Skills Gap Series Part 4: The Tech Factor

How technology can help bridge the skill gaps faced by myriad organizations today.

By Lorri Freifeld

Technology isn’t the silver bullet solution to the skill gaps—technical, leadership, soft skills, and more—many companies continue to face. But it can help to narrow the distance between the skills employers seek and the skills employees bring to the table.

The key, experts agree, is focusing on learning technologies that are easy to use and accessible. At almost every juncture of someone’s work experience, there’s a learning need or opportunity to improve skills, notes Andy Zimmerman, CMO, Brainshark, Inc. The challenge is being able to make the right content available at that moment in time and give people anytime, anywhere access to it, he says. “From a technology perspective, ease of use is especially important in terms of rapid authoring/content creation—especially with budgets within training and development groups being so tight these days. Then you also need the ability to easily distribute that training content for access and viewing on any device, particularly with today’s mobile and BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trends.”

In this fourth installment of the Skills Gap series, we look at how technology can help bridge skill gaps, available technologies and how to choose the right ones for your organization, and how to determine the training budget for these technologies.

Building Skills Together

The rich landscape of digital technologies, which encompasses learning management systems (LMSs) and massive open online courses (MOOCs), is helping employers author, publish, and deliver content that will help close the skill gaps within their workforces, says Stan Jackson, Chief Business Intelligence Officer at ConnectEDU Inc. and contributor to recently released e-book “Modern Ways to Fill a Talent Gap.” “And the explosion of digitally delivered training has made skill-building accessible to individuals and self-learners who can address gaps they’ve identified on their own.”

What’s especially powerful about digital technologies, Jackson believes, is the things that have sprung up around them: “access to highly engaged communities of learners and experts for real-time collaboration; things such as ubiquitous network access and powerful, portable computing platforms; and the ability to track and measure usage and efficacy of learning (knowledge) consumption.”

Over the last five years or so, the role of learning technology has moved in two distinct directions, both of which play a role in skill-building training, notes Ron Rabin, senior learning technologist at the Center for Creative Leadership. The first direction is toward increasingly shorter content. “Not long ago, we’d design online modules that would take an hour or 90 minutes to complete; now the question is what can we deliver effectively in a 15- or 20-minute bite-sized module—or even a six-minute video? TED talks are 18 minutes because that’s the length of a coffee break. People are squeezing learning into their ever-shrinking downtime. Online lectures aren’t new, but MOOCs take that hour or two of lecture content each week and offer it in eight- or 10-minute chunks you can watch on your computer between meetings or on your smart phone while waiting in line.”

The second direction for technology, Rabin says, is to enable better instructor-led training and peer learning. “So the ‘flip the classroom’ model offloads lectures to pre-classroom videos, with classroom time focused on skill building, practice, and coaching. Social media tools such as Twitter, Yammer, wikis, and discussion forums, as well as virtual classroom technologies, allow learners to share, collaborate, and problem solve in ways that make learning more effective and engaging. Games and simulations can give learners with different job titles and challenges a common experience to learn from together.”

Such collaboration is crucial, believes Patrice T. Collins, vice president of Global Learning, Technology & Delivery at ESI International. “It is essential to first get your employees talking, learning, and collaborating and make collaboration a priority from the top down.” It’s no cliché that people learn from each other, she says. “Using a familiar learning technology that is integrated into the day-to-day work is essential because your employees will learn and collaborate without even realizing it.”

The specific tool you use isn’t as important, she says. “It can be an enterprise, well-known tool or an internal ‘homegrown’ collaboration tool—as long as it isn’t difficult or laborious. Trust your people to use the technology without a lot of stringent rules, and you’ll see that the technology is merely the vehicle to learning fast and getting results.”

But to truly bridge skill gaps, Collins suggests, find the technology that allows people to see “what’s in it for them.” “Employees need to see the benefits of the technology, such as saving them time during their workday,” she says.

Marty Nowlin, vice president, Human Resources North America – ManpowerGroup, believes a shift needs to take place from learning “events” to a learning “culture,” where talent is constantly developing capability. “Technology—including more on-demand, quick videos; simulations; and communities of practice—will drive this in many ways,” he says.

