Archives for September 2014

Adapting E-Learning for Mobile: Learning from ‘Wonderful Mistakes’

Robin Williams once said about his acting career, “There is still a lot to learn and there is always great stuff out there. Even mistakes can be wonderful.” Mistakes can indeed be wonderful. Our adventures into designing mobile learning are fraught with them, particularly when we try to squeeze our eLearning modules onto a smartphone. In this article I’m hoping to pass on what I’ve learned from some wonderful mistakes: how to best adapt your existing eLearning for mobile.

In a previous article, Ten Tips: Distilling Existing Content for Mobile, I gave some brief recommendations on how to repurpose existing eLearning content. Here I’m digging a little deeper into the subject and providing more detailed guidance on how to adapt eLearning content for use on smartphones.

For many companies such a project is their first small step in providing learning content for mobile (mLearning). Once again my recommendation is to resist this approach if you can. Pushing content that was designed for a desktop or laptop onto a small screen is not the best way to go about learning design. Use cases for accessing learning content on a mobile device are very different than those for eLearning on a desktop. (See Right Time and Place: mLearning Use Cases.)

Conversion considerations

I divide “mobile” into two categories, “phone mobile” and “tablet mobile.” When I speak of mobile devices in this article I’m primarily talking about smartphones, not tablets. Designing learning content for a tablet has more in common with laptop or desktop eLearning than with smartphones (Figure 1 is how I see it). These guidelines are for “phone mobile” devices—those with a small screen that you typically carry with you everywhere.

Figure 1:
Content similarities between devices

There are several ways you can adapt your existing eLearning content for mobile—from making a few small adjustments to completely redesigning it. Being able to view eLearning content on a smartphone doesn’t make it mLearning in just the same way that throwing slides meant for use in instructor-led training (ILT) onto a web page doesn’t make them eLearning. Redesign is always the best option.

Here are some levels of adaptation to consider—depending on the format of the current content, on the time and resources available, and on your learning objectives. This list starts from the rudimentary “low-grade” mLearning to the more appropriately designed mLearning.

If your goal is to have the eLearning content “accessible on smartphones” then the first few will suffice. If your goal is to create effective mLearning, then consider those further down the list.

Levels of adaptation for eLearning for mobile

  1. Replicate the existing content as is and have it be accessible on a smartphone.
  2. Duplicate existing content and have it be viewable on a mobile device using responsive or adaptive design techniques.
  3. Adapt the textual content for mobile, keeping the existing graphics.
  4. Adapt both the textual content and the graphics for mobile.
  5. Convert content to a video or videos.
  6. Incorporate the content into a quiz or knowledge check.
  7. Completely redesign the content for mobile.
  8. Create supplementary or supportive mobile content for the existing eLearning content.
  9. Create a learning game from the content.

Adapting Flash-based eLearning

Often eLearning is in the form of Flash, which cannot be targeted to some mobile devices such as the iPhone. There are tools that can republish Flash source files as HTML5 or record Flash content as an MP4 video—however the problem remains that you are still left with content designed for the desktop but simply view it on a small screen.

Another option, if the interactions and animations are few, is to take screen shots of the graphic content and provide a sequence of relevant images along with text or narration.

Rather than attempt to replicate the exact format of the Flash eLearning on a smartphone it is better to locate the original text, graphic, and video source files and adapt them for mobile. Text can be rewritten, graphics adapted, and videos edited so that they are mobile friendly. This takes longer but can be much more effective.

Rapid eLearning tools content

You may have eLearning that was created in Articulate Storyline, Articulate Presenter, Adobe Presenter, or other PowerPoint-to-Flash tools that has narration and a sidebar of contents. If your text and graphics are large enough you can record just the content area of the screen along with narration. With this recording you can create a series of short MP4 videos of the whole module with narration. This is not the ideal solution—it’s eLearning on a small screen—but I have found this to be very useful when you need to access a large amount of Flash eLearning content on a smartphone.

If you have all the original source files for your content it is now possible in most eLearning tools to publish to HTML5 and view it in a smartphone browser. You can remove any navigation sidebar and so get a larger image on the mobile screen. Better still, adapt the source files for mobile by adjusting text and graphics as I outline below and you’ll get much closer to an optimal experience.

Text considerations

The amount of textual content per screen in eLearning is generally too much for mobile. You need to reduce it. This will mean paring down the text to the absolute essentials and breaking it up into multiple screens. Do what you can to remove or simplify any introductory paragraphs or discussion. Cut to the chase—users will want to read and understand the information on one screen within about 10 to 20 seconds.

