Measurement
30:41

How to Design Technology for the Frontline

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Episode overview:

Zoom meetings. Slack channels. Online learning. Work is more digital than ever … for some people.

While corporate employees have a rich technology ecosystem that keeps them up-to-speed, frontline workers struggle to find timely, consistent information. Tools designed for office-based and work-from-home employees just don’t fit into the hectic frontline workday. Instead, these workers rely on analog methods, such as pre-shift-huddles and time clock postings. They struggle to keep up with the pace of workplace change. They get justifiably frustrated. Their performance declines. Your customer experience and business results suffer.

Corporate and frontline teams do their jobs differently. They need right-fit digital solutions.

JD sits down with Andrea Curry, Senior Vice-President of Product Management at Axonify, to find out what it takes to design technology solutions for the frontline. After building a career in management consulting and professional services, Andrea transitioned into research and product development. Today, she partners with Axonify’s customer community to solve frontline training, communication and performance challenges in ways that also make sense to the market at large. Andrea shares her proven approach to solution design, including how to build user personas, align solutions with operational realities and build a business case for technology investment.

If you have a frontline story you’d like us to explore on a future episode, let us know at podcast@axonify.com

The 80 Percent is brought to you by Axonify. To learn how you can provide communication and training to your frontline workforce that actually works, visit axonify.com.

Join the #FrontlineForward effort by visiting axonify.com/frontlineforward to access free training content, download the 2020 State of Frontline Employee Training Report and subscribe for the updates.

About the Guest(s)

Headshot of Andrea Curry
Andrea Curry

Andrea is an accomplished technology executive with 20 years of experience designing, marketing, selling, and delivering game-changing technology solutions. As VP of Product Management, Andrea is responsible for defining and delivering the products and services that will result in the most meaningful learning experiences for our customers. Andrea started her career as a management consultant, eventually working in Accenture’s start-up incubator arm. She later migrated to R&D, working for software companies big and small like Workbrain (Infor), Symantec, and Mariner Partners. Prior to joining Axonify, Andrea was a founder at SHIFT Energy where she created a technology-centric approach that trims energy waste from buildings. Andrea holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from the University of New Brunswick.

About the Host(s)

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Episode Transcript

JD Dillon:

Welcome to the 80% where we share stories and insights to help you better support and enable your frontline team. I’m JD the chief learning architect at Axonify. On this episode, we explore what it takes to build technology solutions that meet the unique needs of the frontline workforce. We’re joined by Andrea Curry. Axonify’s senior vice president of product management who breaks down her process for building a right fit, digital learning solution. That’s coming up next on the 80%.

Intro:

I’m doing the right things. I am your competitive advantage. I am making my workplace safe. When you give the people on your frontline, the tools they need to succeed, your business succeeds to. Axonify is sharing free training content and ongoing inspiration to help you move your frontline forward. Head over to axonify.com/frontline forward to learn more. I am on the frontline. I am on the frontline. I am on the frontline. together. We will move the frontline forward.

JD Dillon:

How many zoom meetings did you attend today? How about email? How many did you send and receive? And when you ran into that problem, you couldn’t solve, what did you do? Did you Google it or reach out to a peer on Slack, or maybe just, maybe you logged into your LMS and watched a short video or completed a course on the subject. There’s no question that technology has fundamentally changed the way we do our jobs over the past decade. And especially over the past 12 months. Zoom, Teams, shared drives, digital learning – they’re all integrated components of our daily work experience, but that’s our daily work experience. What about the other 80% of the global workforce? How does technology help the frontline do their jobs better? Well, let’s see. Grocery workers still rely on pre-shift meetings to get their updates. No zoom required. Retail associates don’t have access to company, email or messaging apps.

