This is Not a Strategy

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There is no arguing that the world of mobile learning moves at a rapid pace. There are something like 39 models of tablets that are going to be released in 2011. And don’t even ask how many smartphones will be introduced to consumers this year, making an already crowded market even more packed with devices. Add this to the variety of operating systems and the plethora of features, functions and new learning contexts and it can be difficult to know where to start. To make matters even more challenging, new technology is only half of the story as mobile learning also causes mLearning designers and developers to rethink both instructional and interactive design.

With this type of change happening at breakneck speed, the potential for making rash decisions or unfounded choices on mobile learning strategy is ripe. When companies see their competition or organizations they admire in other industries developing and implementing mobile learning initiatives, they become anxious to enter the fray. The problem is that a quick reaction can result in an organization launching mLearning without a strategy and that usually is a recipe for failure. Mobile learning without strategic direction is like leaving on a cross-country journey without a map (or a piece of mobile technology like a GPS-enabled device) and just hoping you will end up at your desired destination. Sure, you might make it there, but it will happen due to luck or chance. The following are some efforts we have seen companies take that, on the surface, might seem like strategy, but the truth is they are not a strategic plan at all. They are just choices or decisions that put mLearning into motion but they don’t lead to a predictable outcome. Let’s take a look at some “strategic thinking” you should avoid.

“Let’s put it out there and see what they think of it.” The “it” in this sentence is a mobile learning application and the “they” is the target audience. This approach is akin to, “If we build it, they will come.” It is important that you determine what your target audience wants or needs before you build the mobile learning that you are going to distribute. If you build something that is merely based on assumption, you are shooting arrows in the dark. You can find out what type of training they need by conducting focus groups or surveys or by spending time with your learners in their work environments. Of course, sometimes you need to implement learning that they don’t particularly want but it is essential for their job performance. You can support mobile learning in these instances by a set of clearly defined learning objectives, which are also essential for a sound strategy.

“Let’s equip each member of the sales force with a tablet and then we’ll think of some apps to develop for them.” It’s always dangerous thinking to put the cart before the horse. An effective strategy requires careful analysis of what mobile devices are the most appropriate for your audience and what form factors would be the most useful. The context in which your audience learns is also important. For instance, your audience may frequently be working in bright lights or sunshine and the image on the screen may be difficult to see. Your strategy is also going to require you to work closely with your IT department. More than likely, they will have specific input into what operating system they can support, how they want the app deployed, and the kind of devices they can maintain. The choice of mobile devices, operating systems and even the types of apps you are going to deploy are all critical pillars in your strategy. Thinking long term and expansively here may slightly slow the process a bit, but will pay dividends later in support and revision costs.

“Let’s build an app for that.” When Apple launched this campaign, they also began a new attitude, although often misguided, about content delivery.  The message was simple: if you build a dedicated app and sell it through the iTunes store, you will have great success with your audience. The campaign was so convincing, many a corporate executive handed down a directive to “build an app.” This action alone is not a strategy at best, and is dangerous to the long term health of a mobile initiative. In the mobile learning space, the deployment of an app should have specific goals and objectives. Even the very determination of whether or not an app is appropriate needs to be weighed. Why is an app appropriate for your effort or for that matter, your organization as a whole? You always need to consider whether the creation of a mobile web application will be more effective than a dedicated mobile app. All of these options need to be weighed before you can begin to proclaim to your audience, “There’s an app for that.”

These three examples all fall under the “act before thinking” category. There is a flip side to the coin and you can overthink your mobile learning and never accomplish anything. It’s the well-known “analysis by paralysis” approach. Signs of overthinking are countless meetings, slow approval processes, endless functional requirements documents and too many decision makers involved in the process. If you find yourself in this situation, you might want to start out with a smaller mLearning initiative, something simple yet effective delivered to a limited audience. It could be a work performance checklist, for instance. It you keep it confined to a focused effort it can mean a smoother and quicker path to success.

If you are struggling with building a strategy, one good exercise is to completely spell out your objectives for your learning, determine your metrics for success and then work backwards. Once you have your goals spelled out, you can more accurately draw out a detailed map to get there. This will help you avoid making unsupported, seemingly random or scattershot choices like those mentioned above. Remember, the act of building and deploying an app doesn’t guarantee success in the mobile learning space. Activity doesn’t necessarily mean progress.

Yes, the mobile learning world is moving rapidly but that doesn’t mean you have to rush your decisions about mobile learning development and implementation and overlook the creation of a sound strategy. A good strategy will get you to your final destination without making costly or unnecessary detours. If you have an example of a “non-strategy,” share your experience in the comments.

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Scott McCormick is a founding partner of Float. Building on more than 30 years of experience in training, eLearning, and mLearning efforts for Fortune 500 companies, Scott helps companies embrace new learning strategies and deliver results. Scott is in charge of client relationships with global leaders in healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, and insurance, and is instrumental in building new business and contributing to Float’s thought leadership efforts. Scott is featured in Float’s latest book, “Mastering Mobile Learning,” available from Wiley and ASTD Press.

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On March 8, 2011
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