Text should be easily readable on a mobile device without the need for zooming (Figure 2). Use sans serif fonts—they look cleaner and are easier to read on mobile devices. Helvetica and Myriad font types are two of my favorites for mobile. You may also want to consider increasing the line spacing so that the text looks a little less dense.

Figure 2:
Text size too small (left) and about optimal (right)

People are more inclined to quickly scan mobile content rather than carefully read paragraphs, so keep your explanations and guidance clear, concise, and try to write in everyday vernacular. Consider using bullet points, bolding, or highlighting to bring attention to important words or phrases.

A great way to determine the best text size and font style for your mobile content is to play with some of your favorite apps, particularly news, magazine, or learning apps and see what fonts and text designs appeal to you. It will also give you some great ideas and insights for utilizing text in your mLearning content.


eLearning graphics are intended for desktop or laptop use. They generally don’t view well on a small smartphone screen. Avoid the temptation to reuse these graphics unless they are easily readable on your target mobile devices without zooming.

Redesign your diagrams and graphics for mobile use (Figure 3). If you have the source files then this can be much quicker than recreating them from scratch. In some cases this may be as simple as increasing the size of the text on labels—in other cases it may mean redesigning and simplifying the graphic or breaking it into multiple graphics. You can get an idea of what will and will not work by creating a portrait screen size of the mobile aspect ratio, adding your graphics, and then emailing it to yourself so you can view it on the mobile device.

Figure 3:
Desktop graphic used for mobile (left) and mobile-friendly graphic (right)

You should design graphics so they can be quickly understood, so that the information they contain is uncomplicated and can be quickly absorbed. Remember, your users probably won’t be sitting still when they read your content and may only be accessing it in sessions of a few minutes. Any graphic that is detailed and needs careful study is probably not going to work for mobile.

Graphics that are designed for eLearning are often in landscape orientation (Figure 4) as viewed on a desktop. The mobile user will probably be holding the device in a portrait orientation, so keep this in mind when you design or recreate graphics (Figure 5). Avoid requiring the user to turn the phone sideways to view content or a diagram because this entails using two hands and is poor usability design.

Figure 4:
Desktop eLearning module layout 
(Image from module by eLearner Engaged)

Figure 5:
Possible mobile layout

Conceptual deconstruction

As learning on a mobile device does not lend itself to studying detailed graphics or highly conceptual information, you must deconstruct such content for mobile. In your eLearning you may have a detailed diagram on one screen, where each element is discussed in detail via narration and animation. The equivalent for mobile use must be distilled into simpler component elements that can be explained relatively quickly—and the whole built up from these components.

For example, you may have an eLearning screen that shows the whole of the ADDIE process with descriptions for each phase (Figure 6). For mobile you need to break this down into multiple elements and discuss each phase separately. You might show a high-level diagram naming each of the phases and then have subsequent screens detailing each phase in detail (Figure 7).

Figure 6:
ADDIE graphic from eLearning module (Editor’s note: Readers viewing this article on smartphones may wish to rotate their devices to landscape orientation to easily read this figure.)

Figure 7:
ADDIE graphic redesigned for mobile


eLearning content often has a lot of complex navigation and interactions. Keep these to a minimum on a mobile device where screen real estate is limited and viewing time is short.

Try not to replicate in your mobile version the same navigation you have in your eLearning module. Desktop navigation elements are targeted with a mouse pointer—mobile content on most smartphones is targeted with a finger or thumb. Target tap areas need to be much bigger. On a small screen you also need to think about movement of the thumb so place navigation elements within easy thumb stretch (Figure 8). For instance, placing a Next button top right would be poor design on most smartphones.

Figure 8:
Thumb stretch on an iPhone 5

Design your navigation to be intuitive. Users shouldn’t need to think about how to navigate or move from screen to screen—it should be obvious, and whenever possible it should reflect the standard navigation gestures of the operating system of the target device. If it’s an iPhone keep it consistent with typical iOS navigation—if it’s a Samsung device keep it consistent with typical Android navigation.

If you have the UI development resources, then adding “hidden navigation” that only appears when you tap the screen is the way to go. This gives you the maximum area for your learning content—which is very desirable on smaller smartphone screens (Figure 9). As a general rule try to minimize the UI navigation “chrome” that surrounds your content. Giving the user access to navigation only when they need it is good design.

Figure 9:
Content view (left), and navigation appearing after a screen tap (right)

Narration and video

Narrated eLearning modules work well at the office with headphones or at home with speakers. The user is usually sitting down and typically has at least 15 minutes or so to spare. Not so with a smartphone. The user may be walking, at a bus stop, in line at the supermarket, or grabbing a coffee at the local cafe. Narrated mLearning needs earphones or headphones and you need to think about the convenience and practicality of this for the user. Would your target audience have these available at times when you expect them to be using your content? You might have some great videos from your eLearning modules but would they work in the mobile context?

