Embedded Learning: Integrating Skill Acquisition Into Day-to-Day Activities

Steven Hunt

Economies around the world are challenged with a chronic lack of skilled employees.  Despite high unemployment levels, many companies struggle to find people who have the technical qualifications and experiences needed to fill critical roles.

Traditional educational structures are failing to produce the numbers and kinds of skilled candidates companies need.  While there are many ways we can and should improve our educational systems to address the skills crisis, we should also be doing more to rethink the methods we use to develop skilled employees.

Rather than telling workers they must go to school to acquire new skills, its time to give people tools that help them learn from their current lives without requiring formal education.

To fully understand why, let’s look at the following:

  • Methods people use to acquire skills in the absence of formal training programs and why technology is enabling us to go “back to the future” when it comes to learning.
  • Barriers that prevent unskilled workers from acquiring more advanced job skills.
  • How we might leverage people’s day-to-day life activities as an under-utilized resource for acquiring skills.

How do people acquire skills organically? 

Going to school is not the natural way for people to learn.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe in the power of a good formal school system.  But if we look at the history of humans we did not develop schools until pretty late in our evolution.

For centuries we managed to learn without classrooms and courses.  So how did we do it?  The answer is learning from experience and observation.  People acquired skills by working alongside people who knew more than them and engaging in tasks that challenged them to think differently.  In other words, the most natural way for people to learn is through formal and informal mentoring and apprenticeship relationships.

The problem with the apprenticeship approach is it doesn’t scale well.  There simply aren’t enough apprenticeship opportunities available to produce the number of skilled employees we need.

In addition, not all experts make good mentors and coaches.  But technology is starting to change this.   YouTube is probably the best widespread example of how cloud based technology is allowing skilled mentors to share their expertise with people around the world.

Want to learn how to play guitar like Brian Setzer from the Stray Cats?   There’s a video where you can virtually “sit down” with him for an hour while he shows you various tips and tricks.  Want to learn how to cook like Emeril?   Check out videos where he’ll walk you through what he does to create unique flavors.  Public access video technologies like YouTube and private access social learning technologies like Jam are addressing the historic challenge of scaling expertise through mentorships.

We now have technology that allows us to manage many issues that historically limited the value of apprenticeship based training.   This technology makes things possible around learning that weren’t possible 10 years ago.

But technology by itself does not solve problems.   You have to use it correctly.  So what is required if we are to use this technology to develop underskilled workers?

What prevents under-employed people from acquiring the skills needed to advance their careers? 

There are three major barriers that make it difficult for under-skilled workers to acquire advanced job skills:  lack of on-the-job learning opportunities, lack of time and resources for formal training, and limited awareness of what kind of skills will provide the greatest career opportunities.   I will discuss each of these in turn.

One of the myths about technology is that it eliminates jobs.  People have visions of robots replacing workers.   But the reality is a bit more complex.  Technology actually creates jobs because it fuels efficiency and economic growth.  But the jobs technology creates tend to fall into two very distinct categories:

Highly-skilled positions associated with developing and maintaining complex technological systems

Low or unskilled positions associated with performing basic service tasks that are impacted by technology but that do not require an understanding of how the technology works.

There is also a third category of jobs that technology does tend to eliminate:  semi-skilled positions that people historically used to move from unskilled work to skilled work.

Consider the example of auto mechanic.  People used to become auto-mechanics by starting out in entry-level service station jobs that involved simple tasks like pumping gas and changing oil.

Over time they would perform increasingly complex automotive tasks such as fixing brakes or replacing spark plugs that allowed them to acquire the skills needed to become a master mechanic.

Contrast that to the modern career path to becoming a mechanic.   Thanks to technology, you could pump gas for years and never learn anything about what goes on under the hood of a car.  When you do look under the hood you are confronted with technology complex machines that are for more complicated then the V-8 engines of the 1960s.

It is now very difficult to acquire the skills needed to be a mechanic simply by working in a gas station.  Most mechanics had to go to school just to learn to use the technology necessary to diagnose engine problems, let alone fix them.

