WITH REGARDS TO mLEARNING: A CASE IN POINT OR UP IN THE AIR

I promised a colleague a week ago I’d share an experience I had producing a mobile learning project for a major airline. So to him, I apologize for this installment being a bit late…think of it as slow 3G, OK?

A caveat. So many of us are involved in love affairs with the latest technologies sometimes we forget to brake our enthusiasm and learn after too much money and effort that the latest isn’t always the greatest. Case in point is the following true story—a real business event that occurred far back enough that if executed today would be much more powerful because of current technology. Of course, the outcome would not be substantially different because the desired results would still be the same.

A few years back as a VP for a large computer solutions company in New York, one of our account executives specializing in elearning opportunities had managed to seduce a notoriously reticent airline into considering change from their mostly instructor led training to online education. Their target cohort was employees who worked, in their jargon, ‘above the wing.’ This title refers to anyone whose employment had nothing to do with aircraft, maintenance, baggage handling, etc. Instead—and most important to our story—these were the folks customers dealt with at the airport, at check in and on the concourse; ticket agents, gate agents and personnel, support staff and customer service agents assigned at two of their New York City airport locations.

This was, and actually still is, a young airline; established and branded for quality service and a unique series of amenities on their aircraft. Moreover, their preferred hires were/are youthful, adaptive, and enthusiastic. These trainees had the right stuff but lacked knowledge of procedures, policies and in some case behavioral insights into how to deal with all sorts of customers. They were also paid in ‘prestige’ dollars—not too far above minimum wage.

Training on the Fly
After hiring, a cohort of at least thirty trainees would be exposed to a minimum of 45 days in classrooms at their HQ not far from one of the airports. The training and the trainers, based on our observations, were good and often better, effective at conveying all the obvious information and many of the nuances of operating in a regulated environment with the general public. After passing a series of qualifying tests trainees got their uniforms and were sent out to the concourses and ticketing stations for field experience.

So far, so good.
After a week to ten days working in the real environment, meeting all sorts of challenges for which the airline thought they had been prepared, the drop-out rate—that is the number of resignations, topped 35% and sometimes upward of 40%. Extrapolating the training costs, the quant’s figured each loss was worth about $30,000. Each. Yikes. At a minimum, each training class represented a loss of around $300,000. What to do?

To their credit, the trainers devised an exit instrument asking each drop out specifically why they were leaving. In addition, before starting the next series of hires, managers spent much more time at the airport observing the activities of each trainee.

The results were brutal.
Though trainers thought they were preparing new hires to be self-sufficient and make good decisions, they discovered something unusual. While, almost to a person, trainees knew policies and procedures, they were paralyzed when situations veered away from the typical. For instance; while they could modify ticketing and even handle families needing special requirements, passengers who needed to make late changes to their itineraries and other point of attack problems, when a real crisis arose—for which neither they NOR THEIR SEASONED COLLEAGUES had been formally trained, they panicked. In those situations where a resolution came about it was because someone had learned through trial and error, ways to handle the challenge. Realizing no one can be trained to handle every type of emergency; nevertheless, without a substantial set of guidelines the organization was placing too much responsibility on inexperienced…mostly new trainees. Faced with too many nail-biting situations…and realizing neither the romance of air travel nor the respect they had anticipated with the uniform hardly balanced out the anxiety, abuse and low wages, there were substantial resignations.

This was the situation uncovered by my colleague. He also realized that the airline had no real solution—not one that was economically viable. Trainers recognized, to their credit, training had to change in a significant way. But how?

Here is what we proposed
Those parts of the training that worked well, like procedures, regulatory issues, basic airline operations and the roles and tasks for each position should remain in place. However, the time needed to accomplish competence, especially with a new manual and meaningful assessments we would design together, could be reduced if we migrated much of the rote material and built it online. This component would be replete with simulations and scenarios that would build more lifelike experiences into training EARLIER in the process. This would accomplish specific goals; transfer information for use in nominal situations and then prepare trainees for some of the real life challenges they would face on the job. In addition, invite those less committed to bolt before too many training dollars were exhausted. The online experiences would be reinforced with classroom role-plays that were frighteningly realistic. I know…I wrote them.