For this reason it is often better to have textual content than narration in mobile content. You can open and read more information in thirty seconds from textual content than you can by having to find and plug in headphones to listen to narration. Although narrated video may seem more attractive to the user, it can be much less convenient or effective in many mobile contexts. If you want to salvage any videos you already have in your eLearning, then consider creating videos with the option of turning captions on and off.

Keep your videos short—in order to keep attention and account for connection speeds. If your users are not in a wireless zone and are connecting via the cellular network then they‘ll get slow streaming or problematic downloads which will detract from the mobile experience.

Consider alternatives

Rather than quickly jumping to adapt your eLearning modules for mobile, think of ways you can supplement the eLearning you have rather than trying to duplicate it on a small screen. Having eLearning on the desktop and something different on mobile to support that eLearning is more powerful than duplication of content.

Here are some examples of supportive or supplementary mobile content you might consider creating.

Knowledge checks

Create short quizzes that are sent to a user’s mobile device after they complete an eLearning module. These can be used to help review and solidify the eLearning content.

Job aids

Create mobile job aids or mobile performance-support tools to help users apply what they covered in the eLearning modules. Something they can use on the job at work.


There’s nothing better than playing a game on your smartphone to learn or review content. Check out some of the do-it-yourself mobile-game templates available on the internet.


Send messages to users’ smartphones reminding them of which modules they have completed and which they need to start. These reminders can include quick reviews.


Use mobile to evaluate an eLearning module a day after its completion. Mobile evaluations on average have a higher completion rate than desktop based evaluations.

Spaced Learning

Use mobile to review the eLearning content at spaced intervals after its completion. Spaced learning is a highly effective way of improving recall.

Prototype first, then make your decision

Always prototype your ideas before deciding on a specific solution. What seems like a great idea on paper may look and feel very different when implemented on a small mobile screen. For text and graphic layouts I often create PDF mockups of potential designs, email them to myself, and view them on some of the target mobile devices. I also recommend creating mockups with wire-framing tools such as Fluid UI or which provide design and navigation elements for Android, iOS, and Windows phones. These are great for building interactive working prototypes.

Play around with your prototypes, try out different ideas and designs, improvise, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes—lots of them. In my experience they’ll probably end up being wonderful ones.

Reprinted from Learning Solutions Magazine

What is the Value of Employee Engagement?

Employee engagement is one of the most popular catchphrases in human resources.

Many companies strive for high levels of so-called engagement — the level of discretionary effort exhibited by employees — only to rarely achieve the desired results. According to research organization Gallup Inc.’s most recent annual “State of the Global Workplace” survey, only 29 percent of employees in the U.S. and Canada are engaged, the highest rate for any region in the world. What’s more, only 13 percent of the total global workforce is engaged, according to Gallup.

Poor engagement can most often be traced back to inadequate accountability on the part of managers, a lack of role clarity for employees and an organization’s failure to understand what engagement actually is, argues Jim Harter, chief scientist and engagement expert at Gallup.

Harter spoke with Talent Management about the value of engagement, what factors lead to engaged employees and its potential effect on the bottom line.

What’s the generally accepted definition of engagement?

Gallup started studying this topic in the early 1990s, and we had our official measure finalized in 1998. We measure engagement through the combination of 12 workplace questions that we found have historically predicted all sorts of outcomes that businesses are interested in. Engagement is kind of the nexus between workplace attitudes and performance. It’s really the attitudes that predict if people are likely to show up to work, be highly productive, innovative and profitable.

How can organizations strive to improve employee engagement?

An engaged worker, at a basic-needs level, knows what’s expected of them at work. That actually gets overlooked, according to our data. Just a little over half of workers know what’s expected of them at work. People often come to work wanting to be productive for the most part, and managers either set them up for success or cause confusion.

You build on top of role clarity by getting people what they need to do the work, making sure people are in jobs where they can utilize their talents effectively and giving recognition for good work in a way that’s appropriate to them as an individual.

The central theme we’ve seen over all our years of research is that people need to have a manager who encourages their development. About 70 percent of high-engagement workplaces can be traced back to manager quality. We’ve found great managers are effective motivators who challenge their teams to get better. They have high accountability for themselves and their teams. They build really strong relationships and develop the employees through their work. Finally, they’re effective decision-makers who make tough — but smart — decisions.

Is there an ideal percentage of the workforce that should be engaged?

