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Recap: October Dinner with Carol Leaman

Axonify's business

We could probably have Carol be our speaker every month for 10 years and there’d still be stories we hadn’t heard and pearls of wisdom she hadn’t shared. However, for now we’ll have to settle with having her present twice.

We were back at the lovely Centre in the Square Members’ Lounge, and this time Carol presented about her current startup, Axonify, including its founding history and some of their adventures along the way so far, along with a more detailed look at what they do, for whom, and how. Basically, if you’ve ever been stuck in traditional corporate training (VHS tapes, anyone?) hearing about this software will make you kind of bitter. 🙂

For a bit more info on Carol herself, I recommend giving the recap of her first presentation a read. And really, if you have anything to do with anything tech in this town, you’ve likely seen her speak or will in the future.

So, Axonify. It originally started out as some custom software created at MFX Partners for their client, Pep Boys (a big auto parts chain in the US). However, the owners of the company were coming to the end of their careers, and while there was big potential in the software, they weren’t really in the position to do much with it.

Conveniently, having sold her previous startup, PostRank, to Google, and having declined to join their primary-coloured ranks, Carol was looking for new opportunities, and this appeared to fit the bill nicely. She invested and took over the company, and embarked on turning it into a real, standalone business.

First thing to take care of was a better name, as the company had been branded “17muscles”, which was a nod to how many facial muscles it takes to smile (implying that using this training software makes employees smiley). Not great branding, though. They went with Axonify as a nod to the axons in our brains used for neural connections and memory.

Carol also brought on board as soon as possible some trusted partners and staff who she’d worked with in the past as the VPs of Sale, Marketing, and Development. Having her dream team right off the bat made executing on what needed to be done easier (and more fun). They also then completely refactored the code base and rebuilt it to scale and be much more flexible. At this point the team was based in the Accelerator Centre, from which they graduated in June 2012. (They are currently bursting at the seams in their office at King and Allen.)

What Axonify does is address the corporate training market, which is a $130 billion opportunity. Traditionally, corporate training has been a major expense, time, and resource drain, with terrible retention. This translates to massive losses for companies in worker knowledge and expertise, health and safety claims, and retail shrinkage. There was no one really doing what they did, so Carol knew that their best strategy was to move quickly, actively demonstrate the value of the software, and sign up as many clients as possible as fast as possible. (Their pilots are relatively cheap for customers, but deliver incredible demonstrable results.)

What makes Axonify different is that it delivers training in short bursts, repeatedly, in fun, game-centred ways. There is no slog, and demonstrable employee learning skyrockets. Sounds awesome, no? The various Fortune 500 clients they’re already signed up and the passel of awards they’ve won would certainly back that up. The software content is completely customizable by each client to address their specific training needs by topic, job role, etc. And employees can even be rewarded for suggesting training questions.

Where learning (including training) is concerned, one time just doesn’t work. Think about it. If I tell you a phone number just once, how likely are you to remember it? But if I tell you six times, or if, after I tell you, you repeat it in your head a bunch of times, how much more likely are you to recall it later? This is the basis of Axonify’s work. The software is based around four pillars:

  • Reinforcement & Retrieval
  • Motivation
  • Personalized, Bite-sized & Dynamic
  • Measurable

Additionally, the context and connections we make to information make it much easier to remember. (E.g. remembering a word by using it in a sentence instead of just standalone.) If the information isn’t in itself all that interesting, without being “wrapped” in entertainment value, it can be a hard sell to the brain to get it into long-term memory. (Think of cramming for exams in school, then forgetting everything the day after.)

The other big issue is that most of the time, the learning retention isn’t measured, or measurable at all. Companies just have to hope staff recalls what they were taught and just keeps scheduling the training annually or at some broad interval. This isn’t a great way to do business. Especially when you’re talking hundreds of thousands of employees.

There are four main areas of brain science research that Axonify leverages:

  1. Age and lifestyle affect the brain and cognition. (Use it or lose it is true!)
  2. Neuroplasticity: The brain is plastic through the lifespan. (You can teach an old dog new tricks.)
  3. There are different types of memory: declarative vs. non-declarative. (Things like facts/knowledge you can consciously recall vs. things you do without thinking about it, like riding a bike.)
  4. Cognitive strategies can be used to improve memory. (E.g. Repeated retrieval, spacing, and deep encoding.)