The increasing gap between skilled and unskilled positions makes it hard for people to work their way into skilled jobs through on-the-job learning.  This has severely constrained what traditionally was one of the main ways people advanced their careers through skill acquisition.

The economic difference between being a skilled vs. an unskilled employee also places additional constraints on the ability of people to acquire job skills through formal education.

Unskilled jobs by definition can be filled by people with very little training or experience.  Because the labor supply for these jobs is relatively high the wages for these jobs tends to be quite low.

Many unskilled workers have to work multiple jobs to meet their basic economic needs.   They do not have the time or money to enroll in formal training programs.   This means the people that need skills the most often have the most difficulty enrolling in structured classes that teach them.

Last, unskilled workers may struggle to determine what sort of skills they should acquire because they are frequently isolated working long hours in jobs that provide little exposure or opportunity to learn skills that will help them advance their careers.

They do not have access to mentors or other advisors who can provide suggestions on what sorts of leaning opportunities will have the greatest benefit for their long-term job prospects.

A possible answer:  embed learning into life. 

One potential answer to this dilemma is to build tools that will help unskilled workers to acquire valuable career skills through normal life activities.   In the 1980s a series of studies were conducted showing that people who performed presumably mundane tasks at a very high level had found ways to use these supposedly simple tasks to develop relatively complex skills (e.g., Lave et al., 1984, Scribner, 1984).

For example, shopping for groceries can involve the use of complex mathematical formulas when people truly challenge themselves to buy the most groceries with the least money.

Similarly, people who excel at packing odd shaped objects in way that maximizes the use of storage space are able to do this because they have developed complex spatial reasoning skills. The phenomenon of acquiring complex skills through seemingly non-work related tasks goes beyond analytical reasoning.

Years ago I was interviewing a woman who had not worked in many years because she had been focused on raising her children.  When I asked her what sort of managerial skills she possessed she provided examples from her activities coordinating youth athletic activities that involved a level of organizational, relationship building, and financial skills that vastly exceed those of many people who have years of formal managerial experience.

What these examples illustrate is that the “everyday life” is rich with opportunities to acquire highly complex and valuable job skills.   The challenge is getting people to recognize and capitalize on these learning opportunities.   Social learning technology holds the potential to change this.

Imagine online videos that teach people how to perform day to day tasks in a way that is more efficient and economical and that also helps them develop valuable work-related skills.   This would allow people to use tasks such as scheduling children’s activities, performing home maintenance, or participating in volunteer programs as opportunities to develop skills and capabilities that make them more valuable employees.

People could be also be shown how to leverage public online computer programs to build technology skills while simultaneously increasing their efficiency performing routine tasks such as household budgeting.   To be fully effective, this online training would include advice on what skills are most in demand for different jobs and how to leverage skills learned outside of work to open up new career opportunities.

I am not suggesting this approach will be easy or that it will ever replace the need for formal educational programs and on-the-job learning.  But embedding learning into life does provide an alternative way to acquire skills that is cheaper, easier to access, and in many ways complementary to existing education and job-based skill acquisition methods.

And the upside is considerable. Instead of telling people they need to go to school or get a job to acquire critical career skills, we can encourage them to take advantage of the learning opportunities that are all around them.  Perhaps in the future the key to getting a better job will be to simply focus on living a more effective and efficient life in general.

Contact Steven at:

This article was written as part of The Future of Education research initiative.


Lave J.,  Murtaugh M., & de la Rocha, O. (1984).   The dialectic of Arithmetic in Grocery Shopping, in Rogoff, B.

and Lave, J. eds, Everyday Cognition, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 67–94.

Scribner, S. (1984). Studying working intelligence. In B. Rogoff and J. Lave, Eds., Everyday Cognition: Its Development in Social Context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 9-40.


Why 3D Printed Food Just Transformed Your Supply Chain

Hans Thalbauer

Numerous sectors are experimenting with 3D printing, which has the potential to disrupt many markets. One that’s already making progress is the food industry.

The U.S. Army hopes to use 3D printers to customize food for each soldier. NASA is exploring 3D printing of food in space. The technology could eventually even end hunger around the world.

What does that have to do with your supply chain? Quite a bit — because 3D printing does more than just revolutionize the production process. It also requires a complete realignment of the supply chain.

