TTMWL: Episode 5 — “Should I Build or Buy Training Technology and Training Content?” with DEKA’s Dr. David Rogers

Training the Modern Workforce Live is a weekly show discussing training and talent development solutions and best practices. Hosted by Allogy CEO Colin Forward, each episode features an informative conversation with a prominent guest in the training world.

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About Dr. David Rogers, ARMI Chief Development Officer at DEKA Research & Development Corp.

DEKA’s ARMI Chief Development Officer Dr. David Rogers has his doctorate from the Text & Technology program at UCF where he was a research associate at the Institute for Simulation & Training. He has over a decade of experience building software solutions for humanitarian aid and training in austere environments. David was also a White House Fellow where he worked on workforce data policy.

Episode Transcript

Adam Wagner:
 Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Allogy’s podcast, Training the Modern Workforce Live, the weekly show discussing training and talent development solutions and best practices. Each episode, we’ll talk about a different training topic, and make sure to keep an eye out for special guests and interviews from top training professionals.

With me, as always, I have Colin Forward, CEO of Allogy. For the last decade, Colin has provided major U.S. hospitals and federal agencies with distance learning solutions. He studied mobile technology under Dr. David Metcalf while earning a degree in computer science and his MBA.

And joining Colin this week is Dr. David Rogers, ARMI chief development officer at DEKA Research & Development Corp. David has his doctorate from the Text & Technology program at UCF where he was a research associate at the Institute for Simulation & Training. He has over a decade of experience building software solutions for humanitarian aid and training in austere environments. David was also a White House Fellow where he worked on workforce data policy.

This week, we’re going to be talking about whether you should build or buy training technology and training content. We’ve got some great questions on deck already, but feel free to ask any questions that may come up in the chat and we’ll get to as many as we can. Alright, Colin, over to you.

Colin Forward: All right, thanks, Adam. And thanks, David, for joining us. I think this is going to be a good conversation. We’ve had a lot of topics around build-or-buy questions for learning technology and also training content come up here at Allogy in the last few weeks. So, this is definitely a topic on the front of people’s minds. To start off, you’ve worked on some really interesting stuff in D.C. at the White House. Adam mentioned some of it in workforce data policy. Can you help us set the stage and understand:

What Policy Issues Are Currently Being Worked Around Training and Training Technology?

David Rogers:
 Yeah, thanks, Colin. I think everybody understands that the modern workforce is changing, and it’s changing more quickly than ever before. So the skills that we learn in that is we need an industry to have a shelf life. As technology changes and develops, we need our skills to be able to keep pace with that development. And so, the traditional modes of instruction that date back thousands of years are designed for a different time and for different modes of instruction.

And so, we need something that’s a little more agile, a little more nimble. And one of the things that we were responding to is the fact that there’s millions of vacancies in the tech sector, and our academic institutions aren’t filling those jobs. They’re not providing people with the skills that they need to go out and succeed in those careers.

And these are some of the best jobs that we have in the economy. They’re highly skilled, highly paid jobs. Anybody would be very fortunate to have one of these positions. But they require special sets of skills that need to be developed and maintained over time. And so our workforce infrastructure needs to be catering to those skills. It needs to recognize a proficiency in skills at a more granular level. It needs to bring people into the workforce much more quickly with those abilities.

Colin Forward: So, what are you seeing that is changing in the way that companies are responding to this issue. You know, I should back up. This is something that we’re talking about on the Allogy blog right now, where companies are seeing this as a key differentiator for being able to attract and retain talent. So, we know that businesses are definitely embracing training as a core function of their talent retention and also professional development. So what actions are those large organizations taking to try and better support their talent through training?

How Do Large Organizations Support Workforce Development through Training?

David Rogers: Well, one trend that we’re seeing from a lot of organizations that I think is really promising is really leaning into the front end of the funnel for workforce development. So creating and publicizing more of their own training materials and credentials. And that’s really important because that helps build the pipeline for your workforce. So people can start to see what skills would be necessary to fulfill those roles, and they can start learning directly from the source.

And so, it’s a very powerful mechanism for both promoting your industry, the types of skills that you need, and preparing students and actually vetting them to see who would be most appropriate to work on your team. So I think industry stepping forward and developing some of their own credentialing programs is a major trend.

