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Learning to Innovate | Hospitality Upgrade

September 13, 2019

This week I will continue the theme introduced in my last column, once again focusing on technology designed to optimize human capital in hospitality. Last time I covered housekeeping technologies, this time the subject is eLearning.
 
Labor is the largest controllable cost in most hotels. Turnover is very high. More and more staff, particularly in hard-to-train jobs like front desk attendants, are of a generation that rejects traditional classroom training methods in favor of self-learning, in short, focused, multimedia modules. There are some 300 million jobs worldwide in hospitality, and the majority are held by people under 25 years old. That’s a lot of people who need training, and want it in formats that didn’t even exist 10 years ago!
 
Reinvention and innovation are everywhere in hotel training technologies, enabling hotels to move away from structured multi-week training programs. These are being replaced by shorter, more selective, modular courses at onboarding, followed by focused, brief training spurts that can be done independently or on the job to increase skills over time.
 
How much could you save if technology could cut your average training time in half? And let’s talk about turnover. According to the eLearning Industry website, 42% of employees aged 18-25 left their new job within 90 days, and 80% said the reason was inadequate training. How much more could you save if turnover were reduced by 25%? 50%? Many of the technologies I looked at are designed specifically to address these opportunities. Metrics for these new technologies are still sketchy, but they look promising.
 
This article from the eLearning Industry website (there is a video version if you prefer) provides an excellent overview of the themes I heard from virtually every vendor I talked to for this article. It’s worth a few minutes to read it, and it will help set the stage. Training products are more than ever focused on delivering to each student just the right material, in the way that best matches their learning style, at just the right time. Also, there is an emphasis on measuring how well each training module is working; and on making quick and individualized adjustments to each student’s curriculum. These are fundamental shifts from the training technologies of just a few years ago, supercharged by modularization and analytics.
 
Across all the companies I looked at for this article, a key trend was to reduce upfront training time by providing bite-sized learning units over a period of time, either in a planned curriculum or “as needed” on the job (or a combination). Curricula increasingly support the concept that each student needs an individualized plan that reflects their experience, prior knowledge, learning style, specific job assignment, daily schedule, and device availability.
 
All the products recognized, in different ways, that most hospitality workers are deskless. Some may have company-provided mobile devices. Most have their own mobile devices, but depending on their job role and company policy, they may not be able to use them while working. Many do not have work phones or email addresses. These are common reasons why generic learning management systems often fail in hospitality.
 
Several products now on the market offer eLearning solutions that include both relevant content for key hospitality jobs, and platforms for delivering it. These may be combined with traditional teaching methods, coaching, and other services. If you are looking for a comprehensive eLearning solution, these are the best options I found, and some of them were impressive in how much they have evolved in the past few years.
 
Among these platforms, I looked at Frontline Performance Group (FPG), Lobster Ink, and newcomer Typsy. I was hoping to include another recent entrant, Boost, as well, but they couldn’t respond to my inquiries in time. The first two (and Boost) provide learning platforms with hospitality-specific content, and FPG and Lobster Ink offer associated training services.  With both FPG and Lobster Ink, the key recent innovations were in gathering and using individualized metrics to customize each student’s learning path. Lobster Ink has extremely modularized content, which allows it to tailor a student’s training. This significantly reduces the initial learning time required to achieve minimum competency and avoids content that the student would find repetitive, irrelevant, or incomprehensible if presented too early in their tenure.
 
These platforms have also invested heavily in analytics to both measure the effectiveness of individual training modules, and to determine which content an individual employee needs at a given point in time. FPG particularly targets selling skills; it collects data from the Property Management System to assess how well students have learned the selling and upselling skills, and whether they are practiced consistently. It can then propose granular course content to help each agent improve. Lobster Ink uses managerial feedback across all job categories for a similar purpose, suggesting new or repeat courses to address specific performance objectives or deficiencies. FPG, which produces all its video content in three versions (two with different human presenters, one with an animated character), even uses analytics to determine which version should be used for a given staff member, based on predicted learning style.
 
Most of the products I looked at, but notably FPG, had implemented gamification, with individual and team leaderboards and careful attention to maximizing employee engagement. Gamification techniques try to leverage people’s natural desires for socializing, learning, mastery, competition, achievement, and recognition through individual and team measurement, socialization of results via leaderboards and social tools, and progression through badges, levels, or certifications that recognize mastery.
 
Typsy takes a different approach, focusing on more generic hospitality skills and building its value proposition around a content library that is custom designed for the learning styles of newly hired staff, who are most commonly in their teens or early 20s. Typsy has curated a library of 500+ short video courses (typically 2-4 minutes), shared among all its customers. It features recognized experts from around the world, covering a wide array of hospitality subjects. Different courses teach both soft skills, like defusing a difficult customer situation, and hard ones, like menu costing. The videos are designed to be fun and engaging, and easy to watch in short bursts during downtime. Typsy’s content is student-oriented and designed to be consumed independently. However, it can also be incorporated into existing learning management platforms, so it can supplement a more traditional approach. Playlists can be created to provide curricula for specific job categories. Students earn certifications that can be verified by future employers.
 
While I couldn’t arrange a full overview of Boost, I was intrigued by its focus on a key problem, which is teaching “hospitality English” and “hospitality Mandarin.” As these are the two most common languages likely to be used by international guests wherever their native language isn’t understood, they are highly relevant to staff in many locations. By concentrating on the words, phrases, and sentence constructions that they are most likely to encounter in their daily interactions with guests, rather than simply providing generic language instruction, this approach should enable staff to become sufficiently competent to help guests in significantly less time.
 
