Within today’s fast-paced business economy, learning can no longer be isolated from daily business activities. Learning must be repackaged so that it transforms from an overhead expense to a strategic business tool. In other words, how do learning consumers become learning investors so that competitive advantage and corporate profits can be traced back to the corporate learning organization?
During the late 1950s, Oliver Selfridge wrote about “pandemonium,” which is sometimes referenced as “organized complexity.” This is exactly where we find ourselves at the start of the 21st century: trying to organize increasingly complex arrays of information. Individuals are becoming part of worldwide work teams and must recognize that although they may think and act as independent units, the results of their actions affect the global community. How do learning organizations become an integral part of today’s virtually distributed corporate culture?
Business-based learning is a methodology that focuses on the needs of the business, the providers and the consumers. Essentially, it treats the acquisition of skills and knowledge as any other business function. See Figure 1.
Figure 1: Business-Based Learning Model
|Flexible||Packaging & Delivery|
|Extensible||Value & Investment|
|Scalable||Speed & Audience|
|Measurable||Tracking & Feedback|
|Adaptable||Accuracy & Relevance|
Within just a few short years, business professionals have had to adjust their mind set in order to maintain a competitive edge. Both business and learning must happen at Internet speeds. In order to survive and prosper, individuals must be able to quickly recognize pattern changes, adjust their behavior and notify the team of changes in behavior.
This first article in the “Business-Based Learning” series discusses a non-traditional approach toward packaging and delivering training within a corporate environment. One of the most common reasons why management sees training as a separate overhead expense is that the training programs are designed as traditional linear, academic activities that remove staff from the productive, working environment for an extended period of time. Often, the learning achieved within the isolated classroom environment is not immediately practiced, and the worker is not able to perform when called upon months later. Did the student not learn? Did the training organization not teach? It doesn’t truly matter where the fickle finger of blame gets pointed—the bottom line is that the organization’s staff is not prepared to perform the appropriate skills and does not have the knowledge they need when they need it.
As we redesign the packaging of corporate content and learning delivery systems so that they become flexible business tools, it is important to begin by asking a few questions regarding the corporate organization:
- How can training improve the bottom line?
- What are the right metrics to measure?
- How do learning consumers become learning investors?
- What action is required for management to view learning as an investment?
Creating Flexible Packaging and Delivery Systems
Learning organizations must select appropriate learning delivery tools based on the performance objective and experience of the learner. The following method adapts Donald Kirkpatrick’s framework for performance evaluation to help map learning content to an appropriate delivery method.
Role-based training curricula fit comfortably into this development model since people can be placed at an appropriate start-point via a pre-assessment without repeating redundant material. Each position or job role is analyzed based on the tasks performed and the skills and knowledge required to perform the task. The end result of this analysis is a series of measurable performance objectives from which an extended learning solution emerges that reflects the content of the material, the knowledge level of the student and the available resources (time frame, learning technologies and budget).
Four primary learning methods that can be combined to create an environment conducive to ongoing learning are traditional classroom, self-paced, group exchange and real-time learning. A traditional instructor-led training program (ILT) usually covers all four learning levels from introductory concepts through advanced role-play or lab exercises during the course of the session. However, today’s dynamic work environment does not necessarily support two- to three-week training sessions or the associated travel expenses. Implementing a strategy using smaller learning modules that incorporate self-paced and interactive group delivery methods can create a flexible packaging solution that when coupled with a pre-assessment evaluation enables learners to target their training energies efficiently and demonstrate value to corporate management.
Self-paced learning methods can be an effective means for learners to gain an understanding of foundation concepts. Some of these self-education learning tools include CDs, books, videos and Web-based programs. Learning management systems (LMSs) and mentor/coach programs can be used to monitor performance goal achievement.
Group interaction is an effective means for learners to discuss advanced concepts and basic procedures such as new product updates. Structured group knowledge exchange and dialogue tools include voice conference calls, e-mail messages, online discussion threads and interactive Web conference/classroom services. These tools are especially helpful for dispersed work teams that must physically “extend” communications across time zones and cultures to share information and provide feedback.