There are two ends of the continuum: engaged workers and actively disengaged [18 percent in North America], those really working against the organization. Then there’s a big middle group of “not engaged” workers [54 percent in North America] who show up, do the minimum and not much else.
The ideal would be to get engagement all the way to 100 percent, but that’s not realistic. We’ve seen some companies that are in the 80 percent range. On average, 64 percent is about the level that the best organizations are at. But I think companies should shoot for 80-plus. We’ve seen organizations get to that level in an authentic way.

Can you provide some examples?

The best-practice organizations make it a part of their overall strategy and put it right up there with everything they’re doing to create growth and profit. Another way is to hold managers accountable. Give managers feedback and put it right next to all the other performance management measures to create accountability for the results. Third, those best-practice organizations have effectively communicated why they’re focused on engagement as a part of their overall business strategy. Fourth, it’s part of how they develop people over time, particularly managers.

What’s the value of engagement? What’s the connection between engagement and the performance of an economy?

At Gallup, we’ve done seven iterations of meta-analysis, which is a study of studies. We looked at whether engagement predicts if people show up for work, turnover patterns, productivity and, ultimately, profit.

The businesses in the top quartile of engagement averaged 22 percent higher profit than those in the bottom quartile of our database. Top-quartile companies are 90 percent above their competition on earnings per share, and the top 10 percent are 147 percent above their competition on earnings per share. There’s a very important, nontrivial link between engagement and financial performance — if it’s measured the right way.

With only about 30 percent of North American workers engaged and only 13 percent of the global workforce being engaged, yet the economy continuing to grow, could one make the argument that engagement is overrated?

I don’t think so. Though, I would say this: If you don’t measure engagement right, it could be overrated. There are measurements out there that are much softer than what we put out. Those are more a measure of contentment or satisfaction more than engagement. The term could be misused and applied to almost any employee survey and you’ll get wide variation in how effective it is. If you do it right, it’s one of the most important things an organization can be working on. It’s about whether in a down economy you hold your own, and in an up economy whether you outpace your competition.

Is engagement an underrated factor that isn’t pursued enough?

Yeah, I think it is underrated. Like I said, I think it’s one of the most important business factors. I mean, it’s not the only thing that matters, obviously, but it’s something that’s often overlooked. While some organizations have made it to that 80 percent level, most businesses aren’t there. It takes some hard work. It can be easier work if you have the right managers in place and select the right talent to begin with.

About the Author:

Just-in-Time Training Technologies: Real-World Uses

Most of us have the technology capability in our living rooms to watch a whole season’s worth of TV shows in one day and to watch other shows whenever we like via on-demand channels and our DVRs. When you couple those conveniences with how second nature it has become to Google any question, you can see the appeal of just-in-time technology in training.

Rather than have the learning delivery dictated by trainers or executives, it often makes sense to allow employees themselves to decide when they need to access specific information or when they need quick refresher training. Here is how some companies are rolling out just-in-time (JIT) learning to their workforces using the latest technology solutions.


The next best thing to being able to tap the shoulder of a work buddy in the next cubicle is to be able to tap the virtual shoulder of an expert. At health-care staffing provider CHG Healthcare Services, online chat provides flexible learning.

“When we roll out new technology to a division in our company, it is not always possible to have on-the-floor support for the duration of the rollout period,” says Senior Technical Training Specialist Zach Sumsion. “One technique we have leveraged to account for this limitation is live chat—where assigned trainers support rollouts remotely by standing by via live chat, able to answer questions in real time as they surface.”

Rather than give learners all the information they need in one shot prior to major technology rollouts, CHG “provides a foundation of how to use a new application, and then the rest of the strategy is on-the-job support,” says Sumsion. “Because this strategy can be resource-intensive, the online chat model allows more flexibility while still providing on-demand support. Our strategy for these rollouts also leverages an online repository of step-by-step guides.”


Another way for employees to get fast answers to questions is to give them the ability to throw their questions out to a “crowd” of colleagues online, or engage in what some call “crowd-sourcing,” says Michael Helton, director of Online Learning, Combined Insurance. “Crowd-sourcing is an interesting concept in terms of learning because it provides the ability to tap into the collective knowledge and experience of an organization.

Say, for example, a salesperson repeatedly is receiving a specific type of question. JIT technology would make it easy for that salesperson to search for a response to questions and receive dozens of possible responses. Another benefit is the speed at which questions could be answered.

“On our internal portal, I routinely see questions answered within seconds of posting,” says Helton.

However, Helton adds, with crowd-sourcing and internal professional/social media, there is the challenge of participants providing incorrect guidance or advice. Therefore, he says, it is always a good idea to have some sort of moderation by subject matter experts to ensure the company is protected.