And the way 3D printing transforms the supply chain holds lessons for how organizations must reinvent themselves in the new era of the extended supply chain.

Supply chain spaghetti junction

The extended supply chain replaces the old linear chain with not just a network, but a network of networks. The need for this network of networks is being driven by four key factors: individualized products, the sharing economy, resource scarcity, and customer-centricity.

To understand these forces, imagine you operate a large restaurant chain, and you’re struggling to differentiate yourself against tough competition. You’ve decided you can stand out by delivering customized entrees. In fact, you’re going to leverage 3D printing to offer personalized pasta.

With 3D printing technology, you can make one-off pasta dishes on the fly. You can give customers a choice of ingredients (gluten-free!), flavors (salted caramel!), and shapes (Leaning Towers of Pisa!). You can offer the personalized pasta in your restaurants, in supermarkets, and on your ecommerce website.

You may think this initiative simply requires you to transform production. But that’s just the beginning. You also need to re-architect research and development, demand signals, asset management, logistics, partner management, and more.

First, you need to develop the matrix of ingredients, flavors, and shapes you’ll offer. As part of that effort, you’ll have to consider health and safety regulations.

Then, you need to shift some of your manufacturing directly into your kitchens. That will also affect packaging requirements. Logistics will change as well, because instead of full truckloads, you’ll be delivering more frequently, with more variety, and in smaller quantities.

Next, you need to perfect demand signals to anticipate which pasta variations in which quantities will come through which channels. You need to manage supply signals source more kinds of raw materials in closer to real time.

Last, the source of your signals will change. Some will continue to come from point of sale. But others, such as supplies replenishment and asset maintenance, can come direct from your 3D printers.

Four key ingredients of the extended supply chain

As with our pasta scenario, the drivers of the extended supply chain require transformation across business models and business processes. First, growing demand for individualized products calls for the same shifts in R&D, asset management, logistics, and more that 3D printed pasta requires.

Second, as with the personalized entrees, the sharing economy integrates a network of partners, from suppliers to equipment makers to outsourced manufacturing, all electronically and transparently interconnected, in real time and all the time.

Third, resource scarcity involves pressures not just on raw materials but also on full-time and contingent labor, with the necessary skills and flexibility to support new business models and processes.

And finally, for personalized pasta sellers and for your own business, it all comes down to customer-centricity. To compete in today’s business environment and to meet current and future customer expectations, all your operations must increasingly revolve around rapidly comprehending and responding to customer demand.

Want to learn more? Check out my recent video on digitalizing the extended supply chain.


Hans Thalbauer

About Hans Thalbauer

Hans Thalbauer is the Senior Vice President, Extended Supply Chain, at SAP. He is responsible for the strategic direction and the Go-To-Market of solutions for Supply Chain, Logistics, Engineering/R&D, Manufacturing, Asset Management and Sustainability at SAP.

How to Design a Flexible, Connected Workspace 

John Hack, Sam Yen, and Elana Varon

SAP_Digital_Workplace_BRIEF_image2400x1600_2The process of designing a new product starts with a question: what problem is the product supposed to solve? To get the right answer, designers prototype more than one solution and refine their ideas based on feedback.

Similarly, the spaces where people work and the tools they use are shaped by the tasks they have to accomplish to execute the business strategy. But when the business strategy and employees’ jobs change, the traditional workspace, with fixed walls and furniture, isn’t so easy to adapt. Companies today, under pressure to innovate quickly and create digital business models, need to develop a more flexible work environment, one in which office employees have the ability to choose how they work.

SAP_Digital_Emotion_BRIEF_image175pxWithin an office building, flexibility may constitute a variety of public and private spaces, geared for collaboration or concentration, explains Amanda Schneider, a consultant and workplace trends blogger. Or, she adds, companies may opt for customizable spaces, with moveable furniture, walls, and lighting that can be adjusted to suit the person using an unassigned desk for the day.

Flexibility may also encompass the amount of physical space the company maintains. Business leaders want to be able to set up operations quickly in new markets or in places where they can attract top talent, without investing heavily in real estate, says Sande Golgart, senior vice president of corporate accounts with Regus.

