Last week I gave a brief presentation at the eLearning Network’s 25th Birthday Bash. The topic was the future of eLearning and the idea was to showcase something innovative we were working on.

When I was thinking about what to say and show at the event, it struck me once more what an incredible change there’s been in the last 25 years to the technology we use day in, day out.

I wonder, however, if the future of elearning might well be more about understanding the psychology and behaviour of people, and their relationship with technology, than it is about the exact technology we use to support learning and performance.

The fact is, for many of us involved with learning technologies, our audience is a bit different to us. They have a different relationship with technology and learning.

One of the most important activities our product team undertakes is research into really understanding our core audience of leaders and managers. We carry our a wide range of studies to find out:

  • what’s important to them
  • what do they do when they’re faced with an unfamiliar challenge
  • how do they like to learn
  • how do they actually learn

Earlier this year we shared some of the findings from a recent study we conducted.

I won’t go into the great detail about the methodology here. In essence though, we interviewed a load of managers from eight different organisations across a range of sectors. Those interviews were transcribed and went through a thorough data analysis to pull out insights into the learning habits of those managers.

When we were conducting the interviews, we were careful to not talk about learning specifically. Instead we asked them what they did when faced with people management challenges. We were interested in what they actually did, and didn’t want to influence their answers.

In general, the things managers seek support with most aren’t very surprising. The top five most frequently mentioned management challenges were:

having difficult conversations, managing performance, coaching/training, dealing with resistance to change, management of remote teams

So far, it’s management 101.

What’s interesting about these results is that, in the majority of cases, the organisations we worked already had learning and performance support materials that would have been useful to the manager. ELearning, handouts from courses, intranet pages, 3rd party resources – there were, in fact, a wide range of materials that would have benefited the managers for nearly all the challenges they outlined. When they were shown the resources available to them, they almost universally said they would have been useful … at the time.

So, it wasn’t that the resources weren’t useful, it’s that they weren’t used.

A significant proportion of the managers we talked to spoke about ‘learning’ as something they had to make time for. For them, it existed separately from ‘real work’. So, when faced with an unfamiliar challenge, they didn’t go to their LMS, they didn’t go to their L&D department.

So, if they weren’t getting just-in-time support provided by the L&D department, where did they go?

There were two main sources: the first was people they trusted.

The managers turned to their boss, their peers and, for process issues, the HR department to get support for their people management problems. One thing worth noting is the relatively small geographical spread of the people they went to. It was rare for managers to turn to people outside their own office – suggesting that the kind of wide networks some of us are used to accessing through social media have aren’t yet the norm in mainstream corporate life. There would appear to be an opportunity there.

However, it was the second place managers turned to that really caught our eye

The great all-knowing search box.

80% of the managers we interviewed said they had searched Google recently to look for help with a management problem. This finding is backed up by a survey we conducted with several hundred managers. The tendency to look to Google was even more predominant at the younger end of the demographic spectrum.

This then is a starting point. A deep understanding of our end customer and their behaviour.

So, as a team we asked ourselves: how could we work with people’s existing habits. Rather than create a destination for them to visit when they need it, what if we put the right content into their hands when they needed it?

One possible solution, one of many I’m sure, is to augment results from Google with content from an internal source. From this initial thought, we developed a lightweight browser plugin and back end service architecture that does just that.

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In the video below, you can see our prototype in action. It hasn’t had any design polish applied to it, but you can get an idea of the concept.

When you search Google for something, along with Google’s results, you also get useful content from an internal source. Our prototype returns results from our own suite of leadership and management content, but any content can be indexed and surfaced – LMS content, intranet content, handouts, 3rd party resources.

The future of elearning might well not be about fancy technology or impressive graphics, but really simple ideas cleverly integrated into the tools that our customers use every single day.

I’ll leave you with that thought.