And don’t forget to factor evaluation into the equation. Determining what the skill gap is and how much you can bridge it requires measurement and monitoring, Zimmerman says. “A good technology solution should address the reporting and analytics needs related to content consumption and comprehension.”

Toward that end, Rabin says, “persuasive technology” tools can help self-assess and track individual progress toward behavior change goals after a classroom event.

Choosing the Right Technology

When choosing technology to bridge a skill gap, ESI’s Collins says you must keep your employees—both current and
future—in mind, and you must establish a vision. Her advice:

  1. Know your requirements before you start shopping for learning technology.
  2. Determine what it is you want to do better as a result of the technology. Ask, “What skill gaps are we trying to bridge?”
  3. Identify your short- and long-term goals.

Buying a technology without a plan can lead to a long, costly, difficult implementation only to find out you’ve chosen the wrong technology, she notes. “The product should be aligned with your strategic vision and embraced in the organization from the top down. The technology should be accessible to train and teach employees wherever they are and need it. Think in terms of right-sized training instead of bite-sized training, so that content is easily consumed, with people getting what they want, when and how they want it. The technology should support an easily searchable repository of learning so people can access all the information available from even the most basic knowledge of a subject.”

Remember, she stresses, the idea is to get people learning and applying knowledge as quickly as possible, and the right technology will enable them to do it.

CCL’s Rabin emphasizes asking the right questions, such as:

  • What’s the measurable business goal?
  • Why is there a performance gap? Is it a problem with motivation? With not having the right skills? With understanding the skills but not practicing them enough with feedback from a coach? With not understanding how to modify them to suit the particular job environment?

The answers usually point to the best delivery methods, he says. “If it’s motivational, training might not even be the answer. If it is, you need to put more emphasis on the learners’ own past experiences through stories, shared insights, and provocative questions—and that’s usually best done face to face. Sharing of information and knowledge can take place virtually, or even through a simple job aid embedded in workflow, while practicing skills and not reverting to past habits often involves peer support. The best learning organizations know which tools to use to address the particular challenges learners are facing.”

Technologies That Can Help

There is no shortage of tools or technologies out there. The question is, which ones are particularly helpful when it comes to training for skill gaps. Here are some to consider:

Mobile: ConnectEDU’s Jackson believes the technologies that will have the most impact are the ones that affect the delivery of training materials, such as the proliferation of mobile devices and applications. “Mobile apps are most frequently used at ‘in-between times,’ or times that are more convenient for the learner. Organizations that use training apps and technology to deliver content in manageable, bite-sized pieces and with flexible access will more effectively close their talent gaps by empowering their employees to build those skills incrementally while they’re at the doctor’s office, riding the bus, etc.”

What’s interesting about mobile, Brainshark’s Zimmerman points out, is that it’s disruptive technology that’s not necessarily disruptive to your daily life. “It changes the way you do things, but adapting to these changes tends to be easy because of the intuitiveness of the devices. The mobile learning experience, therefore, needs to be equally intuitive.”

Video: Video also has become an increasingly popular format for training, Zimmerman says. “Not only does video lead to higher learning retention rates in general, but it’s also available on-demand so learners can consume it wherever and whenever they’d like, and re-watch portions as necessary. This on-demand structure enables more companies to cut costs and save time on live learning sessions, and incorporate a more accessible, informal approach to training.”

NASA, for example, used a combination of PowerPoint content and videos to prepare astronauts for asteroid exploration via an underwater habitat program 62 feet below sea level. Using Brainshark’s SlideShark app, trainees on the NEEMO (NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations) expedition were able to access learning content and videos straight from their iPads while living underwater over the course of 12 days—even when Internet access was unavailable. “Their training videos provided step-by-step instructions on how to perform complex maintenance tasks, which the crew had not previously encountered,” Zimmerman says. “This type of just-in-time learning content, with visual instructions that are accessible via the iPad, will be helpful during an actual asteroid mission, as well.”

