12 April 2018

Learning Technology, or just Technology?

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst


This article makes the argument that all technology can be used for learning – and that organizations should consider ALL technology solutions to build a culture of learning instead of relying solely on those that show up on their L&D balance sheet.

I spend one day a week tutoring immigrants who have left their home countries in search of a better life. They dedicate two hours, two days a week to learning English so that they are able to be active members of society. Sometimes I feel like the only two productive hours I spend each week are the two I spend with them. Incidentally, it’s one of the best tutoring programs I’ve been a part of and they’re always looking for volunteers. If you live in the Salt Lake City area, you should volunteer: Guadaloupe Schools Adult Education Program.

But I digress. The thing that constantly surprises me about the time I spend with that group is how much I actually learn. Sure, they correct my horrible Spanish and weed out the Dominican slang I picked up, but more than that, many of the ideas I decide to pursue from a research perspective start with the things I notice with this tutoring group.

One of those things actually made my list of topics for this year: adapting technologies that are not learning technologies for learning. I started thinking about it because of an experience I had with a guy in my tutoring group about 6 months ago. We were working on pronunciation of a particularly difficult word. He’d say it, then I’d say it, then he’d say it, and on and on. Finally, he stopped, pulled out his cell phone pulled up Google Translate, and said the word into his phone until his phone recognized the word he was trying to say.

Of course, it worked. Better than the conversation with me was working. It was a tool he knew was available in his environment, it was familiar to him, and I got the feeling that this wasn’t the first time he had done it.

In the past year or so, I’ve seen the adaptation of technologies that were meant for some other purpose being used for employee development. More than that, I’ve seen tech organizations start to play in the learning space. Google, Apple, Microsoft, and most recently, Amazon, have started to offer technologies geared specifically toward learning and development. YouTube has long been the staple of lifelong learners (I used it recently to change my car headlamps).

In light of that, I have some high-level, totally unscientific advice for organizations trying to figure out what their learning tech stack should look like:

  1. Consider everything. By this I go beyond the technologies that are specific for learning and that show up on your L&D balance sheet. Need some ideas? Start with Jane Hart’s annual Top 100 Tools for Learning list.
  2. Notice what people are already using. In many cases, it makes much more sense to commandeer something that is familiar and accepted than to try to find an learning tech knock-off. Is Whatsapp or Slack a staple when it comes to sharing knowledge and expertise? Embrace it.
  3. Experiment. We talk to lots of companies and the more evolved ones tend to reconsider technology at more frequent intervals. They’re constantly trying stuff out, updating, and sunsetting tech that no longer works for them.
  4. Be flexible. There is absolutely a place for large, enterprise solutions, and most organizations use at least one as a hub for other technology used for learning. But don’t be afraid to piece together best of breed solutions to meet your needs.
  5. Use data. Data exists somewhere in your company that can give you a better idea of what is being used and what is not. Find it. Use it. Make decisions from it.

And finally, the ask. Because this is an ongoing point of study for me, I’d love to hear from you if your org uses something unconventional for employee development. I’m also super interested in how organizations are putting technologies together to provide the right kind of experience and to get the right kinds of results. If you’ve got stories, I’d love to hear from you!

Written by

Dani Johnson

Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.

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