Change is a constant in the world of work. Kitchen tables have replaced many corporate conference rooms. For some, Skyping is the new face-to-face interaction, and an entire business can be managed from the same device that stores both one’s jogging playlist and copy of “Angry Birds.”
Rapidly evolving technology made the nonoffice the norm. But in early 2013, Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer announced that employees would no longer be allowed to work from home, citing severe drops in productivity. Other companies followed suit, and countless employees were forced to replace their footie pajamas with pantsuits and head back to the office.
Today, the business world is stuck in a quandary: Shouldn’t we take advantage of the technology that allows employees to work from the comfort of their own homes instead of sticking to traditional, even antiquated business practices? Isn’t a total annihilation of proximity-based, or face-to-face, learning inevitable?
The Power of Real, Live People
Despite the push for virtual and mobile learning delivery options, the answer is no. Most learning leaders advise against tossing in-person learning and development programs out the window. As companies implement more virtual learning, many say more is lost than just the ability to shake hands and read body language.
Essentially, “there’s nothing like human interaction,” said Michael Cummings, faculty director of Babson College’s blended learning MBA program.
Proximity-based learning is particularly strong in its ability to foster genuine, lasting relationships. Sure, people can get to know each other via instant messaging or video conferencing, but there’s an extra element of familiarity that only can be achieved by physically spending time together.
“If you want strong relationship-building, if you want the kind of learning that has an interpersonal connection, you have to do it in person,” said Kevin Wilde, chief learning officer at General Mills Inc.
This rings especially true for Michael Molina, chief human resources officer at Vistage International, a peer-to-peer membership organization for CEOs, business owners and executives. Vistage aims to help solve business problems by bringing CEOs and other leaders together in groups of 12 to 18. The groups meet monthly and act as unbiased sounding boards for their respective members’ issues, offering answers and holding each other accountable for their business practices. Molina said while there are “definitely opportunities where virtual learning makes total sense,” gathering people into the same room has been Vistage’s preferred learning delivery method since 1957.
“The connectivity created when people are in the room, and are able to build a relationship with one another, build trust, view body language, be able to become vulnerable, creates more opportunity for real conversations to occur and long-lasting relationships to be built,” he said.
Don’t Knock Virtual Until You Try It
In today’s fast-paced, hyperconnected world, however, it’s not always possible or reasonable to bring people physically together. Thanks to the globalization of business, a single organization’s executive board and workforce could be scattered across several continents and time zones. Combine that with current business trends that increasingly expect more from employees, want to promote flexible schedule and workplace policies, and operate as cost-effectively as possible, and virtual learning can seem like the only logical option.
“The way people work today really demands that they have a certain amount of flexibility in order to get the learning when and where and how they like it,” said Mary Campbell, assistant vice president of talent and organizational effectiveness at the University of Southern California.
She said USC only recently jumped on the distance learning bandwagon, but has already dramatically increased its “online, asynchronous, just-in-time, 24/7 learning opportunities.”
The flexibility of e-learning means employees can complete required training modules no matter the time or place, and can move through lessons at their own pace. This “allows them to be more present on the sales floor, rather than stuck behind a computer or in a classroom,” said Lisa Doyle, vice president of learning and development at home improvement company Lowe’s Cos. Inc. “Because really, the true learning takes place in the store. That’s where they’re needed: on the floor, serving customers.”
Besides providing an effective way to work around hundreds of individual schedules, virtual learning is also a way to deliver certain types of learning, Campbell said. For example, technical learning such as how to use new software, or a compliance-oriented module where people need to be clear on a specific law, “can be done completely virtually and will absolutely accomplish the job that it sets out to accomplish.”
Further, e-learning is cost effective. Traditional classroom learning requires facilities, materials and teachers. But after the initial costs of setting up a virtual learning program, maintenance fees are minimal, regardless of the number of users.
The low cost was a major draw for Jiffy Lube International Inc. and its Jiffy Lube University.
“We determined that, in the last year, the cost per e-learning course was about 25 cents, while the cost of doing something face-to-face per student was many, many times that amount,” said Ken Barber, manager of learning and development at Jiffy Lube.
A passionate advocate of the benefits of virtual learning tactics, Barber said he takes care to ensure Jiffy Lube’s distance-based learning is more than just cheap and easy, it’s also valuable. For example, when the company first started its virtual instructor-led training courses, it conducted a test, offering the same course through traditional and virtual platforms. The virtual class rated its experience slightly higher. “We believe it’s because we worked so hard to keep them engaged throughout the whole two-hour period that it was an overall more enjoyable experience.”
Subsequent sales results corroborate these findings: The employees who took the course, which taught them how to communicate the benefits for some new products, in the virtual classroom performed better on the job.
It’s About Balance
The perks of e-learning are tough to knock. However, proximity-based learning isn’t going anywhere. Most learning leaders continue to sing the praises of the blended approach. For instance, at professional services firm EY, the company formerly known as Ernst & Young, professionals can take online and in-person courses.
“This balanced approach helps us create a richer and more comprehensive learning experience for our people so that they can obtain the pertinent skills and knowledge to serve our clients, become more effective leaders, grow our business, and meet our quality and independence expectations,” said Alison Hooker, chief talent development officer for EY Americas.
Traditional classrooms are ideal to promote real-world application of and debate about the material, but virtual ones foster a global dialogue and comparison of market differences, Hooker said.
General Mills is also a fan of “your classic blend,” Wilde said. “Depending on what we’re trying to achieve, work preferences and the context, some programs are absolutely old-school — we bring people together in peer-to-peer, coaching, ‘reach out and learn something’ environments,” he said. “But then you’ll see other things that are quite virtual and asynchronous.”
Wilde said the smartest organizations aren’t going completely virtual, nor are they totally shunning e-learning. Rather, they look at which type of learning will add the most value in each individual situation, based on availability, context and learning objectives.
Lowe’s designs each learning program in accordance with its specific needs and goals. “What are the learning objectives, what’s the level of interactivity and what’s that appropriate blend between face-to-face, virtual, asynchronous and synchronous learning that will ensure we receive the performance level we’re looking for?” Doyle said.
Even Barber, an enthusiastic proponent of virtual learning, said Jiffy Lube University uses, first and foremost, a blended approach. After an employee completes the initial e-learning course and passes a subsequent online certification test, the next step is extensive on-the-job training. The employee is only considered fully trained once he or she has physically performed the job in accordance with an extensive training guide.
He said this blend of virtual and in-person learning is “the best of both worlds,” something businesses should constantly work to achieve.
Lowe’s Doyle said something similar. “Just as your healthy body requires a balanced diet, a healthy learning program requires balance as well.”
The key to striking this balance lies in close examination of an organization’s learning and development efforts to determine which delivery method is the best fit. When it comes to proximity- vs. online-based learning, Campbell said, the choices have to be nuanced to figure out what’s appropriate for employees to learn online in a self-paced manner, and what they should learn live with other people available for support and interaction.
Basically, don’t expect the tendency to embrace technology inherent in current, popular blended approaches to lead to a virtual takeover anytime in the near future. CLOs are still strong believers in the power of proximity.
“There’s a certain kind of learning you can do on your own individually,” Wilde said, “and then there’s the magic that happens when you bring people together, when you’re in an event, when you’re connecting with people face-to-face.”
Read the sidebar to this article, "The Mindful Approach to E-Learning."