Wearable Technology and L&D

I’ve been keeping an eye on the world of wearable technology and how it’s changing consumer behaviour. The most common wearables that people seem to have are things like smartwatches or fitness trackers – Apple watch, Samsung Gear watch, Fitbit, that kind of thing. I have the Samsung Gear watch, others I know have either the above, or variants of the above. What is fascinating about this type of technology is how it gives the user information about their body in a way which is accessible and immediate like never before.

Runners enjoy them for the accuracy of the information. They link to GPS information giving you useful understanding of where you’re running, and how far. The internal mechanism tracks your speed, and, if you want, your heart rate too, as well as the distance.

The smartwatches are useful for scanning notifications and deciding how you want to respond to them. Just a nonsense email? Delete. A message from your partner? Read. A WhatsApp message? Read. An incoming phone call you don’t want to take? Dismiss. A LinkedIn invitation? Accept. All without having to touch your phone. Nice, easy and intuitive.

Of course they can offer other functionality too – telling the time(!), alarm facility, using it for sat nav while walking, controlling your music.

And along the way, there have been experiments with other types of wearable technology. The most obvious of these in recent years was the Google Glass. This year seems to have seen a real focus on VR with the likes of Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR. I’ve seen some of what is capable in VR and it really is impressive – creating 3D drawings, immersing in a hostile environment, thrill seeking. It’s pretty impressive stuff, not quite Holodeck level, but impressive all the same.

There are a good many applications for all this technology to working lives. Google Glass had the potential to support consultants in training observe operations in real time, and gain valuable insight into how they happen. I recall hearing from Donald Clark that VR is being used to provide training for care professionals and for police officers from the perspective of service users and from the public. That’s really powerful for insights, reflections and awareness raising. And it speaks to a deeper level of learning which is about lived experience as opposed to intellectualisation of topics like Diversity and Inclusion.

What I’ve been mindful in watching all this unfold is that we’re a long way off these things becoming out and out useful applications to L&D in general. Mostly that’s to do with the cost element and lack of well thought out design for L&D purposes. At present, most wearable technology is too costly to buy in bulk. The money you’d need to spend to buy the technology could be better spent in upskilling L&Ders with the knowledge and skills to design and facilitate better learning solutions.

Also, we have to be mindful that consumer behaviour is fundamentally different to employee behaviour. When I get a notification on my smartwatch, I know it’s something relevant to me and that I instigated. When I get a message or email on my phone, I know it’s likely to be from someone who is contacting me for a reason that is relevant and appropriate (of course there are also the cases of nuisance, but that’s just modern life). Those interactions, and the acceptance of them, is a fundamentally different experience to my work phone. When I receive messages on my work phone, there are a number of factors to bear in mind.

It’s a work phone, so there’s a psychological contract that if I’m being contacted on there, I have to respond. As a piece of work technology, I am also expected to use it to be able to access relevant information. However, if I were given wearable technology to help me do work better, it starts to demand different sets of behaviours from me that need to be fully explored. If it’s a smartwatch, how do I use it to contact people with ease? What permissions are set on it to contact me when I’m in a meeting or working on something important? If it’s ‘micro-learning’ that’s being pushed to me through notifications, how do you know it’s relevant to me at the right time? If it’s a prompt to nudge me to access a learning solution, how do you know you’re not intruding on something else I’m meant to be prioritising?

When your Fitbit or smartwatch gives you information about your heart-rate or your fitness level, that’s useful information that you choose to know about. If it’s provided through work, how will the same tech be used to track you as an individual? What happens to that trust element of work? Do I trust that you’re working even though your smartwatch tells me that you’ve been sitting at your desk for 3 hours? Am I concerned about your wellbeing because I can see that you haven’t been actively mobile for 3 hours? Am I concerned about your health because I can see from your wearable that your heart-rate has increased and you’re likely feeling stressed or something else concerning? Am I also concerned about your workload because I can see that you’ve not responded to anything on the smartwatch for 3 hours?

Like I said, consumer behaviour is fundamentally different to employee behaviour. The intent, basis and usage of wearable tech for personal usage is inherently different to why employees might be asked to use it/wear it.

Wearable technology will start to become available to the workforce in different forms. With each that is adopted, we need to be sure that we help people know why it’s being introduced, what the expectations are from receiving it, how they’re meant to make sense of their interactions with it, and how they choose to use it to enhance performance. I don’t think we’re there yet. There still need to be better thought out reasons as to why wearable technology should be included as part of the L&D offering, and more compelling reasoning on how it can actually enhance performance at work.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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