How to Leverage Technology to Enhance Learning

By Jim Sullivan
Before you read another word, please chisel this in stone: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
With corporate training and learning programs changing more rapidly than Elton John at a Liberace Tribute, it’s time to assess—and re-assess--the role of technology as an enabler of 21st Century foodservice training.
How do you separate hype from high-performance in our faster-harder-smarter-more world? A reasonable person begins by considering the evolution of foodservice training by both 1) the 3 types of learning and 2) the 5 formats of screens we use to facilitate that learning. An examination of each area gives smart leaders and trainers a glimpse into both the possibilities and pitfalls that await when new technology intersects with how people really learn in the 21st Century.
Linear learning. If you’ve ever read a training manual or business book, sat through an 80-slide Power Point presentation, watched a training video or DVD (whether it’s on a 52” monitor or a 2” square iPod), you have experienced classic linear—“one-way”—learning. It’s called linear because the outcome has been pre-determined by the “trainer” (author, writer, director, editor or Power Point designer) and the trainee merely follows along. Linear learning is not interactive, barely experiential, and only occasionally effective, because the trainee cannot affect or influence the outcome. Linear training platforms can teach and inspire, but only with great content, thoughtful design, a dedicated trainer and a self-motivated learner. The biggest problem is that linear training makes it very difficult to track, measure, or gauge proficiencies. Most foodservice training is linear.
Failure learning. Northwestern professor and adult learning guru Roger Schank has long contended that the only way that children or adults truly learn new skills is by trial and error, and learning-by-doing, as opposed to “teaching-by-telling”. Mr. Schank’s research creates a persuasive argument that teaching by “telling” alone--whether instructor-led, manual-based or DVD/computer-driven--is costly and often ineffective because there’s no opportunity to realistically first  “try-and-fail”. Long-term retention rises incrementally when the learner is able to first apply the new skills in a safe environment in which they can fail and then learn from that failure. This learning practice is especially critical for skills like service, selling, leadership, negotiation, conflict resolution and safe food-handling. (I think I just described a unit manager!)
Blended learning. This training approach combines visual, written and interactive learning along with guided practice and guided application by a skilled facilitator or coach. Almost everyone agrees that combining audio, visual, and kinesthetic learning with coaching and practice results in team members grasping new skills quicker and better executing those skills long-term. And while blended learning done well is arguably the best training approach of all, this method still doesn’t resolve The Missing Link of training: how does a manager or company effectively inspire, teach and then track, measure, record, guide and gauge an employee’s progress from anywhere in the system, whether it’s by the trainer in a unit or a Director in the Home Office? This question organically leads us to a brief discussion of where foodservice training and learning begins for 99.9 % of all trainees: the screen.
The First Screen. For any American born before 1960 the first visual training program you experienced was most likely a violent cautionary tale in the form of a Driver’s Ed course on 16 mm film in a darkened high school classroom on a portable 6’ x 4’ Bell and Howell screen. The instructor, usually a multi-tasking gym teacher, would turn off the projector, turn on the lights, fold up the screen and in a classic case of understated facilitation, gruffly ask “Any questions?” That was it. The film taught it and hopefully you caught it. Of course the concept of training films is as old as cinema itself. The military produced training films for WW I recruits as early as 1918, and White Castle, Howard Johnson’s and others made some classic foodservice training films in the early 1930s and 1940s. If your restaurant didn’t have the budget for training films you used the screen for either overhead acetate transparencies (“overheads”) or the dreaded “slide-tape” contraption that combined a carousel of 35 mm slides with a synchronous pre-recorded cassette tape. (FYI: overheads ruled for over 30 years and were born in bowling alleys long before they made their way to the classroom. And if you want to see the next generation of training media, visit a bowling alley today and watch how their new electronic scoring system coaches, cheers, teaches and tracks your progress!)
The Second Screen. Television monitors were training’s second screen. From 1947 until 1982 the TV was useful in a restaurant only for patrons watching sports. Training was not attached to the tube until the widespread introduction of the VCR in the early 1980s. Once VHS beat Beta, the proliferation of “training tapes” in the foodservice industry was significant. As technology evolved the 2nd screen became home to DVDs as the common method of audio-visual learning for most hourly foodservice workers. Most foodservice operators are stuck on this screen relative to training.
