Plugging the Manufacturing Skills Gap with Mobile Training


Smartphones and tablet computers have drastically changed the way business professionals consume and use information, and the mobile devices offer significant opportunities for manufacturers in on-the-job learning and training for their workforce.

More than a third of Americans now own a tablet computing device, according to survey findings published last month. Looking ahead, analysis by Forrester Research suggests that the tablets will become the preferred, primary computing device by 2016, when 375 million units are forecast to be sold worldwide. That figure doesn’t include smartphones, which means many more Americans will be connected through other mobile devices.

It’s inevitable that not only will mobile and wireless technologies be more prominent in the workplace, but also that training delivered via mobile devices will become a strategic business tool with the power to make a lasting contribution to organizational learning objectives.

Today the proportion of organizations offering learning content via mobile devices is growing, albeit slowly — from 28 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2013  according to a 2013 study by the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD).

“We have a generation of workers in and entering the workforce who have grown up with technology and are accustomed to using it to learn and to support their work,” Justin Brusino, manager of ASTD’s Learning Technologies Community of Practice, told IMT Career Journal.

The speed and ease with which information can be accessed have created a significant opportunity to support employees and optimize their performance. Mobile technology enables workers to receive learning at their real point of need: when they are doing the job and realize they are unable to accomplish the task without assistance.

This immediacy offered by mobile delivery continues to heavily influence the growth. Based on a survey of 287 business and learning leaders in organizations across a variety of industries and sizes, the ASTD study reports that just-in-time learning (65 percent), job aids (63 percent), and on-the-job support (52 percent) dominate mobile learning.

This trend is particular pertinent to manufacturing, where technical and knowledge requirements are rising across job categories and the tight labor environment limits time away from the job for education.

“Mobile learning provides manufacturers with a unique opportunity to provide just-enough/just-in-time learning and performance support,” Brusino said. “Some opportunities could be job aids and troubleshooting information. Other mobile features, like the phone’s built-in GPS, could help orient people on the plant floor.

“As with efforts to close any skills gaps,” Brusino continued, “understanding the organization’s needs and the needs of the employees is paramount.”

While mobile learning will not completely supplant face-to-face, instructor-led training, it’s reasonable to expect that it will eventually play a big role in most manufacturers’ training mix.

“As organizations look holistically at their learning initiatives, a question should be, ‘How can we leverage the tools of today to provide our workforce the information they need to do their jobs better and develop as employees?’” Brusino said. “Today’s workers are already using their mobile devices to get information when they need it. The opportunity for organizations is to understand what kind of learning or performance support can be effectively delivered to employees via their mobile devices.”

Yet, for many organizations, mobile training largely remains an aspiration, as a number of roadblocks are keeping it away from their learning programs.

“Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles is a perception that entering into mobile learning needs to be a wholesale effort. In actuality, starting small, with a particular project or initiative in mind, can be a gateway to further success,” Brusino noted. “Another obstacle is often getting buy-in from senior leadership. Understanding how to make a compelling business case for the adoption of mobile learning is important.”

Overall, ASTD’s findings indicate that budget constraints (55 percent) and security concerns (46 percent) are the top barriers blocking the path to mobile adoption.

“By far the biggest concern is associated with cost. Technology is rapidly advancing, and keeping up with the change and the cost associated with the change can be daunting,” Brusino said. “Another concern relates to IT security. It is important for the training function to partner with IT to remove as many obstacles and barriers as possible.”

Addressing these and other concerns, ASTD offers the following recommendations for implementing or improving mobile learning programs in organizations based on its interviews with learning leaders along with the results of its study.

Create a comprehensive mobile learning strategy. An organization’s training leadership should first identify the business needs that mobile learning will address, the tactical goals it will support, and the needs of the learning audience. Firms should determine whether mobile learning is the best method to address these defined demands; if it is, then review available mobile platforms to choose the best approach.

From there, the types of content to be delivered should be defined. Then organizations must decide if content will be created internally or purchased externally. After defining metrics that will be used to track the mobile program, the final step in forming a mobile learning strategy is to design a pilot program that enables the organization to test it and make necessary adjustments.

Identify and resolve technical challenges. Companies should determine how many employees have mobile devices and then explore costs and other viability issues related to a bring-your-own-device environment. Training leadership should partner with the organization’s IT function to assess and address organizational infrastructure to support mobile technologies and then evaluate the existing learning management system to determine integration ability.

Make cyber-security an enterprise-wide initiative. Considering that security is one of the biggest challenges of mobile learning programs, it is important for training leadership to partner with IT to assess the current state of the organization’s online and wireless security. In so doing, potential security issues related to mobile learning should be identified, executive-level leadership should be involved in the process, and other business functions utilizing mobile or wireless technologies should be invited to participate in security initiatives.

Measure mobile learning effectiveness. Training leadership should identify usage metrics to track activity, such as user registrations, number of site accesses, materials downloaded, time spent in the learning app, and modules completed. They should begin by identifying a few key performance indicators to gauge mobile learning program effectiveness (e.g., from surveys, user evaluations, and post-learning performance ratings), which include measures that tie to the business needs and goals identified in the mobile learning strategy. Install additional metrics as the mobile learning program expands.

Create content specifically for the mobile environment. Rather than simply show the mobile user the same content on a smaller screen, it is important that there is a different experience for the user. In addition to determining the content needed for the target audiences, training leadership should be educated to understand the devices that will be used in content delivery; this includes knowledge of best practices for creating (or adapting) content for mobile delivery if content is to be developed internally. If content is to be purchased or developed externally, companies should evaluate vendors or consultants.


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