Think of something new that you learned outside of work in the last 12 months. Most probably, you didn’t attend a course, but went online, or visited a forum. Or maybe you asked a friend who had done it before and could share their experience? This seems to be our most natural and preferred way of learning. So why do companies so often persist in relying on courses which must be attended in-person?
As highlighted in the previous articles in this series, the rail industry’s future growth prospects depend on its ability to attract, retain and develop future talent. Isn’t the time ripe for acknowledging how most people prefer to learn, and offer learning and development opportunities that reflect the environment that learners live in?
Online, collaborative and often personalised: The future is social learning
Human beings are naturally social, and enhancements in technology, leading to the rise of social media, are unlocking opportunities to learn in ways that satisfy this need. The Millennial Generation, now a major component of the workforce, is native to this connected, fast-moving world, and expects to see that the tools they know are out there, being invested in by their employers. They have an expectation that learning can – and should – be efficient and effective. That it should happen online, be collaborative, use cutting-edge technologies and offer personalisation options.
When we think of it, all these desirable and high-tech features have social learning at their heart. Social learning is when people learn from one another, via observation, imitation, and modelling. It happens with and through other people, by participating in a community. As well as directly supporting a culture of continuous learning, social learning helps develop the attitudes and behaviours that are most valuable to employers today: collaboration, multi-disciplinary skills, cross-organisational working, and innovation.
Some companies specifically endeavour to foster social learning and give it a prominent role in their people development strategy. For instance, DAMCO - a global provider of supply chain management services - brings 40 high potential employees together each year to work on projects like 'What is the growth potential for business in Mexico?' The idea is to have participants learn 'face to face' while solving industry challenges as a team.
Digital technologies at the service of social learning
However, the cost and trouble of getting employees to learn together, at the same time, at the same place, and at the same speed, can be a serious obstacle to implementation. This is where new technologies come in. As it happens, much of social learning is directly supported by digital technology such as online content sharing/chat forums and collaborative platforms. Online social learning environments are instrumental in empowering learners to drive their own development. They offer accessibility, flexibility and interaction and, most importantly, learning that is agile in essence. There are learning management systems (LMS) which provide online environments for users to access a range of different learning content as well as interact with other learners. They may also have video-capability, instant chat and forums for sharing information, as well as scores and lesson responses which are shareable between learners. The rail industry would benefit from investing in the design of a rail specific LMS. This would the allow for social learning opportunities to prepare and upskill staff to meet the needs of future railways.
As basic tasks in rail become increasingly automated, the human role in the system will shift towards more fluidity, situational intelligence, and customer focus. These types of roles are precisely those for which technology such as a social learning tool can be particularly effective.
Virtual reality and simulations for learning
In fields like medicine, aerospace and firefighting, virtual reality (VR) group training environments are becoming increasingly common. Such environments can do what a classroom cannot: they transport trainees to a realistic environment. Here they can test their abilities to work as a team in stressful and perhaps dangerous situations, with no risk, and reduced cost and travel time. Under these circumstances, hard-to-measure skills such as communication ability and teamwork can be honed before they are truly tested by a real-life situation. Rail, too, is embracing the power of VR, for tasks such as simulating an evacuation of the Eurotunnel, without having to sever a major international transport link, and in teaching safety at the platform-train interface (PTI) without having to involve either a platform or a train.
These VR and simulation tools can also assist with learning the high-skilled, technical tasks that feature strongly in technical industries. VR simulators, access to remote expert guidance, and haptically responsive equipment that guides the user through complex physical actions, are all hugely powerful learning tools. The technology underpinning these tools allows one more feat: to capture corporate memory and/or the expertise of experienced workers in a way that is easily accessible to less experienced people. For example, the actions of an expert surgeon performing an operation in a VR simulator can be recorded and used as an example for novice generations coming in, even once the skilled professional has left the workforce.
Gamified learning takes advantage of our inherent competitiveness, which compels us to engage with games and challenges, explore their possibilities and beat both the game and our peers. The growth of social interaction via online platforms has contributed to increasing investment in ‘gamified’ learning experiences, adding game elements to real-life training, such as leadership boards, scoring or problem-solving exercises. An area where this really adds value to learning is when teaching the ‘mundane but necessary’ tasks still present in many jobs. A mobile game for remembering safety harness checks, for instance, requires the player to go through all the necessary parts of a standard harness safety check, and then throw a hapless avatar off a virtual building to see if they did it right. It has been shown by early experiments that game-based learning enhances motivation, engagement and knowledge retention.
New digital technologies have the potential to make the dream of every teacher or trainer come true: having an impact on the greatest number of learning participants while not being constrained by space, time, or, most of all, by the huge differences existing between students in their prior knowledge or their learning pace. Virtual classrooms, mobile learning, and online learning libraries form a new universe where learners have access to virtually any type of learning content they want, any time they want it, on virtually any device they choose. Some platforms even have built-in 'adaptive learning' functionalities: they use machine learning algorithms to adjust the learning content provided, based on a learner’s previous responses. By personalizing the learning experience, they can reduce the time it takes learners to become proficient, eliminating the need to cover content they already understand.
The remaining challenges
We have the potential to change learning, to bring it to whoever needs it, when they need it, and in a way that suits them. However, to achieve this we need to get the foundations right. We’ve all seen initiatives fail because the organisation just wasn’t ready. This means building a culture of learning where social learning opportunities can flourish.
It also requires that we have a strategy in place to ensure learners are consuming the content designed specifically for their job requirements. Social learning techniques and enabling technologies are not an end in themselves, and each technology has its own comparative advantages and its own weaknesses. For instance, a VR environment is good for quick problem-solving and emergency situations, because following a rigid protocol cannot cover any possible situation – playing out different options is better for participants. A VR environment can help to practice communicating effectively in such a scenario without risk. However, VR may be less suited for repetitive tasks or routines to be deployed by outdoor workers in their everyday job. In contrast, a ‘click game’ mobile app can be well suited for creating habits but may not the best means of teaching interpersonal communication.
Last but not least, in a safety critical industry such as rail, there is an important balance to be achieved between finding the most engaging way to teach a topic and being confident that the outcome can guarantee competence in performing tasks that have safety considerations.
This being said, if we want social learning to allow learners to fully personalise their learning paths, we must, as organisations, be ready to somewhat 'let go' of directing the learning experience. Empowered learners are precisely what we need to vigorously pursue the capability growth required by the rail industry’s ambitious strategies and to allow our industry to adapt to change. There is evidently a balance to be sought here, considering the prevalence of safety critical roles and compliance considerations in our industry. Getting the balance right will allow us to fully benefit from what social learning and new learning technologies have to offer to the railways. Are we ready to experiment and 'let go'?