Is Enterprise search the answer to L&D’s interruption problem?

by Viv Cole on January 22, 2014

How easy is it to find the information that you need for your job within your organisation?
Probably a lot more difficult and frustrating than using a search engine to find public information…

My prediction for 2014 is that this is the year that smart organisations will take significant steps to narrow this gap in user experience. They will gain benefits such as faster time to market, improved customer service and reduced reinvention of the wheel, whilst maintaining business confidentiality and security. So what should L&D be doing to drive this step-change in Enterprise search rather than react to other departments’ agendas?

Let’s start by recognising a problem inherent to the conventional model of L&D, which I call the “interruption problem”. To access L&D’s services, a learner is taken out of their workflow to go to a training course, webinar or e-learning module. Three of the main problems this generates are:

  • Attention: organisations deploy significant bursts of authority or political capital to break the person away from their workflow in order to do the learning (e.g. the Chairman mandates that everyone does customer service training)
  • Engagement: as learners have been interrupted from their workflow, L&D have to work quite hard to ensure that they stay interrupted (e.g. paying for off-site training or increasing the immersiveness and media treatment in e-learning)
  • Level: the learning intervention is not at the right level for the learner, it needs to happen earlier or later, or deeper or shallower

The “interruption problem” is often a key cause of friction between L&D and the rest of the business and a barrier to L&D being seen as a genuine business partner.

Marketing organisations have recognised that it’s increasingly expensive and ineffective to interrupt consumers by paying for advertising (e.g. TV commercials that people fast forward through). Smarter marketers have focused their efforts on the times when people are most inclined to buy or want to interact with their brand. If you type ‘VW Golf’ into Google you get lots of search listings that reflect that one of the most common motivations for making this search is that you’re somewhere in the process of thinking about buying a car. Brands are increasingly acting like publishers to ensure that they have lots of relevant searchable content that you’ll find when you want to search, rather than bombarding you with messages when you’re busy doing something else.

Using a search engine is a moment where you realise that you don’t know something or you want to know more about something. It’s not a diversion from your workflow, you’ll get a quick answer and you don’t have to admit your ignorance to anyone – perfect for a busy professional with an ego…How brilliant if the search returned information/ courses tailored for your organisation’s situation authored by people you knew your could rely on! You search for ‘appraisal tips’, ‘difficult meetings’, ‘company valuation models’ etc and you get something useful back (or the chance to book yourself onto some deeper learning).

One fallacy is to think that when people want to learn they’ll go to your organisation’s learning portal (or LMS) – it’s a big psychological leap from wanting to check something to thinking that perhaps a course is a good idea. A portal is an interruption, so unless it’s very user-friendly it won’t get used.

Another issue for people in large organisations is that a multiplicity of portals have evolved so it’s increasingly difficult for someone to remember which portal they need for occasionally accessed information (for instance, to answer that tricky question on recoverability of VAT on expenses, which portal do you need? HR? Finance? Compliance? And what was the password?…). Unless you can find what you need in 3 or 4 clicks via a portal, it will be faster to use a search term (provided it generates good results).

The search function on most portals/ intranets is not great. This is understandable as portals need to do lots of things, so comparing them to Google or Bing (whose core business is search) is a bit unfair. But it doesn’t change the fact that something needs doing to make search work better within organisations. So this is a great opportunity for L&D to improve its relationship with the business and make more of a difference.

Here are six things that I’d recommend you consider for your 2014 plan:

  1. Resources and courses: sometimes a person wants a quick answer, sometimes they want a longer immersion to achieve mastery. L&D needs to offer a spectrum of solutions that cater for this variety of depth (in a consistent way and promoting each other).
  2. Writing with keywords in mind: titles and descriptions of everything produced by L&D should include the search terms that you think target audience are likely to use; there are countless articles and resources on SEO copywriting that can help.
  3. Analytics: analyse the data for the search terms that people are using on your intranet. What information, navigation and learning needs do these evidence?
  4. Search is learnable: some people are intuitively better at putting in the right search terms to get the desired answers and assessing the trustworthiness of internet information. However it’s not difficult to learn…and so it’s not difficult to train.
  5. Plug-ins: Enterprise search solutions often allow for defined search terms to be displayed at the top of the search listings. If you want your course on negotiation skills to appear at the top of the listings when someone types ‘negotiation tips’ into the intranet search box, you can.
  6. Get on board: somewhere in your organisation someone is already considering Enterprise search and committing budget to it. Find out who and get access to the right project group (or join it) so you can make sure that the interests of the learners that you serve in L&D are properly represented.

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