Real-time learning can be addressed from two angles. Continuing the thread of a more traditional curriculum, real-time learning provides in-person role-plays and hands-on labs. Blended with self-paced and interactive group tools, these learning components can be curriculum launch or culminating tools that focus on learning objectives that can only be achieved via in-person presentations. The key to this approach is that instead of being “out-of-pocket” for three to six weeks, learners only need to be in a classroom environment for a minimum amount of time.
A Business Scenario: Condensing Time and Space While Increasing Revenue
The Baan Company, an international ERP software firm, realized that traditional classroom instruction was too costly a proposition for its internal and partner channel software consultants. Traditional training delivery required the consultants to be in the classroom for a two to three weeks several times a year. The travel costs were substantial; however, the greatest cost drain was the non-billable consultant hours (e.g., $3,000 x 15 days = $45,000 of lost revenue per consultant).
Working with a combination of self-paced learning, Web-based interactive classrooms and targeted hands-on lab sessions, this global organization was able to reduce the total amount of travel time from three weeks to three days. The number of hours and costs for curriculum development remained the same, but the consultants could schedule their self-paced learning time and group sessions around their customer/account schedules. Also, curriculum updates could be implemented more quickly using a modular development approach, ensuring that consultants had the most up-to-date information. Productivity and revenue increases were immediately recognized.
A-Ha! Real-Time Learning
The second approach to real-time learning is the most challenging (and the most fun) to address because this is the method that will rocket corporate training into a vanguard position within an organization. The “A-Ha” real-time learning moment happens when someone finds himself in a situation for which no training or reference material exists and new knowledge is created. Previously, when people worked in centrally located offices, this information was transferred informally around the water cooler or coffeepot. But, what about today’s virtual workplace—how much corporate knowledge is lost because it is never captured and documented?
We all have had those “A-Ha” moments when we figured out a more efficient test program, discovered an effective response to calm angry clients or realized a rule-of-thumb metric for cost estimation. The question is, after the initial relief of solving a problem, what steps were taken to capture and normalize the “A-Ha” action to make it part of an organization’s standard practices? How do we grab that learning moment and distribute the knowledge effectively to the group when they need to learn it?
Today’s knowledge management systems may be part of the solution in a few years; however, the reality today is that they are designed to be information archives. Where are the processes that will dynamically populate and update the central information stores? It is this rethinking and reshaping of traditional processes that makes the challenge for real-time learning so exciting for business and organizational leaders:
- How does an organization help staff realize that personal “shortcuts” are valuable to the entire organization?
- How do organizations collect, disseminate and integrate these “A-Ha” moments into organizational flows?
- How are people rewarded for taking the time to recognize, document and share personal “A-Ha” moments?
A Business Scenario: Extending a Learning Community
Too often, initial sales training is an information dump within a classroom environment. Often, after a two- to four-week training period, new sales hires are expected to be able to place all of the new information into context and meet their quota assignments. By the time they have an opportunity to use their new knowledge, a large portion has been forgotten.
What would happen if the curriculum were altered to combine the product training with real-life environments? Imagine the benefits if entry-point sales people were brought together for two or three days for an orientation and then enabled to continue learning with their geographically dispersed classmates. Perhaps each new sales rep would spend the mornings working through a series of interactive learning modules and the afternoons observing experienced sales reps. Once or twice a week, the class would meet within a virtual, Web-based classroom environment to share experiences. Corporate executives could address specific topics from remote locations.
Selling strategies and new product applications would be constantly reinforced, resulting in more effective sales activity and revenue generation.
Success in the very near future will depend on how effectively organizations can capture “A-Ha” learning moments in a real-time environment, adapt the associated business procedures and integrate the changes across the organization. Creatively packaging training modules to reflect the tasks, skills and knowledge requirements of an organization is the first step toward transforming learning into a strategic business tool. Choosing a methodical approach such as the adaptation of Kirkpatrick’s model provides a means to develop a flexible learning curriculum that can be built generically and adapted for each student based on the experience and knowledge they possess.
Susan Schwartz is the founder and principal consultant of The River Birch Group, a performance improvement group that provides a broad range of services to global companies designing and launching online communities and next-generation blended learning solutions to increase business productivity. Her 18-plus years of experience in the adult learning field include a wide variety of both technical and professional skill enhancement initiatives. Susan is a noted speaker and author with a passion for helping companies learn how to drink from virtual water coolers.