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Artificial Intelligence (AI): Transforming Learning Support for Better Workplace Performance

We may not be aware of it, but already AI virtual assistants are playing a major role in our everyday lives.  They’re behind our Google searches and the recommendations we receive from Amazon and Netflix. It’s even become part of the furniture: think of Amazon’s Alexa devices.  

But AI virtual assistants are not just being used to retrieve information or perform tasks, they’re also involved in teaching and learning.  Want to pick up a new language, try the Duolingo app – powered by AI.

So, if AI is out there, why not use it at work?  It is about to transform learning in the workplace.

The limits of learning

The importance of training has long been recognised, but the link between training and performance is often hard to quantify.  Typically training and learning at work have taken place away from the workplace. Training has been the preserve of the classroom.   

Recently, classroom training may have been replaced or augmented by digital content in a Learning Management System (LMS).  In theory the LMS makes learning more accessible and available. In practice, it’s often cumbersome and distant.

Then there’s the uncomfortable, but verifiable, fact that we forget most of what we learn – and shortly after we learn it.  The Ebbinghaus Effect or Forgetting Curve was first identified in the nineteenth century, and we’ve made little progress since in overcoming it.

Job aids

One effort to counter these limitations has been to provide job aids for employees.  The primary focus of these paper-based quick reference guides or online FAQs is to break the cycle of learning and forgetting by bringing learning and information to employees in the workplace, where it’s most needed.

The big advantages of job aids are that they’re easily available, information is presented in digestible chunks, and it’s relevant and contextualised.  

The disadvantages are that job aids are static.  If the question isn’t there or asked correctly, the answer won’t be available and there’s no other source to go to.

How AI can help

The concept of job aids raises the right question: how to make learning more relevant, effective, and available.  But job aids only go so far in providing the answer. Add AI, though, and you have the potential to offer a more complete solution.

Think about the way you’d go about answering a question today.  Where would you look? Chances are you’d go to a search engine first.  That might offer you to link an article, an image or video. Or it might point you to a more refined engine: a travel planner or map app.  Or you might find yourself directed to a set of instructions with diagrams on a wiki site or a video of an expert showing you how to do it on YouTube.

You can see at once the advantages over the tutor in the classroom, the course in the LMS, and the FAQs. Google offers a worldwide repository of information.

The Virtual Assistant

Yet, while it’s true that with Google and other apps available on mobile smart devices you’re never more than a few clicks or taps away from information, in general you’re looking for a specific answer, rather than all possible ones.  Even more so in the workplace where you’ve got a problem to solve in a limited timeframe and in a very particular context.

This is where the intelligence of AI makes a dramatic contribution in understanding your need and finding the specific answer you require.  AI engines can process natural language, which means they can understand you and they way you communicate. In contrast to those static job aid FAQs, you can ask real questions and receive dynamic answers.

With AI virtual assistants you enter a dialogue.  This means with every interaction there’s a refinement of the Q & A process.  And the assistant is learning with you, making the resulting answers more nuanced, refined, and personalised.  This is not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but real learning with real answers to meet real needs.

Chatbots: a new kind of job aid

A new breed of AI virtual assistants is coming to the fore: the chatbot.  A chatbot is a computer program that engages the user in conversation, either through text or speech.  The more advanced chatbots learn from each interaction or conversation, detecting preferences and making recommendations based on past requests.  

Chatbots are being used in all sorts of ways,  answering financial queries, giving customer support, diagnosing healthcare issues, and even offering counselling.  Forbes magazine called them our new best friend. In fact some bots are specifically designed to be a virtual friend.

Chatbots: learning in the workflow

Now imagine the power of a chatbot at work.  Instead of training being removed and learning resources being inaccessible – confined to the classroom, locked away in the LMS – it’s available at your desk, on your smart device, whenever you need it.  The organisation doesn’t even have to re-configure its systems, as a chatbot can live within existing apps, platforms, and systems.

Chatbots harness the power of AI to provide learning at the point of need and just in time.  This addresses the problem of forgetting, because you can find out what you need to know, when you need to know it.  

More than that, with its ability to learn, a chatbot can be proactive, like any good mentor or trainer, anticipating what you need to know and even when you might need to know it.  It gets to know you and your needs.

Improving the quality of learning

Chatbots address the problem of access, use and retention of learning and they can also transform learning in the workplace in other ways.

Bots intelligently query the learning that is available and present it in a form that is relevant and personal to the learner. But, remember the limitations of job aids?  If a question isn’t anticipated, the answer isn’t there.

With chatbots, we’re engaging in a dialogue and dialogues are difficult, if not impossible, to script.  Imagine that you ask a question that the chatbot can’t answer satisfactorily. It may seem you’ve learned nothing, but in fact you’ve learned quite a lot, especially if you’re in Learning and Development.

Bots can keep a record of those interactions.  Remember they’re constantly learning too. If there’s a common question that keeps being asked to which the bot has no response, you learn at least two critical pieces of information: one, the answer isn’t there; and two, the question is a real one, highlighting a real work need.  

This is the kind of evaluative feedback that learning models insist on but is usually never available. Instead of anticipating or determining what they think employees ought to know, learning designers can respond to what employees decide that they need to know.  The quality, relevance and effectiveness of workplace learning improves accordingly.

Learning transformed

With Artificial Intelligence giving us programs like chatbots, learning in the workplace can be transformed.  Instead of seeing learning as a discrete activity, it can now be part and parcel of the everyday working environment.  

Virtual assistants, like chatbots, deliver assistance and accessibility 24/7.  The learning provided is more targeted, personalised, and relevant. With learning directed at the point of need, performance improves.  

The Holy Grail of workplace learning – just in time, at the point of need – is placed within reach.

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