However, this was still not enough. In challenging situations, not so atypical of life on the concourse, no one could be expected to rise from panic with Zen-like tranquility, and resolve every issue. No, we figured, above the wing personnel needed the kind of manual pilots had when systems were not, shall we say, cooperating.

So we devised as part of the new manual and online learning, a smart help feature with plain language key word searches wherever possible. Using their Palm Pilots (I told you the technology was ‘old), which held the manuals and the full course in memory, trainees and experienced personnel could get immediate answers when called for by keying in simple phrases. In addition, we configured it to learn—so that when a new situation arose it could be posted and all above the wing personnel throughout the system could review it. What we found was that in more than 90% of the cases, some clever or talented employee had a viable answer. This would be added, after tagging, into the course for learning and smart help feature as well.

Here’s a real example
A young mother approaches the ticket counter at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as the late afternoon rush of business travelers started to crowd up the lines. She is pushing a stroller with an infant and has, by the hand, her 3-year-old daughter. She beseeches the ticket agent to move her seats so she can have easier access to the toilets. While the agent is reconfiguring the seating chart, he hears the mother say, “Honey, I told you not to eat that whole hot dog…now your tummy hurts…I know. Well as soon as we get done here, we’ll go get something to drink and go to the bathroom, OK?’ The child says, ‘But mommy I don’t feel so good now…” She then projectile vomits on her mother’s legs, the front of the ticket counter, and for good measure on the shoes of the businessman in the adjacent line.

Let’s just freeze this scene for a moment. Here are some things you should know, and that the gate agent had learned. Firstly, vomit is considered a hazardous substance. Hazmat regulations apply in all cases. Secondly, as we know all too well, the odor is a contagion that can set off ‘sympathetic’ reactions. Finally, the material was on not only the mother, but also airline property, the carpet and another customer.

What does this mean? Most importantly, the agent, even if he knew how to clean it up, and he had the implements to do so, was prevented by law from doing so. He knew that but what could he do? He whipped out his Palm and keyed in one word, “Vomit.” And unfurled before him was the entire procedure for handling such a case beginning with calling for security and a Hazmat team. Furthermore, it instructed him to close down the line, come out from behind the counter, and move everyone away from the affected area. Upon completing each operation, he checked it off the list. Thus, a record was generated of all actions taken. Also, it automatically sent the location of the event and alerted supervisory personnel. Clearly, this accomplished a huge gain in ameliorating a terrible situation, supported the agent preventing HIS panic, averted a larger catastrophe, and projected competence and professionalism manifested before the general public.

To sum up, by changing the training to an integrated education and knowledge management model resulting in just-in-time access to information through mobile learning, the airline not only began to resolve its somewhat informal emergency procedures, but was able, as new trainees were hired, to prepare them with a much more complete repertoire of real-life events to study. Finally, with real time access to help in emergencies, trainees had confidence in the procedures for those real life panic situations. When finally exposed to the concourse, trainees were better prepared for all situations. The retention rate held—only 12% dropped out.

Coda
A change in training management and budget considerations subsequently stalled the growth of the mLearning component. Interestingly, during the ensuing winter, freak snowstorms created havoc and this airline, with few procedures in place to manage a complex reshuffling of both equipment and personnel, could not sustain an angry public and government scrutiny. The CEO was let go, its once highly polished image and reputation for excellence in service tarnished (and— some say has never returned) and passengers loads shrank significantly for a long time. And, sitting in Fort Lauderdale International Airport waiting to see if my plane was one of the few, and last to leave, I watched in horror as the ticket and gate agents were forced to call airport security and then the police to keep order as passengers were panicking and personnel could not contain the chaos. Had our system been in place, a key word search for “grounded aircraft: storm”, would have directed a senior gate agent  to cordon off 3 lines for each of the New York bound flights, and begin to organize anxious passengers and further plan and communicate next steps.

I must admit I found it not a little bit satisfying. Oh, and even better, I did get the last flight out.

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6 thoughts on “WITH REGARDS TO mLEARNING: A CASE IN POINT OR UP IN THE AIR

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  5. Thanks for sharing that real-world case study, Rich. It highlights the critical importance of balancing “training” with “performance support”.

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