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

SAP Guest

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR, Senior Director, Customer Value Research for SuccessFactors, an SAP company

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.


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13 Scary Statistics On Employee Engagement [INFOGRAPHIC]

Jacob Shriar

There is a serious problem with the way we work.

Most employees are disengaged and not passionate about the work they do. This is costing companies a ton of money in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. It’s also harmful to employees, because they’re more stressed out than ever.

The thing that bothers me the most about it, is that it’s all so easy to fix. I can’t figure out why managers aren’t more proactive about this. Besides the human element of caring for our employees, it’s costing them money, so they should care more about fixing it. Something as simple as saying thank you to your employees can have a huge effect on their engagement, not to mention it’s good for your level of happiness.

The infographic that we put together has some pretty shocking statistics in it, but there are a few common themes. Employees feel overworked, overwhelmed, and they don’t like what they do. Companies are noticing it, with 75% of them saying they can’t attract the right talent, and 83% of them feeling that their employer brand isn’t compelling. Companies that want to fix this need to be smart, and patient. This doesn’t happen overnight, but like I mentioned, it’s easy to do. Being patient might be the hardest thing for companies, and I understand how frustrating it can be not to see results right away, but it’s important that you invest in this, because the ROI of employee engagement is huge.

Here are 4 simple (and free) things you can do to get that passion back into employees. These are all based on research from Deloitte.

1.  Encourage side projects

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload. Let them explore their own passions and interests, and work on side projects. Ideally, they wouldn’t have to be related to the company, but if you’re worried about them wasting time, you can set that boundary that it has to be related to the company. What this does, is give them autonomy, and let them improve on their skills (mastery), two of the biggest motivators for work.

Employees feel overworked and underappreciated, so as leaders, we need to stop overloading them to the point where they can’t handle the workload.

2.  Encourage workers to engage with customers

At Wistia, a video hosting company, they make everyone in the company do customer support during their onboarding, and they often rotate people into customer support. When I asked Chris, their CEO, why they do this, he mentioned to me that it’s so every single person in the company understands how their customers are using their product. What pains they’re having, what they like about it, it gets everyone on the same page. It keeps all employees in the loop, and can really motivate you to work when you’re talking directly with customers.

3.  Encourage workers to work cross-functionally

Both Apple and Google have created common areas in their offices, specifically and strategically located, so that different workers that don’t normally interact with each other can have a chance to chat.

This isn’t a coincidence. It’s meant for that collaborative learning, and building those relationships with your colleagues.

4.  Encourage networking in their industry

This is similar to number 2 on the list, but it’s important for employees to grow and learn more about what they do. It helps them build that passion for their industry. It’s important to go to networking events, and encourage your employees to participate in these things. Websites like Eventbrite or Meetup have lots of great resources, and most of the events on there are free.

13 Disturbing Facts About Employee Engagement [Infographic]

What do you do to increase employee engagement? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Did you like today’s post? If so you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up here and receive The Switch and Shift Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!

This infographic was crafted with love by Officevibe, the employee survey tool that helps companies improve their corporate wellness, and have a better organizational culture.


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Supply Chain Fraud: The Threat from Within

Lindsey LaManna

Supply chain fraud – whether perpetrated by suppliers, subcontractors, employees, or some combination of those – can take many forms. Among the most common are:

  • Falsified labor
  • Inflated bills or expense accounts
  • Bribery and corruption
  • Phantom vendor accounts or invoices
  • Bid rigging
  • Grey markets (counterfeit or knockoff products)
  • Failure to meet specifications (resulting in substandard or dangerous goods)
  • Unauthorized disbursements

LSAP_Smart Supply Chains_graphics_briefook inside

Perhaps the most damaging sources of supply chain fraud are internal, especially collusion between an employee and a supplier. Such partnerships help fraudsters evade independent checks and other controls, enabling them to steal larger amounts. The median loss from fraud committed
by a single thief was US$80,000, according to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE).

Costs increase along with the number of perpetrators involved. Fraud involving two thieves had a median loss of US$200,000; fraud involving three people had a median loss of US$355,000; and fraud with four or more had a median loss of more than US$500,000, according to ACFE.

Build a culture to fight fraud

The most effective method to fight internal supply chain theft is to create a culture dedicated to fighting it. Here are a few ways to do it:

  • Make sure the board and C-level executives understand the critical nature of the supply chain and the risk of fraud throughout the procurement lifecycle.
  • Market the organization’s supply chain policies internally and among contractors.
  • Institute policies that prohibit conflicts of interest, and cross-check employee and supplier data to uncover potential conflicts.
  • Define the rules for accepting gifts from suppliers and insist that all gifts be documented.
  • Require two employees to sign off on any proposed changes to suppliers.
  • Watch for staff defections to suppliers, and pay close attention to any supplier that has recently poached an employee.