There’s also a big trend towards tighter integration of the workplace and training. One of the big things that’s happened as a result of COVID that’s not going to go away is we’re doing more and more things virtually. And once you’re free to do your training anywhere, the most valuable place to situate your learning is in some sort of a workplace context where there are synergies between what you’re learning and what you’re doing. And so, we expect that this trend would continue and even accelerate. And so I think those are two of the major trends that we’re seeing.

Colin Forward: Okay, yeah. We had a good conversation with Lyn Wright at Extra Space last week on the same podcast, and she was talking a lot about social learning. So as I hear you talking, I’m thinking about how integrating training with the way that you’re doing work really feeds into a lot of what she was talking about with social learning. It can be a low-cost way to make sure that you’re incorporating that sort of function into people’s everyday work.

The question that it raises for me is what are the options for organizations of different sizes? Now, if you’re a huge corporation or a huge government agency and you have the resources to establish some of this training infrastructure, then you have a lot more options. But I think the reason that we’re having this conversation today is because some people don’t necessarily have the ability to build things from scratch. They’re looking to, say, license an existing technology or deciding whether or not to build their own training content or license it from elsewhere. So can you help us set up the value proposition when it comes to these build-or-buy decisions for organizations of any size?

How Can You Determine Whether to Build or Buy Training Technology?

David Rogers: As a technologist, we tend to focus more at lower-level technologies, but I think there’s a helpful way to think about this. And that’s every decision is never a black and white build-or-buy; it’s always a spectrum. And that spectrum consists of a stack of technologies that sit on top of each other. So at the very bottom of the stack, you have hardware. And so, very few companies are going to go and build their own hardware for learning or for any other purpose. You’re going to go and you’re going to buy a laptop or a Windows PC or something. On top of that, there’s a cloud-services layer, and these are provided by groups like Azure and AWS and whatnot.

And so, again, very few companies would even consider developing their own cloud services unless they had an extremely niche type of an application that required it. So you have your hardware layer. You have your cloud-services layer. Then, on top of your cloud-services layer, there’s many different service providers that then take that cloud services functionality and apply it for learning applications.

So learning management systems, social learning tools, chatbots, all sorts of course-management tools, credentialing tools. And so those sit on top of that layer. And so, again, your decision is, “Do I want to recreate the wheel, or do I want to then do an integration of all the parts that make the most sense for my organization?”

So what I would say, again, unless you have an extremely niche application, chances are there’s a lot of off-the-shelf pieces that are going to provide a lot of value to your infrastructure. So even if you’re intent on building something custom for your organization, at every point in this chain, what you need to do is make sure that you’re building and adding value to the most important pieces that can get you further down the road. Because if you don’t do that, that’s all wasted effort because you’re recreating some other part of the stack that someone else already provides.

Colin Forward: So do you think that there are parts of that equation—pieces of learning technology that have developed enough at this point to become commoditized—where it’s kind of a no-brainer and there’s no sense in making that investment yourself because people have gotten to scale already?

What Training Technologies Are Almost Exclusively “Buy”?

David Rogers:
 I mean, I can give an example of that. So, early on, when we were doing video distribution in austere environments, there was low-bandwidth networks. So we would, in the very early days, write our own video encoders to be able to stream video.

It would be very foolish to do that today because a service like AWS and Elastic Transcoder, you can get all of that out of the box for far less than what you could build it for yourself. And you’re maintaining it. So all the technical debt associated with that just goes away because that’s been commoditized, as you said, by the platform.

And, I think, kind of the march of history is the steady kind of commoditization of more and more components and functions. So it would be interesting to go through the different pieces of a next-generation learning service and see which of those are approaching that level. I don’t think that we’re necessarily there yet on a lot of those pieces, but we’re probably headed in that direction.

Colin Forward: Yeah, so I think you can kind of see that too with—even outside of learning—like website development, and some of the plugins associated with WordPress make it much easier for someone to create a website without needing to necessarily be a web developer by training. We focus a lot at Allogy on mobile learning, and that seems like it’s a little bit further out. So, where do you see mobile on that timeline of commoditization?

