Is “Google It” The Future Of Learning?

Technology offers a plethora of on-demand learning solutions, from just Googling answers to questions to curated, searchable in-house repositories of information. The question is: What do your learners need most?

The great thing about technology is it gives you options. Instead of employees tapping their manager on the shoulder every few minutes with a question, they can be trained to use an advanced, custom database to quickly find answers. And if your company is not so flush with cash that it can afford a custom solution, there are many off-the-shelf systems that allow you to input data that employees can easily search. And if your company is downright cash-strapped, there’s always Google.

But are on-demand learning solutions, in place of face-to-face training, structured enough and correctly curated? As companies gear up for workforces composed almost entirely of Millennials and Generation Zers, some are rethinking what learning should mean, and how to best provide employees with resources to be most efficient and effective.

Offer On-Demand Search—and Beyond

Training Top 125er Norton Healthcare has found that tools as simple and universally available as Google and YouTube can easily be supplemented with in-house resources. Those technological systems are coupled with face-to-face sessions for a more formalized approach when it’s necessary, says System Vice President of Learning & Organizational Development/Chief Learning Officer Al Cornish. “There are situations where employees are searching for ‘researched best practice information,’ for which Google could be a valuable source because of the volume of information it provides,” he says. “But it still would require the employee to have a conversation with someone more senior to ensure quality control and consistency. Safety is paramount in health care. And we err on the side of extreme caution.”

For that reason, the company also provides internal tools. “We have several internal sources employees may use, from our medical library to various intranet Websites,” says Cornish. “Our Manager Portal allows employees to ask questions and receive a response from a subject matter expert. There are also custom-designed e-learning modules that, if searched, will provide the employee with the needed information.”

Sometimes, Cornish admits, a more traditional, structured approach is required. Indeed, the people Cornish’s Learning team serves want and expect at least some structured, inperson solutions. “We receive requests every day for more structured approaches to support the informal on-demand learning structures we have in place,” he says. “Last year, we surveyed our client base, and while learners enjoy the ability to have learning available on-demand, and want more of it, they also feel a need remains for more structured formal learning for certain content. It still is the preferred method of learning transfer.”

Still, a simple Internet search has a role to fulfill. “Google has its place in the learning space. A recent example is that I was working with a group of nurses on cultural competence,” says Cornish. “We were able to find a significant amount of content via Google. The information on some ethnic minorities provided a fundamental understanding of the cultural needs of these patients, so the nurses could meet their health-care needs.”

Just Google It If You Don’t Mind Trial and Error

The downside of telling employees to just “Google it” is there will be more experimentation than proven solutions, says Ross Tartell, senior associate with the Organizational Performance Group, and previously a learning executive at GE Capital Real Estate and Pfizer Inc. “Just Googling it substitutes for asking someone ‘how to.’ But that can create a problem because without that interaction with the other person, there is no feedback until the learner ‘tries it out,’” says Tartell. “Often, this extra bit of trial and error is not a problem, unless there is a risk of doing it wrong (i.e., brain surgery).”

He says that even with the trial-and-error component, there is a great deal of value to wide-open Internet searches. Tartell notes Googling is especially helpful if employees already have basic knowledge of the topic they are researching because they know enough to weed out the nonsense search results that may appear. It is also easier for learners to assimilate the information they find. “If they have a weak foundation, then they will have difficulty understanding the basic concepts—and likely not be able to apply what they have ‘learned’ with any success,” Tartell says.

“Googling it leads to all sorts of resources that are far better than the earlier versions of ‘how-to books’ or procedure manuals because they are often video based, so the learning modality is much richer,” Tartell adds. Just as there is a place for formalized face-to-face and e-learning, a well-executed Internet search shouldn’t be ruled out as a useful tool. Tartell notes, “Googling is just another way to access information and job aids that are widely available.”

Putting Information Into Context

The best information in the world won’t mean much if the employee doesn’t understand how to interpret it, or how it could be applied in a practical way to his or her work. For that reason, even the youngest, most tech-savvy employees probably will need additional guidance. “When it comes to brand values, personnel decisions, or ways to escalate an execution issue, an employee needs judgment. And searching the Web simply can’t provide the kind of context-aware guidance a company’s own training and reference materials can,” says Matt MacInnis, CEO and co-founder of Inkling, a mobile learning and development platform designed for front-line employees. “Likewise, if the information needed is proprietary, such as the prep method for a food product or the policy to be applied for an insurance claim, the only path is through the company’s own information.”

