Workplace learning: The technology ‘trickle down’ effect points the way to what’s next

Liam Butler wonders what the future technology of L&D might look like. 

Reading time: 5 minutes.

From digital cameras and video games to the Internet itself, many of the tech products and platforms we take for granted today began life as cutting-edge scientific or military projects. 

Technologies are often developed to a significant standard before the ‘trickle down’ effect brings them to well-funded professional and academic institutions, big corporates, startups and eventually, wider society.

This trickle down effect has been evident in the L&D industry in recent years. For instance, the role the military had in advancing gamification technologies has now clearly influenced the world of workplace learning.

And while these technologies can offer both opportunity and risk, they always give tantalising clues about the technology road ahead.

Pressure from all sides to transform

The context around the race to adopt new technologies is important. Pressure on organisations of all types to plan for workplace change is intense. We are heading for a future where the working landscape will evolve very quickly.

Innovation and creativity are award-winning qualities for L&D teams, which have a myriad of priorities and pressures to focus on.

As the World Economic Forum discussed in its 2018 report, ‘Preparing for the Future of Work’, the speed of technology-led change is creating a ‘new future’ where human jobs will be increasingly automated as industries are disrupted by technology.

Similarly, these emerging industries are creating demand for workers with new skills that far outstrip supply. Take cybersecurity, for example – a booming market where cumulative spending is predicted to exceed $1Tn from 2017-2021 (according to Cybersecurity Ventures).

The problem is, there’s also a massive skills shortage, which additional Cybersecurity Ventures research says will see 3.5m unfilled positions by 2021.

At the heart of this maelstrom sits L&D. As new roles and skillsets are invented L&D is under pressure to keep pace. As if that wasn’t enough to keep an entire industry busy, L&D professionals are also pushing boundaries to ensure tech makes a bigger impact within their organisations.

Tech has moved from being an aid to L&D to become totally embedded within the process. Innovation and creativity are award-winning qualities for L&D teams, which have a myriad of priorities and pressures to focus on.

Living in the real world: hype, false dawns and new opportunities

So, what kind of technologies are on a ‘trickle down’ journey into the world of L&D and what can we learn from some high-profile examples? On a scale of possibility, among the more likely are much more powerful mobile technologies, especially given the arrival of 5G.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a huge market already and more connectivity is going to expand the reach of L&D into areas beyond the classroom.

Virtual and Augmented Reality are other familiar technologies that many think have a big L&D future. But VR, in particular, offers a good case study of how long it can take for ground-breaking technologies to find their niche.


VR has been knocking on the door of tech stardom for decades, and for those who remember the hype of the early 90s, it feels like it’s taken the long way round on its journey to success.

Back then, its emergence onto the gaming scene and into amusement arcades seemed to signal the start of a VR revolution that would take it into every home and workplace. But, as we now know, it was a false start and it’s taken the relatively recent arrival of more powerful technologies that are better suited to support it to re-ignite some ‘trickle down’ momentum for VR again.

And plenty of people argue that the jury is still out on VR. According to data published by research firm, Digi-Capital, investment in AI/VR startups­­­­ raised over $6bn in 2018 across a diverse range of applications, industries and markets.

This is seen as a ‘stabilisation’ in investment following several quarters of decline.

A leap into the unknown?

There’s an important consideration here for L&D professionals; when does the emergence of new tech trends reach a point where they become worth your time and investment? The perennial problem is – who wants the risk of adopting a new piece of hardware or software that might never be anything more than a passing fad?

The first step is simply to understand what’s out there. What are the emerging tech trends with the potential to fit into L&D? When are these nascent services or devices likely to trickle down into our world?

Answering these questions can be challenging, but by looking for insight from industry experts, analysts and influencers, it’s possible to build your own tech roadmap which can help rationalise the hype.

But, someone has to jump first. Any organisation that adopts emerging tech really early needs to be honest about why they are doing it. For some, the reasons are broader than pure L&D impact. Embracing trickle down tech trends can also be about understanding what kind of investment is needed to make innovation a success.

It can also be a very direct demonstration of organisational commitment to creativity and showing all your stakeholders that you’re serious about finding ways to make L&D better.

This can sit well with a ‘fail fast’ philosophy. Businesses that value this approach might be in a position to learn from new tech quicker than their rivals. The logic is that it’s an experience that will – at some point – pay off or will prevent expensive mistakes happening later in a rush to catch up.

Conversely, some of the most effective and enduring tech trends come from the most familiar sources. YouTube, for example, is just one of the ways that access to third party L&D content has been radically broadened in recent years.

L&D teams are increasingly curating, analysing and tracking engagement with the most relevant content for their needs from a huge variety of sources, not only giving access to familiar and trusted platforms, but also to some of the most creative and effective L&D ideas available anywhere.

Whichever tech stays the course is always interesting to witness. Among all the guesswork and predictions, one point of certainty is that right now, in a lab somewhere, is the next generation of disruptive tech starting its ‘trickle down’ journey towards a future in L&D.


About the author

Liam Butler is area vice president at SumTotal


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