Learning is ubiquitous, and smart companies are using this fact to their advantage when they create and implement blended learning programs that have a real, lasting business impact.
Attention, CLOs everywhere: Your employees are addicted to learning. You want to know who sang that song that just came on the radio? Google it. What’s the real story behind that new client? Check out his Facebook page. What’s the history behind a potential new customer company? Look it up on Wikipedia.
Today, successful companies are harnessing the power of social media and e-learning while still acknowledging the need for face-to-face interaction through blended learning solutions. However, unlike the blended learning programs that appeared in the early 2000s and focused on the shimmer of new technologies, today’s forward-thinking organizations are using technology as just one weapon — albeit an important one — in their arsenal of learning tools that create lasting change.
Driving Business Value
Unfortunately, blended learning has become a widely misunderstood term, and many organizations implement it without really knowing what it means or appreciating its benefits. As a result, they focus on a learning solution rather than a business solution.
Instead, learning executives should begin by thinking about their business challenges and objectives and then develop a blended program that will provide a business win. To do that, they first need to understand that effective blended learning is based on three key principles:
1. Real learning and lasting behavioral change do not happen from a one-time training event. Rather, they come from an ongoing learning process of application, practice and reinforcement.
2. Organizations must leverage current technology to quickly scale to leaders across all levels and locations.
3. A highly engaging and personal learning experience is needed to make an impact.
In essence, blended learning integrates various learning tools or channels and synchronizes them into a strategic learning program that is delivered over a period of time and is tied to business objectives. Although learning courses are essential to any project’s success, they have little impact without a strategic framework.
Most companies have a toolbox of learning courses but lack the strategic architecture to pull these tools together. There is no silver-bullet solution. A good architect recognizes this and puts together a strategic plan that combines the right mix of tools; creates a highly engaging learning experience to help an organization build a program; and keeps an eye on the end goal: lasting business impact.
Evolution of Blended Learning
To truly understand how we got to where we are today, one should look at the evolution of blended learning. According to Josh Bersin, the founder of Bersin & Associates, there are four stages in the evolution of blended learning:
- Stage 1: Companies purchase catalogues of learning programs and begin to automate product and content offerings.
- Stage 2: Organizations begin looking systematically at programs. For example, they might look at how they can reduce a five-day annual sales meeting to four days by supplementing it with e-learning or a smaller regional session.
- Stage 3: Companies get more strategic with their learning programs, allowing them to change behaviors faster and obtain more impact.
- Stage 4: Organizations link their strategy to business issues to see a true business impact resulting from training.
While blended learning has been around for more than a decade, PDI Ninth House estimates that 45 percent of companies have a blended learning program that is considered to be in Stage 2. Research shows that companies gain the most business impact when they get to the third stage.
Google Blends Right With ‘gLearning’
Google understands the evolution of blended learning. By linking its learning and development strategy to business issues, its program has reached Stage 4.
How’d Google do it? The company recognizes the value of strategic learning initiatives that are tied to business outcomes. By 2009, Google had grown to around 20,000 employees, and the leadership development team was focused on ways to develop each and every one of them.
For point of context, Google attributes its success to its unique corporate culture. Google thrives on a bottom-up, consensus-driven environment where there are leaders at all levels. Collaboration is key and the best idea wins. Google employees are very comfortable with ambiguity and change. Staff members are encouraged to launch and try new things early and often; if something fails, they are encouraged to share key learnings with others to make changes and perfect ideas.
While Google was No. 117 on the 2009 Fortune 500 list, it has maintained an entrepreneurial spirit whereby employees are encouraged to “change the world,” and managers are seen as advocates and enablers encouraging their reports to figure things out on their own. As a result, it also sits at No. 4 on Fortune’s 2009 “Best Companies to Work For” list.
To maintain and foster its creative and collaborative culture while continuing to innovate and execute successful new ideas, Google created a series of leadership training programs. The programs would provide different offerings for Google employees — known as Googlers — at different stages of their careers, so that the different programs were tailored to everyone from a recent graduate to an experienced director or VP.
In early 2009, Google decided it needed a new approach to reach its early-career individual contributors — folks with fewer than three years of work experience. These individuals are good at their current jobs but need to develop leadership skills. They’re located throughout the world.
Google created a four-week leadership development series designed specifically for early-career Googlers. The program was self-paced but included components to drive peer accountability (i.e., a way to create engagement), community (i.e., courses that leveraged interactive learning among peers) and variety (i.e., a range of mediums used for the courses to keep things interesting).
Google also knew that there were already a lot of readily available Google tools and applications that could be leveraged in the new leadership learning initiative. However, it wasn’t about volume and catalogues of courses in a variety of formats. It was about strategically selecting course components that aligned to business objectives — in this case, training the next generation of leaders who would be critical to the company’s innovation success.
Google sourced content from all over the Web — both internal and external, free and paid — to specifically address its business-driven learning objectives. For example, Google found YouTube videos with top leadership gurus to “teach” about self-awareness. The company worked with PDI Ninth House to implement a module on self-management. Google used internal experts to create “knols” — user-generated help articles — about effective teams.
Google then provided this content in a logical weekly progression. The first week focused more generally on leadership at Google and self-awareness. The second week introduced self-management. Weeks three and four then tied it together with the topics “teams” and “influencing without authority.” These self-paced chunks of learning content were interspersed with interactive assignments using Google Sites, Docs and even Moderator as tools to create an asynchronous community. The content and assignments aligned with learning objectives and employee skill gaps and competencies to ensure a clear connection to the “What’s in it for me?” question. Google knew that if employees saw personal value in the training, they would have better engagement and participation.
At the start of each week, automated e-mails went out to participants with the first assignment. When participants were ready for the next activity, they would individually send a keyword that triggered the next e-mail. Each week included three to eight micro-assignments on the given topic. At the end of the week, participants joined virtual debriefs via video conference calls for synchronous discussion of learning points. This key element provided value on several levels: It connected everyone, ensured they all understood the content and could share what they learned, and aligned with Google’s community-based environment.
Finally, participants were provided with 360-degree behavioral assessments and e-learning quizzes to ensure they understood the content and would be able to act on it.
Given all the Google tools that the team used to create the program, as well as the fact that they sourced most all of the content through Google searches, the learning format was dubbed “gLearning.”
In the latest offering of gLearning, more than 90 percent of participants completed the self-paced work, and attendance averaged more than 85 percent in the debriefs at the end of the week.
Google is continuing to improve the program to meet the evolving needs of the company. For example, the company plans to allow individuals more choices of media type, such as written article vs. video. Google also plans to weave in more opportunities to collaborate and network during the week. The company is also aiming to move to more structured debriefs to prompt more discussion.
One Size Does Not Fit All
While Google is enjoying learning benefits through the use of its blended gLearning program, the approach would not work for every company. The gLearning program is centered on Google’s culture and business objectives. Many companies don’t have the “everyone is a leader” philosophy and would require a very different approach to content and delivery. Additionally, Google operates in a fast-paced environment, and a one-content-area-per-week volume would not be appropriate in many organizations.
For these reasons and others, it is imperative that companies look at their toolbox of courses and create a learning strategy that leverages the right learning programs at the right time to meet their organization’s unique business objectives. Although still an evolving concept, blended learning has a lot of potential and has proven it can deliver desired learning and business results.
Now more than ever, it’s important that companies understand the need for a strategic framework as the foundation of their blended learning programs. With the right strategy tied to real business outcomes, organizations will have more skilled current and future leaders who are better positioned to succeed and help propel their company forward.