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Instant Learning: Why Just-In-Time Training is the Future

Just-In-Time Training, sometimes called Just-in-Time learning, is exactly what it sounds like: knowledge right when an employee needs it. Instant learning is all around us in our personal lives and that is why we believe that Just-In-Time training is the future of learning at work.

An office worker is having trouble navigating the software her department has just installed, so she looks up the information online. A newly-hired retail worker can’t remember how he’s supposed to fold a shirt for a store display. He asks a co-worker for help. A remote worker, new to direct selling, checks a mobile app once a day and completes a task on a checklist that helps her remember the details of her employers’ holiday sales campaign.

What do all of these workers have in common? They’re all practicing Just-In-Time Training (JITT) — looking up the information they need to do their jobs well, just when they need that information.

What is Just-In-Time Training?

Just-In-Time Training, sometimes called Just-in-Time learning, is exactly what it sounds like: knowledge right when an employee needs it.

Instant learning is all around us in our personal lives; we use “Google” as a verb, ask Alexa and Siri to find information when we need it and crowdsource answers on social media. The idea of Just-In-Time learning isn’t new, however.

Just-In-Time (JIT) originated as a manufacturing concept at Toyota in the 1970s. In order to reduce inventory to just what was needed, the ordering process was streamlined; parts for cars weren’t ordered until customers had placed orders. This system reduced waste and clutter in warehouses and on the factory floor. Eventually, this process was also applied to corporate learning. After all, asking an employee to sit through 30 minutes of e-learning to learn one relevant piece of information is just as wasteful as a warehouse of surplus parts.

Just-In-Time Training happens at almost every company. It’s often employee-directed and informal, something workers do when they identify a gap in their own knowledge. And it’s something organizations should expect — employees, who are used to having the world’s collective knowledge at their fingertips in the form of the internet — don’t have time to wait around for scheduled training. Why should they, when they can just look up the answer?

“When employees are stuck, they need the answer quickly. It doesn’t help them to sign up for a class that will happen three weeks from now and sit through a four-hour session to get the answer they need this minute,” said Britt Andreatta, a consultant, and speaker quoted in LinkedIn’s 2017 L&D report.

Just-In-Time training is the future

Although it’s often learner-driven, Just-in-Time Training can and should be incorporated into a company’s training strategy; employees want it. According to research from CEB, 57 percent of workers expect learning to be more “just in time,” than it was a few years ago. This brand of microlearning is very familiar to millennials, who grew up using the internet as an encyclopedia (remember those?). Despite possible objections from Gen Xers and Boomers, who are used to multi-day training and e-learning, learning information just before using it can be a very effective way to learn.

In the 1980s, educator Malcolm Knowles, who studied the principles of adult education, outlined the characteristics of successful adult learning: it should be self-directed, be based on previous experience and mistakes, be relevant, and be problem-centered, rather than content-centered.

Just-In-Time training ticks every box on Knowles’ list. Learners realize they need more information to complete a task successfully, seek out that information on their own, and solve their own problems at work. Applying that skill soon after they learn it reinforces the information. This sort of active learning has been shown by studies to improve people’s ability to learn — when learners use information, they create a meaningful connection with it and it stays with them longer.

The benefits of continuous learning

Organizations can  — and should — take advantage of this willingness to learn on the part of their employees. For one thing, Just-In-Time learning raises engagement among employees, something that’s desperately needed in the workforce right now. Gallup’s latest State of the American Workforce report found that two-thirds of employees are disengaged at work. They don’t like their jobs and are either doing the bare minimum at work or actively looking for new jobs.

Just-In-Time training is the future

Workers who look up information and train themselves, however, are engaged. They’re taking it upon themselves to find the learning they need and become better at their jobs quickly. They’re eager to learn. Because the learning is relevant to them, they’re not bored by it, and they’re in control of what they’re learning, and when they’re learning it.