Virtual: Companies need to implement learning technologies that will address an increasingly dispersed workforce; they need tools that can easily be leveraged for any region, in any language, and at any time of day, notes Tom Masotto, vice president of Product Management at ON24. ON24 leverages virtual learning environments (VLEs) that combine virtual locations, live Webcasts, social networking tools, and other Web-based collaboration tools to create an adaptable learning experience for wide-ranging employee needs on an on-demand basis.

Marriott used ON24 virtual technology to create a “Breakthrough Leadership Program” with the goal of providing training to 733 hotels in 23 countries around the world. The program initially was delivered entirely through live, location-based instruction where trainers were flown into different markets and hotel managers came together to engage in the training. “Marriott had challenges executing the training in secondary and tertiary markets, which meant that associates had to spend many hours traveling in order to participate in sessions,” Masotto explains. “Because of these issues, Marriott built a customized virtual learning environment that could be easily accessed by all Marriott managers and would allow participants to engage in real-time learning, including live Webcasts and question-and-answer periods.” As a result, Masotto says, Marriott was able to certify more than 5,000 managers in a short period of time, allowing them to train others in their hotels, along with hosting a “big picture” training for another 10,000 managers via the virtual environment platform.

Sodexo also partnered with ON24 to create a VLE to bring together decentralized groups of employees, providing regular technical updates, career development information, performance tools, job aids, and shared learning around specific topics. Sodexo’s VLE has generated more than $1 million in cost savings, Masotto says, and the company has doubled the attendance rate for training.

Knowledge sharing: Skill gaps often partly result from the fact that the vast majority of important job-related knowledge comes from self-discovery or learning from others within your organization, not a formal company-sponsored training program, notes Craig Malloy, CEO of Bloomfire. “As such, the ability to capture and reuse valuable informal knowledge and experience that already exists in your employees’ minds, in-boxes, and files and to deliver that information when and where it is needed is crucial for the ongoing success of any organization.” Malloy encourages companies to keep this in mind as a key area of focus when considering implementation of new software productivity tools, including the new class of knowledge-sharing software.

Gartner Research predicts that by 2016, 50 percent of large organizations will have internal social and knowledge-sharing networks deployed, and 30 percent of these will be considered as essential as e-mail and telephones are today. “These networks add value by allowing all employees to have a voice in the organization by contributing and posting valuable content, searching and browsing what has been posted by others in the community, asking and answering important questions, and finding and following experts in the community who can help you be more productive in your job,” Malloyexplains.

Companies of all sizes and all industries have this knowledge-sharing problem, and have had it since the earliest times of commercial activity, Malloy says. “Now, through the convergence of the megatrends of cloud, mobile, social, and big data and content, tools and applications are being developed and deployed that can help employees have all the information and answers they need with just a mouse click or finger swipe. And the mining and clever reporting of this content sharing and social data can result in valuable gamification that can help your learning communities thrive.” Some key applications for these knowledge-sharing systems, Malloy points out, can be enabling your global sales and marketing teams with all the content they need to launch a new product, building a multimedia social intranet to share best practices in professional service firms, and onboarding new employees in different continents and time zones.

LMS: A formal learning management system (LMS) is the way to go when it comes to bridging skill gaps through learning technology, believes Beth Gilfeather, CEO and founder of Seven Step RPO. “It elevates the entire learning experience by providing
users with state-of-the art access to company training programs. Many LMSs also provide open forums to share feedback on training sessions and make recommendations for new learning opportunities.”

E-learning and authoring platforms are transforming the way companies produce training, Gilfeather adds. “Whiteboards and PowerPoint presentations will always act as effective training communication vehicles; however, learners today want a more interactive and on-demand method of learning. Several companies provide easy-to-use platforms that help to develop courses with rich graphics, animation, branching, games, quizzes, and story-based learning. At Seven Step RPO, we use Articulate to create our own audio-narrated, interactive learning sessions to keep our employees updated on trainings within the recruiting industry.”

MOOCs: With the creation of MOOCs for workforce training, “we can leverage the online learning structure and technology to offer classes that reach a large audience, have more interactivity than a video series alone, and allow students to practice concepts on their own projects,” says Alison Farmer, vice president of Learning and Development at Aquent. The firm conducts regular research with its clients—via focus groups, surveys, and interviews—to continually identify real-world skill gaps. From there, it creates MOOC offerings specifically tailored to addressing the missing skills clients are seeing in their various industries.