To make sure employees don’t rely solely on Google, MacInnis recommends providing a more tailored, comprehensive solution that’s just as easy to use. “The trouble is that finding information internally is often so cumbersome that employees nonetheless turn to Google first. They’ll do anything to avoid the frustration of using internal tools!” he says. “Water finds the path of least resistance. So do people. So when it comes to providing tools, you’re in direct competition with the easiest path, and by design, that’s Google. You have to build a path of similar—or superior—convenience, make your team members aware of it, and ensure it has what they need.”

On-demand systems that allow employees to work together to find a solution can be especially helpful. “When it comes to solving problems with a lot of associated context—such as how to deal with partial shipments in a new merchandising setup, or how to handle a tough customer issue—crowds are a superior resource to a single person directing the result. That’s especially true when incentives are aligned,” says MacInnis. In addition to providing technology that can facilitate tailored, collaborative searches and solution generation, he recommends trying to steer employees away from overly broad Internet searches. “When the scope is broad—i.e., asking anyone on the Internet about a work-related problem—incentives are clearly misaligned. In that case, all bets are off,” he says. “That’s why consumer-grade communication tools, coupled with enterprise-grade access control, are the only way to safely harness the power of the crowd at work.”

Training Top 125er Penn Station Inc. has found a happy medium by having employees use Google, but providing brand-specific knowledge resources when necessary, says Vice President of Operations Lance Vaught. He notes, “When figuring weight or measurement conversions while testing product or equipment, Google serves as an excellent resource for the learner to quickly source a user-friendly conversion table.” On the other hand, he says there are times when the generic information found through an Internet search simply isn’t enough. For those times, the company has tailored training manuals for employees to reference. “We recommend the learner reference our Training Manual, individual station charts, our proprietary training aids, and our company Outernet, which houses all pertinent brand information,” says Vaught.

And rather than Google in isolation, there are situations when it’s best for employees to work together or “crowdsource” to find the best answer. “A collaborative solution is best sought when a specific policy or procedure is in question,” Vaught says. “We have found that sharing of first-hand experiences with our learners is highly valuable, and often leads to the best solution for the given situation.”

Creating On-Demand Solutions for the “Gig Economy”

With many employed by several companies on a freelance basis in today’s “gig economy,” there is less expectation that individuals will come to their jobs with a deep, highly tailored knowledge base. Instead, being savvy about how to find the necessary resources, and then figuring out or being easily trained on how to apply them, is valued. On-demand solutions, therefore, often need to support this kind of learning environment.

“Before the emergence of the gig economy, employees were asked to know everything about their domain of expertise. They needed to be experts and the ultimate source of truth,” says Tyler Koblasa, CEO of CloudApp. “Now the expectations have changed. Because employees may work with multiple companies as freelancers and gig workers, more information is in the open and readily available. Rather than niche knowledge, people’s competitive advantage is to know how to find this information and use it to make the company they’re representing at the time successful.”

If your company has many “gig economy” employees, you should expect that if they are not provided with learning solutions from you, they will look for their own answers on Google, and that could turn out badly for your customers— and your organization. “Some institutions, such as banks, have their own processes and sensitive information their employees wouldn’t be able to find on Google. In addition, any information that is found on Google might not be true or up to date,” says Koblasa. “To control these risks, some companies would rather keep an internal IT knowledge base to answer sensitive employee questions.”


  • Accept that employees may begin their searches with Google, but make sure that's not where it ends by offering searchable in-house databases and access to subject matter experts.
  • Create a system to determine when a structured, in-person solution is best; when an online, on-demand system is best; and when a combination of both is necessary.
  • Google can be part of the trial-and-error process. The information on Google often hasn't been vetted by an expert and there's so much of it to weed through that there's a good chance learners will experience much trial and error using it.
  • Optimize the up-to-date, video-rich content online that is now more readily available. This content is usually superior to the dated “ how-to” books of the old days.
  • Put information into context for learners. Whether learners find answers on their own online, through an in-house database, or through an in-house subject matter expert, make sure they understand the significance of the information, and how to apply it to their work.
  • Provide on-demand solutions to “ gig economy” employees, or expect them to look for their own answers on Google. If you don't want employees with little background in your industry to have to search on their own for potentially unreliable information, provide your own curated, searchable repository.