Thinking about the workspace like a designer elevates decisions about the office environment to a strategic level, Golgart says. “Real estate is beginning to be an integral part of the strategy, whether that strategy is for collaborating and innovating, driving efficiencies, attracting talent, maintaining higher levels of productivity, or just giving people more amenities to create a better, cohesive workplace,” he says. “You will see companies start to distance themselves from their competition because they figured out the role that real estate needs to play within the business strategy.”

The SAP Center for Business Insight program supports the discovery and development of  new research-­based thinking to address the challenges of business and technology executives.


Sam Yen

About Sam Yen

Sam Yen is the Chief Design Officer for SAP and the Managing Director of SAP Labs Silicon Valley. He is focused on driving a renewed commitment to design and user experience at SAP. Under his leadership, SAP further strengthens its mission of listening to customers´ needs leading to tangible results, including SAP Fiori, SAP Screen Personas and SAP´s UX design services.


The Digital Surge In Higher Education

Malcolm Woodfield

Science fiction fans will remember the 1960s television series “Lost in Space,” which featured a talking robot—very unusual in 1965. Robbie the Robot was a sensation.

In 2016, things that are not alive but that can talk are no longer science fiction. Voice recognition software is very common, and we no longer simply talk into our phones—we talk to them, asking questions and getting answers.

Similarly, higher education today has gotten more sophisticated. It is no longer limited to just books and lecturers, and the college scene includes much more than just students and instructors. University life is now all about digital connectivity. Devoted to student success, colleges and universities are also complete communities. Beyond the people, they comprise facilities, buildings, and many other assets that support education. And while today’s buildings may have little else in common with Robbie the Robot, they can talk to us.

Most competitive campuses are now networked and digitized. Of course, this includes books and learning materials, but today’s technology revolution also includes much more.

Campuses are communities

A modern college campus is like a small town, with everything from restaurants and libraries to roads, sports facilities, and security forces. It is not unusual for today’s campuses to even have their own fire departments.

All of these features and amenities require repair, maintenance, security protection, and eventually replacement. Digitization makes all of these tasks easier and more timely. It offers accurate information in real time, to those who need it when they need it.

The task of a college is education, but a college is still a business. Every business has secondary objectives, which include the protection and maintenance of its assets. Digitization can streamline these tasks.

Smart buildings that can talk to people in real time are becoming increasingly common. Buildings can remind us of repairs, maintenance, and other important tasks that need to be done. Today’s networked campus can also reveal the behavioral trends of students, faculty, and staff. In many ways, a completely networked campus behaves more like a living thing than an institution.

Devices worn by students can tell us about their health and their learning patterns. This information, in turn, can help us create new and better education processes to help students learn more effectively. The campus will then achieve its student objectives while more efficiently protecting its physical assets.

Education is a business

Any successful business must keep its facilities up to date. Running a campus community is expensive, and maintaining all its buildings and assets is a complicated process.

Any homeowner knows there is plenty of  maintenance and upkeep required, and a college campus has many more buildings to maintain. According to U.S. News and World Report, homeowners spend, on average, between 1 to 4 percent of a home’s value annually on maintenance and repairs. That is a small fraction of the expenses for maintaining all the buildings of a modern college campus.

Because of the recent economic recession, many colleges have put off some needed maintenance and repairs. This “deferred maintenance” only adds to the growing problem of paying for this upkeep. Noting that his school had to spend $150 million over five years, Brian Hutzley, vice president of finance and administration at New York’s Colgate University, said, “If you are constantly delaying [maintenance], you’ll have more emergencies,”  Each dollar of deferred maintenance becomes a $4 expense later.

The business of education is expensive, and cutting costs through digitization makes good business sense. Smart buildings cost less to maintain and repair, as they help staff members recognize maintenance issues when they first occur, when repairs are least expensive.

Today’s universities are helping to cut the expense of education by adopting a business model based on the networked campus. Each building is becoming, in a sense, a talking Robbie the Robot, offering information on student and staff activities and trends to power the campus more efficiently.