This shift of control from the organization to the learner has a downside, however. Moving from a training culture — one in which organization controls when, where, and what employees learn — to a culture of continuous learning can be jarring for some organizations. After all, if learning becomes about what the learner wants and needs, that can seem like a loss of power for those in charge of Learning & Development (L&D). It’s a fair concern; CEB found that only 37 percent of employees expected their employers to actively manage their learning. Most of those employees were getting training on their own; 79 percent of that learning came from external sources.

Despite the learner-centric focus of Just-In-Time Training and continuous learning, however, the learners shouldn’t be running the L&D show. For one thing, learners don’t always choose the best sources of learning. CEB found that every day, employees were wasting 11 percent of their time on unproductive learning. That wasted time was costing employers millions in lost productivity.

Directing employees’ independent learning

Learners — though independent — still need the guidance of and support of L&D when it comes to learning. But with Just-In-Time learning, companies need to serve that learning to employees differently than they have traditionally done. Rather than decide who learns what when, companies must break down their existing training into small, digestible chunks that address one skill or task each, and they must make those bits of learning available to employees exactly when they’re needed. They have to anticipate the needs of employees and make relevant learning available for workers to find. Different companies do this differently: organizations can provide checklists, a searchable library of content, a social platform that allows workers to collaborate with colleagues, or a chatbot that delivers information directly to an employee when she needs it.

American Medical Systems (AMS) is an example of a company that uses Just-In-Time Learning in its training program. According to an interview in Training magazine, AMS is a company that makes and sells medical devices, found its sales reps weren’t retaining information about new products after training. The company used a gamified mobile app to boost retention. Every few days the reps played a game on their phones, responding to different scenarios that reinforced their product knowledge. It was engaging, helped with recall by providing sales scenarios as reps were out in the field, and helped to train a mobile workforce. It also had an unexpected side benefit: the company got feedback from the reps through the training app. Thanks to the app, AMS caught was able to quickly catch common misconceptions among reps about sales campaigns, and correct them.

Just-In-Time training is the future

Mobile and remote workforces often pose a special challenge for companies when it comes to development. Remote workers are not on site for in-person training, and they may not even be considered traditional employees; they may be contract workers, for example.

One company that uses Just-In-Time training with a mobile workforce in a very focused way is pawTree, a direct sales pet product company with an entirely remote salesforce. According to a case study, pawTree used Just-In-Time training to boost its engagement with sales training by breaking its learning material up into small bits of information, each aligned with a task that could be completed quickly. Rather than firehose new employees with onboarding information, pawTree made sure the employees were learning skills as they performed a task, applying skills as they learned them. The sales reps — who aren’t full-time employees, but who sell pawTree goods as a side gig — were extremely engaged in this training, with 90 percent of reps completing all the tasks in the course.

Gresvik AS, a company which owns and operates a chain of sporting goods retailers in Norway, has also successfully used Just-In-Time Training to boost sales. Because the stores rely on weekly sales campaigns to attract customers, employees in stores needed to be kept abreast of what those campaigns were and how to prep the store. Gresvig introduced a mobile app for its retail workforce to update them on weekly sales, replacement products, weather-based store displays, and also to see which employees are up-to-date — employees use the app to confirm when they’re campaign ready. According to information released in 2016, sales of recommended products rose by 154 percent at one chain, Intersport, after the app was introduced.

Trust employees to know what they don’t know

According to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report, the half-life of a typically learned skill is five years. Employees — who can expect a 60- or 70-year career— need to skill up quickly, and they need to be able to fill the gaps in their knowledge as soon as they notice them. Companies need that too, but they also need to be able to strike a balance between allowing employees autonomy to learn on demand while directing those employees to relevant resources.

While organizations who remain chained to the idea of a central corporate university will be left behind, organizations that give their employees the freedom to learn as they need it will be more agile and sustainable as workers seek out — or are served — the knowledge they need at exactly the right time.