Published in Spring 2023
Which would you rather go without for a month?
- Your pet.
- Your spouse.
- Your smartphone.
It’s a difficult choice, right? Well … maybe for some more than others.
Pets and spouses face stiff competition from mobile technology, according to a survey by SimpleTexting. Approximately 40% of people would rather be separated from their dogs and cats than give up their smartphones. However, pets are still doing better than significant others, as 42% of millennials would rather be separated from their better half than their silicon sidekick.
Smartphones are more than just pocket computers. They’re extensions of our identities — windows through which we experience the world. Your smartphone knows you better than your BFF (are the kids still saying BFF?). It has your photos, bank records, personal messages and search history. According to Statista, 83% of the global population owns a smartphone. That’s 6.5 billion people who can access information, consume media and take a selfie behind the wheel of a car whenever they want.
The Problem With Mobile Learning
Mobile phones became ubiquitous in the early 2000s. The Blackberry craze hit its peak in 2006. The iPhone dropped a year later and has defined the hardware space ever since. Learning and development (L&D) has been struggling to figure out where these devices fit within our practices for more than 15 years.
While mobile tech is relatively new, the challenge L&D faces is not. In fact, it’s the same issue the industry has with most digital innovations, from the internet and social media to virtual reality and artificial intelligence. We often try to force new tools to fit within outdated paradigms. The advent of the learning management system (LMS) in the early 2000s didn’t transform learning. The classroom just went online. The popularization of mobile devices didn’t result in the reimagining of digital learning. The LMS just added a native app and started referring to the same old catalog of courses as “mobile learning.”
So, if mobile learning isn’t about completing LMS courses on smartphones, then what is it?
Equity, Not Devices
Mobile learning isn’t about technology. It’s not about content. It’s about expectations. It’s about behaviors. It’s about equity.
Consumer technology sets the digital bar. TikTok, Google Maps, YouTube and Wikipedia show people what’s possible today. Platforms like these have established new behaviors for finding, consuming, analyzing, applying and sharing information. This is true for the workplace too. Mobile learning isn’t about L&D’s ability to make courses that play correctly on phones. It’s about L&D’s understanding of and ability to adapt to tech-driven changes.
Consider a retailer with employees who work across a variety of roles and locations, including:
- Store associates.
- Distribution center workers.
- Delivery drivers.
- Contact center agents.
- Corporate office workers.
- Remote employees.
These employees use different devices to do different kinds of work:
- Store associates use a point of sale (POS) system to run transactions.
- Distribution center workers and delivery drivers use handheld scanners to track inventory.
- Contact center agents use company-issued desktops to speak with customers.
- Corporate office workers and remote employees use a blend of company-issued and personal devices to collaborate on projects.
These employees know how easy it is to find information on Google, watch a video on YouTube and share their dancing skills on TikTok. But when they go to work, they suddenly can’t apply these digital behaviors on the job. Information lives behind walls. Content is long and boring. It takes seven clicks to watch a video in the LMS. And we wonder why people fail to engage in learning activities!
Every employee — regardless of role, location or tenure — deserves an equitable opportunity to do their best work. Unfortunately, when organizations fail to embrace a holistic approach to digital enablement, many people don’t get this opportunity. L&D must embrace this challenge. Of course, we have limited time and resources. It’s difficult-to-impossible to design a unique learning experience for every role. But rather than acquiesce to a one-size-fits-none reality, L&D must lean into prevailing digital behaviors. This means adopting a mobile-first approach to provide right-fit training and support to a diverse and distributed workforce.
This doesn’t mean people should always be required to access training via mobile devices. After all, many employees are not provided with devices. Not everyone wants to use their own smartphone for work. Some are banned from even looking at them on the job.
Adopting a mobile-first approach means making workplace learning device-agnostic. There will still be circumstances that require a specific device for a specific activity. For example, a regulator may require employees to complete a designated online course that can only be accessed via desktop computer because it was developed in 2007. However, this must become the exception rather than the rule. Here are three aspects of mobile-first design to keep in mind:
- The design: Responsive design must become table stakes in learning technology. This includes delivery platforms as well as authoring tools. You can’t assume which device an employee will use to access a resource over its lifespan. Your audience may use laptops today, but the operation may adopt mobile devices next year. Instead of redesigning volumes of content, instructional designers and developers must build for any device from the start. L&D must make responsive design a requirement during technology selection, even if it’s not required at that moment.
- The time: Do you want to complete a 45-minute course on your smartphone? Of course not! That’s why microlearning is essential to a mobile-first strategy. All content — regardless of the intended device — must apply microlearning principles. Each content object must focus on one specific, measurable objective. It must be easily consumed in the time available. It must align with proven learning science. Microlearning makes skill development more accessible within the flow of work for even the most time-constrained employees.
- The support. Performance support is a third essential consideration for a mobile-first approach. Employees need a consistent, reliable way to ask for help. This may come in the form of a knowledge base, social feed or digital adoption tool. These resources must be designed for access on every internet-capable device within the workflow.
For example, Lowe’s retail associates use Zebra handheld devices to access information without leaving the store floor. They can quickly pull up product information to answer customer questions instead of walking away for a lengthy period to access a desktop computer in a back room. This mobile-first strategy boosts associate confidence and improves the customer experience.
Red BYOD Tape
The most powerful computers available to many employees are the ones in their pockets. Sadly, lots of companies still frown on the use of personal devices for work activities, including L&D. This risk aversion makes sense in a world rife with data privacy challenges. Plus, hourly employees are limited in their ability to complete work tasks while off the clock.
Nonetheless, an effective bring-your-own device (BYOD) policy offers substantial benefits. It reduces the information technology (IT) spend associated with deploying and maintaining company hardware. It shortens the learning curve by leveraging devices people already know how to use. BYOD rapidly expands the organization’s reach and fosters equitable access to support resources. But to make BYOD possible, you must get past the red tape:
- Partner with IT to identify and resolve data security and privacy concerns related to learning delivery platforms.
- Work with legal to establish guidelines for personal device use, including activities permitted away from the workplace.
- Consider gating access to specific apps or learning activities for hourly employees to make sure they’re at their work locations and/or clocked in for their shifts.
- Determine the bandwidth requirements for all applications to ensure additional costs are not passed on to employees.
- Provide alternative access options for employees who do not own mobile devices or don’t want to use them for work purposes.
BYOD has enabled companies like MOL Group, a multinational oil and gas company with more than 2,000 service stations across Eastern Europe, to provide equitable development opportunities to their 15,000 workers. When given the option, 88% of their hosts chose to access training on personal devices.
A Mobile World
Billie Eilish only watches “The Office” on her phone. That’s a silly piece of pop culture trivia that perfectly demonstrates the way the world now works. Smartphones have forever altered our relationships with technology, media and information. They enable us to solve complex problems and waste preposterous amounts of time. They set a new bar for convenience that the workplace fails to reach thanks to antiquated technology and legacy mindsets.
The purpose of modern L&D is to enable behavior change — the right support at the right time for the right person to solve the right problem. To accomplish this purpose, we must take inspiration from our everyday experience, lean into prevailing digital behaviors and offer equitable solutions that look and feel familiar to the people we support.
We may be 20 years late, but it’s finally time for L&D to find its place in a mobile-first world.