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March 25, 2020
Learning & Development

The Future of L&D: Creating On-Demand Tech for Frontline Employees

This article is based on content put together for a webinar. You can view the recording here.

The future of learning and development (L&D) is rapidly changing because of technology. Emerging tech and automation means that now more than ever, employees need to be constantly learning and evolving their skills to match business needs.

According to Gartner’s most recent HR report, the majority of HR leaders cite the shortage of critical skills and competencies as the most pressing issue. And that’s not surprising given that 19% of skills will be irrelevant in the next 3 years and as many as 375 million workers may need to switch occupational categories as advances in technology disrupts the world of work, according to a McKinsey & Company report.

HR needs to lead the charge in innovation within this space.The only durable transformation starts inside the enterprise — what we call “inside out transformation.” Operational excellence at scale cannot be achieved without proper learning and development of the workforce. L&D is the gateway to the future of work, where people and tech work together seamlessly

So how do you lead the charge as an HR leader?

We’ve gathered some insights through building digital learning tools for some of the world’s most influential companies — including Walmart, Sam’s Club, and Chick-fil-A.

Here are 3 best practices you can use to create effective, future-proof L&D tech for frontline employees.

Best Practice 01: Use on-demand learning methods that give your employees the power to learn on their own.

One of our clients is a large warehouse retailer. They have employees all over the floor — each with long to-do lists and frequent interruptions. These tasks are communicated over employee  earpieces, or directly from customers who need help. Typically, their days are split into 60-second increments. This is compounded by the fact that the closest employee might be 50 yards away; if employees have questions, they’d need to drop everything they’re doing to ask a coworker or find the information in the back office.

Our client needed an easy way to provide the exact information needed to this employee in their precise moment of need.

To solve this challenge,  we built a chatbot — an AI-powered virtual assistant that sits on top of a vast employee knowledge base. All employees have to do is pick up their device and ask a question — seconds later, the answer is provided.

This product had two standout effects. First, there’s the Bot vs Boss Effect: In our research, we’ve found that employees are more likely to ask a question of a virtual assistant than to “risk” asking their boss what may seem like a dumb question. Employees simply felt safer asking the bot. In fact, they’ve asked the chatbot over eight million questions to date.

Second, it sped up employee productivity. One repetitive task, category lookup, was cut down from 50 seconds to 19 on the new product. A lot of that is due to employees having the answer in their pockets, as opposed to having to walk to the back room to find the information.

In creating this tool, we saw firsthand the power of on-demand learning for frontline employees.

Here’s what we’ve learned:

Contextual, on-demand learning is also the highest retained learning.

The Research Institute of America concludes that learning methods like on-demand training boosts retention by 25-60 percent, compared to traditional methods.

From our observation, part of that is because it most closely mirrors how we learn in the real world — especially for rapid-fire, task-oriented training. When we need a question answered in the moment, we ask Google, Alexa, or Siri. This platform simply allows employees to do the same, while on the job.

On demand, by default, means we are surfacing the right content, for the right person, at the right time.

This may sound awfully familiar to how we think about consumer marketing. And it is. We would put on-demand learning in the bucket of consumerizing the employee experience where we take methods we know work in the consumer world, and apply them to employees in the enterprise. Another benefit of patterning enterprise learning after consumer learning is that it’s intuitive and reduces the change management lift when rolling it out.

Serving the right content, for the right person, at the right time matters because we’re unblocking employees to get back to work faster and be more productive.

We found that different training methods work better in different situations.

This goes beyond the employee experience. Here’s a personal story: For Christmas, I got a new Green Egg Grill. The Green Egg works totally different than any other grill I’ve owned. So when I decided to grill steak for the first time, I did a Google search on how to best do that on the Green Egg. My search returned text articles, annotated images, and YouTube videos.

I went to YouTube first, but the video was eight minutes long. If I were just researching the Green Egg before bed one night, that would have been perfect. But because I had a dinner deadline and needed to get cooking, I skipped down to the text article right below that gave me a quick 1-2-3 on how to light the grill. There was even a handy picture to show me where to place the fire-starter.

So by the time I got started cooking steak, I had evaluated three different content types and selected the two (text and image) that met my need at the time.

Our on-demand training systems should be just as flexible as this example. Content types, like video, audio, text, facilitated training or otherwise all have a role to play. It depends on the type of learning we’re doing, the learning style of the individual, and sometimes the environment that they’re working in. The bottom line is that we need to give employees options.

Best Practice 02: Make sure your product is easily accessible to employees.

If your product is not tailored to meet the needs of your employees and their environment in the real world, then your effort will be unsuccessful out of the gate. Full stop.

Here’s how that plays out in our experience: A quick serve restaurant chain that highly values their employee training needed a new learning system that integrated training plans while also providing quick access to operational procedures.

The company already had a Learning Management System (LMS) in place, but felt constrained by its limitations since it was off-the-shelf. So, it was decided that a new LMS needed to be built that tailored learning to how the individual restaurants worked.

The organization didn’t want to spend months or years building the new platform feature-by-feature, then deploy it to the restaurants without any prior testing. This was a particular risk because within their business model, each restaurant executed training in a slightly different way.

To combat this, we defined what a MVP (Minimum Viable Product) could look like, and piloted it with several restaurants. In just nine weeks, the product went from an idea to a live app in 15 restaurants. This provided incredible speed-to-value.

By piloting the app in the restaurants, we discovered that employees needed to be able to get access to information immediately due to the fast-paced environment. During a busy lunch rush, cars are often wrapped around the drive-through line and the fryers operate at full capacity. The restaurant employee wouldn’t have time to log into a system, search, and find the information they need.