About Lindsey LaManna

Lindsey LaManna is Social and Reporting Manager for the Digitalist Magazine by SAP Global Marketing. Follow @LindseyLaManna on Twitter, on LinkedIn or Google+.


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Higher Education Poised To Enter World Of Analytics

Nicole Engelbert

Ovum anticipates that 2016 is likely to be the year that higher education moves from discussion to action with the more sophisticated use of data to transform institutional performance.

Colleges and universities globally are reporting analytics as their most important IT project, as measured by spend, over the next 18 months. Whether these investments propel the industry into a brave new world of analytics usage will depend, at least in part, on the ability of institutions to embed analytics into the daily fabric of organizational decision making, from the boardroom to the dorm room and everywhere in between. Key supporting factors to achieving this reality with analytics include a more practical approach to implementation and the selection of agile solutions with industry-specific frameworks such that institutions are able to balance short-term gains with long-term value.

Exploiting institutional data moves to the top of the agenda

The higher education industry stands at the proverbial crossroads. One path leads to a radical rethinking of how institutions support and deliver teaching, learning, and research, and ultimately to the creation of new services and operating paradigms to complement or replace existing approaches. The other leads to continued or even accelerated budgetary retrenchment, and likely decline, as institutions chase decreasing numbers of traditional students, tuition dollars, and public funding support. Recognizing that transformative change is required to thrive or even survive in this next era of higher education, colleges and universities are taking the first steps toward more bold use of data to manage and shape institutional performance in strategic ways. The effective use of analytics will be crucial to getting on and staying on the right path.

Figure 1: Investing in analytics is a top priority for higher education in 2016

Source: Ovum 2015 ICT Enterprise Insights Survey


When asked in Ovum’s 2015 ICT Enterprise Insights Survey (Q315) what IT projects would have the highest priority over the next 18 months, as measured by total spend, the largest percentage of institutional respondents (28%) selected analytics as their number one priority, and 64% rated it as a top-three project. While the more transformative usage of analytics has been a topic of heated discussion for some time in higher education, few institutions have taken the next step and made investments to move these conversations from the theoretical to the concrete. In too many cases, analytics projects have been confined to back-office operations, progressive but siloed departments, or pilot programs with little capacity or planning for scale. These new findings suggest that the institutional willingness and appetite for more transformative efforts is growing and likely to drive investment over the short term. Consequently, Ovum anticipates that 2016 will launch a brave new world for analytics in the higher education industry.

A data-driven culture will contribute to market differentiation

There are early indicators that higher education is becoming a more data-driven industry. Colleges and universities around the globe are increasingly required to report on student outcomes, such as retention, graduation, and even gainful employment rates, which is compelling them to build increasingly sophisticated reporting capabilities. Reporting to state, provincial, and national agencies is no longer an administrative function, but has become an executive imperative. However, complying with regulatory statutes for reporting is only a first step with analytics, and is unlikely to yield the institutional transformation required to thrive in the coming decades. Creating innovative new programs, finding new revenue streams, and moving with more agility in the industry will require institutions to embrace a data-driven culture where leveraging data is an integral part of the decision-making process rather than simply the outcome of it.

The path to a data-driven culture will not be an easy one. Success will require persistent leadership from the highest levels of the institution and the consistent application of analytics across a myriad of diverse decision-making circumstances, from IT governance to academic advisement and even management of the physical plant. Moreover, its implementation and use cannot be confined to the boardroom alone; it should be pervasive across the campus, informing transactions and interactions as varied as a recruiter planning which secondary schools to visit, to a professor selecting readings for an online sociology course. Ovum believes that sustained transformation is possible only when analytics broadly supports the fundamental work of an institution and is a required element for decision making at every level.

Envision transformation, but take quick, incremental steps

The implementation landscape is littered with analytics initiatives that became mired in internal debate and politics, never moving beyond the planning or pilot stages, and as a result, failing to deliver on the promise of institutional transformation. If this next wave of analytics investment is to avoid the shortcomings of the past, Ovum advises institutions to take a stronger hand in leading the consensus-building process and choose technology solutions with more rapid implementation capabilities.