Where is Mobile Learning Technology on the Timeline of Commoditization?

David Rogers:
 So mobile is a lot of things. It’s kind of a broad umbrella that covers a lot of different capabilities. So, I think, some of the big capabilities in mobile are chat. So, if we were to kind of unpack chat, I think the engines and the bots and the tools to deliver a chat service are on the commoditized end of that spectrum. I think the expertise and the ability to utilize chat and conversational AI to deliver specific pedagogical experiences—that’s probably at the other end of the spectrum. That’s still in kind of the build column. So, I think, under the umbrella of mobile, there’s a lot of technologies that are maturing. And as those technologies mature, kind of the piece that’s still in the build column is applying that technology set to the training domain.

Colin Forward: Okay, I guess let’s come at this from a slightly different angle. If you’re a chief learning officer or a director of training technology or something like that, and you know that you need some on-the-job performance support for your workforce, you need some sort of mobile training solution: how do you go about approaching that problem and understanding and evaluating build or buy all the way up and down the stack that we’ve been discussing?

What Are the Key Factors to Evaluate Internally Before Deciding to Build or Buy?

David Rogers: So, I guess one of the first conversations that I would have is with my organization’s CIO to understand what kind of shop are we. And so every organization already has a technology stack where there’s a series of tools that they’ve expressed a preference for. And so when you’re bringing in a new set of tools, you want to build on what your organization already has and what’s natively compatible with that rather than heading off in a totally different direction.

So once you kind of have a sense of what your stack is, what tools you’re using in your organization, then what I would want to look at is what are some of the learning management pieces that sit on top of that cloud-services layer that are going to give me the capability that I need. And so I have to kind of evaluate what my needs are, the needs of my organization, and then begin to see what tools will provide me with that capability. I mean, do I need on-demand streaming video? Do I need a video library? Do I need chat services or other services? And so, then, that will give me the framework to be able to evaluate which types of tools I need.

And then, the final piece is maybe potentially a gap analysis. Do I have unique requirements that none of these tools is going to address exactly but that my own internal team really understands well and can add their value? And this is probably the most important part of the conversation. Any software tasks that my developers are doing that’s already provided by another service package is wasted effort that takes away from the unique value and expertise that my internal team could add. So what I’m going to want to do to have the most value is keep my resources focusing on just those pieces and parts of the infrastructure that are unique to my enterprise.

Colin Forward: Yeah, I think we’re starting to see that in the market as well, where more learning systems are moving towards more of a platform model where people can build their own solutions on top of it. Everything from the established players to the up-and-coming products seems to be looking to hand over the development tools to some of these bigger organizations that want to customize it to their own use-case. Are you seeing that as well?

David Rogers: That’s actually one of the best parts of this whole revolution is that as the cost of implementing unique feature-sets comes down and becomes more accessible—every business is unique in its own right. Every industry is unique. We all have our own different things and different modes of ways of doing things. And so, there’s scope within any enterprise to customize and round off the edges of an experience to make it more tailored for your workforce. And so, as we really embrace this design philosophy of having interoperable matching components that can be put together to achieve our ends, what that does is brings down the cost of custom development so that we can develop tools that are really kind of finely tailored for our specific use-case.

Adam Wagner: Alright, this is actually a pretty good segue here to kind of move the conversation a little bit towards content as well. Nancy H. asked previously, she said, “We have pretty unique training goals, but we don’t have the resources to develop our own content. Is there a way to buy and build? You know, could you co-develop content with third-party companies?”

Are There Ways to Co-Develop Training Content for Unique Learning Objectives?

David Rogers: Yeah, I’m sure you could. I guess I would look for what’s the commonality of that content? Who’s the best partner to provide it? So there’s lots of trade associations that are focused on specific standards for their organizations. So one of the best places that I might want to reach out to if I had a demand for content was instructional designers in standards bodies.

And I think that there’s a really great opportunity for a marriage between those two groups to produce very niche, you know, specific training content for organizations. The standards groups know what the governing items are that governs the industry that you have to abide by; instructional designers know how to tailor content so it’s consumable and achieves these learning outcomes. So that’s probably the approach I would take for those types of content development ideas.

