James Chia, the co-founder and CEO of edutech startup ArcLab, clearly remembers one of his earliest workplace learning experiences. As a young trainee officer in the civil service many years ago, he needed to go through an orientation and training period. What this consisted of: three files appearing on his desk, with the succinct instructions to read them, and not much else.
"Obviously, we did the best we could, but without context, training is not going to be relevant or helpful," he recounts.
That realization stuck with him for the following decade and a half, until, in 2018, he and co-founder Steven Chan got together to launch ArcLab as a learning system aimed specifically at deskless workers: factory workers, service workers, rank-and-file workers in front-line jobs.
Why deskless workers?
This is a very underserved group as far as L&D goes, Chia says. Traditional classroom learning does not work for them: "It usually takes the form of one-size-fits-all classroom sessions, which are logistically intensive and may not be effective for the workers. It happens before they even start work, and that means there's no context for the training—not much knowledge can be retained on a sustained basis."
E-learning does not benefit them either, because they have no workstations and do not use computers in the course of their work. Furthermore, they follow rigid schedules, and it is almost impossible for them to carve out time for learning.
"Training needs to take into account the infrastructure available to staff," Chia points out. What all this added up to, he says, was a lot of room to use technology and pedagogy to help organizations train and upskill ina more effective way—and that was what he and his team set out to accomplish.
What makes training more effective?
The key to training deskless workers is nano-learning, Chia believes: highly targeted, on-demand information provided as and when they need it. This hinges on two important criteria, the medium and the content.
The medium is, of course, the mobile phone: the "common denominator of all our workforce," as he describes it. When learning content becomes accessible on workers' phones, it is effectively accessible to them all the time, not just during training sessions. They can learn even before starting work, allowing them to hit the ground running on their first day.
Then there is the content. Nano-learning content has to meet three key criteria: it must be presented in a very simple and clear way, it must be easily absorbed in practice, and it must be done in the flow of work.
This is a challenge in itself, because developing simple and effective content requires a very strong grasp of what that content is actually about. "Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying that if you can't explain it simply enough, the honest truth is that you don't understand the model," Chia quips.
To make sure the content is really usable, Chia and his learning design team have to work very closely with training managers at the companies they serve. "The knowledge rests in the company, within the organization," he says. "Our role is to bring this knowledge out, and put it in a very simple, effective delivery format."
"During staff's employment journey, the learning needs to be properly staged—you don't want to overwhelm them at the beginning. It has to be contextually appropriate."
Supporting the back end of learning
While a significant part of learning involves feeding information to workers in the most conducive way for them, technology-driven learning for the deskless workforce has multiple other advantages. Chia highlights two particularly popular features, automated learning assessment and corporate performance support.
The first is well-received by training managers simply because assessment can be extremely tedious, he says—automation can significantly reduce that aspect of the L&D team's workload. The second is today a matter of necessity.
"Corporate performance support includes, for example, training manuals, standard operating procedures, and simple primers," he explains. "Companies need to digitize such documents so that staff can easily access the information they need to do their jobs. And it's very important right now because, in this environment, you can't gather staff for training, especially if you are a multi-national company."
Yet a third important aspect is consistency—something particularly important for front-line workers who are often required to strictly follow specific standards. "The quality of trainers can be very different," he observes. "Technology helps to ensure that training is uniform and the company's standards can be taught without personal bias."
Going beyond the technological tools
Technology is one thing, but really effective training requires taking a multi-level, holistic approach, Chia believes.
Firstly, at industry level, training providers and educational institutions need to work closely with companies to gather feedback on the skills that the industry needs. "Too often, there is a gap between training at all levels and what the employers actually need," he says. "In Singapore especially, we take a very top-down approach. We have very well developed industry transformation maps, with the skills and career paths listed in detail, but can these plans really match the needs on the ground?"
Next, at the company level, HR and the L&D team need to be very close to the business units. "You have to work backwards from the goal," he says. "You start with the role performed by the business, from there work out the disciplines and skills needed, and then the learning material has to be very thoughtfully crafted and made accessible. And when I say accessible, I mean no clunky files, no heavily front-loaded material that you cannot find to reference later."
And finally, at the individual user level, the entire learning model has to be as user-centric as possible. "All good design needs to take the user into consideration. The whole point of nano-learning is to meet a single learning objective, and that means the training has to be very targeted and very efficient, so that there is no confusion for the learner."
"Ultimately, even though we are a tech platform, we view the tech as a tool," Chia says. He shares a comment made by one of his clients, the managing director of luxury watch retailer The Hour Glass:
"He made a very important point that digital transformation is not thinking about the technology. It is thinking about how to change the mindsets of his leaders, so that it cascades down into support for HR, and then into support for L&D, and ultimately into developing effective digital workplace learning."
And his own take on how to keep that user-centricity, through all the layers and levels involved in creating a training program?
"Understand the workforce's needs. Understand what motivates them. Align the workforce with the goals of the organization, with the right mindsets, the right incentives, and the right toolkits. Change always starts from the very top, and the change must always start with this."