Is the future of learning finally here?

In the last few years there have been many claims of revolutions in the corporate learning space: deployment of MOOCs, user generated content, gamification and umpteen versions of blended learning approaches trying to breathe fresh air into the never delivered upon hype and promises of eLearning.

Yet somehow as a learning professional of 20+ years, I still find myself feeling rather under-whelmed. While there has been a massive democratisation of learning and very significant advances in informal and social learning, and real-time collaboration - it still feels like there is something missing.

Recently I've come across the most exciting thing I've seen in learning in years, something I'm now using on an almost daily basis and have become quite addicted to, and that is actually tremendously useful in the corporate learning space - although interestingly, that is not the target audience it was initially designed for.

The App, called SmartUp, was designed by the Founders Forum in the UK and is aimed at helping startup founders develop entrepreneurial skills by guiding them through every stage of developing a product and building a business. Provided through a slick mobile interface it makes available insights, case studies and 'lessons learned' from some of the world's top founders and tech gurus – people that the normal person could only ever dream of meeting. Quizzes and challenging simulations, test not just knowledge acquisition, but also the ability to apply it in different contextual situations.

Here's how I came across SmartUp, why I'm so excited about it, and the potential I believe it has for empowering real learning on a massive scale.

Many of you will have read my earlier article on how we used a pioneering method of action learning by combining in house high-potential Talents with external startup teams to solve real business problems through the famous #DBSHacktathon series (see the short video here). In terms of taking senior leaders through the learning curve from denial and fear, to awareness, and finally creating a ‘creative confidence’ in their understanding and ability to operate in the digital world, it was probably the most powerful and rewarding learning experience I've created in my career. But it's very success led to three more challenges...      

Those whose perspective on the world had been changed by becoming more digitally native, now wanted to continue their own learning, and also pass this positive contagion onto their teams. In addition, my real challenge became how to scale learning from the 500 Talents we deeply touched with the hackathons, to the remaining 21,500 staff. The hackathons themselves could not scale to touch several thousand, but was there a way to give thousands of staff a taste of what the hackathon participants had experienced? Was there a fun and engaging way to really learn about the digital world?

One of the prototypes from the very first hackathon had been a fun friends and community challenge app, and we started to explore the idea of modifying it so that we could send out a daily digi-challenge to people to learn, make, post, and share something digital, gamify it, give people points, have a leader board - and hope it went viral.   

Thankfully before we went too far with this, we found SmartUp and realised that someone had already done all the hard work for us. A few hundred of us started to experiment with SmartUp, many of us quickly getting addicted – and also rather competitive thanks to the leader board!

For me personally it was a revelation. When I started on this journey nearly 2 years ago, of helping senior bankers understand the digital world and develop a digital mindset, I quickly found myself feeling like a bit of a dinosaur. Now having built my first PC at the age of 11 and always prided myself on being reasonably tech savvy and an early adopter of social learning and various collaboration tools – as well as a reader of Wired and Fast Company since their very first issues – this was a very un-comfortable feeling. I suddenly realised that the tech world was increasingly operating at a totally different, and accelerating, velocity of (exponential) thought, creativity and innovation, and had it's own secret language of design thinking, lean startup, sprints, agile, scrum, AB testing and other esoteric terms and terminology. As an HR person, I felt excluded and left behind, and quickly realised that to play a constructive role in this digital transformation, I had to totally re-invent myself to be fluent in this new language and this new world.

Now a few months later and 17th on the SmartUp global leaderboard board, I find myself tremendously more self-confident in discussions on innovation, technology, startups - and this new world of digital in which we all live - whether we are fully aware of it or not.

Our initial plan was to pilot SmartUp with those that had been through the hackathon experience to continue their own learning and share the positive contagion with their teams. We also realised that reverse mentoring was tremendously easier and more powerful when you had such a platform. Especially when each AVP can now mentor 4 SVPs and both mentors and mentees can compare their scores and progress and compete against their peers, Singapore versus Hong Kong! Corporate Bank versus Consumer Bank! Risk versus Compliance!