JD Dillon:

So many of them have started their own unofficial WhatsApp and Facebook messenger groups and the LMS. Well, that’s only available in the manager’s office and that’s locked most of the time. So employees on the manufacturing floor, just ask the person next to them for help when they don’t know how to do something. The workplace digital divide is real and it’s rapidly expanding as corporate employees shift to working from home while the frontline continues to clock in at the store, plant, warehouse, and restaurant, and the negative impact of this divide as never been more clear. According to Gartner, limited access to communication and collaboration tools available to their office, working colleagues can greatly reduce frontline workers, digital dexterity by restricting their ability and willingness to collaborate across silos within their organization. And Axonify’s 2020 state of frontline training report found that only 30% of frontline employees can access information on demand after training.

JD Dillon:

Meanwhile, a whopping 84% would like to access, training and communication on their personal devices, just like their corporate colleagues as life becomes even more digital and organizations invest in the technology needed to facilitate new ways of working, companies must remember to include the frontline in their digital performance strategies. Even before the pandemic, progressive organizations identified the cultural and financial benefits of digital frontline enablement, a Forbes insight, Microsoft study found that 31% of organizations that have the highest degree of digital connectivity and empowerment involving more than 75% of their frontline workers saw more than 20% growth year over year. This means investing in frontline technology not only works, but it also pays for itself. However, you can’t just implement the same digital tools your corporate team uses on the frontline while they may work for some groups, Zoom, Teams, and traditional e-learning, just don’t fit most frontline work experiences instead of your digital hand-me-downs the frontline needs tools that fit their workplace realities and help them solve the problems they face every day. To find out how we can build technology that meets the unique needs of the frontline, I spoke with Andrea Curry.

Andrea Curry:

This is going to sound crazy coming from a technology professional, but I think technology is never the first thing.

JD Dillon:

Andrea is the Senior Vice President of Product Management at Axonify, where she partners with customers to solve their highest priority performance problems in ways that also makes sense to the market st large.

Andrea Curry:

We are delivering learning in a way that makes sense for a group of individuals that often aren’t what we think of when we think about enabling people in organizations.

JD Dillon:

Andrew has spent the first half of her career in management consulting and professional services. Following her work with a startup incubator, Andrea pivoted into research and development and product management roles. Today, she’s focused on building technology, content and services that enable learning and performance on the frontline.

Andrea Curry:

In our uber-competitive world today, you really can’t afford to not make sure those people have the tools they need to help differentiate your brand and be successful.

JD Dillon:

Andrea is insights offer a masterclass and product design with a clear focus on understanding not only the problem you’re trying to solve, but the people you’re trying to help.

Andrea Curry:

If we don’t do the work, if we don’t shadow people, if we don’t get in stores, if we don’t get in distribution centers, if we don’t get in call centers and we don’t spend time with people, then, we end up building what we are asked for, not what is actually needed.

JD Dillon:

In addition to good product design, we explore the ways modern technology is really powered by data and how improved measurement is helping frontline forward organizations close the digital learning divide in the workplace.

Andrea Curry:

Data is the key to taking those from “you shall learn this thing on this day” to something that’s more informed by what you know, what you don’t know, how you behave, how you haven’t behaved and whether that’s affecting your results or not

JD Dillon:

Skip your next zoom meeting. Shut down Ms. Teams and get ready to kickstart your frontline digital transformation with Andrea Curry.

Andrea Curry:

I’m counting on you making me look, get out of this, JD.

JD Dillon:

Let’s start off with a question we’ve actually never asked on this podcast before. What does Axonify actually do?

Andrea Curry:

Axonify is really about providing, learning and communications that work for the frontline, rather than thinking about what we might want learning to be in our more corporate jobs and experiences. We’re really about the realities of the frontline workforce and trying to optimize for those individual learning moments that they have to make sure that they get what they need out of their jobs, that the company’s got, what they need out of their employees. And then it’s a win-win essentially for everyone involved,

JD Dillon:

A lot of different terms have been used to describe different categories of employees. Many of these terms like knowledge worker are undefined and just not useful. Today, we see words like desk-less, corporate, essential, and frontline being used a lot, which employees fit the definition of frontline?

