As we head into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s easy to feel like a deer caught in digital headlights. With the speed of technological innovation, how can you prioritize what advances are best suited to your learners’ needs?
By Ashley St. John
It has become widely accepted that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. Coined by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the concept refers to how technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the “internet of things” are merging with the physical lives of humans, “blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”

It can be a bit frightening when you consider the rate at which things are changing — like trying to envision the spatial size of the universe. As Schwab wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs in December 2015, “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.”

As we head into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s easy to feel like a deer caught in digital headlights. With the speed of technological innovation, how can you prioritize what advances are best suited to your learners’ needs?
By Ashley St. John
It has become widely accepted that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. Coined by Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the concept refers to how technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and the “internet of things” are merging with the physical lives of humans, “blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres.”

It can be a bit frightening when you consider the rate at which things are changing — like trying to envision the spatial size of the universe. As Schwab wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs in December 2015, “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the Fourth is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.”

Overcoming Tech Paralysis
With so much technological transformation happening around us, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed — both as individuals and within organizations. This was a topic of frequent discussion during the 2019 Association for Talent Development conference in Washington, D.C., this past May.

Chad Udell, managing partner of new product strategy and development at enterprise mobility service provider Float, was one presenter who focused on this hot topic during the conference. Udell, with his colleague Gary Woodill, led a session titled “How to Handle the Shock of the New: Introducing a Framework for Evaluating Emerging Technologies.” Based on their book, “Shock of the New: The Challenge and Promise of Emerging Technologies,” the session grabbed attendees’ attention with Udell’s use of the phrase “tech paralysis.”

Everyone is facing some degree of technology overload these days, and the learning and development space is certainly no exception. Following, Udell shares some insights on how to face the growing wave of technology head on and prioritize what’s necessary, what’s a nice-to-have, and what’s likely a passing fad.

How can the overwhelming amount of transformation happening right now lead to tech paralysis in a business?
Chad Udell: We’re at a really interesting intersection here of a variety of converging forces. We’ve got this overwhelming juggernaut of growth in terms of technology that started around the beginning of the internet age but has rapidly transformed and grown faster and faster with mobility and ubiquity of digital devices. With these types of overwhelming growth, it can be very easy to become completely overwhelmed in the sense that you just don’t even know quite where to start.

It’s the whole cliche of, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” People don’t even know which bite to begin with, because a lot of it just looks so darn tasty! That’s the other thing that’s also very problematic — that there are many, many choices to be made, and many of those choices are good. There certainly are some bad ends and some bad pieces that you want to avoid, but because there are so many options, it’s difficult to whittle them down. When you couple that with the fact that businesses do not have unlimited funds or unlimited resources such as people to research and experiment, determining where you can place those bets is a paralyzing activity in and of itself.

How do you define the “shock of the new”?
Udell: What we’re discussing when we talk about the shock of the new is this constant state of reeling from punch after punch of being hit in the jaw with new gadgets, new tools, new processes and new technologies that we’re expected to essentially become fluent with. So, we have digital transformation, and we have mobile transformation, and now we’re expected to be fluent with these technologies in every aspect of our business. And because most of the time people are concerned very much with the day to day, it’s really difficult for them to elevate above that to understand how to work with these items strategically, how to think about things strategically and how to be able to overcome that shock.
What are some of the most “shocking” technologies that have emerged in the past five or 10 years, or that are just beginning to emerge?
Udell: One of the things that I think has been most shocking to business is the rampant and widespread adoption of mobile before many businesses were ready to fully adopt it. My business has been in practice since 2010 building mobile apps for enterprise, and I would say that we were a bit early in the sense that we were ready to deploy mobile applications for the Fortune 500 way back in 2009, 2010, when we were just getting started. But many businesses did not have strategies in place to deal with those types of things — governance, policies, procedures, acceptable use patterns … ways that you would employ these devices for success inside your business. That was very, very disruptive.
Business leaders need to acknowledge as part of that decision-making process that it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of decision.
Following on from that very closely: As the devices became disintermediated from the business and became personal devices in people’s pockets, the data sources themselves were becoming disintermediated, and this was kind of the advent, the rapid takeoff of the cloud. People were using cloud services on their phones and on their tablets before the business was able to fully support them. And now we’ve seen in 2015, 2016, 2017 and beyond, Amazon’s web services business, Google Cloud, Microsoft’s Azure Cloud, etc., have really taken off. Well over 50 to 60 percent or more, depending on the cloud service that we’re talking about, of Fortune 500 businesses are depending on these cloud services to do their work.