The consensus-driven, shared governance model is unique to higher education, serving as its greatest strength but also its biggest hurdle to more rapid change. While creating a transformative vision is critical to the long-term success of an analytics investment, tightly coupling the solution’s implementation to it is unnecessary. As the vision moves through the consensus-building process, project champions can lead short “sprints” with early adopters. The findings from these pilots can inform the vision creation process and support the business case for continued investment. The challenge, of course, is ensuring that the early pilots ultimately align with the agreed vision and do not function as a deterrent to institution-wide deployment. Selecting a solution that balances flexibility and industry specificity can reduce the risk of these types of problems occurring. Because they are built on highly configurable platforms with higher education-specific frameworks, department-led implementations do not impede the execution of an institution-wide vision. Consequently, colleges and universities are able to realize the transformative value of analytics more rapidly.

Want more on how sophisticated data analytics is helping businesses make better decisions? See The Rise Of Exploratory Analytics.


Nicole Engelbert

About Nicole Engelbert

Director of Research & Analysis, Industries at Ovum Consulting.


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Five Reasons Why Social Collaboration Should Be Part Of Your Digital Transformation

Daisy Hernandez

Digital collaboration technology has revolutionized how we communicate and live our lives. The digital network – powered by search, social, and gamification technologies – has enabled the easy and rapid sharing of knowledge globally. Now it is easy to communicate and collaborate with others no matter their location, time zone, or geography.

In a business context, these same technologies are powering benefits across an organization. By connecting business areas, vital information needed to make critical decisions is no longer siloed and disjointed. Add to this the ability to incorporate business data, and decisions are now not only made collaboratively, but are informed by the latest business-critical information and data, whether it is back-end customer or financial data. This is where the real business benefits start to emerge.

Gartner predicts that 50% of large organizations will use internal social networks resembling Facebook by 2016. Thirty percent of these technologies will be considered to be as essential as email and telephones. Digital transformation is underway, and by using collaboration technology with integrated business data, businesses are starting to see staggering benefits.

Social collaboration: Going beyond information sharing

One of the most well-known benefits of social collaboration in a corporate environment is faster and tighter alignment during a project or process. However, a recent study conducted by Forrester Consulting indicates that the advantages run deep, and run throughout the enterprise. The following are five business benefits collaboration can deliver to your business today.

  1. Boost win rates and accelerate the sales cycle. The average sales deal requires a team effort, with individuals and knowledge that live outside the sales department. A Web-based network, accessible through any device, helps win new business and generate more revenue. By pulling expertise, information, and customer data together in one place, sales reps are able to collaborate within and outside of their organization to respond more quickly and accurately to incoming customer questions and needs.
  1. Improve the quality of onboarding and speed new hires’ time to productivity. Social solutions bring together people from across the organization as they collaborate on projects or teams. When a new hire joins the company, this community enables quick ramp-up as the new hire is able to quickly locate and connect to the experts and information they need to complete their job responsibilities. Add to this the fact that this solution houses the collective genius and lessons learned of the organization, and the result is a dynamic, continuous learning culture.
  1. Deliver unparalleled customer experience – every time. Whenever you can provide anyone on the front lines with the full customer story, everyone wins. Knowledge networks ensure that no matter who is interacting with the customer, they have the complete picture. Integrating backend data with real-time collaboration ensures that they are prepared with the latest data at their fingertips to understand the status of a current or prospective customer. For the customer, this means a seamless experience that is always informed, relevant, and meets their needs.
  1. Support business processes that are truly efficient, transparent, and accessible 24×7. Whether you are involved in marketing, IT, finance, or supply chain operations, it is not uncommon for employees to get lost in email chains and outdated spreadsheets and reports. If the ability to collaborate resides in a central location, existing business processes can be improved and supported. More important, taking this network into the mobile world helps ensure that employees have the information they need any time and anywhere.
  1. Create a future of work that appeals to young talent. Knowledge networks can be a cultural tool that not only serves the business, but also answers the needs of our youngest talent. For Millennials, operating in a digitally connected world is a normal part of life – and they could not imagine anything different in their workplace. In the Forrester report, one hiring manager stated, “Millennials would not like to work at [a] company that doesn’t have a collaboration tool. It’s unimaginable — we can’t hire without it.” Could you? Most likely not.

Now you can be part of shaping how organizations adopt and find value in social collaboration technology. Tell us what obstacles you are facing and the benefits you are reaping by taking part in this survey to help SAP develop our future perspective on social collaboration and how it affects us all as employees, managers, and businesses.


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