Andrea Curry:

Frontline, to me, is anyone who’s really part of the core customer and product development and distribution experience. So anyone who’s really customer facing or that is working on the production of, or distribution of, a product roles like drivers or distribution center workers or manufacturing line workers, retail associates, call center associates. Healthcare is obviously the thing that comes to mind right now, amidst the pandemic, even field sales folks that are working ultimately with end customers to deliver products and services.

JD Dillon:

What are the defining characteristics of the frontline persona? What makes their needs unique?

Andrea Curry:

So they’re typically, and I think first and foremost, really very time-constrained. Although you and I may have the luxury of taking a day in the office and figuring out what we want to do to self develop or grow our careers. Often, they don’t have that luxury of time. They’re often a large numbers of them and often geographically dispersed in some cases.

JD Dillon:

How do these influence the way we need to think about training and supporting people on the frontline?

Andrea Curry:

We have to think about them as having a set of realities and needs and be really real about how we fit into those reality. So our learning situation has to fit them, we can’t make them fit into our learning paradigm. We can’t change the fact that although an associate may want to show up on the retail floor and they may want to go and spend an hour, self-developing on something they’re not going to have necessarily that luxury, unless they’ve been chosen to build a really specific skill for a really specific needs. So I think that affects everything that we do at Axonify. We always have to add a lens in terms of whether it’s even pragmatic to consider something we might want to introduce as part of their reality.

JD Dillon:

How does frontline training strategy need to differ from corporate training strategy?

Andrea Curry:

People tend to think about training as something that you should come to me for. And if I provide a ton of options to you. So if I give you a thousand courses that you’ll be able to figure out what you need to do to kind of get to the next level. And the reality is that can’t work in a time constrained environment because I don’t have time really to figure it out in a role that might be really high turnover. So people aren’t necessarily willing to plan out a career journey for me, like I’m going to be here for 20 years. So I think that’s one piece of it is just the mindset around it. In total. The other thing is just the general engagement factor of it. You know, if I have five minutes, a day, organizations can probably get around carving out five minutes a day for their frontline workers to learn, but then we need to design learning experiences and content that actually fit into that five minutes a day. So it can’t be expecting someone to come five minutes a day and to start their way into a 45 minutes e-learning module, or even a 10 minute e-learning module, it’s gotta be quick, snappy, super relevant, super engaging, apply to my job… it’s just gotta be something really quick and easy that kind of fits into my day. And if I can fit learning into that, I absolutely will grow and develop kind of within those constraints.

JD Dillon:

Most frontline employees still lean on very traditional training tactics. Digital learning may only show up during onboarding. The rest is a lot of on the job experience. It’s a lot of “hey, this is Bill. He’s been here forever. He’ll show you how things work”. And then people just figure things out as they go. Why shouldn’t organizations just keep relying on job training like this? Why is technology better than Bill?

Andrea Curry:

How great and how are every bill in our organization? So we have a thousand Bills across a thousand stores. Let’s say, are they all doing it the same way? Are they all as good as Bill? We can always think of that example of someone who’s really good at growing and enabling someone. But to me, the opportunity with technology as we were talking about and scaling that is how do I take Bill and virtually apply them to every store now so that everyone gets the benefit of that knowledge or approach or experience in a way that is sort of woven into the fabric of the organization. For every Bill there’s also maybe a non-Bill who maybe isn’t that responsible. So I think it just bringing to light and shedding a light on the consistency of the experience can also be an interesting way to look at it.

Andrea Curry:

Something that a good technology should do is take your best and apply that, like raise the bar, right? Bring everyone up to that level of your best kind of store managers, contact center managers, field sales managers, whoever they are, the good ones you want to take that and bring everyone up to that level. You don’t want to leave it to chance because ultimately what you’re going to end up having is by call, call center “A” on Monday, I get routed into this team. I got answer A which maybe is the right answer and then I have a follow up question on day B and I get this person and maybe I get a completely different experience. If you’re going to personally enable people one at a time, A: it costs a ton of money to do that and B: you got to make sure every single link in that chain is super strong.

