According to the Association for Talent Development’s 2015 State of the Industry Report, 39 percent of all corporate training is delivered online, via mobile phone or remotely. The rise of online learning (also known as web-based training or e-learning) over recent decades allows employees the flexibility to learn whenever and almost wherever they want to, without waiting for the next class session to be offered and without the hassle and expense of travel.

At the same time, e-learning frees instructors and experts from the chore of teaching the same classes over and over again, allowing them to focus on more advanced, more unique or more specialized work. Rapid development tools allow the fast and easy creation of new e-learning programs, and organizations can choose from a variety of off-the-shelf libraries containing thousands of courses for very low cost.

Smarter learning

Online learning has widened the reach and decreased the cost of delivering employee training, but it’s often delivered as a one-size-fits-all approach that misses its full potential.

Even classroom training experiences aren’t able to meet the unique learning needs of each and every individual in the room. What’s more, these “event-based” learning models often fail to take into account the on-the-job, in-the-moment needs for training and information: all those little reminders, tips and troubleshooting tricks that we all use to translate what we’ve learned to what we do on the job.

"In a smart learning environment, this data is used to provide targeted opportunities to acquire new skills and polish up the old ones." 

The rise of new technology platforms and standards is allowing corporate learning and development the ability to make “smart learning” experiences. Smart learning includes a myriad of digital education and support tools that adapt to the individual’s needs in the moment.

A day in the life  

Let’s say you work at an organization that has adopted a smart learning approach. As you arrive to work and check your messages, you find a link to learn more about a new corporate quality initiative. You’ve already taken a similar course, but it was last year, so the course reminds you of a few things that you may have forgotten and takes you right to the new material. You struggle with some of the practice activities, though, and you get an extra chance to work through some of it (and tomorrow you may get a reminder, too).

The things that you seemed to understand just fine aren’t repeated, however, and you’re able to focus where your need is greatest. The course is adapting to your needs, based on how you perform during the learning period.

Factory floor

Smart learning doesn’t always have to start inside a course, though. In fact, the real magic happens when the learning opportunities are seamlessly woven into daily work life.

A factory worker approaches a piece of equipment that she hasn’t used in a few months. The equipment reads her badge and quickly checks to see if her training certification for this equipment is current. If there are new operating procedures or usage tips that she hasn’t seen, she’ll have a chance to review them before starting up the machine. It doesn’t seem like training; it’s all just part of the equipment start-up.

In the field

A salesperson enters data about customer calls into the company’s customer relationship system, keeping track of each of his customers’ size, budget, order details and the next steps to take in the process. Recently, there’s been an increase in the number of prospective customers that are not actually buying the product in the end. The sales system suggests tips for helping clients move all the way through the purchase process, with particular focus on the size of client that this salesperson typically works with. Tips that have been shared by peers in other sales regions are included as well.

A company’s safety team uses a large number of legal, compliance, and procedural documents in their work, highlighting and annotating the documents as they go. An expert team member unexpectedly takes a leave from work and his teammates need to pick up where he left off. They can access all the annotations he’s made recently and get insight into his work. They also find several areas where the expert and other team members have made notes about needed updates to the documents, so those are made, too.

Doctor’s visit

A medical assistant’s supervisor is using a tablet-based checklist to support her observations of a patient intake. How is the greeting? Are medications reviewed? Does the patient appear to understand instructions being given? Has the blood pressure been checked properly? At the end of a shift full of observations, the medical assistant’s performance is rated and she’s offered additional learning opportunities to fill specific gaps.

"Smart learning knows where you are in the world (because regulations and conditions are often location-sensitive), in your organization, on the job and how well you’re doing."

As the factory worker uses a machine, as a salesperson enters notes about a customer call, as a safety team accesses a document repository, as a medical assistant brings patients into the clinic—all of these are opportunities to track data about the actual performance of a workplace task.

Tailored metrics

In a smart learning environment, this data is used to provide targeted opportunities to acquire new skills and polish up the old ones. Is performance below par? Maybe a quick reminder is in order. Is this person really excelling? Perhaps this person would be a good mentor to others. If an entire team is performing solidly, what kinds of training, peer interaction and self-study experiences are they doing that other teams should know about?

This is anything but cookie-cutter learning. Smart learning experiences are personalized, data-driven, team-based and incredibly relevant.

How does it work?

Smart courses work closely with delivery platforms that many larger organizations already have: either learning management systems upgraded with what’s known as learning record stores, or a stand-alone learning record store. The choice of platforms is driven by a number of factors, including whether the organization already has a traditional learning management system with legacy courses.

Where employees log into a traditional learning management system to find their training, in a smart learning environment scenario the platform disappears from the center stage. While a big-picture view of the entire learning landscape provides useful context, most learning experiences are embedded into the daily workflow when and where they are needed.

Smart learning can be sensitive to the courses that you as an employee have already taken and how well you performed on them. Instead of reworking skills that have already been learned, the focus is on new skills and the areas most in need of development. Smart learning knows where you are in the world (because regulations and conditions are often location-sensitive), in your organization, on the job and how well you’re doing. With access to previous learning data, your performance reviews and business systems, a smart course can tailor the learning experience to your needs.

What’s more, as your peers and your team work through course material, smart courses can reflect how you’re all doing: How do you all feel about this? What seems to be trickiest for your teammates? Which parts are easy for this group? How do you stack up against other teams in the organization?