We created a system that allowed users access to quick training and operational procedures without the barrier of logging in.

But how did we evaluate the app’s effectiveness? Employee feedback was built into the interface, and our team took weekly 15-minute calls with each pilot store. This helped keep a pulse on what was working and what wasn’t, so that the product could adapt to what would be the most effective for the company’s unique environment and brand.

Through this product and others, we’ve learned that product accessibility goes beyond compliance. In order for a tool to be adopted, it has to be easily accessible to the employee and integrated into their real-world environment. Here are some ways to achieve that:

Consider the needs of all users by bringing them into the process.

Bring a group of key employees into every stage — starting with the Product Strategy. We call these employees “canaries” — those individuals that can help you detect when you are headed down the wrong path. Some of your most important product shifts will happen when you involve your employees early and often.

Deeply understand the daily activities of your employees.

As a leader, you may feel like you and your team have a deep understanding of the experiences of your frontline employees. You need to assume you don’t. Even if you are well connected to this group, there is always more you can learn. We cannot tell you how many times we’ve hosted collaborative design workshops where the frontline employee unveils something that corporate leaders were unaware of. Have your team shadow your frontline employees for a few days. You may be surprised by what you learn.

Your environment will dictate your accessibility needs.

Like in the restaurant story above, the work environment will have a massive effect on the type of accessibility you will need to consider. Things like device restrictions and hourly vs full-time labor laws may be constraints you need to work within. The frontline employee is often in a more dynamic environment than the office worker, so the physical devices and software experience need to adapt to their unique situation. If someone is looking for quick information while attending to a customer, you need to remove any barrier to getting that information. Maybe that means removing a required login, adding shortcut actions to a dashboard, or giving employees the option to use their own devices.

Best Practice 03: Show business value by aligning accountability to business objectives.

As we’ve talked with L&D teams across the Fortune 500, there seems to be the common struggle of how to prove the value of training. We empathize with this, because of all the things the enterprise spends money on, sometimes training can be hard to attribute back to the bottom line.

One of our retail clients has done this quite well: They followed a specific methodology that helped them tie the impact of their training to key business objectives.

The first thing they did was to take the time to really understand what the indicators of a high-performing store are through data and analytics. Then, they took those core indicators and worked with the operations group to standardize a series of operational procedures that, if performed correctly, would move the needle in these high-impact areas. Only then did they build the training for those associates on how to perform these tasks.

Through the training, the accountability came all the way down to the individual employees. We used incentive structures on the product, including some pretty robust assessment features and gamification, so that managers and students could clearly see progress that would translate into career progression for those that performed well.

Before we were done, this system was so valuable that it ended up scaling their learning efforts across 150 training locations. It’s become the largest training system ever deployed outside of the U.S. military, with over 1M students trained. And, as a bonus, it ended up saving the enterprise $15M in licensing fees.

In all of these facts and figures and business objectives, it’s important that you don’t lose sight of the individual impact you can have on the lives of the people who work for your organizations. Particularly those on the frontline who may not have known before what it feels like to have a company invest in them.

As part of this training platform we helped roll out, we had the chance to attend a graduation ceremony. Graduates were dressed in caps and gowns, and invited to receive their certification in a ceremony where friends and family were invited to attend. For some of those people, it was the first time they’d ever graduated anything in their lives. It was an emotional and touching moment that made our client’s investment in their people really quite tangible.

While partnering with this client to align accountability from the highest levels to the frontline through training technology, we learned a few things:

Any training effort should really start with a clear articulation of the business objectives you want to impact.

If you can’t identify the objective and the key results you will measure to show improvement, don’t go any further. The more clear the alignment,, the more the organization will recognize the value of the training you’re providing.

Also, it’s important to make sure you get a good baseline reading of these metrics and do your best to isolate other variables so you bring a compelling correlation back to leadership.

Partner closely with ops to identify the standardized processes that if trained on, have a proven ability to impact these key results.

This is the lowest-hanging fruit in complex organizations of scale that have lots of employees in lots of locations. Driving adherence to standardized processes can give you a fast, correlated link back to the P&L. This, in turn, will increase the value your company puts on learning and hopefully give you the resources you need to build a world-class learning organization.

Clearly articulate the accountability for these big business objectives all the way down to the frontline employee.

When you’re designing a gamified experience or any other form of progress indicators, make sure they all ladder-up to business objectives. Reward behavior that is attributed to those goals. If you need to improve customer service, create a customer service badge that employees can earn, and give them public recognition for it.

The reality is that clarity around business objectives is critically important— especially at the frontline. There are thousands of micro-interactions that we can’t possibly train our employees for. But if we’ve connected our people to purpose, and they understand the why behind the training, they’ll have better interactions with the customer and make better decisions on your behalf.

The changing technology landscape is disrupting the workforce and pressuring enterprises across the board to recognize learning and development programs as a top business priority. HR can lead this charge by harnessing the very same technology that is causing this disruption for upskilling and reskilling. Creating on-demand technology that is shaped by the employee’s experience and environment is key. Then tying your tool’s business impact back to company objectives ensures you have the resources you’ll need to continue your efforts.

Good luck out there.

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RevUnit is a technology studio that helps supply chain clients identify and implement data solutions that actually prove ROI. We help organizations across industries like transportation, freight, logistics, retail, and manufacturing achieve business results through innovative data solutions — powered by AI/ML and the cloud. We’ve done it for clients like ArcBest, J.B. Hunt, and Walmart.

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