Over the past few years, training professionals have become more pragmatic in their approach to technology-based media by using it to augment traditional forms of training delivery, such as classroom instruction and text-based materials. This trend has led to the rise of the term “blended learning.” The term has come to mean different things to different people. IDC defines blended learning programs in the corporate training world as any possible combination of a wide range of learning delivery media designed to solve specific business problems.
Two lingering questions on the minds of those responsible for human performance are:
- With all these training delivery methodologies at our disposal, how do we combine them effectively?
- How can we ensure that our investments in our training programs further our organization’s success on an ongoing basis?
IDC recently worked with 15 organizations that have successfully implemented blended-learning programs to see how they have addressed these questions.
What Drives the Blend?
Flexibility in delivery is a key ingredient to improving the manner in which training supports organizational goals and a productive employee workplace. So how should companies choose what they believe to be the right blend of delivery methodologies? They should do so by considering the variables in Figure 1, which illustrates that those who successfully blend learning delivery methodologies take into account:
- Conditions in which an initiative is undertaken. Is it urgent to complete the training? Will results be reported externally?
- Resources available for a particular training need. Do we have the development expertise? What is our budget?
- Target audience. Do they have access to physical classrooms, labs or both? Do they speak the same language? Do they have Web access? How do we motivate them? Are they in the same time zone?
- Characteristics of the content. How valuable is the subject matter to the organization? Is the content informational, procedural, behavioral or conceptual?
Unfortunately, there are no standard tools on the market today that enable organizations to develop optimal blends. However, some organizations have developed their own semiformal methodologies to standardize their training delivery using a number of criteria to determine what methods to use and when to use them.
Deployment of Learning Infrastructure
Many of the organizations that participated in our study use a variety of learning infrastructure components, such as learning management systems, Web conferencing software and a slew of self-paced e-learning content development tools. Before deploying such tools, several of them had to address underlying networking and PC-related issues (e.g., plug-ins).
Although e-learning may offer convenient access to training and support materials for many of an organization’s employees, many mobile or remote workers trying to access materials on the job face the challenge of getting connected. Because much computer-aided learning does not require a live Internet connection, several of the companies that we studied currently make use of off-line learning materials, allowing workers to learn on their desktops or notebooks while having their progress tracked, without staying online. Off-line learning materials can be delivered by CD-ROM or via download before the employee travels.
The use of Web-conferencing technologies is prevalent in blended-learning programs. The organizational levers that have led to the use of these live e-learning tools and applications are typically related to direct cost savings, payback and convenience. Respondents indicated that they use Web-conferencing applications and services to create content, which is perishable more often than not, and get it out the door quickly and cheaply. At the same time, restricted training and travel budgets put a premium on collaborative solutions that reduce the number of face-to-face meetings.
Most of the organizations profiled for this study are using an LMS to administer their blended-learning programs. For some, the LMS is new (they adopted the system within the past year or two). In these cases, the LMS implementations coincided with the blended-learning rollouts they discussed and helped form the basis for e-learning delivery. For those with LMSs in place already, they are using the applications to make e-learning course catalogs available to students at a minimum, and many are using them for more. IDC did hear some complaints from study participants relative to their LMSs. Some spoke of time and cost overruns caused by a number of issues.
Measuring the Benefits of Blended Learning
A major consideration in using training and education to effect organizational improvement involves the alignment of learning with key business performance measures or indicators. Study participants told IDC that those charged with blended-learning initiatives should set out to help senior managers move the metrics that matter most to them: financial, operational and so forth. For the most part, the people involved in the 15 blended-learning initiatives profiled for this study feel that the training initiatives in question had (or are having) some positive strategic impact. However, the level of exhaustion study participants reached to assess this impact varied widely.
The majority could demonstrate some form of cost savings or cost avoidance, but the incremental benefits (i.e., productivity gains) of these initiatives were not as well captured. Figure 2 summarizes the different levels of analysis done by all 15 organizations to determine the benefits of their blended-learning programs.
For one of the companies we interviewed, saving money on training and development was the sole purpose of shifting to a blended model that involved more technology-based delivery and centralization of learning administration. For others, it was a noteworthy consideration but not their primary motivator. Regardless, the majority measured cost savings when asked to identify the benefits of blended learning. After all, areas of cost savings and avoidance are easy to identify.
As Figure 2 indicates, employee feedback on formal training is generally solicited. In many of the cases considered for this study, learners were asked to give their opinions of both the applicability of the training to their roles and the quality of the instructional delivery. For online delivery, learners generally enjoyed its flexibility but did point out its shortcomings (e.g., “learners … felt that some of the online courses are too long”). Likewise, test scores for learners participating in a blended curriculum are being compared with those associated with preceding models used to deliver the same material, another encouraging sign that organizations will continue to evolve their delivery models to maximize the efficacy of their programs and make wise training investments.
Representatives from only eight of the 15 organizations that participated in this study attempted to assess just how effective they are at translating knowledge transfer to behavior change on the job by identifying movements in metrics that reflect desired changes in employee job performance. Pinpointing a cause-and-effect relationship between training and performance is often difficult because there is a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological influences affecting the way people work. Moreover, training alone cannot affect areas of business improvement such as increasing revenue per salesperson or producing widgets more efficiently. However true these statements are, training managers should not use them as reasons to avoid measuring the impact of training on job performance altogether. They should work with management to establish an appropriate level of measurement rigor. The good news for those training initiatives aimed at employee skills and proficiencies that are aligned with business goals is that management does not regularly demand statistically reliable measures.
When asked to quantify their blended-learning programs’ benefits through a cost-benefit analysis or return-on-investment (ROI) calculations, most of the participants in our study had a difficult time. IDC has quickly learned that although ROI is easy to understand and communicate conceptually, individuals involved in training seem to have a difficult time collecting the right numbers for an equation. The organizations contacted for this study identified the following obstacles:
- Business objectives are not clearly articulated to those responsible for training.
- There is not clear enough ownership over most training initiatives.
- Trying to isolate the effects of training on business performance takes far too much time and too many resources to do effectively and credibly.
- Compiling the necessary data is too difficult.
Better linkage of training goals to the fulfillment of objectives related to operations, marketing, finance and the working environment will make measurement of training and development’s true value all the more straightforward for line-of-business managers to assign. Training managers should even go as far as setting mutually agreeable goals with business units beforehand. The feasibility of drawing up a contract should even be investigated.
This study, as well as other IDC research, has demonstrated that as learning’s recognition as an enabler of other business processes increases, it will be better integrated into daily work. Training professionals should seize upon the momentum of early achievements to build support for extending blended delivery to business functions and processes in the following ways:
- Target business issues that you believe promise a sizable payback. Work with executives and business unit managers to determine key performance indicators that need to be moved and the levels of rigor appropriate for measuring the business impact of training and development efforts.
- Ascertain the skill sets needed to achieve these objectives in the context of the organization. Identify skill gaps and address these deficits in a learning plan that takes into account audience demographics (e.g., job role and geographic locale).
- Choose learning content development and delivery methodologies based on the criteria covered in Figure 1.
- Obtain feedback from learners and other stakeholders on how the training is designed, developed and delivered.
- Invest in technologies that are both capable of addressing current business needs and that can grow with your business. Insist that vendors demonstrate that these capabilities are in place today and not “under development.”
- Put into place processes for updating and maintaining content (regardless of how it is delivered) to ensure the success of ongoing learning programs.
Michael Brennan is program manager of learning services research at IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm. You can e-mail Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.