November 2017
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2017 Trends

Wednesday, November 1, 2017
2017 Trends

Is your organization exploring these latest talent development tools and methods?

Talent development is not a profession for the faint of heart. Its practitioners often leave their comfort zones behind, experimenting with new ideas, techniques, and technologies to achieve business results.


In 2017, the profession has taken several challenges head-on. It has started looking at the relationship between productivity, work culture, employee wellness, and work-life balance in a comprehensive way, its flirtation with microlearning is turning into an all-out infatuation, and two exciting new technologies—virtual and augmented reality—are gaining steam.

Productivity and health-focused cultures

Obviously, any system that prevents employees from performing at their best levels is a barrier to success. And although bureaucracies often come to mind when we're asked to name these systems, we also should consider cultures that deter people from living healthy lifestyles.

As Leigh Stringer explains in the Association for Talent Development podcast "Strategies for Creating a Healthy Workplace," there's an emerging body of evidence that shows that when companies pay attention to employee lifestyles, they enjoy better performance—and stock prices. That's why many organizations are starting to take a comprehensive look at employee health and how culture can promote it.

One way companies promote health is by creating formal wellness programs. According to The Workplace and Health, a 2016 report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, 51 percent of workers said their company offers at least one formal wellness program, with features ranging from weight management programs to mental health initiatives. Most employees (88 percent) who take advantage of these programs find them very or somewhat important to their health. The challenge, though, is getting people to enroll: Only about 40 percent of employees at companies with formal wellness programs participate in them.

In response, leaders at some companies are taking bold actions to raise participation. The Workplace and Health notes that 24 percent of workplaces offer financial incentives for participating in wellness programs and 5 percent threaten penalties for not doing so.

Going to such extremes isn't the only path to success, however. A good example of a company that has built a powerful wellness program while promoting it with traditional means is the consulting firm EY (formerly Ernst & Young). According to a 2017 Forbes article, the organization has tried to combat mental health disorders among its employees with a mixture of learning programs and internal marketing efforts. Some strategies include "employee champions, cross-country presentations, virtual events, e-learning curriculums, peer-to-peer connections and follow-up services." These tools are all familiar to talent development professionals, and they work: Within its first three months, the EY program increased the number of calls to the company's employee assistance hotline by 30 percent.

Now, you might be wondering: Why should talent development care? How can we even prove that wellness matters to leaders at our companies?

The answer is simple. Show them research about how health affects individual productivity.

Let's start with physical health: According to a 2012 study published in the journal Population Health Management, when an employee has even one unhealthy behavior it lowers his chances for being productive. Having an unhealthy diet increased the likelihood that an employee would self-report having low productivity by 66 percent; exercising infrequently did so by 50 percent, and smoking did so by 28 percent.

Now let's look at mental wellness: A 2014 survey conducted by the Employers Health Coalition found that 23 percent of U.S. workers admit to being diagnosed with depression at least once in their life. And among those workers, 40 percent reported that their depression caused them to take time off work—an average of 10 days per year—while 64 percent said it gave them cognitive challenges on the job. These numbers only account for the effects of depression, of course, which is just one of many mental disorders that can affect workers.


Although microlearning has existed for quite a while, it remains a hot topic in talent development. Why? After spending years as a buzzword or fringe technique, practitioners are starting to use it en masse.

For proof, just open the 2017 ATD report Microlearning: Delivering Bite-Sized Knowledge, which sheds light on the technique's usage. According to the report, 38 percent of talent development professionals said their organizations create training with microlearning, and 41 percent said their companies plan to start doing so in the next 12 months. At companies that have adopted the practice, 48 percent expect to greatly increase its use within the next year.

Microlearning's most common application, cited by 81 percent of adopters, is to reinforce or supplement formal training. One example of this practice is delivering short pieces of content to learners before a training program to build excitement or reduce the time trainers spend getting everyone on the same page while in the classroom. Another example is sending weekly quizzes or follow-up lessons to participants who complete a training program, to help them remember what they learned.

The next-most popular reason talent development professionals use microlearning, cited by 75 percent of adopters, is to create just-in-time learning content. In a hospital, that might mean providing nurses with a short e-learning simulation to review the essential steps of a procedure right before performing it on a patient. It's important to note, though, that these just-in-time training modules usually accompany much broader learning programs.

