Ed tech professor says future of corporate learning needs to focus on personalization

Posted: 09/23/2013
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When Allison Rossett, professor emerita of education technology at San Diego State University, conducted a study that asked learning leaders their main priority in the next few years, an overwhelming number said "personalization." Accordingly, Rossett is a big proponent of mobile learning because of its ability as a technology solution that can provide personalized, on-demand learning. "Mobile learning breaks down the hegemony of the classroom," Rossett said.

Allison will be moderating a panel of chief learning officers at Corporate Learning Week 2013. The panel will discuss the importance of a learning organization in contributing to and nurturing company and employee culture. She'll also be leading a workshop that details strategies to boost engagement in informal and independent learning programs. For more information on Allison, click here. Check out our video interview with Allison above or the transcript of our Q&A below.

You'll be moderating the panel "Lessons from Learning's Elite," which includes CLOs from Fortune 500 companies across the country. Can you let us know what topics you'll be discussing with them?

Sure. One topic. We had a meeting and we talked about it and one topic grabbed everybody and it grabbed me, too, because I like topics where I don't know the answer. I don't think it's easy or simple and I don't think we've focused on it enough, and the topic is culture. How can the learning organization contribute to dynamic and nurturing and productive culture? And of course that's really complicated when you think about it in a global organization and you think how much standardization and how much localization and you think about it across the different kinds of people who work in an organizations from sales and marketing to research and development. So, I think the topic because it's how many people have talked about it. What gets in the way of the transfer from learning to performance? And very often, the answer is culture. So I guess what this means is that we're going to get involved in creating a fertile environment for folks to work within that nurtures their best selves.

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You're background is education technology. When I'm talking to learning and training leaders, one of the things that always seems to come up is the questions of how do you add these new forms of learning technology without just adding them for technology's sake. So what kind of advice can you give people with that kind of conundrum?

Well, I think you said it well. You don't add technology for technology's sake. That wouldn't even be smart if you we basically a technology company. You add technology for a few reasons because it helps you do what you do better. For example, you do it to reach across geographies to close space to send messages. So let's say you've had some kind of a training event. You've gathered people together. Transfer is a problem that's got to keep us up at night. A great way to move those messages closer to where the work gets done is via technology. Other kinds of wonderful things that technology can do is deliver support, policies, and community out there where the work gets done, out there where people live. That's better than separate events set in time and place because then there's always a moat around those events and we have to do those things to transcend the moat. So, technology lets us use more strategies, use them better.

Another thing, a colleague Jim Marshall and I did a study where we talked to learning professionals about what their top priorities were looking forward and into the future, and the answer was personalization. You can't do personalization without technology. How are you going to do that? Think about it. Technology is going to help you do the assessment and then technology is going to help you deliver both push and pull of learning assets, information, heuristic guidance, guidelines, policy, community, peers and subject matter experts, and continuous conversation, What we want to do via technology is help people gain insight into themselves, but also help the organization gain insight into it's people, make it more transparent. Technology, it's not interesting as a thing. It's not interesting as a device. It's interesting for what it enables in terms of where it goes — reach, accessibility, tirelessness, endless patience, the ability to bring people together in social learning. Oh, it's good all around.

You mention this research you did with your colleague Jim Marshall about top priorities in the workplace in the future and you found an interest in personalization. Can you highlight the additional emerging trends that you're paying attention to?

Oh, I'm very interested in mobile. But I'm not interested in mobile just because I love my iPhone. Just think what this can do. I had a doc student and he was doing his doctorate and he had tons of reading to do and tons of writing to do and lots of data analysis and lots to worry about, but he also had to make a living. He was taking courses at San Diego State and taking courses at Claremont Graduate School, which is about two and a half hours away. And he was also teaching math and science in the community college. He had a lot of his plate. He used his mobile devices to make the most of every moment. It was wonderful. He was writing on the road; he was researching on the road; he was doing it all on demand, when he needed it, when he had a free moment sitting in his car under a tree. You know, that's pretty nifty, so mobile, to me, because it breaks down the hegemony of the classroom, which rest assured, I loved the classroom. I had many good decades in the classroom, still do going into the classroom. But I really like the way technology allows more community and for a wider reach by instructors — the arms are longer and voice projects better.

This is a questions I always try to ask learning and training leaders, but I'd also like to get your perspective almost an outsider: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the learning and training community today? And what steps can those leaders take to overcome those challenges?

That's a good question. I don't really think I have all that much of an outsiders perspective. It's true that I don't work in a learning organization for a company or a government agency. But I'm in them all the time. I work as a consultant and within the past two weeks I've been in three different companies — a biotech and two telecoms. I talk to the people who work in those organizations, the people who lead them as well. So, yeah, I am an outsider, but I'm also sort of slightly in.

After quibbling with that, I guess what I would say is the biggest problem confronting learning organizations right now is their posture vis a vis their identity and the line. What I mean by that is they can be a great learning organization with a great edifice and a retreat center and lots of classrooms outfitted fully with technology. That's not unusual, that's pretty typical. But better would be to be very line facing, customer facing, organization facing and not be so proud of us and our edifice. We have an 'edifice complex.' But rather to be much more insinuated into the day-to-day work and the strategic purposes of the organization. So how much are we are a learning organization and how much are we not so much that, but really a strategic part of the daily business of the sales organization and the R&D organization and manufacturing and complying and so on and so forth? I think probably the latter is a better way to go.

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