When UK builders’ merchant Travis Perkins first receives a new product line, a strange ritual takes place in its warehouse. Employees can be seen whipping out their smartphones, before unpacking, handling and assembling the goods. The results are uploaded in a matter of minutes to the company’s private YouTube account, giving every employee near-instant knowledge they can share with customers in stores.

In the 12 months the site has been operational, more than 580 videos have been uploaded. And while learning solutions and services manager Mel Cooley is delighted with the enthusiasm on show, he’s every bit as pleased with the estimated £1 million it’s saved him in product training.

“With 26,000 staff spread over large warehouses, getting people into classrooms is impossible,” says Cooley. “Video – and in this case user-generated video – gets learning to people fast, because clips are short, around two or three minutes each. And because they’re done by fellow colleagues, they’re more engaging.”

Cooley says the advent of video learning has revolutionised the dynamic at Travis Perkins. Previously, around 70 per cent of learning was “pushed” at employees, whereas today 58 per cent is “pulled” from visitors to the learning management site, which at least a quarter of staff log onto once a month.

Such figures will come as little surprise to video learning evangelists. The availability of smartphones and cheap, flexible editing technology has altered the way we think about presenting information in learning environments, while employees’ increasing comfort with generating and sharing their own video content is a further nail in the coffin of the old, didactic learning model.

By 2016, according to Ambient Insight, around 83 per cent of businesses will be using some form of video in their training. “Video creates a level of emotion. It draws people in and produces better concentration,” says Anton Dominique, CMO at the London School of Marketing, which is putting more of its educational content into video by filming its 60-minute lectures and breaking them down into six-minute videos students can watch on their mobile devices.

But as the medium becomes more popular, learning managers need to understand the impact on their internal learning culture. And they will have to confront what is increasingly positioned as a chasm between a ‘professional’ approach and user-generated content.

“Content still has to be compelling,” says Richard Townsend, co-founder of Circus Street, which like other video producers is benefiting from the increasing interest in the medium, but is wary of being edged out by greater reliance on user content. “HR can’t forget what they’re providing learning for – which is uplift in knowledge. You can’t expect simply transferring stuff to video to do this. You need to be clear about the content, and the story.”

Memory and comprehension, Townsend points out, are different things, which means testing to see how knowledge will be applied is an essential part of the video learning process. There is room for both professional and user-generated content, he adds: “What can’t be forgotten is the overall narrative. Video can be just as boring as a face-to-face meeting [if it’s not properly planned].”

Amy Brocklebank, leadership and development partner at DIY retailer B&Q, understands these issues. Like rival Travis Perkins, her company enables staff to upload new product tests and other practical content to its training portal. But she has also launched a video for new employees to learn about the culture of the business, which is produced by a professional supplier. “We wanted to show off our fabulous HQ and our CSR, so we used a professional actor,” she says.

“The key is knowing what you want to use video learning for. We wanted to create a good first impression as much as we wanted joiners to learn about us, so a handmade video wouldn’t have worked. For products, though, those production standards aren’t necessary.”

While videos don’t necessarily need to be Hollywood quality, the consensus is that they shouldn’t rival Martin Scorsese for length either. “We actually have a bandwidth issue across our network,” explains Cooley. “We can’t have anything more than five or six minutes long, but really three minutes is preferable.” And this, he argues, means establishing very clearly what video is intended to be used for.

“For me, video is best suited to instruction, or to create scenarios,” says David Robertson, executive consultant at leadership development consultancy The Forum Corporation. “I would class user-generated content as less about learning, and more for collecting snapshots of viewpoints, or quick snatches of information.”

But Townsend believes learning professionals also need to know at least some of the technology. “Having video embedded in HTML5 (for iPad and iPhone downloads) is preferable,” he says. “More and more people prefer to learn in their own time, so you’ll create the expectation that this is possible.”

Providing scripts, adds Townsend, can cater for an audience that reacts better to text. And you need to consider whether to make your content ‘socialisable’ on platforms such as Facebook or Instagram – many users will expect this, but it will mean losing control of where your content ends up.

For those who don’t have a dedicated learning portal, Robertson advises testing short ‘messages from the CEO’-style films to monitor take-up. Most learning management systems should offer the ability to observe open rates and shares – vital to proving video’s worth – although external cloud-based solutions can perform many of the same functions.

The starting point can be as simple as your own tablet or smartphone, adds Andy Holmes, head of audit and quality improvement at Develop Training. Twelve months ago he began using video – filmed on an iPad – to establish whether clients’ apprentices were proficient in particular skills, such as joining pipes together. “We send it to employers to assess, so that they can get a far better understanding of what their apprentices are like,” he explains. “But now, with the library of video we’re building up, the plan is to start using this as a databank that other apprentices can access.”

Holmes is the first to admit that microphones on tablets aren’t great, and sometimes the picture quality can be improved. But as Robertson says: “If you scale video up to what you need, and that’s appropriate to the job you need it to do, it’s an amazing tool. Low technology can cut it if it’s real and authentic but, while it can be tempting to throw everything into video, you still need the strategy about what it is you want to achieve. Establish this and it’s a great tool.”

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of People Management.

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