A relatively less common practice is replacing entire training courses with bite-sized content. Only 45 percent of talent development professionals who use microlearning do this, and they are most likely to focus their efforts on technical training. That's because technical training is perfect for taking advantage of microlearning's biggest strengths. Take mastering a new software as an example: It usually involves teaching someone how to do several specific, but diverse, tasks. With traditional training that frontloads content, learners likely will remember how to do a few of these tasks, but not all of them. However, microlearning can give people instructions on how to complete each task in its moment of need, helping them learn one step at a time.

Virtual and augmented reality

It's sometimes tempting to look at the pace of modern technology and say, "New innovation, old news." After all, shiny new gadgets and tools can get a bit dull when you hear about approximately 537 new ones getting invented each week, but never see companies putting them to use.


Of course, even if our enthusiasm has waned, not all new emerging technologies are gimmicks. For talent development professionals, two in particular—virtual and augmented reality—have started to gain real traction.

Virtual reality (VR), which uses computers to simulate an environment that people can immerse themselves in, has found a home in training delivery. According to Walmart's blog, the company has begun using VR at its academies to prepare associates for everything from difficult customer interactions to a Black Friday rush. And on YouTube, fast-food chain KFC has unveiled videos of a spooky but fun, escape-room–style VR game that teaches employees to cook its chicken.

Meanwhile, augmented reality (AR), which brings digital elements into the physical world to enhance the information and context people experience, has emerged as a performance support tool for manufacturers. National Public Radio reported in March that factories have begun using Google Glass, a computerized type of eyewear that displays information in a user's field of vision, on their production lines. With these reality-enhancing devices, industrial workers can reference instructions or check whether they've assembled a part correctly without ever having to leave their stations.

What makes these tools so appealing? According to Chad Udell, a managing partner at Float and an expert in designing VR and AR experiences, the most exciting potential use of VR is for activities that are "hard to replicate, dangerous, or just plain expensive to re-create." He explains that because VR enables talent development to "easily reset a scenario or modify its variables to simulate different types of conditions," it enables employees to build valuable experience "without having to fail in a harmful way that affects customer service, performance, or safety." In other words, it can re-create the benefits of experience-based learning without incurring the risks that usually accompany it.

One way Udell says companies could create these failure-driven VR experiences is by copying the gaming industry, much as KFC has done. "In some ways, a VR simulation is a serious game," he states. "Whatever situation it puts you in, you can repeat the level until you achieve success."

In the case of a Walmart trainee, that might mean having retail associates repeat a single customer scenario until they get it right—all without putting an inexperienced worker in front of a customer. To Udell, the main difference between designing games and training in VR is that VR games typically put people in "fantastic situations," whereas VR training experiences usually "replicate work environments."

When discussing how companies can use AR, Udell presents an entirely different set of possibilities. He identifies AR as a "strong performance support tool, especially when it's delivered through mobile technology." With today's pace of change sometimes making information from a training session quickly become obsolete, having mobile technology that can keep people updated on what they should be doing without interrupting their work can make a big difference in performance. This is especially true when that technology can show employees what they should be doing instead of just telling them.

From a design standpoint, Udell believes that AR will rely more on gamification than the serious game approach taken with VR. Because AR "takes place in the physical world and interacts with physical environments, it should be a great tool for applying game-like mechanics to real-world activities." For example, an AR performance support module might not function as a true game, but it might borrow game elements, such as gaining points for opening a specific set of instructions or completing an augmented task. Udell explains that by gamifying performance data with AR, "you could correlate doing a work activity and achieving a competency that you're being measured against."

Together, these technologies appear to have exciting potential. According to Udell, it may be possible for talent development to combine VR and AR to bridge the gap between training and performance support. Using the example of preparing someone to placate an angry customer in a retail setting, Udell suggests a model where companies "train their associates to interact with these customers in VR before using AR to support the associates in the field and measure whether they succeed in calming the customer down." By moving from training to performance support, to measurement, "you can end up with a trail that goes all the way from learning to the end product of behavior change."

About the Author

Alex Moore is a research analyst for the Association for Talent Development. Alex returned to ATD in 2019 after spending a year living and working in Chile. Prior to moving abroad, Alex was a writer/editor for ATD working on TD magazine, a research coordinator at ATD, and a customer care advocate at ATD. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 2015 with a B.A. in English.

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