Lifelong learning is the new normal for firms attracting top talent. But delivering training intelligently and at scale means not just new tech, but the right solution at the right time.

Now that workforces are in lockdown, the technology stack required to keep employees on the right path is being tested even further.

A panel of entrepreneurs in training and education joined a BusinessCloud roundtable to discuss how technology can personalise and automate the process of workforce upskilling.

How can tech personalise the learning experience?

Nelson Sivalingam is CEO of HowNow. The London-based workplace learning platform connects employees with relevant learning – be that events, podcasts, internal documents or books.

Its clients, which include GymShark and, can then see how their employees are progressing.

Sivalingam said that when employees join a company, typically the training provided is top-down and one-size fits all. But HowNow wants to change that by analysing the data-points of each learner to track progress and success.

“The process starts from a workplace profile, and we can benchmark them against other similar people within the organisation,” explained Sivalingam.

“We can also look at behavioural insights, such as whether the learner prefers to watch, read or listen and take into account the device they are engaging with.”

The firm also collects and analyses millions of job adverts via machine learning to identify which skills are most in-demand and guide the topics to focus on next.

Put simply, Sivalingam said: “It’s about knowing what skills you need for a particular job title, and what content you need to build that particular skill set.”

James Gupta runs Leeds-based Synap, which began as a quiz-based exam revision platform for students. It now also works with employers to prepare staff for professional exams, as well as students in school and university.

Like HowNow, Synap uses data to personalise the experience. Synap primarily uses multiple choice questions, which allows the platform to collect a granular data-set of how well its users know the content.

The multiple choice approach means that insights can still be found, even in wrong answers, where it might otherwise be lost.

Gupta said learning analytics have a tendency to be “quite messy” and that applying insights to existing learner data to make decisions about a student’s performance is tricky.

Data about a student’s attendance, for instance, cannot tell you whether they lost interest in a course or simply forgot their login details.

The firm makes use of computational and machine learning tech which can be applied to garner insights from the mass answer data it collects.

While the collection of data is one way to increase personalisation, it can also come in the form of simulated experience, says Helen Routledge.

Routledge is CEO of Totem Learning, which offers ‘serious games’ designed in virtual reality and specifically for corporate training and education.

The seven-year-old firm is made up of staff from the traditional games industry and learning professionals, and works across sectors including retail and healthcare.

Among the firm’s projects is a 3D welding training simulation administered in a virtual environment with an accompanying 3D-printed welding gun, designed to be the same shape and weight as the real thing.

Routledge said that video games – serious or for entertainment – had been doing personalisation for a long time and were usually quick and reactive to new trends.

“When you play a game, you are put into an environment and given a big objective. In modern games, how you complete that objective is up to the player,” she said.

“They have a lot of personal choice. You can follow your own interests or go straight for the boss character.”

She said this gamified approach was beginning to be used in learning and development and allows learners to follow their own interests while having their strengths challenged based on performance.

“You can start to use that data to look at the individual, their learning pathway and where they need more support,” she said.

Routledge said gamification is ultimately about putting the learner in the driver’s seat: “It changes the focus from the teacher being the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’.

“In a classroom the teacher is the focus. In games, the learner is the central character.”

She said the introduction of choice, rewards and sign-posting were secondary to that main focus.

But Sivalingam warned that while true gamification was a modern means to better training and education, the term sometimes suffered from trivialisation, with brands and firms focusing on a simple points or badge-based system rather than a truly ‘gamified’ training programme.

“Game design is inherently personalised rather than an add-on. I always cringe when I see a pitch deck which throws in gamification as an extra feature sat on top. That’s an indicator that it’s nothing more than an add-on,” he said.

What is the future of the classroom environment?

Zoe Wallace is director of Liverpool-based Agent Academy, spun out of a marketing agency as an answer to the skills gaps the company saw in the creative industry.

It now runs a 12-week programme designed to get young people into creative and digital jobs. It works with universities including the University of Liverpool as a creative partner, and recently launched an e-learning platform called Switch.

Wallace said that its young people work on real projects, but action-based learning was still key. While they might be ‘digital natives’, it is important not to lose sight of the learner experience and objectives.

“A lot of what we do has been face-to-face, and our challenge has been replicating the success of their work offline, online,” she said, highlighting “the community aspect and the feeling of being connected” which has been lost to the UK’s lockdown.

“As learning designers, we have to work harder to get to that point through technology and a blended approach, if nothing else.”

Amul Batra, chief partnerships officer at Northcoders, agreed. The Manchester-based firm trains young people for roles in coding and development via a 12-week course to prepare them for roles as junior software developers.

The firm has graduated over 600 people since it began four years ago.