The networked university campus speeds processes and facilitates communication for better efficiency. From funding to campus organizations to education delivery, advances in information technology are changing the way universities work.

For more information, please visit Higher Education. Reimagined for the new economy.


Malcolm Woodfield

About Malcolm Woodfield

Malcolm Woodfield is the Global Vice President, Head of Industry Business Unit Education & Research, at SAP. He manages a global team accountable for the overall business, market, customer, and revenue success of the Higher Education / Public Services portfolio (including all Applications, Analytics, Mobile, HANA, and Cloud) globally.

Create A Powerful Online Learning Platform, Gain Loyal Students

Malcolm Woodfield

The world of academics is changing, right along with the business world. Today, 97% of universities use digital programming to present classes. They also use the Internet for online registration, job searching resources, and online payment. Furthermore, more students like taking their classes online. Today, universities must keep up with these desires to serve everyone who wishes to study with them. Online learning is the model of the future, and while traditional classes are still common, this may not always be true. There may come a time when they are dinosaurs in the education industry.

Today, even traditional classes often use electronic and online components. These include online platforms for students to keep in touch with teachers, ask questions outside of class, and see their grades. The university of the future will be one where a variety of electronic learning tools exist to make a full educational experience. That will be just as good, if not better, than the traditional in-class model of learning.

How universities will change

We will see the emergence of new business models for universities to follow. The current way that classes are being taught and made available will also need to change. Each university that uses a digital platform will have to do research to determine the best way to make the change easy for them.

One important thing online universities can do is to increase student interaction. This can be done with online portals and chat rooms. University administrators can decide the best way to move forward to increase student success and teacher recruiting.

What will attract students to online classes

Understanding what promotes excellence in online learning is part of optimizing student engagement. Students learning from home do better if the online environment is social and interactive. Online classes that get the best results from students are ones that have social components. Students are also more likely to use online classes if the option shown to them looks attractive. They need to know the course is easy to use, social, and has teachers who are easy to reach anytime.

Money and online learning

The online learning model must make money for the university. Deciding whether it will means collecting real-time information with several data points. The school will need to decide how many full-time employees it needs. It also needs to decide if some full-time employees can become part-time staff. Fundraising needs to be taken into consideration. The money given by the state is also a factor. Finally, any new equipment the university needs, and how much it costs, must be added in to the total. Once these are decided on, the university can know if adding online classes will be profitable for them.

Online learning and its value to students

It is not only digital learning that universities should consider. Student services can digitally transform. Students would need get as much from an online class as they would from a traditional class. In fact, the value of their online education should actually be more than a traditional learning environment. This means providing such services as real-time job search services, just as a physical university would do. In fact, it is easier to provide up-to-date information in a digital environment, as this information can be obtained through a variety of sources as it is posted.

Interactive sessions with career counselors should be available, either by appointment or on a virtual “walk-in” basis, so students can learn how to put together a professional resume, how to answer interview questions in the best possible way, how to dress for interviews, and how to be a good employee. All of this can be done online with the proper interactive environments set up and managed by the university, and with the associated employees in place, either working onsite or from home.

Tomorrow’s universities today

With these techniques, today’s universities can begin to transform themselves into the learning institutions of the future. Including online clubs and organizations in the roster of offerings will increase student retention and loyalty and will improve the university’s reputation. The use of webcams can make these virtual experiences seem like real-world ones, and students will derive the same enjoyment and benefits from them as they would in person.

Providing online space for virtual study groups is another way universities can move into a totally digital environment. Online tutoring portals are also a must. With these things gradually put into place and perfected with real-time data over time, the university of the future can be built, and students will flock to it. The popularity of online learning is real. Smart universities will take advantage of it, capitalize on it, invest in it, and move boldly into the future of learning with it.

For more information, please visit Higher Education. Reimagined for the new economy.


Malcolm Woodfield

About Malcolm Woodfield

Malcolm Woodfield is the Global Vice President, Head of Industry Business Unit Education & Research, at SAP. He manages a global team accountable for the overall business, market, customer, and revenue success of the Higher Education / Public Services portfolio (including all Applications, Analytics, Mobile, HANA, and Cloud) globally.