Brad Zomick

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11 min read

Demystifying What Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Mean for L&D


Artificial intelligence and machine learning are expected to bring seismic changes to workplace learning and development.

“It is difficult to overstate the likely impact of artificial intelligence on the way we live and learn in the future, and the way we carry out our roles as L&D professionals,” says Donald H. Taylor, chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute. “We are only just beginning to see and practically explore and build new forms of artificial, machine-based, collective intelligence. The impact: teaching and learning performed by machines at speed and on a massive scale. This is exhilarating and frightening at the same time.”

You could add “confusing” as well. Steadily, more business leaders are acknowledging that they don’t know what those changes will be, let alone how to prepare for them.

When polled 90 human resources and Learning & Development professionals, they found that 62 percent believe artificial intelligence and machine learning will “substantially or moderately impact their job in the next two years,” while 57 percent said they know very little about AI and ML, and how these technologies could change the way they do business.

The L&D community needs clarity on this ASAP, especially as businesses ramp up their investments in these technologies. CEB reports that while only 20 percent of talent teams are currently using machine learning, 42 percent plan a significant investment to speed up and improve HR decision making.

(Read: 53 Jaw-dropping Statistics from CEB’s Reimagine HR Conference)

Understanding the terms

For starters, let’s look at what these terms really mean.

As Pathgather explains in our guide to L&D buzzwords, a pioneer defined machine learning as the “field of study that gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed.” And Merriam-Webster defines artificial intelligence as “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

How do these two things differ? Many experts put it this way: Machine learning is what enables artificial intelligence. Just as people learn to become smart, machines learn so they can have artificial intelligence.

Experts also say that, unlike some of the sci-fi images that may pop into your head, AI and ML are not about making people irrelevant. “Note that machine learning systems hardly ever replace the entire job, process, or business model,” two leading MIT researchers explain in the Harvard Business Review, adding:

“Most often they complement human activities, which can make their work ever more valuable. The most effective rule for the new division of labor is rarely, if ever, ‘give all tasks to the machine.’ Instead, if the successful completion of a process requires 10 steps, one or two of them may become automated while the rest become more valuable for humans to do.”

Expert: L&D will end as we know it

So what do these technologies mean for the future of Learning & Development in the workplace?

For an answer, we reached out to Koko Nakahara, the president of Instructional Design Inc. in Japan. She led a session for the Association for Talent Development titled with a question: “Will Machine Learning and AI End L&D As We Know It?”

“As we know it, yes,” Nakahara told Pathgather in a phone interview. “If we are offering training as we have in the past, or simply gathering content or providing some knowledge support, it won’t exist.” So learning and development professionals “should be creating a learning environment that includes artificial intelligence.”

People must set the strategies

Most importantly, Nakahara said, it’s up to L&D professionals to set strategies for their companies. AI and ML can show the patterns and data, but they cannot decide the best steps forward for a company, she said. “Strategy-making is our role as humans. L&D professionals must be looking at the future needs of the company and determining what people need to do.”

Nakahara added: “We need to be clear what the next generation workforce needs to look like. Of course, we cannot be sure. But we can at least be proactive and move forward.”

L&D professionals must make sure that their organizations’ learning ecosystems are agile and keep changing with the times, ready to include emerging technologies.

(Read: Mastering Talent Agility: 4 Steps Every Business Must Take to Build the Workforce of the Future)

Technology helps solve performance issues

Some of the information-gathering tasks that L&D professionals have had to face will be handled to a greater degree by artificial intelligence and machine learning, Nakahara said.

These technologies gather data from across a company’s entire technology stack, and pick up on patterns. So they can spot where multiple employees may be struggling, and suggest the most popular learning options used by employees who have resolved those problems.

The technologies are also becoming more and more adaptive, so they’re figuring out learning paths that work for each individual. To use a simple (and obviously not realistic) example, Nakahara said, some people may learn that 1+1=2, and then simply know that 1+2=3. But others might not be able to make that jump so quickly. They might need to go back and dig into what “plus” means, then move forward at a different pace. “This adaptive learning offers many paths for people,” she said.

Use AI to reinforce learning

Some businesses have begun “investing in chatbots to provide individual coaching in the workplace and to reinforce learning following a traditional training program,” says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace.

Some of these bots can engage in “an extended conversation as a coach or companion amplifying a person’s ability to do their job,” Meister writes in a Forbes column.

She also cites a brand experience company that has a chatbot follow up with learners after they complete a sales course. The bot is “designed to improve the retention of new skills,” she says.

Upskill for technology experience and human strengths

L&D professionals need to make sure they are demonstrating how to work with artificial intelligence and machine learning. This includes a company’s highest ranks. “Reskill at the top of the house,” Accenture says in a report. “Accenture research shows a general shortage of technology experience in boardrooms: Only 10 percent of board members surveyed report having professional technology experience.”

They also need to make another big change to get with the times, the Accenture report says: Focus training efforts on uniquely human skills.

“Our model shows fewer jobs will be lost to automation if people are able to reallocate their skills to tasks that require more human skills’ such as complex analysis and social/emotional intelligence …

“Creativity, critical thinking and empathy are now more important for all workers to operate at the pace of change, contributing both to their companies’ growth and to their personal satisfaction. In fact, between now and 2020, WEF (the World Economic Forum) anticipates a growing skills demand for cognitive abilities (52%), systems skills (42%) and complex problem solving skills (40%) …

“Companies need to increase the speed of reskilling. Positioning their organization, and their people, to win in this newest revolution. Or risk leaving entire generations of workers without work or the skills to acquire it, destabilizing the lives of individuals and society at large.”

Embrace new platforms

All this means embracing new platforms that help people and these new technologies work together to maximum effect, experts say.

When considering L&D tools, professionals must know that “a learning ecosystem should be connected with performance management, talent management system and knowledge management system, as well as social learning and experts,” Nakahara says.

The Accenture report, titled “Harnessing Revolution,” encourages businesses to “enable change through ecosystems and platforms. Savvy organizations will create physical and virtual networks to facilitate community building, deliver access to valuable skills training, generate feedback and create access to potential new roles and projects. And ultimately allow companies to rapidly tap into new sources of talent when it’s needed.”

The report cites as an example AT&T, which has spent a considerable amount of time and effort to launch a learning experience platform for its 250,000-employee organization.

Workers aren’t scared

“Counter to the negative spin in the zeitgeist, workers of all generations and skill levels appear ready to embrace the new reality of digital in the workforce,” Accenture found in its survey of more than 10,000 workers in 10 countries.

Accenture said that, “instead of resenting technology,” 84 percent report being excited about the changes it will bring, and 87 percent are downright optimistic, projecting that it will actually improve their work experience in the next five years.

Also, 58 percent of those surveyed said they’re aware of the skills they need to develop to remain relevant, and 85 percent said they’d invest free time to do so.

Perhaps that’s the best news of all for L&D professionals. Workers whose careers will be reshaped by machine learning and artificial intelligence aren’t shying away or giving up. They’re ready to learn.

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