“Historically, it wasn’t possible for companies or institutions to release workforce training courses that addressed real-time, emerging skill gaps,” Farmer says. “Given course development costs, organizations didn’t see the value in developing courses that had a shelf-life of a year or less, because they could only provide course material to a limited number of students in that time. For this reason, the arrival of MOOCs has been a game changer; it allows a course to quickly serve a huge audience rather than one that must live in perpetuity to recover costs.”

E-cruiting: Finding talent that meets the needs of a position is difficult—especially as companies have begun casting a wide net, posting their positions on CareerBuilder, Monster, Dice, Twitter, and more, ConnectEDU’s Jackson says. “With the large volume of people looking for work, this opens employers up to receiving hundreds or thousands of untargeted applicants. The more companies can do to discern whether or not candidates have the desired skills, proficiencies, and/or certification, the better. There are technologies, such as skills assessments or pre-hire screening tests, available to assist in all of these, and they can be used to wrestle the amount of unqualified applicants to a more manageable, desirable pool.”

In the oil and gas sector, which currently faces a skills shortage, subsea service provider Technip recently appointed its first e-cruiter, Linn Charlene Brun, for its North Sea Canada regional operations. E-cruiting is the process of combining candidate research, selection techniques, and headhunting using online resources such as social media and networks. It is designed to attract and retain the best talent, but more importantly, to ensure a fit between company and candidate. “Using social media for recruitment is not a replacement for existing Human Resources strategy, but rather an additional support to our already well-functioning recruitment process,” Brun notes. “It takes time and effort to build a long-term pool for sourcing talent, but the effort will pay off as it can provide a new pipeline of talent while showcasing our brand.”

How Much to Allocate

With so many different learning technologies to choose from and so many skills to train on, how can companies accurately predict what they will need to spend in a given year?

ESI’s Collins says the key first step in budgeting for skills training—or any training, for that matter—is to determine the outcome you want to achieve from the training so that once it has been deployed you can clearly demonstrate that the desired results were achieved. In other words, she says, “you must prove return on investment (ROI). This is critical to justifying the training program investment to executive management. By asking what you want employees to do better, such as improve quality or productivity, you can analyze and identify the existing skill gaps, and then determine the appropriate skills training and the technology that will support the training. The training and technology costs can be variable depending on the people and the skills training they need. It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all solution, but it can be accurately predicted with the right information.”

Leaders and L&D teams need to come together to determine what capabilities are required to execute their strategy, adds ManpowerGroup’s Nowlin. “They need to assess the current talent against that capability and identify the critical roles needed for execution. This level of strategic planning allows L&D teams to map and prioritize the training needs, delivery methods, audiences, timing, and cost. As budgets get tighter, scrutiny and resources are more constrained if the budgeting process for training isn’t tied to the strategic planning process; then money is being wasted with no way to determine ROI.”

Bloomfire’s Malloy notes that it’s difficult to accurately predict how the specific skills and needs of your workforce will change over time as new competition, technologies, customer requirements, and economic conditions shift. “The best way to approach this vexing problem,” he says, “is to invest in tools and technologies that are highly flexible and configurable, low cost with a minimum of ongoing investment, and scale up and down as the learning needs of the business changes. SaaS (Software as a Service)-based knowledge-sharing and social learning tools are great way to get started down this path.”


  • Keep employees—both current and future—in mind, and establish a vision.
  • Think in terms of right-sized training instead of bite-sized training.
  • Focus on learning technologies that are easy to use and accessible.
  • Use familiar learning technologies that are integrated into the day-to-day work.
  • Get employees talking, learning, and collaborating, and make collaboration a priority from the top down.
  • Find the technology that allows people to see “what’s in it for them.”
  • Embrace the shift from learning “events” to a learning “culture,” where talent is constantly developing capability.
  • Keep in mind that a good technology solution should address the reporting and analytics needs related to content consumption and comprehension.
  • When budgeting for technology, determine the outcome you want to achieve from the training.
  • Invest in tools and technologies that are highly flexible and configurable, low cost with a minimum of ongoing investment, and scale up and down as the learning needs of the business changes.

