In 2010, the American Society for Training & Development published an article with the headline, “Disappearing Act: The Vanishing Corporate Classroom.” The classroom’s demise, the article stated, would come from a host of factors:
“Displacing brick and mortar classrooms are myriad Web- and computer-based delivery vehicles, from simple CDs to elaborate corporate portals, and simulations rivaling the hottest Gothic multiplayer war games. The rapid growth of Web 2.0 tools for networking, microsharing, simulations and other kinds of collaboration is likely to take learning even farther from the traditional classroom.”
As 2013 draws to a close, much of that has proven to be true. Technology has changed corporate learning. Employees have access to information in the blink of an eye thanks to a speedy evolution of Internet-based services, e-learning, virtual learning, simulations, just-in-time learning portals, social media and game-based learning.
But while all that happened, the classroom didn’t die. At some companies in the United States, brick-and-mortar learning got a boost.
For instance, in 2011, professional services firm Deloitte invested $300 million in Deloitte University, an 800-room learning and development facility in Westlake, Texas. While a lot of the in-person learning at Deloitte takes place in its various corporate offices, the university has grown into a sort of hub for the company’s development culture, where consultants from all over converge for collaborative learning and information sharing.
Apple has hired several high-profile academics and thinkers to teach at its development center, Apple University. The company’s most recent addition came in January when Morton Hanson, a University of California at Berkeley School of Information professor — and co-author of Jim Collins’ best-selling book, “Great By Choice” — joined the company.
Earlier this year drugstore chain Walgreen Co. opened the doors to Walgreens University, a 40,000-square-foot facility near the company’s headquarters in Deerfield, Ill. The building includes roughly 8,000 square feet of meeting and common-area space as well as a mock drugstore. During a private media tour of the facility in February, learning executives at the company described wanting to create a central headquarters for learning and development, a place where store managers from all over the country could come and experience a unique sense of togetherness and culture.
These moves — paired with companies that have not built massive corporate universities but have retained a strong emphasis on the classroom — underscore the continued significance of having a central meeting place for learning despite globalization and advances in technology.
Instead of fading away, the classroom has experienced a refresh. It is no longer the focus for corporate learning, but it has transformed into a more dynamic tool, providing practitioners with in-person collaboration as well as a space where evolving learning technologies are integrated and used to promote knowledge transfer with those physically present and others dialing in from locations around the globe.
Part of the reason brick and mortar — and thus the classroom — has survived is because of its power as a culture driver for learning. “The philosophy is the centerpiece,” said Warren Lindley, divisional vice president of organizational design and effectiveness at Walgreen. “The facility helps you drive and give momentum around that philosophy.”
A Medium in Motion
The classroom is now one piece of a larger learning pie, one that makes up anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of organizational learning experiences, according to the sources interviewed for this story. The exact mix depends on the nature of the business, but much has changed.
“The traditional use of a classroom is probably very limited,” said Alan Malinchak, CEO of Eclat Transitions LLC and an executive adviser for the talent and learning practice at enterprise software firm Deltek. The sage-on-the-stage model, with a professor standing at the front of the room presenting information with the hope that students, sitting in rows of tables or desks, absorb it, has faded. Malinchak said it has been replaced by a more group-oriented environment with no clear front and back of the room and a leader whose task is to facilitate a participatory discussion.
One reason for this more participatory environment is most of the information traditionally presented in a classroom already has been absorbed by the students beforehand, said Gary Whitney, vice president of learning and brand service consulting at InterContinental Hotels Group. Point-of-need learning, e-learning or another delivery method of the Web 2.0 variety may already have introduced the learner to much of the content formerly taught in a classroom, he said. The classroom’s new role, therefore, is to validate.
Contributing to information validation is a shift in the classroom’s physical design. For instance, McDonald’s Corp., known for its Hamburger University and a focus on professional development, touts what it calls “smart classrooms.” Diana Thomas, vice president of U.S. training, learning and development for the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company, described its classrooms as clusters of tables with five of six chairs centered around a flat screen monitor — enabling participants to use and share information through laptops or tablets — with whiteboards set up throughout the room.
Thomas said the physical change came from internal studies showing how people learn differently as well as a focus on adding more collaboration as a way to informally improve customer interaction.
Deloitte University follows a similar model with its classrooms. But the shift was less the result of how people learn and more of a connection to its consultants’ work, said Terry Bickham, a talent director at the firm as well as its chief learning officer for federal, global and industry development.
Because Deloitte consultants travel to client companies and work in groups to solve business problems, Bickham said it made sense to design Deloitte’s classrooms to match that environment. He said this puts a limit on what learning consultants can do virtually because working with peers in-person better reflects the nature of the actual work.
The nature of the work also has shifted the classroom’s function at InterContinental Hotels. Often employees travel to the company’s U.S. hub in Atlanta for training, but more classroom-like training takes place in the individual hotels, Whitney said. The company’s classroom setup in Atlanta — what Whitney described as a large room with group tables and computers lining the outer parts of the room — can be easily replicated in a hotel ballroom or conference room.
In other instances, the classroom has shifted to a partial virtual environment, with some participants on site while others chime in from other locations via virtual collaboration technology. This is used frequently at law firm Sidley Austin, which often has its lawyers at different offices, said Jody Rosen Knower, the firm’s chief training and personal development officer.
Sidley does not have dedicated spaces for classroom learning, but Knower said the firm’s common-area spaces have proved easily convertible for any kind of environment. All environments, she said, are equipped with the appropriate technology so participants from other offices can see and hear everything going on and vice versa.
Enterprise software firm Deltek also has equipped its classroom to include virtual participants. Dan Carusi, the company’s vice president and chief learning officer for talent and learning, said each room has a camera built into the rear portion, allowing virtual participants to have a complete vantage point of everything taking place. He said each desk is also fitted with a microphone, “so if someone is in the classroom and is asking a question, if you’re virtual you can hear the question and the conversation taking place.”
From Teacher to Facilitator
Because classroom participants are increasingly likely to attend virtually, this shift in design has altered the required skills for the instructor.
For instance, the classroom’s refresh includes less outward teaching, said Walgreen’s Lindley. Since most corporate classrooms are filled with employees who have likely consumed some information ahead of time and are deeply experienced in the subject matter through on-the-job learning, Lindley said the instructor’s goal is less to present information and more to harness a discussion that allows participants to share their wisdom with each other.
This sort of environment requires less prep work for instructors, said Deloitte’s Bickham, whose instructors are executives and partners in the firm. A more traditional model of teaching might require an instructor to prepare a lecture or presentation. But with the core of Deloitte’s classroom experience built around actual consulting work, Bickham said the instructor is there to draw from his or her own work experiences, and act more as a leader-coach than instructor or presenter of information. “Classes are designed to be more learner-generated content than information sharing,” he said.
Sidley Austin’s Knower said, in the end, this environment requires instructors to take more of a point-of-need approach to the classroom — similar to the mindset largely carried out through more Web-driven learning tools.
With learner participation becoming a bigger part of the classroom experience, instructors or leaders should focus on narrowing the scope of content in a given session. Find one slice that participants need to take away from it and move on.
“The best thing you can do is give people what they need when they need it,” Knower said. “We often talk about that with just-in-time learning and on-demand learning, but it’s equally true in a classroom setting.”