Quickly moving beyond the initial pilot group, usage within the Digital Bank group took off after one manager required his entire team to take the module on AB Testing prior to getting to that stage of their project. After initial complaints about 'oh no, not more eLearning' people realised that it was a super quick way to ensure the whole team was on the same page with critical skills, and next thing you know, the team was in a self-initiated competition for who could be the first to 1,000 points.  

Hearing about this, the Head of Digital Bank, Olivier Crespin, downloaded the App and over the weekend racked up over 5,000 points and sent an email out to his entire team of over 300 people on Monday morning saying;

I encourage all of you to download the smart up app. It is very well done, it has case study, quizz, book extract on anything you need to know about digital and start up. I learned a lot it's the best training tool I have ever used. Should be mandatory to all digi people but do it at your own pace and leisure. In fact it's pretty entertaining there are simulations and challenges difficult to crack but really stimulating and refreshing.”

One manager came to us and shared that in three different meetings that week, key strategic decisions had been changed as a result of insights or lessons learned just an hour before or the day before from SmartUp. Now that's realtime learning, that's learning having an impact. Who needs the effort of Level 3 and 4 KirkPatrick evaluations when you hear that learning is meaningfully impacting the business in real-time?

In fact the manager was so excited about the potential of SmartUp within the Bank he asked us to make a video of he and his team sharing their stories and experiences to excite others across the bank to join in.

So what made SmartUp so quick and easy to use? And why has it taken off quite so well?

For me there are three key points:-

  1. You get to learn what you want, when you want, how you want – it really is on demand. (as each module is ~5 minutes, you literally can complete one while waiting for the taxi)
  2. The wealth of pre-existing modules already available, and the ease at which we can add our own content.
  3. The simple yet effective gamification effect of the LeaderBoard and friendly real life competitiveness it engenders within teams.

While SmartUp has contributors from across the 3,000+ members of the Founders Forum, as well as other famous entrepreneurs and tech gurus, they also have their own team of authors and journalists constantly adding richer content on an almost daily basis.

The content management system is really quite simple and I managed to author my first module in a day, re-purposing existing training content is also quite simple. The real skill though, is in the writing of the quizzes and questions, because you don't just want to test people's memory and knowledge acquisition, but also challenge their ability to apply that knowledge into different situations or context, to show real mastery.

While the SmartUp App was selected by Apple in 'Best Apps' (June 2015) and as 'Top New App' in 64 countries, it is in fact free for individual entrepreneurs (learners). For corporate users there is a monthly per active user cost which unlocks the ability to create private communities where you can host proprietary content unique to your industry and priorities. In our case, we have developed a rich library of Insights, Case Studies and Quizzes on FinTech, for example.    

Another nice feature with a lot of potential (though still in a relatively simple state), is the participants Profile which shows in which area they are gaining points and demonstrating expertise. It is my hope that over time this will develop in sophistication such that a manager's dashboard would give an organisation wide view of which employees have demonstrated real knowledge, expertise and mastery, and in which area.

This could offer massive value as it is something currently surprisingly difficult to do in many organisations that either rely on static expertise databases or self-reported bios. (see here for a provocative article by one of SmartUps Founders on the possibilities of the 'Knowledge Graph').

In my next article I will share the many other areas where we see potential to deploy SmartUp, some initial thinking on how SmartUp's activities equate to measurements of impact and ROI, and also to announce an exciting learning Forum for HR, Talent & Learning Leaders in Asia that I will be launching with some colleagues.

Meanwhile to give you my closing thoughts on SmartUp. I first came to Asia 26 years ago, running what was then the world's largest eLearning company, since then I've held senior learning roles in Japan, Korea and Singapore, in Banking, Consumer Electronics and Banking. Today learning is more critical to success than ever, but meetings, emails and tightening budgets makes getting time for 'training' harder than ever. Perhaps it's time to try something different. And I must say, that while everyone learns differently, I have personally never enjoyed learning as much as I do with SmartUp.

And one more thing that is certain, I am tremendously more confident in this 'digital world' that we are accelerating into, than I was a year ago. I no longer fear the unknown of digital disruption, but rather lean into it with anticipation. I cannot say it is just because of SmartUp, but it has been my daily companion on this journey – and I encourage you to try it too.

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