Batra said that Northcoders was never designed to be a purely remote learning environment, and while formal and informal education can theoretically be carried out without meeting in person, doing so was detrimental to students.

“We were vehemently against doing what we do remotely. We’re in charge of 100 students per quarter, and it’s the in-person nature of what we do that we’re most attached to,” he said.

“We’ve got a unique culture, and being in our campus is what drives so much of the goodness which comes out of what we teach.”

He said part of the firm’s success is how well the students are taught by the lecturers, mentors and first-line support, even though most of the work is self-driven in front of a computer.

The firm had written contingency plans by February to deal with a potential coronavirus lockdown, and had trialled remote days ahead of it coming into effect.

Batra said that following a trial with a sample group of 100 students, around 25 didn’t take well to learning outside of a classroom environment, and have instead had their courses deferred.

How can tech be used to measure success?

The panel agreed that one of the keys to learning was not studying but ‘doing’, and that a purely academic approach could not fully prepare students or employees for work-specific skills.

Sivalingam said “you can’t learn to ride a bike from a book”, adding that companies and educational institutes should be better at leveraging technology in the examination process – and that getting “hundreds of students into a gym for an exam” was not making the most of the options available.

“This comes from a legacy approach which doesn’t take into account that learning is a means to an end, and the end is acquiring skills. It was always difficult for people to measure skills, and tick boxes.

“Now we can leverage data to get a better understanding of skills.”

HowNow’s platform gives managers the responsibility for part of the assessment of an employee’s progress. He said managers should be able to see the fruits of an employee’s studying in their work.

“It’s not going to come out of an assessment, that’s going to come of self- and peer-review,” he said.

“How are you going to assess someone on the numerous blog posts they’ve written or podcasts they’ve listened to, or the webinars they’ve tuned in to?”

He said in future it could become more difficult for examiners to write exams, and employees should look for new metrics to demonstrate success and advancement at work.

Gupta said that universities, for example, are exploring more open-book exams as they accept that students will have access to the information at any time.

“Increasingly the challenge is not what you know and how it is codified in your neurons but your ability to find something out in a quick and reliable way, on the job,” he said.

“I think exams are useful from an employer’s perspective, but I would start assessing whether people meet a certain baseline standard, rather than grading.”

He said pass or fail would be a more useful metric for exams which were more personalised, and a A, B, C or equivalent grade tended to show who had best prepared for an exam as much as their competency.

Wallace added that as a non-traditional and non-accredited learning programme, their measurements of success is not grades or data, but job creation.

“That’s the ultimate test,” she said. “Exam boards will have to catch up because they have no choice. The drive for skills is from the employer market.”

Routledge said in her own hiring her focus had changed, and a portfolio tended to demonstrate more of a potential employee’s competency than their qualifications.

Is lifelong learning the new normal?

Batra said the notion of life-long learning was more important in the tech sector than ever before, and that particularly with software development, employees need access to new resources constantly.

“If you’re a software developer and you stop learning then you’re no good as a software developer,” he said.

“The average shelf life of any technology is only about two years. You’ve got to be constantly learning.”

In implementing this, Sivalingam said companies should be “problem-focused.”

“Firms should let all types of providers explain their solutions. The answer isn’t a particular product category or platform – it could be a combination. The mind-set needs to change to problem-first, and solution second.”

Gupta agreed, suggesting some firms would benefit from thinking outside the box when looking to improve their employees’ learning.

He said: “Lots of places have already decided what they want based on the last time they went out to tender for a system.”

But the panel agreed that while the right technology could vastly improve speed and efficiency, ultimately the learning must begin with input for an experienced professional.

Wallace said: “The machine is only ever going to be as good as the people designing the learning.

“We can use data, and do lots of clever stuff, but ultimately it’s got to be a human-designed process. The person doesn’t have to be face-to-face, but it’s got to be designed by humans.”

Gupta added: “Teachers add an incredible amount of value, but teachers are not spending all their time on delivering that value, instead they are focused on things which could be automated, such as marking and assessments.

“I think teachers would be happy to have those things done by a machine, so that they can focus on the parts of the job where a human can uniquely add value.”

Routledge said: “My son is five years old and couldn’t learn from YouTube on his own, he needs guidance. I think that goes for any age. You need someone to pull the content together in a meaningful way.

“Scale is also important because without it you have trainers having to fly to classrooms in different countries. Now you can build it once and put it everywhere. ”

Batra added: “You can’t replace that psychology, or just an arm around the shoulder. Technology can’t get that. It’s an enabler if used correctly by the right people.

“Without those people designing and guiding you through a process, you won’t get there. People can learn what we teach online, but can’t replace the structure and the ability to re-explain.”