Two of the strongest strategies for making learning “stick” are interval reinforcement (covering the material repeatedly over time) and retrieval practices, in this case the questioning format. How the information is framed, i.e. asking someone questions about it, can make remembering much easier, rather than just giving someone a list of facts to learn. It requires building different and stronger pathways in the brain. Carol likened it to repeatedly sledding down a hill. Over time your bum makes a bigger, deeper, and smoother groove.

If you’re exposed to an idea once, you have less than a 10% likelihood of remembering it 30 days from now. (Carol joked that by the November Dinner we won’t remember her presentation.) But if you’re exposed six times, in 30 days you’re over 90% likely to remember the idea.

Axonify’s software makes learning personalized to each employee, so right off the bat your training is about you. From surface level customization like avatars and game choice, to deeper strategies like achievement levels and question styles. (Taking into consideration that everyone learns best in different ways.)

The training is social as well, which both provides community support and encouragement, and perhaps a bit of competition as well. Individuals and teams can compare notes and performance, helping back each other up or egging each other on. One Walmart exec told Carol that in 20 years, the only time he’d ever heard staff talking about corporate training was overhearing two guys comparing notes about what they had or hadn’t learned yet in their Axonify modules, and if they’d gotten it right.

The training is also fun, which is one of the biggest differences from traditional corporate learning. The training is delivered in short bursts, so no slogging through hours of material. There are surprises to keep the training from becoming expected or rote. And the difficulty increases over time to require stronger engagement from the trainee. People are constantly challenged as they improve skills and retention. (Think of how hard people work at beating Candy Crush Saga or Plants vs. Zombies as the levels get harder…)

Of course rewards are also important. Staff get constant feedback on their performance in the training, and are rewarded with badges to mark achievements, as well as prizes, which they can select themselves. So not only are you getting better at your job, you’re getting stuff out of it.

So what are the results? In one year, one client reduced shrinkage (theft) by 55% and decreased health claims (accidents) by 40%. Keep in mind that for that client, health claims costs $50-100 million a year. Ouch. After a pilot and rolling out Axonify training more widely, Walmart is on track to save $300 million in their distribution centres. Two years ago they were also spending a billion dollars annually on medical claims. Better training is worth serious money, and Axonify’s customers include some major heavyweights, like Walmart, Toys R Us, Johnson & Johnson, and GE.

So who are Axonify’s target markets? Primarily Retail (there are an estimated 15 million retail employees in the US); Hospitality, Travel & Tourism; Complex Product Manufacturers (e.g. Pharma); and Healthcare & Insurance. For the first two, high rates of employee turnover, hourly wages, and wide geographic distribution are major challenges. For the latter two, it’s the complexity and frequent changes of the required knowledge, and the highly regulated industries they’re in. Axonify best fits larger companies, as it’s just not cost effective for smaller firms, as happy as those staff might be to get their hands on it, alas. 🙂

One of the major benefits of the training for management is that there are analytics and reporting end to end. Companies can see right down to individual level progress, and up to annual cost savings in safer workers, more knowledgable sales people, and less theft based on the training improvements.

Management can reinforce training for weaknesses in an employee’s learning where demonstrated, or fend off a lawsuit based on demonstrating that an employee had been trained on an issue and repeatedly demonstrated competence in it (this actually happened for one client, saving them tens of millions). The nice thing for employees is that they don’t even notice this reinforcement is going on. They just notice when they’ve correctly answered questions and are rewarded.

To sum up, Carol quoted Mark Twain: “If you think knowledge is dangerous, try ignorance”. Axonify has demonstrated that ignorance costs hundreds of billions of dollars and can get people hurt or killed. Fixing that gap is as easy (as far as employees are concerned) as playing games.

Additionally, Carol answered a few more questions during the Q&A, but given the volume of the response to things like, “How did you get to here?” I won’t get into recapping all of that. One interesting anecdote, though, is that when Carol became Communitech‘s first EIR, she was reluctant and didn’t think she’d have anything to do. Turned out every company she contacted wanted to meet, and she was booked solid pretty much the entire time she was there. Shows there’s always a hunger for great experience and mentorship in this town, and Carol’s as good as it gets.

Big thanks again to Carol for joining us (somewhat short notice as well). Who knows what adventures she’ll be up to in another couple of years? We may need to invite her back again. Big thanks as well to Centre in the Square for hosting us, and to all the Girl Geeks who braved the frosty weather to come out.

We’ll see you next month for another brain-expanding Dinner, which I’ll be posting the notice for very shortly. Stay tuned!

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