“The Law of the Hammer” in Training

By Patterson S. (Pete) Weaver, Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer, Development Dimensions International (DDI)

First, let me say that this piece is not a Luddite rant against technology per se. This new millennium has brought to our training tool boxes a host of promising, wonderful technologies such as Web-based training, virtual instructor-led classrooms, simulations, gaming, and social media, to name a few. These technology-based tools make it easier to deliver training to more learners, less expensively, more consistently, and across broader geographies and time zones. In short, we can get more done with less as a result of the technology advances that have emerged.

However, there is a tendency for people to use these technologies like the proverbial overused hammer—some people think they see nails everywhere. The good news is that there are three general principles that should guide your plans to leverage social technology, particularly for leadership development and other “soft” skills:

  1. Formal learning is still important. Our experience is that most interaction and leadership skills are best acquired and honed in a formal, intentional learning experience that includes lots of time for controlled practice and feedback. Social media tools should never serve as a replacement for formal learning. Rather, they are ideal for surrounding and enriching the formal learning events.
  2. Test to learn—adapt to perfect. There are two major arenas to pilot and test before you take social learning technology wide and deep: people and technology. Don’t underestimate the challenges with either. Use focus groups, test cohorts, feedback surveys, and anecdotal hearsay to test and refine your approach with your people. Seek help from technical partners (internal and/or external) to shake out the new technology in your environment, on your devices, in your software mix, and through your firewall.
  3. Don’t cut communication corners. When an organization chooses to use social media to drive learning and development, it should take care to devote the same communication and orientation resources that it would for any major change initiative. There are no smart shortcuts to introducing technology for something as personal as learning. Be sure to plan and execute a thoughtful approach to communication and implementation suited to your culture and objectives.

Crowd Power

By Michael  Papay, President, President, Fort Hill Company, the learning technology firm that developed online crowdsourcing tool, We Achieve ( )

Fast, easily implemented technology innovations are shortening the learning cycle dramatically, which is empowering many organizations to go from learning to real change in record time. And some technologies, such as crowdsourcing tools, combine needs analysis, insight, and learning in a real-time learning process that is deeply engaging, unique, and—dare I say—fun.

For many people, however, the term, “crowdsourcing,” implies that you need special training and a large amount of tech savvy to master it.

Not so. In fact, here’s the good news: New crowdsourcing tools are designed for the average Jane or Joe. Crowdsourcing today provides a fast, unique way to engage a group in a process that harvests collective intelligence around a question or issue. And since none of us is as smart as all of us, crowdsourcing is a great way to get a group’s best ideas to bubble to the top.

Tapping the wisdom of the crowd is the idea behind the development of We Achieve, a tool that enables organizations to build on learning and performance improvement to drive stronger business results. We Achieve is based on the notion that one question, tailored to harvest insights and achievement stories, can spur a group to surface wisdom and solutions to everyday—and often vexing—issues. Tools such as We Achieve are giving companies of all sizes, especially smaller or resource-limited organizations, access to learning innovations that were once the province of large companies with big budgets.

How can you best incorporate innovative learning technologies into your learning programs and development process?

  1. Go fast and lean: Deploy solutions that work fast and are delivered via mobile. Go with lightweight tools to extract learning and create engagement. Mobile is key today and employees love it, but too many organizations get caught up with overly complex and unfocused solutions.
  2. Stay focused and relevant: Use new tools to engage people in addressing important and tangible questions. Early adopters are great, but regular people only use technology if it’s relevant. Most people don’t have the time, appetite, or energy for chattering and yammering online just because they can. Connect the technology with focus and aligned around current priorities. Then sit back and watch the engagement meter hit top levels.
  3. Go beyond digital: In fact, don’t do digital for digital’s sake. Technology tools are augmenting the conversation, but only if you bring everything back to the office. Bring the virtual and digital into real settings on the job—through conference calls, Webinars, in-person presentations, discussions, and more.

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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.