The Third Screen. PCs became the preferred “third” screen of trainers starting in the late 80’s, early 90s and continuing through today. Power Point became ubiquitous as the training tool of choice. But is reading a set of bullet points from a screen really “learning” or merely old-fashioned linear training? Too many foodservice trainers blow into a meeting with a laptop and LCD projector and mechanically click through a deck of Power Point slides (a process I call “show up and throw up”) and you have to wonder if those trainees would not have been better off reading a manual or comic book instead. But the physical size of PCs made them a limited tool for training. Like the two screens preceding PCs, you had to sit in front of them, they couldn’t come to you.
The Fourth screen. The fourth screen of training is small, portable and relatively new: think video iPods, MP3s and “smart-phones”. It’s the first and second screens, shrunken, with headphones and hype. There’s a lot of buzz about these new potential training platforms. They’re “cool”, “new”, “it’s how today’s generation likes to learn”, “you’re out of touch if you don’t use it,” etc. But wait, we’ve heard this before; anyone remember LaserDiscs and CD-i? At first blush, iPod video training sounds like a great idea. But smart training departments must first ask themselves “is this truly the best bang for my buck technology-wise?” More importantly, is “cool” a tool? The fact is that iPod and Smart-Phone platforms are still linear (one-way) learning, expensive, and don’t allow true interactivity, guided practice, realistic simulation or the learner’s progress to be measured or tracked by either the unit manager or the Home Office. Other issues to consider relative to supporting the iPod and Smart Phone mediums include:
Device theft, Illegal content-sharing (do you want your proprietary training shared freely among users…or competitors?)Adapting and editing your current library of video content to a 3”x 3” screen, Lack of customization, Updating and re-formatting new content on a regular basis to the smaller format, Eliminating graphics (that reinforce learning) from your current videos since they’re hard to see on a 3” screen, etcetera.Still no ability to track and measure learning through interactivity and application.
Look, I’m all for new and cool, but at the end of the day an iPod or SmartPhone is still a linear learning system that virtually no interactivity at considerable expense. If you’re ready to leverage technology to truly upgrade your training and corporate knowledge, the Fifth Screen—e-learning--is where you need to be.
The Fifth Screen.  The hi-def laptop screen, (along with the multi-tasking POS screen or kiosk) has been quietly transforming the foodservice training arena in the last 18 months with a dynamic new generation of e-learning, driven by a perfect storm of Wi-Fi, DSL and high-speed Internet convergence. Forget those bad e-learning experiences of the late 90s, today’s web-based e-course are non-linear, multi-lingual, fun, interactive, customized, scalable, simulation-driven, measurable and track-able. Pretty much everything that learning is but training wasn’t for the last 100 years. It’s now affordable too; cost-effective start-up fees and less than $100-$150 per month per unit. In exchange, you get significantly lower labor costs, measurable progress, electronic documentation, improved retention skills, and a happier crew and customer. “With a Wi-Fi connection and a laptop today a cook or server or manager can have a customized learning experience anywhere in any language,” says Jeff Tenut, a foodservice e-learning pioneer and partner in Nashville-based DiscoverLink, for a company whose e-learning customers include Panera Bread, Bob Evans, Golden Corral, and many others. “They can stop and start when they want, progress only when the skill is mastered, practice to proficiency, fail, retry and have fun learning. 21st Century e-learning provides the right training at the right time, so that the employee will no longer have to practice on the customer.”
There are dozens of e-learning vendors out there today, but after listening to most of their pitches, here’s my suggestion: choose one who knows the business of foodservice well. I hear this often from e-learning vendors: “We do lots of stuff in retail. And foodservice is just like retail.” Well, maybe you do. But no it’s not..
While retail may resemble foodservice relative to transactions and data, it’s a much different animal when it comes to cross-cultural training, adult learning and filling relevant knowledge gaps. If it’s my money, I’m putting it on a company that knows foodservice well, has a proven track record of e-execution, and a backlog of absolutely stellar content relative to adult learning,
I have seen the future of foodservice learning and it resides on the Fifth Screen.  E-learning is no longer a question of “if” for your operation, but a matter of when. The future is now. Get on board, ladies and gentlemen, because today if you’re standing still, you’re walking backwards.
Jim Sullivan is the CEO of and a popular speaker at manager conferences worldwide. You can get his free monthly e-newsletter and product catalog at or by calling 920.830.3915. To learn more about dynamic interactive e-learning programs for your team click on the Serve U button on the home page.