JD Dillon:

So how do we start to digitize Bill and design a digital experience that aligns with frontline needs?

Andrea Curry:

This is going to sound crazy coming from a technology professional, but I think technology is never the first thing, right? It’s never the, Hey, what technology should we get? I think the first thing is understanding what experiences that you want to provide people. And then technology is essentially just a really good way to scale things. It all really comes back to understanding those constraints. So once, you know, for example that you have three minutes a day or five minutes a day or 10 minutes a day, or whatever it is, then it becomes about how do I deliver the most meaningful learning experiences inside those 10 minutes. And I think you get to technology really quickly there. I also think in frontline, uniquely, there tend to be not as many roles with pretty consistent set of needs in terms of what they need to learn. Then you can get your head around productizing, getting the learning you need out. And then technology to me is just the way that you get that done quickly, efficiently – It’s just a way to make things work at scale at the end of the day.

JD Dillon:

Where does this design process begin? Do you build what customers ask for or do you help shape their perspective?

Andrea Curry:

There is no real good proxy for someone else’s experience. At the end of the day, you kind of have to roll up your sleeves and get out in the field and live it. Whether that’s shadowing people, having conversations with them, time, motion studies, just watching them interact with different tools, watching them interact with customers, understanding a day in the life. I think that’s the fundamental I can tell you how many times we will get in a situation where the central org may not necessarily even understand the reality of the frontline. Generally, most of our customers are amazing, and I think they come to us because they do have such a good understanding the front line. But every once in a while, there’s a situation where they feel like the reality of their frontline workforce might be different

JD Dillon:

When it comes to workplace performance, L&D often has to confront a lot of “this is how things actually work here” when trying to drive consistent performance. How do you balance solid ideas with practical reality in a frontline solution?

Andrea Curry:

It’s something we get asked a lot, and talk about a lot is when I’m onboarding a new employee, do I want them to be able to go through all the learning content at once, or do I want to force them to spread it across a number of days? Axonify would be the first to say that you want to have some level of kind of trickling information. Ideally you don’t want to firehose people because they’ll forget. But the reality is if I’m starting, you know, maybe at a new retail store, for example, maybe I’m new to the industry as welland I’m learning how to use the cash, I’m learning how to work with customers, and I’m learning about all the products at the same time. There might be quite a bit that I’m expected to learn. My manager needs me to get on the floor.

Andrea Curry:

So, even though as learning professionals, we may want to trickle the learning. The manager may prefer to get some awareness of that learning out, and there may not actually give those employees the chance to not firehose that content. And so the way that you deal with that from a product perspective is very different, right? So in one case, I’m designing for, okay, you are going to spread this learning over many days and I’m going to gate you. On the other hand, it’s okay. Well, I knew the reality is your manage isn’t going to gate you. They’re going to fire hose you. So how do I catch that on the backend and make sure that you do learn that information over time and that you haven’t forgotten all the information that you were firehosed on upfront. So two slightly different nuance approaches, but just an example of how I think understanding the reality is the underpinning of designing a solution that ends up getting high adoption.

JD Dillon:

Learning priorities vary a lot by organization. And even within the same organization, HR may be focused more on career development, while operations is focused on change management. Of course there’s always compliance. How do you think about balancing all of these competing priorities? When building a frontline solution

Andrea Curry:

Job 1 is always getting the people in your team, the skills they need to do their current job. Then after you’ve achieved that you can start looking at job 2, which is developing them maybe into next role, or trying to figure that out, but getting people the skills they need to do their current job in a situation where they’re often completely new to the field, or they may have come from a competitive company, but it had a different set of products and services or it’s like twist. So there’s a lot for them to know these are the people who are representing your brand and you can’t have them not know a lot of things, a lot of things, because sometimes when I think about those roles, I think my job is easy in terms of what I need to know on a daily basis. So, if you think about those organizations and the people in those roles specifically, I think job 1 is always reinforcing the information that they need to do their current role and assuring they know that.

