The Future Workforce: Part I

How learners and training directors can cope with the glut of digital information available

In a time when so many things appear to be contracting in response to the global economic crisis, the “digital universe” continues its skyrocketing growth. We are clearly witness to a time of exponential growth in both knowledge and information. Many claim that science has advanced more in the past five years than in the previous 5,000. In fact, we now process more information in a 24-hour period than our ancestors processed in their entire lifetimes 500 years ago.

YouTube, a company that didn’t exist only a few years ago, now hosts 100 million video streams a day. In 2006, the amount of digital information created, captured and replicated was 1,288 x 1,018 bits. In computer lingo, that’s 161 exabytes or 161 billion gigabytes — about 3 million times the information in all the books ever written. And it continues to grow, almost faster than our ability to measure that growth. According to an IDC Multimedia whitepaper presented by Chief Research Officer John F. Gantz, there will be a five-fold increase in the amount of digital data being stored from the period 2008 to 2012.

So how is this information tsunami showing up in the workplace? According to a study by the Delphi Group, knowledge workers spend 25 percent of their day looking for information. Imagine that. One fourth of their day is spent in the pursuit of the necessary information to do their jobs.


New technologies and methods for information- sharing and social networking are evolving weekly and — as a result — pushing the tidal wave of information and knowledge higher and higher. Beyond the already ubiquitous and overloaded e-mail accounts, there is a proliferation of the new places where people go to find or exchange information and knowledge: Google, Yahoo!, Twitter, Facebook, Save, Slashdot, MySpace, YouTube, Ning, Digg, Text, Live,, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Google Bookmarks, LinkedIn, Bebo, Buzz Up!, Blogger, Yahoo! Bookmarks, Mixx, Technorati, FriendFeed, Propeller, WordPress, Newsvine, Xanga, Blinklist, Twine, Twackle, Diigo, Fark, Faves, Mr. Wong, Current, LiveJournal, Kirtsy, Oknotizie, Care2, AIM Share, Meneame, Simpy, Blogmarks, N4G, Add to BX, Funp,
Sphinn, Fresqui,, TypePad, and Yigg. And I’m sure you can add many more to the list.

These new technologies are redefining the world of education and training — whether we like it or not.

When we polled my former company’s IT professionals and asked them to rank their favorite information and training source from the vast array of delivery modalities and training materials published by our learning department, more than 95 percent wrote in Google. Our function was already being tossed aside for a tool that was readily available to employees in their daily workplace. The extensive use  of Google begins to make sense when you come to realize that IT professionals witness a near 100 percent renewal of knowledge every 12 to 18 months.


According to a Wharton School of Business study that appeared in a Wall Street Journal article, a firm is “better off hiring workers from the outside labor market who have the skills it needs, rather than investing in developing those skills inside the firm.”

Ironically, this recommendation to retire versus retrain is a problem brought about
by many of our colleagues. Our lopsided insistence on classroom and Web-based training has so lengthened the time to make an individual proficient that the Wharton School recommendation stands as loomingly valid.

Given the task of training an individual in a technology to “full proficiency,” the education teams will do a complete functional decomposition of that product and then proceed to train an employee on each of those product functions. This ritual of “full proficiency” training ignores the fact that 80 percent of this knowledge will
rarely be used in the employee’s job. As a result, we tend to scope our education and training for the “just-in-case” scenario, instead of thinking about what the
employee needs to perform at a “working proficiency.” This over-scoping of classroom events combines with varying skill levels present in the classroom to render it an inefficient model to deal with today’s volume of information and knowledge that needs to be processed.

Add globalization, the growth of governmental controls, regulatory oversight, privacy issues, the huge penalties for breaches of sensitive information, and an endless attack by armies of hackers sporting new weapons and digital viruses, and
you can easily see that the problem of dealing with this information explosion has reached nearly-epidemic proportions.

Then toss in mobility issues. IDC projects that over the four-year period from 2008 to 2012, 600 million more people will become active on the Internet. And nearly two-thirds of all Internet users will use mobile devices at least some of the time.