This is obviously in the broader sense in business, but we’re also seeing a transformation in the learning space. There are many cloud services and tools out there, everything from your learning management system to your authoring tools to your ELCMS to a variety of very specific point solutions for things like assessments, mentoring, coaching, scheduling, workshops, audience response tools and so on. The decentralization of these tools and the decentralization of that data is leading to this kind of new disruption, or “shock of the new,” which is almost like cognitive services as a platform. So, outsourcing decision-making, outsourcing performance support, outsourcing a variety of different key business processes that typically would have been part of the training department’s domain — generating performance-support tools, knowledge bases, software simulations and training systems — all of those types of things are now starting to move outside of the four walls of the enterprise and into the cloud as well, and that is very disruptive and is only going to increase.

How do you suggest learning leaders decide what is important and what is a fad?
Udell: In “Shock of the New” we lay out a framework [called the BUILDS framework] that you can use for decision-making processes around understanding the business impact of the software; implications in terms of user experience and how to create a great experience for employees; how to determine what the impact of the system is going to be upon your workers and your organization; what types of learning models it supports and how that fits in with the culture of your organization; what dependencies need to be put in place or need to be in place prior to making decisions around that technology; and what types of signals are in the broader industry in order to make your decision less of a bet and more of an educated guess.

I think business leaders need to acknowledge as part of that decision-making process that it’s not a one-size-fits-all type of decision. Every business within every vertical industry is going to have its own type of lens they would need to use this framework for. While some industries, say for example microprocessors, semiconductors and things like that, may be extremely high-tech and highly dependent upon information systems in order to do their work, there are just as many businesses that are decidedly low-tech but still have some need for technologies. I’m thinking about things like agriculture, logistics, and so on, which superficially seem like very low-tech industries but in reality are heavily dependent on technology for success. So therefore, the way that they use those technologies is going to be radically different.

Even inside of a business you’re going to have audiences that have differing levels of technological savviness and willingness to adapt and accept those technologies. While you may have sales professionals who are heavily incented to close deals, and therefore they’re going to take just about any way that they can to get a leg up in order to close that deal or hit that quota, you may have some other professionals who, honestly, are just there because they work the 9 to 5, or it’s a weekend job. Or maybe this is even a secondary job where they don’t really want to be put into a position where they have to put up with a lot of baloney in order to get through things. So making that technology as easy as possible, as accessible as possible, and really selling that whole “what’s in it for me,” is vital to achieve success, which will help you prevent buying into fads or pushing fads that ultimately erode your credibility as a learning leader.

It’s important that as we look to determine if a technology is something that’s important or a fad, we are looking at it from an audience-specific point of view.

Broadly speaking, do you feel that certain technologies are particularly important for learning functions to take advantage of?
Udell: There are certainly technologies that myself and my partners at Float have our eyes on. We come from a mobile background, and our heritage is in delivery of content for mobile devices and providing information in a just-in-time, just-enough, and just-for-me type format, so we really are keeping our eyes not just on microlearning and mobile learning but different formats and forms of that medium. And we feel that augmented reality is a very, very promising technology in that space because it can definitely close that gap in performance by providing just-in-time information in the flow of the activity and not just supplement or augment training but in some ways actually get to the core of the problem, provide the information when they’re doing the task to operationalize that training, and potentially even remove or at least reduce the need for training in the first place.

That being said, we don’t really advocate or act as a proponent in the book for any one technology. It’s rather a comprehensive look at all technologies. We talk about some technologies like internet of things, blockchain, 3-D printing, AR and so on, but this framework should be able to be used with any number of those technologies plus some more forward-thinking ones that might be a number of years out — the redesigned internet; what will happen when IPv6 [Internet Protocol version 6] is pervasive everywhere; internet of things; “internet of everything”; blockchain and beyond, into the realm of even quantum computing, quantum internet and robotics. What we are advocating for is not necessarily thinking that any one technology is particularly important, but rather [having] a broad awareness of technologies in general and how to put plans in place to achieve success with these advanced technologies. It’s really taking a technology-agnostic approach to evaluating technologies.

Hopefully this will serve as a kickstarter to get involved in the broader technology discussions that are going on inside of your organizations. Even if you haven’t already begun explorations of how blockchain or internet of things or AR are going to reshape your workers from a learning and development perspective, make no bones about it, there are definitely professionals inside your company who are doing some amount of research, development, prototyping and even possibly pilot testing around some of these more advanced technologies. So, informing yourself on them, creating a task force around this concept of, let’s get a workforce-of-the-future mindset, let’s talk about and review some of these advanced technologies, this is going to allow you to reenter those larger discussions that are taking place in your hallways, and not be relegated to, “Oh, learning and development, you’ll get that technology after operations has it and after sales has it.” You should be able to use this as a jumping off point to be part of that vanguard and part of that discussion to help lead these decisions at your organization. Technology is definitely going to be a core component of employees being able to do their jobs going forward.

Ashley St. John is Chief Learning Officer’s managing editor.