JD Dillon:

Beyond the basic stuff like uploading and delivering digital content, what types of technology features have you found to be especially important for digital frontline training?

Andrea Curry:

We lean heavily into things like engagement and gamification and some of those technologies, just to make sure that we’re building a habit with people. So the point of engagement isn’t just to get people on and to consume one thing or to try to nudge someone. And to me, the point of engagement is to build a habit. So people come consistently back every day. The key really is getting people into the platform and to build that habit, making sure that there’s relevant content so that they keep coming back and then making sure that what they are consuming is actually making them great at their job. And then you can build on that with all the other experiences that you need, onboarding employee development, finding knowledge on demand and support assets and all those things.

JD Dillon:

We can’t talk about technology without talking about data. So what role does data play in the way you build technology? L&D teams are still trying to figure out how to get beyond traditional measurement models and really figure out how to apply data more effectively. Why is this really important when you support a frontline workforce?

Andrea Curry:

In 2021, in technology, data is really everything. It has to be a fundamental underpinning of really any core technology to me. When you have a front line and you get daily training experiences, like we get at Axonify, it allows you to have a high volume of data, which then allows you to make each day’s individual experience, extra, extra focused, relevant, and good to the employee. On top of that, the data can also be used to come back and help make sure that people are working on the things that are most meaningful to your organization, which is something we also do at Axonify. People in the frontline tend to have very measurable jobs and goals. For example, in a call center, I know my call handle time per representative, or I know essentially at the individual level, what I’m tracking. So it also can be fairly straightforward to get high volume, meaningful data in frontline that you can use to then make better learning programs, tell people what’s working, what’s not working, and deliver a better individualized experiences back to employees.

JD Dillon:

Implementing new technology is never a one team job, which stakeholders need to be involved in the process for designing, selecting, or implementing digital solutions on the frontline.

Andrea Curry:

Who needs it to work? Who needs people to be informed in these organizations and who has challenges if they’re not informed? Those are the people who ultimately need to care. And so I do think that’s HR. I do think it’s L&D not just from a career progression standpoint, but from an ultimate business accountability and performance standpoint, but I also think it is the operation side and the IT side, we all have a responsibility to help people have the information they need to do their jobs. And I know that sounds so basic, but it’s actually a very hard thing to do. Given the realities of this workforce. Everyone should think about how to enable that organization-wide from operations, do it to HR and learning and try to figure out how they’re going to bring that to life.

JD Dillon:

When you talk about enterprise technology, you’re also talking about a considerable investment in money, resources, and time. For many people, technology decisions can really impact their career. How can someone who recognizes the need for a frontline focus solution build their business case?

Andrea Curry:

I think justifying an investment in the frontline has a slightly different process maybe than justifying an investment in the corporate audience. I think you can make an argument in the corporate audience purely on retention, engagement, pure HR costs. And you can make a similar argument in frontline. If you could significantly prove out that you can change your retention and engagement metrics. So you probably can make that argument. But I think it’s easier in the frontline to actually prove business results on mass. We are able at Axonify to take, say, for example, a business metric like conversions and tie that back to what learning is working. We can ingest a per associate or per store, for example, conversion rate. And we have such high volume terabytes and terabytes, millions and millions of records of learning data per company. We can tie those together in a way that really categorically allows us to understand, Hey, these three topics are the reason that this conversion rate moved up. And if you remove those that improved conversion rate would go back down. So there is a very data science oriented approach to statistically prove that then your, you have two stories. One is you have happier, more engaged employees that have, you know, effectively stick around longer, which can be super meaningful when you do the math across a large number of people. But then you also have this really, really explicit tie to business metrics on mass that can be super meaningful as well.

JD Dillon:

So where does someone begin, especially if they don’t have the authority to make decisions regarding technology, how do they start influencing people to think differently about the role technology can play on the frontline?