If we ignore these learner preferences and information trends, we’re not only going to be sidestepped, we may be doing our companies a huge disservice. Our new mantra should not be how many proverbial “butts” we can shove into the classroom or how many eyeballs we can register on computer monitors; it should be “how to make people more productive in their jobs.”

Once you make that fundamental shift in philosophy, the world of education and training is free to leave the classroom and re-emerge in the workplace. But that move also requires one other adjustment in the classroom-based training offerings. We must move away from the notion of “full proficiency” and adopt the notion of a “working proficiency” in our curriculum strategies. What we don’t teach in the classroom, we must now make available in the workplace or on-demand in e-learning formats.


What is being proposed is to shift much of the burden of training into the work environment. Isn’t that better than delaying the productive use of an employee while we attempt to cover every possible topic on a subject in the classroom?

A simple example. If we were to train employees on the use of MicrosoftWord, the question we must ask is, “How much do we really need to teach in the classroom before we can turn people loose to use this tool in their jobs?”What is the “essential knowledge” that we must impart?

In our traditional approach, we would do a complete functional decomposition of
the tools available in Word, and then create a learning objective around each of those tools. Unfortunately, there’s enough functionality available in this one application to keep us busy in the classroom for weeks.

Perhaps we only need to show an employee how to open MicrosoftWord, how to create, save and print a new document, some formatting commands, and how to use online help to discover the rest of the functionality. That turns out to be a four-hour course, versus a four-week course that would show you how to use the
remaining array of tools such as templates, columns, tables, graphs, headers and footers, picture and media clip insertion, speech recognition, and all of the other host of functions that are available in Word.

What makes more sense for the business and for the employee is to teach “just enough” to get the person to a “working proficiency” with Word, so that he or she can use it to perform the basic functions in his or her job.

At the same time, we now need to shift the availability of training for the remaining functionality within Word into the workplace, in order to support a potential job related need by the employee. If the employee wants to know how to build a newsletter, then we need to provide a vignette of training that accomplishes that objective. If a person is struggling with grammar, then we might show him or her how to turn on Word’s grammar checker, or to understand what those squiggly green and red lines under their sentences reallymean. Why spend classroom time teaching that elemental functionality to everyone in the class, when it may only be needed by one or two people?

Contrasting this “working proficiency” approach to a training venue that might be four to six weeks long, any rational person would view the latter as a total misuse of the classroom and a financial burden for the firm. All we would have done is lengthen the time it takes to get an employee to a “working proficiency.”


The better solution would be to provide other tools for learning and mastering many of these topics, in lieu of the classroom. The new model needs to blend classroom, non-classroom, and performance support systems (PSS) tools in a comprehensive curriculum strategy.

While this notion is fairly easy to understand, the level of reduction in classroom dependency being proposed produces a complete re-thinking of previous models
and a more far-reaching curriculum strategy. As a “stake in the ground,” I’m advocated that this new model should be used in the following ratios for each delivery modality over the next 5-10 years:

>> 20% Classroom
>> 30% Non-Classroom
>> 50% Performance Support

This clearly means that 80% of the training is to occur outside of the classroom – a number supported by many studies on where learning really occurs. We would need to restructure the course material that we teach in the classroom to focus on those functions that we deem“critical” to a “working proficiency.” This requires that
we collaborate with section managers to thoroughly understand a person’s job,
including what components of the new technology they will use most frequently, the employee’s current level of knowledge, as well as the limitations of the various
delivery tools we might employ.We may sit with the manager and the employee to see the scope of the person’s job, or we may look across the entire population in that job role, to determine what 20 percent of the functionality produces 80 percent of the benefit.We then use other delivery methods to finish the job in the individual’s workplace.

Although there are many tools available for us to use in our newmodel of delivery, I’m going to cover three that youmight find interesting: “Wizard Directories,” “Embedded Training,” and “Federated Search Engines.” Look for the article in the February/March issue of Elearning! Magazine.

 —Joe DiDonato is an independent consultant who has worked with techology providers like Oracle and major corporations like Countrywide Financial. Contact him via e-mail:

Leave a reply