Employee EngagementLearning & Development

Entering New Learning Frontiers

 Will the infiltration of technology-based learning techniques and social media make just-in-case approaches a thing of the past? Or are providers and buyers leveraging the best of both worlds?
By Debbie Bolla
I f you can read this, thank a teacher. It’s a phrase that suggests the very power of learning. But nowadays, in the world of corporate training, teacher and student aren’t necessarily in a classroom—or in the same state or country for that matter. With the advent of mobile learning, e-learning and virtual worlds, plus the infiltration of social media like Twitter or YouTube, the classroom leader can migrate to your smart phone or desktop; be an avatar on your laptop; or even be a colleague sharing best practices via a blog or impromptu training video. But while learning techniques are definitely being molded by today’s technology, is that leaving traditional formats in the past?
“The core driver behind on-demand learning is that learning has shifted from just-in-case to just-in-time,” noted John Higgins, senior director of innovation deployment for Accenture’s learning and outsourcing organization. “We are getting closer to ubiquitous access to learning, anywhere, any time and on any topic.”
A main driver of on-demand learning is simple cost savings, something most companies are searching for in the 2009 recession. On-demand learning can be delivered via phones and the Internet, both of which eliminate travel expenses. Fees associated with facilities for training sessions are obsolete with on-demand techniques.
“Not any different than any other business unit, learning is being scrutinized. Budget cuts are pretty much the norm,” said Russ O’Brien, executive director, North American Operations of Raytheon. “In today’s economy, every dime you can save is important, and that’s what is driving a lot of the solutions. But you don’t have to compromise on a less knowledgeable workforce.”
O’Brien’s colleague Greg Luckock, director of global technology and development strategies for Raytheon, agrees that some of the newer technologies can be an affordable avenue for organizations to provide employees with just-in-time information. Luckock says e-learning nuggets—recordings from more formal learning events or e-learning sessions that are divided into various small sections tagged by key words—can be a way for workers to easily access snippets of information specifically applicable to their project. E-learning nuggets can be accessed through a mobile learning unit, like a smart phone or MP3 player, anywhere, at any time. Luckock points to a service technician as an example. If technicians are on a job site and need clarity on a specific repair, they can look to a recorded e-learning nugget for just-in-time support. By breaking down a learning session into tagged concepts, says Luckock, the training becomes a learning instrument that employees can turn to infinitely.
Mobile learning provides sought-after flexibility, because training programs or information from the sessions can be accessed at the convenience of the employee.
“The smart phone as a platform can have significant impact on how we know learning today,” noted Higgins, citing a recent personal experience. At Accenture, Higgins and other senior executives are required to attend annual compliance training. In previous years, Higgins would travel to the meeting and subsequently complete online courses via a learning management system. Now, the follow-up requirement is attainable on a smart phone.
“As an example, I was recently waiting in a parking lot waiting for one of my son’s soccer tournaments to start and I completed a required ethics course on my smart phone. It was a far better use of time than logging on to a traditional eLearning course,” he said.
Overall, he said, the new approach was reported a success, according to survey results. Those who took the required class on their smart phones—taking it online was another option—reported a higher satisfaction rating than their counterparts.
Higgins is quick to point out that it was his choice to attend during some of his personal downtime. Completing mobile classes after hours is a source of growing criticism of
e-learning, however, which is why Higgins recommends that all organizations have strong governance in place surrounding the issue.
“One has to be cautious of when you are deploying this type of technology. You must make sure you are going to provide the opportunity for employees to complete the training during the normal workday,” he noted. “Communications and marketing around technology-based learning is so important.”
Luckock says that the strength of e-learning from an executive’s point of view—the capability of getting what you need, when you need it—shouldn’t obligate the employee to access it during off-hours.
“It’s really important for the corporation to fit e-learning into its cultural constraints,” he explained. “We often work with companies to help them know how to set aside blocks of time during the day and encourage employees to take e-learning sessions then. The key is flexibility.” 
Out With the Old, In With the New?