An online portal where learners can get questions answered by internal wikis and blogs contributed to by colleagues and outside experts can be a just-in-time resource—provided the content is in an engaging and accessible format, says Paula Crerar, vice president of Product Marketing at learning technology provider Brainshark, Inc.

“Anything that makes content easily accessible is a boon for just-in-time training. A well-maintained and organized content portal can work as a centralized location for learners to go—a ‘one-stop-shop’ for everything they need. The whole idea behind just-in-time training is that people don’t have to waste time searching for the right information,” says Crerar.

The type of content is also important to consider, she notes. “For example, a two-minute video presentation on a new product update might be more effective than a multi-page technical spec sheet. Technology is available to make the creation of these types of resources much easier, which enables not only more timely delivery of content, but also helps ensure content is more effective and engaging.”


Your employees don’t have to be young and tech savvy to optimize just-in-time technology. The technology has advanced enough that the way employees tap into JIT information can be adapted to their individual preferences, says Eric Vidal, director of Product Marketing at learning solutions provider InterCall.

“Different visual aspects make the usage of virtual learning environments more intuitive and user friendly for older generations. For instance, you can create a virtual host who will greet users as they enter the environment. The host then will guide them throughout the different rooms,” says Vidal.

Companies also can create custom learning paths for each employee. “This creates less confusion as to what session or room employees should go to next,” Vidal says. “The overall visual nature of virtual learning environments, as well as the extra features, helps prevent older employees from becoming overwhelmed by all of the environment’s features.”


With most of us accustomed to getting our questions answered wherever we happen to be—typically on our smart phones—it’s only logical that companies offer the same option to their employees. Rather than requiring an employee to be at a computer to access fast answers, some organizations are making that information available on mobile devices such as their phones, says John Buelow, executive vice president of SNI, a provider of negotiation skills training.

“At SNI, we have our Preparation Planner available on our mobile app. Our clients can pull this checklist up on their phone in the midst of a negotiation to remind them of our systematic approach to negotiating,” says Buelow. “Despite the fact that we cover the components of the Preparation Planner in our instructor-led training, we know that busy professionals cannot rely on remembering our seven steps when under pressure. Our just-in-time tech training helps to reinforce the system.”


Some of the most important information employees search for relates to their own performance. Companies now can offer employees the ability to get instant metrics about how they’re doing, says Frank E. Paterno, vice president of Marketing for Intelliverse.

“Intelliverse gives salespeople real-time feedback that helps to answer ‘How am I doing?’ or ‘Am I going to make quota?’” says Paterno. “Real-time statistics show salespeople if they are meeting the required activity levels for that hour or day. No longer does a salesperson have to wait for the end of the month to get a report that shows how he or she did. Instead, with real-time feedback, salespeople can improve their results—before it is too late.”

Ultimately, no matter the technology, when implementing JIT solutions, it is vital for companies to have a clear outcome or goal in mind, stresses Jimmy Lin, vice president of Product Management and Corporate Strategy at The Network.

“They should know where they are lacking and what they need to meet their objective. Furthermore, they must ensure their goal is not too broad. They should look to attack one problem at a time and choose or design their solution to meet their objective.”


  • Live chat in which employees can ask a co-worker or subject matter expert a question provides immediate access to information in an informal way.
  • Internal wikis and blogs can be effective just-in-time (JIT) resources, provided the information is presented in synthesized, at-a-glance formats, such as short video presentations.
  • JIT technology solutions can come with virtual hosts that lead users through the material to help them find what they’re looking for.
  • We live in a mobile, smart phone era, so be sure your JIT resources can be accessed on smart phones and tablets—not just on employees’ office desktop computers.
  • JIT technology can give employees information about their own performance whenever they need it, so, for example, salespeople know before it’s too late whether they’re meeting their sales quota.

    Reprinted from Training Magazine

Perks at Work: Little Things Have Big Impact

Employees at Camden Property Trust get lots of perks, including discounted rent on apartments owned by the real estate company and furnished vacation suites at its properties in popular U.S. vacation destinations for a mere $20 a night. Also, a Camden scholarship program for children of employees attending two- or four-year colleges has paid out $1 million during the past seven years.

Of everything the company offers though, a favorite of employees at Camden’s Houston headquarters costs absolutely nothing: wearing jeans on Fridays.

“We have special jeans-theme days,” said Margaret Plummer, vice president of employee development for the company that reported $800 million in revenue in 2013. “Before July 4, it was red, white and blue. This Friday is a sports theme where you wear something from your favorite team.”

In highly competitive fields like technology and finance, employees are treated to expensive perks such as free meals, private commuter buses and team-building trips to exotic locales.