Colin Forward: So this reminds me of some of the conversations that we’ve been part of in the past, David. You know, we met at Institute for Simulation & Training, and we saw some really awesome proof-of-concept projects where people were showing what you can do with virtual environments and augmented reality. But those are pretty high-dollar items, right? And it could be expensive to build an entire curriculum with those types of training assets. So, maybe we can talk a little bit about the tradeoffs between some of those really high-fidelity content types and something that is maybe more suited for mobile or some of the austere environments that you have experienced in.

How Do You Know When to Invest in New Training Technology?

David Rogers: Sure. So, I mean, some of the terms people use is leading edge and bleeding edge and things like that. What you find in research is that a new technology becomes available and people race to find applications for it. But there’s really kind of a long process whereby those early kinds of experimental concepts become hardened and developed into standard conventions that are then broadly adopted.

I think the advantage of where we’re at in training and learning is that we can sit back and watch some of these, kind of, forward-thinking experiments unfold, and we have time to figure out which ones are fads, which ones are going to enter into the mainstream, and how do we best use those tools.

So, you talked about the costs that are associated with that. So the costs are high when you’re doing custom development to support some of these unique experiences. Where those costs become economical for your standard enterprise is when a service like that translates into one of the cloud-services layers.

So if something really has legs and it’s not a fad and it becomes a convention and it’s not going anywhere, you’re going to see a service for it pop up on AWS or Azure or some other cloud-service provider. And that’s really the signal to you in the marketplace that something like this is here to stay, and now it’s economical for me to develop a training service based on that technology.

Colin Forward: So you’ve mentioned this cloud-services layer a few times, and that makes a lot of sense to me as someone that’s seeing Amazon, you know, eat the world, so to speak. Something becomes valuable, like you said, and they’ll eventually put out a service for it and then you don’t have to worry about building it yourself. What about moving up the stack? Like what kind of SDKs or toolkits could a large IT team use to bootstrap their development of training infrastructure.

What Should You Look for When Choosing Training Technology?

David Rogers: That’s a good question. I think one of the principles that you always want to follow is to minimize the distance between training and execution. And so you want your training tools to be as much like your workplace and have them as closely and tightly integrated as possible. We’ve done a lot of research for the Department of Defense. One of their sayings is “train as you fight.” And so the idea is that you can actually have negative training if the training is very different from what your actual operational use-case is.

And so, when you talk about SDKs and integration and things like that, the place I would start at—cycling back to that conversation with the CIO—is what are the tools that my team is using every day to do their work? How can I make my training look the most like that and be as tightly integrated with that normal workflow as possible?

Colin Forward: Okay, so I think that “train as you fight” motto is a really great setup for talking about some pedagogy. We’ve been talking about training technology and the content-types: high-fidelity versus something that’s more mobile-suited.

What kind of pedagogy makes sense for training as you fight or training as you work?

David Rogers:
 Well, you know, one way I might come at that question is by identifying one of the chief deficits that people have identified in workforce development, and that’s soft-skill development. So I got to sit on a research panel recently where it was a meeting between industry leaders on, “Hey, what are you hiring, and how are the new hires performing in these technical positions?” And the academics and the educators, you know, “How are you preparing people for these jobs?” And the number one thing that got identified was, “Hey, our new hires don’t have the soft skills to function well on teams. They don’t have the ability to use, in a real-world environment, some of the technical skills that you’ve been training them for.”

So I think that one of the best ways to solve that problem is through a pedagogical method called project-based learning. One organization that I think does this better than anybody else is called FIRST Robotics. And so, what they do is they create a series of competitions for secondary schools, elementary schools, and whatnot, where they’re essentially modeling the real world of engineering and business inside of the challenge competition. And so, the way that they train is not just by learning a technical skill atomized in isolation but in the context of working on a team to solve a problem, to achieve a goal, to compete against other teams.

And so, when you bring your pedagogy into a project-based learning type of environment where you expose the student to the full dynamics of team interaction and setting goals and managing projects, that’s where the skills take on tremendous relevance for the students, and they become kind of surrounded and embedded with all the soft skills that are necessary to succeed.

