Justin E. Lake, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Dallas, is co-founder and CEO of Skyllful, which helps business leaders and their most critical frontline workers use technology to make their work easier, better and safer. The Skyllful platform provides on-device, on-demand training that helps workers better engage with their mobile applications. We asked Justin why providing "hands-on training for hands-on workers" is especially critical during the COVID-19 crisis. Here's what he shared:


The COVID-19 crisis has made us more grateful than ever for "the invisible workforce"--the millions of enterprise workers behind the scenes who keep our economy going: stocking shelves, installing equipment, repairing machinery and making deliveries. If these people stopped doing their jobs for one day, the world would come to a grinding halt.

With the shift in consumer behavior to increased online ordering and delivery services, these workers are in demand--Amazon hired 100,000 new associates in the past four weeks. However, this new workforce must be trained to use the digital and mobile technology necessary to perform their jobs. That's increasingly difficult to accomplish due to social distancing restrictions that prohibit groups of people from meeting for a training seminar, for example, and the inability to fly new employees to a central location for training.

So how can companies pivot to successfully train frontline workers in this new environment? First, let's explore the background and behaviors of the so-called invisible workforce.

The invisible workforce

In his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, Peter Drucker classified employees as either knowledge workers or manual workers--which we call white-collar or blue-collar workers. He was pointing out the growing importance of education required for the next generation of workers who would earn a living based on what they know--rather than what they do. Drucker's predictions were accurate: Today, millions of knowledge workers, whose primary tools are their brains and their computers, add value to the global economy.

While the number of knowledge worker roles has expanded, there remain millions of manual labor jobs. These include roles from assembly lines and custodial services to highly skilled field service technicians. The primary function of manual workers revolves around interacting with the physical world. By definition, manual workers do things with their hands and, in most cases, their primary tools are not computers.

The invisible problem

As the knowledge economy evolved, it drove increasing amounts of technology to the edge of the enterprise. Collecting more data from the edge holds unlimited promise for business leaders to extract greater efficiency from their resources.

The edge also happens to be where gray-collar workers do their jobs. Unfortunately, there's a mismatch between the needs of this workforce and the innovation taking place. Workers in these roles often prefer not to learn new technology, especially when it's likely to give their boss better visibility into their actions throughout the day.

There's also a learning style issue: Manual workers likely learned most of their skills by doing them, not in a classroom setting. Yet when new technology tools are deployed, there's a tendency toward one of two ineffective paths: 

  1. Deploy the solution to the field and depend on line managers for on-site training
  2. Send a cadre of trainers to each location for instructor-led, classroom sessions 

Despite the fantastic technological innovations of the last two decades, we're using the same methods for digital skills development as we did 20 years ago. And in the digital economy, it's just not working.

The root cause can be broken down into four areas:

  • Existing frontline workers may be anxious, apprehensive or downright hostile about adopting new digital tools. While most use technology in their personal lives, there's a significant difference between checking sports scores on your phone and processing purchase transactions for a truckload of product. While they may not say it, many long for the days of simple, paper order forms.
  • The next generation of frontline workers expect and even demand good technology as part of their toolbox. These "YouTube" generation workers are used to self-guided learning, and wouldn't consider a PowerPoint presentation as an effective learning method.
  • The technology is complex. The mobile applications frontline workers use tend to be sophisticated with extensive functionality appropriate for an enterprise business model. Unfortunately, this often results in a user experience that is complicated and frustrating.
  • Training is conducted as a one-time event. Even when training is done well, it's usually done only during employee onboarding or new technology deployment. Rarely is training on mobile applications seen as a key component of professional development, despite users now spending most of their time on these devices.

The Solution

Perhaps software training is an afterthought, or the software is more complicated than it seems. Either way, it's a shame that companies are making smart investments in technology, but not delivering on the customer experience or operational efficiency they set out to achieve.

These users are hands-on workers. Whether they've been doing the job for 20 years or two years, they've learned their skills and earn a living by doing, not by watching. Why not empower them to learn the digital skills they need in the same way?

Best-in-class companies are moving to a training model that provides on-demand, on-device training with a full curriculum of scenario-based simulations for every workflow. Not only does this result in a more effective learning experience for the employee, but it also allows unprecedented visibility of the learners' progress. It serves the needs of workers for whom technology is a foreign language and require an immersive experience in how to use it. It also serves digital natives who expect to learn in a self-guided, on-demand manner. And with this technology, everyone from line managers to executive leadership can see real-time progress reports and know who's ready for work and--more importantly--who's not.

On-demand, on-device training will help provide COVID-19-compliant solutions that deploy training remotely and directly to each user's device, so the workforce can gain the skills required to perform their vital jobs without traveling or attending group training classes.