Ditch those cheesy videos and embrace a new crop of high-tech training tools.

In 2014, home decor retailer Garden Ridge spent more than $20 million to rebrand itself--a new logo, new store layouts, and a new name, At Home. But giving the 35-year-old Plano, Texas-based chain's staff a reboot was a challenge. "We had fairly jaded workers who'd been with the old regime," says Valerie Davisson, chief people officer of At Home, which was turning over the entire sales floor four times a year.

Then she introduced her 2,000 employees to Axonify, an adaptive microlearning platform. Corny videos and employee-shadowing programs were replaced with Axonify's personalized game-based training. Now the staff can spend 10 minutes every shift on their phones, learning about new product lines or how to spot counterfeit currency. "For us, it's big that training doesn't take salespeople off the floor," says Davisson.

Axonify is one of several startups applying web-based tools to work-force training. "We achieve the old economies of scale, but it's more personalized, higher quality, and better designed," says Dani Johnson, leader of learning and development research at Deloitte. Here's how to trade in an analog education for a digitally powered one.

Always-On Education
Worker training is crucial, particularly for Millennial employees.
41%
of workers say their company's onboarding program set them up for success on the job.
Going Dutch
93 percent of Millennials say they crave lifelong learning and are willing to spend their own time and money on extended training.
39%
of Millennials report they've had a chance in the past month to learn something new to do their jobs better. Fewer than half had that training opportunity in the past year.
Millennial Magnet
For 87 percent of Millennials, development opportunities and the potential to grow are top factors when considering a new job. In fact, more of them claim to care about the chance to learn on the job than either Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers.
Sources: Manpower Group, Gallup, Oracle

Privacy is a perk.

You can ask employees what training they need until you're blue in the face--but "no one wants to admit that the area they're supposed to be an expert in is something they need help with," says Kendal Willis, who until recently was director of employee experience at Fond, a San Francisco-based employee-engagement startup. Since digital tools are more private than staff seminars, employees are likelier to make themselves vulnerable and actually learn.

Follow the data.

Ask employees what areas they want to improve in, and they'll likely say hard skills--but data might tell you otherwise. When Fond introduced Udemy for Business--a video teaching platform--Willis saw that employees were spending the most time on communication courses and topics like delivering performance reviews, giving difficult feedback, and managing teams. "A lot of them have never managed before, and what they're learning about in private is what they're really interested in," she says. With that data in mind, the startup layered in more one-on-one support for new managers and cranked the flow of feedback.

Gaming self-improvement.

​Purch, a digital publishing and marketplace platform based in New York City, recently started using Degreed, an online service that lets employees digitally track all of their desk-based self-guided training--such as watching a YouTube video on brand identity or taking a Khan Academy coding course. They can see how their skills stack up against others at their level or what they might need to learn to gain a promotion. Juli Weber, Purch organizational development manager, says letting employees chase their own interests has goosed engagement among her company's 380 employees and has driven more face-to-face meetings. "Pairing people up for a mentorship program is so old-school," she says. "This lets us leave it open source. People can see who has the skills they need and who's willing to mentor, and they're more comfortable reaching out directly and having multiple mentors for multiple areas."

Get out of the way.

Traditional training creates a lot of gatekeeping, but with personalized tech tools, employees can follow their curiosity without wasting a ton of company time or money--for example, by letting the PR lead learn about Java or the store manager learn about public speaking. "It can feel like a leap of faith, but you truly benefit when your staff is really engaged around learning," says Degreed co-founder and CEO David Blake. At Home--which now has 131 stores--finds that using Axonify has prepared the company for its rapidly scaling work force. "We had new people training new people on new skills and procedures," says Davisson. "That wouldn't be possible without adaptive training. And we've seen that the stores where people are doing the most training also have the largest increases in traffic and sales."

Personal Training 2.0 -- the tech startups replacing those dreadful tutorials.

Amplifire: Employees respond to questions presented by software that blends neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Each answer informs what content they see next, so they can't progress without mastery but aren't stuck wading through stuff they already know. "It's hard to see what's in the neurons of your workers," says CEO Bob Burgin. "But with the right analytics, you can pinpoint where people are struggling and when they start to forget things and need retraining."

Axonify: "Most employees can't recall the torrent of information they get during onboarding," says Carol Leaman, president and CEO. "Yet training is typically one and done, with no reinforcement afterward." Axonify provides a steady drip of targeted training: a few minutes every day, delivered at a kiosk or on employees' smartphones.

Degreed: This gamification platform lets employees add any type of learning--courses, articles, videos--to their user profile, and then spots and seeks to fill skill gaps to help move them up the career ladder.

Udemy for Business: This curated collection of nearly 2,000 videos--on everything from how to get Amazon reviews to statistics for business analytics--is used by companies like Lyft, PayPal, and  Century 21. Employees can view course progress, star ratings, and comments.

NovoEd: Co-founded by a professor and a PhD student from Stanford University, NovoEd works with customers like Ideo and Wharton to create group training courses that are collaborative and hands-on, in subjects such as design thinking and cross-functional team leadership. CEO Ed Miller says, "When people have thought about training online, it's been about managing the materials­--'Here's a video of that talk, here's a discussion board to accompany an in-person class.' But this newest generation of technology rethinks training entirely."

FROM THE JULY/AUGUST 2017 ISSUE OF INC. MAGAZINE