But perks don’t have to cost a lot to make employees happy.

In fact, human resources and employee development directors from a wide range of industries say they get by just fine offering perks that cost little or nothing — if the extras are things employees value or help reinforce the company’s mission or corporate culture.

“We’re not all Googles. We don’t need to be Google,” Plummer said.

What Makes a Perk a Perk?

Companies offer perks — short for perquisites — to reinforce their workplace culture, but also to attract and retain workers. Perks are defined as goods, services or opportunities that aren’t part of salary or wages but have value. Some perks are taxable — tickets to a ballgame for example — while other less-tangible extras are not.

Perks play a key role in helping Genentech Inc. attract talent, said Lisa Slater, a spokeswoman for the 12,300-person South San Francisco, California-based company and Roche Group subsidiary. Recruiters play up Genentech’s child-care centers, on-site concierge and commuter shuttle service. “Our aim is to help every employee do their best work,” Slater said. “We feel this differentiates us from our competitors.”

More than a quarter of employees in a 2013 CareerBuilder survey agreed that some perks are an effective way of getting them to stay in a job. Asked what one perk would make their workplace better, 18 percent picked the same freebie Camden employees like — “ability to wear jeans” — third only to half-day Fridays (40 percent) and on-site fitness centers (20 percent), according to the survey.

Lenny Sanicola, a senior practice leader at WorldatWork who tracks compensation and benefits trends, said perks such as free concierge services that disappeared during the recession are back. They’re rejoining perks like financial wellness seminars and health and wellness programs that never left. He also sees more companies offering perks of paid and unpaid sabbaticals, and paid time off for community service. “It’s not new. It’s been out there, but we’re seeing more organizations offering it,” he said.

Companies generally distinguish perks from benefits such as health care coverage, but some straddle the line. Companies may identify yoga classes at an on-site workout facility, offer flu shots at a company-run medical clinic or pass out free Fitbits as part of a wellness program, even though those offerings veer into benefits territory. Perks are also different from structured rewards and recognition programs that compensate employees for hiring anniversaries, reaching specific goals or other job-related accomplishments.

Because some perks fall into a gray area and others might not cost anything, companies don’t always track what they spend as rigorously as they do budgets for benefits, rewards and recognition and other forms of compensation.

SmartPak Equine, a Plymouth, Massachusetts, online retailer of nutritional supplements for horses and other equestrian gear, doesn’t track what it spends on perks, though the company surveys employees for feedback and asks for suggestions. “We accept it as an expense, and it’s the right thing to do for employees,” said Jennifer Burt, the company’s human resources director.

Gone to the Dogs

Small perks can have a big impact.

SmartPak spends nothing to let its 350 employees bring their dogs to work. An average day can see upward of 30 hounds lounging behind doggy gates inside their owners’ office pods. “We’re in an industrial park; there’s a dead-end street, so there’s an opportunity for employees to walk their dogs during the day. We’re lucky enough that the property also has a field,” Burt said.

The specialty retailer is a magnet for horse lovers, and supports employees who own, train or show horses by giving them use of free samples, as well as discounts on its merchandise, plus other goodies. “They’re coming to us to combine their lifestyle passion with work, so it’s what we can do to make them feel engaged in their passion,” she said.

Companies in ultracompetitive industries pour on the perks to find and retain people with sought-after skills. Google employees don’t just get a free cup of coffee, a barista makes it for them, along with free breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Employees at some locations can sign up to get produce boxes delivered to them at the office. Employees in the company’s headquarters can recognize each other for doing well on a project with credits that can be exchanged for a one-hour massage (on campus, of course).

Some perks are so generous they’ve become barriers between employees and the communities they work and live in. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in the San Francisco Bay Area where, during the past year, protesters have physically stopped or damaged the air-conditioned private buses that shuttle employees of Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Genentech and other tech companies throughout San Francisco and Silicon Valley an hour to the south. Protesters argue that the buses are contributing to rent increases, evictions, air pollution and other problems that decrease quality of life for the area’s nontech residents.

Genentech responded in part by adding signs to its commuter shuttles that explain how many cars they displace from streets every day. To show it’s a good neighbor, Genentech also offers opportunities for employees to volunteer. One is the 3-year-old Genentech Gives Back Week, which in 2013 raised $215,000 for 129 nonprofits. “Employees view the ability to give back as a perk since they are proud to be associated with a company that does so much for the community,” said Genentech’s Slater.

Real Perks at Virtual Companies

Virtual companies, with no physical office for a pingpong table or Friday happy hours, must take a different approach to perks.