Andrea Curry:

I think one way to start the conversation is just around how do we even know what people know and what gaps we need to fill? I think it’s second way to start the conversation is just around the actual problems you’re having. Are you having a problem with pick rates in your e-commerce fulfillment center? For example, are you having a problem with product knowledge with your field sales team? What are the specific problems that you feel like you’re having? And then you can start to have a conversation about solving those problems without a do-over.

JD Dillon:

Once you’ve got people in the organization thinking about and prioritizing frontline solutions, how do you make an informed choice? Especially when there are hundreds of tools available in a very crowded marketplace.

Andrea Curry:

The industry today is so full of hype. I even get exhausted sometimes trying to read people’s websites and figure out what they do, and then trying to categorize them, trying to figure out how one might be different from the other or this shiny feature or that shiny feature. We have shiny features. So I’m not saying that shiny features are necessarily bad, but don’t buy without clear knowledge of the problem you’re trying to solve and a clear understanding of how that technology is going to help you solve it, don’t take my word for it. My job is to talk to your front lines and understand their reality, but it’s also your job to talk to your frontline and understand their reality. So really know on a day-to-day basis what’s happening, right? Like what are the constraints that you need to find something that to work within?

Andrea Curry:

And what are you trying to optimize for? What are you trying to get done? The second thing I would say is find people who done it and have customers who will attest to how well it works and are willing to talk about their business results. I would not, in any way, even though we write feature specs and put them on our website at Axonify, I certainly wouldn’t take our feature list and take someone else’s feature list and compare those feature lists. I’m pretty confident ours is pretty robust, but that’s a new measure of success at the end of the day or of the thoughtfulness of the organization to really solve your problems. So, micro-learning is a great example. So Axonify is often thought of as a microlearning platform and microlearning adds nuts and bolts is just small short pieces of content. Any learning solution can say that there are micro learning provider, as long as they can play short pieces of content or serve short pieces of content.

Andrea Curry:

So I certainly wouldn’t start with the feature list. I would start with the customers and the experiences, and then testimonials, what are you trying to get done? Vendor? Can you tell me about customers? Who’ve tried to do a similar thing. Can I talk to them? What is their engagement rate? How long have they been using the platform? What kinds of business results have they been able to drive? Are they willing to share those stories? What will they say about the partnership at the end of the day, you want to pick a vendor whose customers feel like they’ve been treated well and fairly and listened to. And that they’re really a true partner, not just a customer.

JD Dillon:

My final question is about the biggest mistake I see a lot of organizations make when it comes to technology and that’s making the process about technology instead of people. How can we keep the conversation about closing the digital divide focused on the frontline rather than on technology, even if the tools are super fun and exciting.

Andrea Curry:

It always just comes back to understanding what is a day-to-day look like in the life of your people who are trying to do their jobs. What do you need them to know in order to do those jobs? And then how do you fit into the reality of their learning? And that’s something that’s going to be personal to your organization. And our frontline forward learning technology platform will have hopefully understood that and build features to fit into that paradigm. And they likely will have guidance and leadership for you for how to approach it, if you need help with that. But I think you got to still understand the day-to-day and steer clear of shiny features. Oh, someone just published a study. Why is that relevant to your organization? It’s almost impossible to weave through the variety of tools in the learning ecosystem today. So I would start with your own needs and then really look for things that are going to help you solve those specific problems.

JD Dillon:

Thanks to Andrea Curry, for sharing her insights, into designing digital solutions that fit the real-world needs of the frontline workforce. Check out the show notes for more information and research into the frontline digital divide. If you haven’t already be sure to subscribe to the 80% on your favorite podcast app, you can also find all of our episodes online at axonify.com/podcast. Thanks for joining me for this story. I hope you captured a few practical insights you can apply to improve the way you support your frontline team. And I also hope you’ll join me again for another story, but how we can help frontline employees do their best work every day and make a difference in their organizations and communities. Remember that together, we can move the frontline forward.

 

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