In the latest Pulse Report on senior management attitudes to leadership development, digitalisation or digital adoption ranked second among top business priorities. Executive education was also a top-five consideration, with fewer than half of senior professionals feeling their organisations were well-equipped to adapt to changes in the marketplace.
The meeting ground of these two trends is learning and development (L&D), and increasingly L&D’s use of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual or augmented reality (VR/AR).
Technology that learns your learning
Until now, technological advances in L&D have primarily focused on smarter user interfaces (UI) that encourage a better learner experience and, hopefully, more effective learning. We’ve seen the developmental arc from in-class training with powerpoint presentations to blended learning, full elearning, social learning platforms and mobile-enabled microlearning. Emerging technologies present a range of novel opportunities.
“AI is the new UI,” says Professor Donald Clark, EdTech entrepreneur and Visiting Professor at the University of Derby, speaking ahead of the CIPD Festival of Work. “It changes everything. As it is changing the workplace, it is bound to change why, what, and how we learn.”
“Right across the learning journey AI is being used to engage learners, support learners, create online learning, provide analytics for improving delivery, adaptive and personalised learning, assessment and even wellbeing.”
When speaking this way, Clark affords 'artificial intelligence' a particular meaning. "Almost all AI is what is called 'weak' AI – programmes run on computers that simulate what humans can do. 'Strong’ AI is the idea that it actually does what the brain does.”
'Strong' AI is the kind imagined by prescient 19th-century writer Samuel Butler when he said, “In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. The machines are gaining ground on us; day by day, we are becoming more subservient to them." Ominous words from someone living through the First Industrial Revolution.
Yet, as we emerge into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Butler’s cautionary sentiments have been echoed by the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk. Nobody knows what will happen if, or when, artificial intelligence exceeds our own.
It seems, though, that AI overlords are not yet a real concern for L&D departments. “My view,” says Professor Clark, “is that we are very firmly at the 'weak' stage, but that the distinction is actually on a spectrum, like cool to hot. That's not to say that 'strong' AI is not on its way, just that it's not here yet.”
'Weak' AI, the kind we are already using every day, has a very narrow focus. It is programmed to do a specific task well, usually better than humans. It includes machine learning and deep learning, the types of 'intelligence' at the heart of Google, facebook and computers like AlphaGo and AlphaZero.
Better data, happier learners
The ability to use data to learn, improve and predict will be AI’s most impactful contribution to L&D. It will allow learning to become highly personalised, focused and measurable, moving beyond just-in-time teaching to preemptive teaching. By using data to understand a learner’s preferences, habits, strengths and weaknesses, the learning system will be able to offer a learner what she needs before she knows it herself. As an example of a precursor, Professor Clark points to 'adaptive’ learning systems at Arizona State University that use personal and aggregated data to deliver individualised real-time pathways through a course. The result is higher attainment and reduced dropout rates.
In L&D this translates as higher engagement. Emerging technology interfaces like voice-enabled online learning and chatbots are increasingly effective at keeping learners dynamically involved, while immersive learning experiences are changing the face of training and development.
Tom Symonds, CEO of Immerse, reflects on how the company’s virtual reality training is driving unprecedented levels of learner engagement. “I could count on one hand the number of people who have gone through this process and not been, at an absolute minimum, engaged.” The company records almost flawless trainee approval ratings, using VR headsets that can train employees from work locations across the globe in the same virtual environment in real time.
The system also gathers massive amounts of data – 30 messages per second – that can be used to measure outcomes, monitor compliance and refine the training. At scale, big data from thousands of users can be processed by AI to deliver responsive and continuously more personalised education.
Symonds predicts that mixed reality systems like Microsoft’s HoloLens, combining virtual reality and physical reality, will be viable as L&D solutions within two to three years. Adoption and efficacy are also set to rise with imminent releases of untethered VR rigs and rollout of 5G networks.
Only human after all
However, established workforce preconceptions about AI and uncertainty about its long-term impact on jobs means L&D teams need to engage the broader organisation. HR and leadership need to be especially cognisant of emerging technology’s potential effects on culture and talent management.
Among the 4500 office workers surveyed in a recent Headspring study, the prevailing association with AI was that it creates systems and machines that will replace human jobs. Though the fear of AI-related job redundancy was relatively rare (less than 10%), this remains an essential consideration as technological integration increases.
According to Jonathan Rennie, Partner at UK law firm TLT: "Employers must ensure that new learning technologies have flexibilities built in to ensure that employees with differing needs are accommodated. For example, employees with learning difficulties may be entitled to reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010, particularly if successful e-learning is linked to pay and progression.”
“The impact on those currently employed to deliver training must also be considered, as their roles could be put at risk of redundancy or subject to reorganisation and reshaping. If there is not sufficient flexibility in their employment contract to allow for the change, there could be a risk of constructive unfair dismissal or even a claim for breach of contract."
It is a useful reminder that this is mostly uncharted territory. Navigating it successfully will require responsible innovation. There is a reason that cybersecurity is the number one concern keeping senior leaders up at night. But it remains a brave new world. Those who dare will win.