Buffer, a San Francisco-based social media startup with several dozen employees around the world and no headquarters, gives every new hire Jawbone’s UP electronic fitness wristband monitor to track daily activities and how much they sleep. Employees also get a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader and three e-books of their choice. To encourage conversation, employees share their UP results with each other through iPhone and Android apps, and their reading on the company’s Facebook page and on a Buffer book board on Pinterest. Three times a year, Buffer takes everyone but new hires still in training on an all-expenses-paid retreat somewhere exotic, such as South Africa or Thailand.

Part of the company’s mission is promoting self-improvement, and fitness monitors and book discussions help with that, said Buffer co-founder Leo Widrich in a video on the company’s blog. Trips let employees who don’t see each other in the office bond. “Once you return home … the conversations you have with team members are enhanced,” writes Buffer chief executive Joel Gascoigne in a blog post about the all-hands trips. “You know the tone of somebody’s voice and the way they approach problems and discussions. You read their emails differently.”

Pet products-maker Nestle Purina PetCare Co. extends its business of supporting pet owners to the perks it offers employees. They can bring pets to work if the animals meet certain criteria. Workers also get up to $200 toward buying or adopting a pet, as well as discounts on pet food at company stores at its St. Louis headquarters and 19 other U.S. offices and factories.

Nestle Purina offers other perks as well. On-site company stores sell a variety of Nestle and non-Nestle products, including frozen food and other staples so employees can grab something on the way out of work and not have to stop at the grocery store before heading home. “I wish they would have bread, and then I wouldn’t have to go to the store at all,” said Wendy Henke, the company’s HR manager.

Giving Employees VIP Treatment

When Camden Property Trust’s co-founders started the business, they vowed to treat their employees better than they had been treated at the previous real estate company they worked for, starting with perks, Plummer said.

To that end, Camden offers 20 percent rent discounts to full-time employees (and 10 percent to part-timers), and extends the same offer to employees’ children or parents — a perk that, at any given time, 600 to 800 Camden workers or their family members are using, Plummer said.

The company reserves several furnished apartments in complexes in 16 major metro areas, including a unit in Orlando, Florida, a mile from Disney World. The $20 nightly fee, access to a kitchen, laundry facilities and pool make a vacation more affordable even for low-wage employees in maintenance or landscaping, she said. “Our philosophy is we want you to use your vacation,” Plummer said. “You work hard serving people; you need the time to relax and spend time with the family, and we’ll give you space to do it.”

Inexpensive vacation rentals, jeans days, e-books, shuttle buses and other perks — free or otherwise — are great as far as they go, said WorldatWork’s Sanicola. But ultimately, they won’t keep employees happy if a company is deficient in other areas.

If employees don’t have the tools to do their job properly, don’t understand what’s expected of them or don’t understand what the company’s all about, “all the free meals in the world won’t help,” he said.

About the Author:

Michelle V. Rafter is a Workforce contributing editor. Reprinted from

HR Challenged in the Era of Big Data

With the rise of big data and HR analytics, the demand for analytical skills in the workforce has increased substantially. According to a 2013 global study by the American Management Association and the Institute for Corporate Productivity, 58 percent of business leaders say analytics is a vital part of their organization today, and 82 percent of business leaders say they expect analytics to be a big part of their organization in five years.

While the era of big data may have arrived, the analytical skills that organizations need to interpret and use complex data have not kept pace, the research suggests. It is no longer enough for an organization to have a few experts able to analyze data. Ultimately, to take advantage of the vast potential of people analytics, organizations have to become data smart.

The challenge is pressing. Much like financiers and marketers use data to forecast future earnings and measure consumer habits, talent leaders can now use people analytics as an important driver of corporate decision-making. Like other functions’ use of data, people analytics improves an organization’s ability to predict risks, adapt to change, make informed decisions and compete in today’s business environment.

As a result, the skills needed to understand data are not just quantitative; they must also enable employees to gather and analyze information, formulate plans and solve complex issues. In essence, employees need fact-based analytical skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.

Obstacles Ahead

Lack of resources and corporate culture are the biggest impediments to an organization’s ability to build analytical capacity, according to the 2013 i4cp study, “Conquering Big Data — A Study of Analytical Skills in the Workforce.” (Figure 1.)


Jay Jamrog, vice president of research at i4cp, said many companies are producing and collecting data, but they lack the skills to turn it into actionable information. “A good predictor of whether employees will be able to leverage data is the organization’s analytical culture,” Jamrog said.

To achieve peak performance in data analytics, organizations would be wise to devote more resources to creating an analytical culture. For many companies, this is not so much a question of skills as it is an across-the-board culture change. This kind of change can be created by investing in training and development to build analytics skills, but there are also other tools companies can use that stretch beyond skill building to help create an analytics culture.