5 Tips for Engaging the Modern Learner

By Emily He, Oracle Senior Vice President of Marketing, Human Capital Management, Oracle

Technology is woven into every facet our lives and we now expect the same experience when interacting with technology at work as we receive with services such as Facebook, Apple, and Google in our personal lives. That said, sometimes technology needs to be more advanced in the workplace than at home as “just Google it” is not always the answer. This is especially true in the case of employee training and development.

Today’s employees are impatient, tech savvy, time poor, distracted, and on the go. To offer the best and most accurate training information, Learning and Development (L&D) teams must work to meet the demands of the “modern learner.” This means offering an effortless, continuous, and personalized learning experience that meets the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce anytime, anywhere.

This is not easy, and the burden of strategy and execution cannot solely fall at the door of HR and L&D teams. Instead, the secret lies in cultivating a strategy and platform that puts accountability into the workforce, front-line managers, and leadership. The platform should:

  • Provide anytime, anywhere access: Meet the demands of today’s workforce with learning that is personalized and accessible anytime, anywhere.
  • Make learning relevant 24/7: Ensure continuous knowledge transfer with recommended content and easy content discovery via peer-to-peer posting and sharing. 
  • Blend traditional with modern: Deliver content using flexible tools and embed learning into HR talent processes, so employees can have the best of both worlds—technology that humanizes the experience.
  • Tap into the entire workforce: Empower the entire workforce to produce engaging content by sharing insights on how other people have successfully navigated similar challenges and trainings.
  • Avoid one size fits all: Deliver a variety of content—both short, digestible pieces and more in-depth and detailed guides—to help ensure there is something for everyone.

Today’s employees don’t want to be trained all the time. They want to train themselves. They want to be positioned to thrive and be able to easily evolve their knowledge over time. To meet this demand, L&D and HR teams need to reimagine learning to be just like the consumer experience, if not better. This will create a win-win situation were employees are empowered to learn and increase their impact, and HR and L&D teams have the real-time insights needed to make learning smarter, more enjoyable, and more collaborative.

The Comcastic Approach to Training

By Matt Macinnis, Founder and CEO, Inkling

Tens of millions of customers. Millions of miles of cable. Tens of thousands of employees. And one giant training challenge for a leading provider of Internet, television, and media services. How does Comcast scale its training programs to meet the ever-changing needs of its sprawling workforce?

After some tough feedback, Comcast committed itself in 2015 to building a better relationship with its customers. As part of the initiative, it modernized the resources it provide its employees, knowing that an empowered and engaged workforce is critical to a terrific customer experience. Comcast launched its own internal university to train its 90,000 team members: Comcast University now has seven colleges, spanning disciplines such as call centers and field technicians that serve everyone from new hires to the most seasoned employees. Comcast University has set the bar for corporate learning organizations, not just in the telecommunications industry but across industries.
Job one? Fix the technology. Comcast was using printed binders, old-fashioned learning management systems, and e-learning tools to train its employees. Trainers and learners were flown in from far-flung locations to spend time at the head office in Philadelphia or in local Comcast offices, often using desktop computers or flipping through paper. Comcast faced high costs, complex oversight practices, and the constant headache of content updates. It was hard to achieve any strategic agility, and there was limited data-driven feedback on the effectiveness of the training.

So Comcast adopted a smart content system. Befitting a modern Internet company, Comcast now provides digital content that’s available, online and offline, on any device. The system lets Comcast deploy updates to the field instantly. It now leans more heavily on self-paced learning rather than instructor-led approaches. This means learners can access information anytime they need it, even while working in the field. Plus, Comcast can deploy just-in-time content product launches, processes, and procedures, and then measure content effectiveness and employee engagement via real-time dashboards.

The smart content system is delivering lower costs, higher employee satisfaction, and greater agility for Comcast. The company has slashed annual printing costs, sped content creation time with the system’s intuitive tools, and demonstrated it all with real-world data. The improved visibility has enabled smarter decision-making within Comcast University, and released a new wave of creativity.


Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.