep that connection alive long after the learning experience has ended. Yes, it saves time and money. More than that, if we get e-learning right, it may save our livelihoods. Looking back at the value pyramid, there can be no greater social impact.