Storytelling, for instance, can play a role in influencing cultural shift. “While not everyone is comfortable crunching numbers, most employees can relate to a good story,” Jamrog said. He recommends organizations identify and use situations in which a department has gathered and analyzed data properly, asked the right questions and formulated an action plan. Leaders can then share the positive effect the plan had on the organization through internal communication channels such as town hall meetings, employee newsletters and blogs. They can also be used as case studies in employee training programs.

“Sharing these success stories can help managers get over the fear of big data and can do more to change the culture than only developing the analytical skills,” Jamrog said.

Talent Segments to Develop

Midlevel managers: Efforts to build analytical skills will pay off when development focuses on the midlevels of management, both in the short term and as managers advance in the organization.

The AMA/i4cp study probed the perceived skills of different management cohorts and found that senior executives and functional experts are thought to have the most highly developed analytical skills. At the same time, the broad midlevels of today’s organizations still have way to go (Figure 2).

The need to build analytics skills in middle management is further supported by a June 2011 McKinsey Global Institute paper. It predicts “a need for 1.5 million additional managers and analysts in the U.S. who can ask the right questions and consume the results of the analysis of big data effectively.”

The paper continued: “This gap cannot be filled by simply changing graduate requirements and waiting for people to graduate with more skills or by importing talent. It will be necessary to retrain a significant amount of the talent in place; fortunately, this level of training does not require years of dedicated study.”

Millennials: When assessed by generation, the i4cp/AMA study found that millennials are the least analytically equipped. In fact, according to the study, nearly 20 percent of millennials are perceived to lack analytical skills. Meanwhile, 58 percent of Gen X is perceived as advanced in analytical skills, as are 41 percent of baby boomers. Just 35 percent of millennials are perceived as advanced in analytical skills, according to the study (Figure 3).

Despite their familiarity with technology, millennials are not seen as having adequate analytics skills. As i4cp research suggests, what is really at issue is an analytical mindset, which includes both quantitative and qualitative ability. In other words, employees need to know what to look for, what questions to ask and how to make inferences to draw conclusions based on data.

HR and sales professionals: Analytical capability by job function was also addressed in the study (Figure 4). It showed that HR and sales were perceived as the functions lagging the most in the skill area. On the other hand, 58 percent of employees in finance were perceived as advanced in analytical skills, followed by the executive team, at 51 percent.

According to Jamrog, one of the issues facing HR is that data may not be readily accessible in one place because of disparate systems. “Some data may be in the compensation or finance department; other data may be in an HR system or a performance management system,” he said.

Additionally, HR may not have adequate resources or as much experience in data analysis as other departments.

“HR has had a hard time telling a story with data,” Jamrog said. “They haven’t really learned that discipline to the same degree that marketing and finance has. They are proficient at reporting efficiency data, but it’s a shift for many of them to tell a story with data around effectiveness and impact.”

For talent management professionals, Jamrog suggests exploring the data surrounding just one talent segment core to the organization. “I would first want to know who are my current high performers,” he said. “Then, I would conduct research to answer some key questions: Why are they high performers? Where did I recruit them? How were they onboarded? What training did we provide them? What kind of supervisor do they have? Start by collecting the different data points and see if they tell a story.”


Strategies to Build Analytical Acumen

Despite the need for employees with high analytical capabilities, the i4cp/AMA study found that only 26 percent of organizations said they had the ability to meet their analytics needs, while another 17 percent plan additional hiring to do so. The majority of respondents (47 percent) plan to invest in training current staff to meet their capabilities gaps.

Although there’s evidence that organizations have awakened to their shortcomings when it comes to data analytics, for HR and talent managers a steep road is ahead. In light of this, many organizations are creating strategies in an effort to identify the key skills and competencies needed to properly apply data analysis to the HR function.

As a result, HR and talent managers have begun to ramp up training and development investments to meet that demand. Among the strategies being used: They’re imparting data analytics skills through formal training programs and informal peer-to-peer exchanges, and they’re using cross-functional projects and job-rotation programs that allow less-experienced employees to work alongside colleagues who are proficient in the subject area.

Of course, to conquer big data, organizations must first learn to embrace it. If they are to maximize its full potential, the immediate task is to figure out what questions to ask, what skills their employees need to learn and how to provide them with those skills to meet the demands of the fast-moving, information-heavy business environment.

Once these critical data analytics skills are mastered, organizations will wonder why they ever made decisions without them.

Reprinted from Talent Management magazine

Pin It on Pinterest