Colin Forward: So if I can kind of tease out a couple of takeaways from your response there, it sounds like there are two main components: one is you need to have subject matter experts involved. So maybe bringing in folks from the organization that aren’t directly responsible for training but some other component of the organization that you want to train on. And then, the second piece sounds like it needs to be modeled on the way that people interact with their colleagues or with other people in the course of their work.

David Rogers: Yeah, I think those are two good points. So, first to the point of the expertise: I mean, the reason why we train people is to improve their performance, and so why would we want to model that performance on anything less than expert-level performance? So that should be the goal. And those are the folks that we should reach out to to try to help understand and design our training programs.

And then, the second path of that is the context is very, very important. It affects your motivation. People aren’t motivated to do learning tasks that aren’t connected to a broader goal that makes sense to them or are compelling. And then, not only is that a motivational issue but it’s also a training issue because the more connected and embedded that task is, the more real that skill is that you’re developing and the more it’s going to translate into success for the enterprise.

Colin Forward: Okay, and so I’m trying to think of some examples here of how those things can really be infused into a training program. We can talk about it in the abstract, about having subject matter experts involved or incorporating these things into the course of someone’s work. At Allogy, we work a lot with folks in medicine where they are on a hospital floor and might need some sort of on-demand reference, something that can help them perform the job that they’re about to do.

How Do You Incorporate Your Training Content into the Work that People Are Doing Day to Day?

David Rogers:
 Well, so the industries that do that best are some of the ones like you mentioned, like in medicine, where they have a very, very structured mentorship program. And so, that’s a powerful way to learn. And I think you could use that as a model in other industries because mentorship is one of the best ways of coaching.

The problem is that the people who would make good coaches and mentors in an industry, they have a day job, and it takes time to coach and mentor other up-and-comers. So the way that you balance that is you make it as efficient as possible by giving those potential coaches and mentors the scaffolding that they need so that it’s not a huge drain on their time and productivity. And so you make them more efficient coaches and mentors throughout your organization by giving them some scaffolding to then bring along some of the new recruits.

Colin Forward: Okay, so this has been a really good conversation. You’ve been dropping a lot of wisdom. We did kind of get away from the build-or-buy topic, but I want to see if we can bring it back here because I think what we’re talking about is still kind of high-value training—bringing in people from within the organization that have subject matter expertise. Are there ways to leverage existing content, third-party content, to accomplish some of the things that we’re talking about and, maybe, inject that content into a model of training and training delivery that still accomplishes those goals?

How Do You Incorporate Existing Content into Your Training Model and Delivery?

David Rogers:
 Sure. So, I mean, if you look at what you need to train people on, probably half of those skills are broadly applicable across industries and domains. So teamwork skills, conflict resolution, communication, leadership. So there are lots of skills that people need where the benefit from using third-party content is going to be tremendous.

And then, on the other side of the house, there are skills that are unique only to your organization, and the best thing to do is get a video camera and your most skilled guy and have him just narrate a 3-7-minute video explaining a process. So that’s the spectrum. I mean, there are things that have tremendously broad applicability that everybody can benefit from because they’re universal. And then, there’s very specific content that you should probably build in-house.

Colin Forward: Okay. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So it seems like in general folks are probably going to get the biggest return on having a blend of that in-house content and something that’s maybe a bit more standards-based, something that they might be able to license or bring in a third party for.

David Rogers: Yeah, I think that makes the most sense to me.

Colin Forward: Okay. Well, I think that’s probably a good way to wrap up today’s conversation. So, I really appreciate you spending some time with us today. Like I said, these are topics that we hear a lot day to day at Allogy just talking to customers and folks that are thinking about making investments in training. So hopefully, this is helpful to some of those folks, and I really appreciate your insight on the topic, David.

David Rogers: Yeah, thanks, Colin. Thanks, Adam. Appreciate the time today.

Adam Wagner: Yeah, thanks everyone. This was Training the Modern Workforce Live, presented Allogy. Remember to join us every week for more discussions on all things training and continued learning. If you’d like to explore previous episodes, subscribe to our Allogy YouTube channel or like us on LinkedIn and Facebook. And if you’d like to connect with one of our learning specialists to see how Allogy can improve your training, schedule a free demo!

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