While virtual and on-demand learning are strong trends that continue to grow as new techniques are being developed practically every quarter, they haven’t eradicated the more traditional approaches. With budgets on lockdown, some corporations are looking to blended learning practices to provide their employees with part in-person training session, part on-demand learning. This approach can narrow total spend.
Said Higgins, “In the classroom, I can spend my time on the essence or the theory behind what needs to be learned, and then using blended learning techniques, I can give you more specific access to what you need for the workplace.”
Blended learning arguably provides the best of both worlds. The approach is a combination of more traditional, interactive sessions peppered with on-demand techniques that can be used as a reference or extension of the material. Proponents of this method contend that employees receive personal training that comes on the heels of preparatory learning or is refreshed later via a technology-based method.
“In a blended approach, rather than having a 10-day class, you can be prepped with
e-learning, then attend a five-day class,” explained Herb Blanchard, vice president of sales for The Training Associates. “The instructor is an important piece, and I can’t see that going away.”
Richard Klingshirn, executive managing director of ACS Learning Services, reports similar interest in staying with more traditional techniques that then incorporate some blended learning. “We are finding a lot of interest in bringing people together in the classroom but for shorter periods of time, like two or three days,” he explained. “We are able to utilize the technologies we have available to address the basic material you would have addressed over a one-week course through web-based courses. We are finding, however, that 80 percent of our clients want a classroom component.”
Alexandra Nelson-Ryan, vice president and practice manager of learning and change for business consulting firm Evantec, can attest to the benefits of blended learning. Nelson-Ryan recently worked with The Training Associates on a blended learning approach for technical training of Oracle’s Siebel CRM. The training was delivered through two methods: instructor-led and virtual. Because of the nature of the training—in 12 countries, over 3 weeks, to 5,000 employees—80 percent of it was conducted virtually.
“This training was for a web-based application,” noted Nelson-Ryan. “If you look at the research, virtual training is optimal for more technical training. It wasn’t highly interactive or highly customized.”
She also noted that the client was so pleased with the training that their firm was recommended for another project. New business, to her, is certainly a mark of success.
Measuring Value
Gauging the returns on learning and training has been a challenge for providers and buyers alike for years.
“It’s a debate that goes on in the industry,” said Blanchard. “There was a conference I went to last Fall where the theme was return on investment, and there was arguing going on during the keynote. You have organizations whose core competency is to measure the impact of learning. There are even books on how to measure it. Some say you can’t show return on investment, you can only show value.”
The crux of the debate is what defines success. And some of the latest techniques have introduced new hurdles in the attempt to measure value.
Nelson-Ryan said, “As a practicing training professional, I understand the move to blended and virtual training. It cuts across borders and allows for global delivery and implementation. It is scalable and cost-effective. But you can’t ensure the participants are truly engaged, and often times you have to do follow up coaching and support.”
“In a classroom setting,” she added, “there are course evaluations, engagement of students, and seeing how they are taking that learning and applying it. From a virtual perspective, it can be tough to measure. We try to measure it with online surveys and real-time polls.”
Surveys and polls are common methodologies that companies use to explain and understand user experience. A new wave of assessment techniques allow companies to put a value on understanding. Said Luckock, “Trackability is a key component to the on-
demand side of learning. It has been very difficult to track just-in-time training and give the user credit toward a learning path because you haven’t been able to track completion status or comprehension and assessments. But we are bringing the ability to manage and track the results and user interaction on the device in a way that has not been previously possible. Assessments prove comprehension. It’s no longer download and forget.”
Higgins assesses value of learning through a different approach; he finds it in the level of employee engagement.
“If my employees like the way they are being trained and I can give them greater access to training because of technology-based learning, employee engagement levels will be influenced,” he noted. “Today I have a wide range of channels that I can deliver technology-based learning and still keep a high level of employee engagement. Engaged employees are productive employees and help the company thrive and grow.” 

Tags: Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global, Learning

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