Dani Johnson on the Learning Technology Landscape

Dani Johnson RedThread Research Headshot on blue background
Thought Industries
March 25, 2020

The learning technology landscape has rapidly changed over the past few years, and it continues to evolve over time. Learning leaders face more choices than ever before when it comes to selecting the right learning technology for their L&D (Learning and Development) departments and for their organizations overall.

Organizations know that to stay competitive, they must develop their workforce, customers and extended enterprise. The question is how to make the best choices in today’s evolving marketplace.

Dani Johnson is an expert in researching the L&D marketplace. As the co-founder and principal analyst at RedThread Research, she authored the study “Learning Tech Landscape: The Wild, Wild West.” The study draws out the details of this new tech landscape and describes the unique features that are now available through the latest technology.

It goes on to recommend an eight-step process that organizations can use in selecting, implementing and analyzing technology solutions for their L&D goals.

Despite the differences between employee training and customer training programs, both types of organizations can benefit from the eight-point strategy for a new Employee Development Framework outlined in Johnson’s report, below.

She says that L&D used to be all about the Learning Management System (LMS), but it’s not anymore. She’s optimistic to see so many options available to learning leaders, noting that there are more tech functionalities that are making room for the smaller players in today’s marketplace.

Johnson is optimistic about learning leaders in general. A recent LinkedIn study confirmed that L&D is now considered a solid part of most organizations. It’s not fighting for budgeting like it used to.

More Learning Technology Categories of Functionality Than Ever Before

According to the “Learning Tech Landscape” report, the number of employee and customer learning technologies on the market has been steadily increasing since the turn of the century. The report cites twenty-eight functionalities that learning technology providers take to market, ranging from certification and career pathing to microlearning and gamification.

Johnson says that while these dozens of categories make things more complicated for learning leaders during their decision-making process, they also provide many more opportunities to learning leaders. Gone are the days when learning leaders answered the simple question, “which LMS should I choose?” Now, they have the ability to choose from dozens of technology providers offering solutions across more than two dozen functionalities.

As in the past, learning leaders use IT technicians to help them integrate all of these various technologies. Johnson says, “They’re [also] bringing in the vendors to help solve some of these problems.” It’s not uncommon for a learning leader to put two vendors in a room and say, “help us solve this problem.”

It’s worth noting here that the twenty-eight functionalities identified by the “Learning Tech Landscape” report are not evenly dispersed across the 117 vendors that were studied.

For example, fifty-eight vendors offer assessments while only six offer enablement with their technologies. RedThread Research offers a Learning Technology Landscape tool to help learning leaders navigate the various functionalities available and make informed choices about which technology providers they select for their organizations.

In her research, Johnson found that “53% of providers offer fewer than 5 functionalities, indicating that most solutions in the market tend to be point solutions”.

Four Things Learning Leaders Consider When Selecting Learning Technology

Johnson says that when a learning leader is walking through the process of deciding on which technology providers to go with, they pay attention to four major categories, as follows.

The first is Philosophy. 

Organizations need to ask themselves if they are enabling their audience to learn and develop their careers or merely providing learning solutions that may or may not meet their learning needs. And rather than simply assembling an array of technology pieces into a hodgepodge learning solution, are they designing a complete experience that supports the organization’s workforce throughout the learning process?

Also under the category of Philosophy is the question of accommodation. Is an organization able to accommodate a multigenerational workforce in different parts of the world, across different bandwidths? In other words, learning leaders need to ask themselves, “How do we take care of everybody within this ecosystem?”

Finally, still under Philosophy, is the question of what technologies belong in the ecosystem. Would the organization benefit more from purchased technology, adopted technology, enabled technology, or some combination?

The second category is Structure. 

This category contains a few different options.

The first option is having a Platform Structure, where all of your learning is on one platform. Alternatively, an organization could use a Central System, with one node in the middle and smaller technologies attached to it. Finally, an organization’s learning structure could be a Pure Ecosystem, which is more integrated with the way people are getting work done; it’s integrated into the systems the organization is already using.

Of course, different organizations will fall into these categories depending on what they do and what they want to emphasize in their learning and development.

The third category is Sustainability.

As she describes as, “How do you pay attention to the inside of your organization as well as the technology you’re partnering with on the outside, to make sure your ecosystem is long-term sustainable?” 

If your learning ecosystem isn’t sustainable, no amount of learning technologies will help you over the long haul.

The fourth category is Evolution. 

She says that successful organizations are continually evolving. “They’re continually looking at things that work and don’t work and removing the things that don’t work.” Having smaller players in the marketplace makes it easier for learning leaders to do a trial run, see how it works in their particular ecosystem, then toss it out if it’s not a fit.

Johnson says it’s much easier to evolve your ecosystem in this landscape than it has ever been before. She says, having all these technology options “creates space in the market and allows innovation to happen in ways it’s never happened before, so it’s helpful for the market overall.”

That’s not to say there isn’t risk involved for learning leaders who are charged with choosing L&D technology for their organizations. In her research, Johnson spoke with one organization who wanted to work with technology providers that had been in the business for about five years. That way, they’d been around long enough to be able to provide solid solutions for their learning challenges while still being flexible enough to be responsive to their particular needs.

What It Means to Be “Developed” In Various Organizations

When choosing technology for their organization’s L&D initiatives, Johnson suggests learning leaders begin with a broad question: “What does it mean to be ‘developed’ in our organization?” The answer to this question will point the way towards specific functionalities that will serve the organization’s larger learning goals.

Johnson gives a few examples of how this process might play out. For instance, she used to work at a large consulting firm that was based on relationships. Because it was a large firm, people had to travel frequently to meetings. This type of organization would benefit from mobile learning that allows trainees to learn from each other as much as possible.

In a manufacturing setting, on the other hand, you’d want different benefits. For example, manufacturers emphasize compliance training that allows their workers to get to the floor as quickly as possible because having workers in training instead of on the floor costs them money.

Johnson says that learning leaders need to ask themselves, “What are the needs of our individual people and also what are the needs of our organization overall?”

In her report, Johnson cites a new Employee Development Framework that can help learning leaders in their decision-making process.

Employee Development Framework

  1.  Planning includes career assessments as well as skills gap analysis and other things that help employees get to where they want to go.
  2.  The Discover area is where organizations enable their employees to find the content that will allow them to reach their career goals through training opportunities.
  3.  In the Consume area, employees are empowered to access and use the training content that is relevant for their career goals.
  4.  The Experiment area is defined by how organizations provide opportunities for trainees to practice new skills.
  5.  The Connect area refers to how organizations allow employees to connect with and learn from one another throughout their training process.
  6.  In the Perform area, organizations empower their employees to perform better on the job and learn while doing it.
  7.  Under the Administrative heading, the Manage & Create area refers to how organizations create content and manage the entire learning process for their trainees.
  8. The Analyze area refers to how organizations analyze employee development factors and make determinations about how well they support the organization’s business goals.

By focusing on these eight areas, learning leaders can follow a process that will help them all the way from planning and selection, implementation and experimentation to analysis. 

Whether discussing employee training or customer education, Johnson says, “it’s all education.” Even so, she offers some insights into what differentiates customer education from other forms of L&D.

Customer education, she says, is more focused on learner engagement, which makes sense when you consider the audience. Customers are not compelled to get training in the same way that employees are. A focus on engagement helps to ensure that customers receive training and continue using the products and services they’re training on.

Both types of training require everything from planning to analysis, even if their groups of trainees differ from one another.

After all, as Johnson says, it’s all education.

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