I also looked at Venza Group, which has an eLearning platform, content, and other services principally around topics related to cybersecurity and data protection. Since it’s not really a broad-based learning platform, I’ll look at covering it in greater depth when I address security topics in a future blog. But one innovation they’ve been working on that could have broader applicability, and that I didn’t see elsewhere, is the idea of using an avatar to deliver group training. They tested aspects of this concept at HITEC this year, with an avatar on a screen, controlled by an offsite human, that could converse interactively with passersby (enabled, of course, by a camera and microphone). While only at the concept stage, this could become an engaging way to deliver classroom content remotely while preserving some level of interactivity, perhaps using a combination of an AI chatbot (covered in an earlier blog) and a human answering students’ questions.
 
Apart from the eLearning platforms and content, I found a few interesting products that were not complete solutions, but that still offered useful capabilities that could be embedded into (or overlaid above) apps used at the front desk, in housekeeping, in maintenance, on a point-of-sale terminal, or elsewhere. These have the advantage of being available while the worker is on the job, in the system, they are already using. They aim to provide relevant instruction for a task that a staff member needs to perform right now, and doesn’t know how to do; but where they can be guided or trained “on the spot” with checklists, text, documents, videos, or other material. These tools can’t replace onboarding training, but they can reduce its length by making “edge case” training available as needed, on-demand. Indeed, trying to include edge cases in onboarding training often means introducing them before the student really understands the contexts in which they arise. Taught too early, the skills won’t be remembered when needed because they don’t get reinforced through usage. They make initial training less engaging for the student and don’t add to the knowledge base of the student unless repeated later. It is wasted training expense that produces a worse outcome.
 
Of these other platforms, one of the more interesting is Kryon Systems. At its core, Kryon is a generic Robotic Process Automation (RPA) platform, but one key deployment has been an overlay to Wyndham’s property management systems (PMSs) that can guide users step by step through an unfamiliar process. A control bar sitting on top of the PMS screen asks the user what they need to do, and based on what they choose, it can pop up various bubbles and prompts right on the PMS screen. These can point at specific fields or controls with detailed, sequential instructions on what to do to complete the transaction. Because it’s an RPA platform, this can include business logic, for example, to make one field required if another field has a certain value. It can even invoke automated processes in other systems, for example, to send an email to a manager when a specific condition is met. The solution requires significant customization, but this is facilitated by Kryon’s Automated Process Discovery engine, which can “watch” actual users and “learn” a transaction process well enough to do much of the customization without human support. Nevertheless, the customization requirement means that the solution will be economic only for larger applications (e.g. corporate, brand) and generally not for individual hotels. It may well have applications for some legacy software vendors as well.
 
SingleStep is another product that can be used anywhere there is a process or checklist of items to be performed, where the employee may need training in some or all of the steps – either because they are new, or because it’s the first time they’ve had to do a particular task, or because the task is done so rarely that they simply don’t remember. It is a platform that combines task sequencing (with conditional logic as needed) with a very flexible media storage facility for training and documentation materials. An engineer needing to perform an unusual maintenance task could, for example, pull up a step-by-step guide supported by videos, schematics, and a spare parts order form. This tool could be used by any employee that needs to perform a specific complex task only occasionally, or it can serve as “training wheels” for someone who needs to do it frequently but hasn’t yet mastered every step.
 
One consideration when looking at these systems is language, a huge issue in hospitality, given the prevalence of non-native labor in many countries. There is little doubt that students will learn best when taught in a language in which they are fully fluent. All the products I looked at recognized this and provided capabilities to deliver the content in multiple languages, but the depth and maturity of their capabilities varied widely. Some use subtitles to accommodate other languages, and this can work, but research shows the cognitive load on students is higher when they need to watch, listen, and read subtitles at the same time (some research even suggests subtitles can do more damage than good). Producing videos in multiple languages gets expensive, so alternatives are needed. Lobster Ink seemed to be at the forefront of research and experimentation on producing truly multilingual content, even experimenting with speech synthesis to translate video soundtracks. Several vendors could support an initial machine translation of text content. It will still need human review and refinement, but the initial machine translation can save substantial time.
 
A second consideration is an ability and cost of providing your own training content. While it may make sense to use a professionally developed course for the more common lessons, a good training platform should enable you to load your own content when needed, whether text, video from a mobile phone, documentation, or something else. How easy is this to do, does it require assistance from the vendor (and what will this cost), and are any features or metrics unavailable when you use your own content? Even with common roles like reservations or front desk, it can be useful to be able to insert your own modules to cover issues that are specific to your brand, hotel, or system – and you won’t always want to pay someone else to do this.
 
A final consideration with the platforms is metrics around usage. How many of the staff that are supposed to use it, actually do their lessons? How is this measured? What happens if they don’t? While some of this requires supervisory action, there are huge differences across platforms in the native level of engagement (do students want to use it vs. find it a chore) as well as the ability to measure relevant aspects of usage, engagement, and course completion so that the supervisor has the right information.
 
As always, the companies mentioned here are presented not as recommendations, but to encourage you to explore some new ideas that caught my interest and to see which ones might make sense for you.
 
What other eLearning technologies have you found interesting? Please drop me a line!
 
Douglas Rice

Click here to view Doug’s original blog post.