For most of the seven years that ASTD has been collecting data on the state of the training industry, the use of classrooms for delivery of training has been dropping steadily. 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.
In 2001 - the year that ASTD first asked people how their companies delivered training - the split was 76 percent via classroom and 11.5 percent via technology. Since then - except for 2008 - the percentage of formal classroom hours has dropped steadily. The recession may account for the slight uptick - 2.6 percent - in classroom use in 2008 because if you didn't have learning technology infrastructure in place before the recession hit, you probably postponed the upfront costs once it did hit. Or, companies may have pushed hard to fill live classes to break even on their costs for instructors and facilities. But overall, if the average annual decrease of 2.48 percent continues after the recession has passed, classroom use could drop to 50 percent within the next five years. What's going on?
Fuqua School of Management professor Tony O'Driscoll believes that there are at least four issues that are marginalizing the classroom as training's primary channel to market. "The physical course package is becoming increasingly untenable as the true costs of travel and attendance are made more visible. Also, the new emphasis on corporate social responsibility is putting pressure on the justification for travel," says O'Driscoll.
He notes that searching for information within the context of work activity is a lot easier than it used to be. "Folks who are busy are opting for real-time information via Google rather than information packaged in courses on the LMS," he says. Employees are also leveraging the power of Web 2.0 technologies to tap into subject matter networks. "Got a problem? Post it on Facebook or Twitter, and wait for the cavalry to provide [the answer]," says O'Driscoll.
The fourth factor impinging on the classroom is relevance. "In a time where the real expertise resides at the edge of the network, and training sits in the middle, it is often the case that the traditional training factory model of seconding SMEs and producing learning modules are teaching old habits as opposed to contemporary best practices.
"Put these four together, and it becomes obvious why our customers are voting with their mice and not coming to the physical classroom as much as they were in the past," says O'Driscoll. "People need the most current and relevant information to solve the task at hand. Signing up for a class sometime in the future does not solve that immediate need. The motivation to learn is most palpable when a teachable moment is encountered: 'I don't know how to do this but I have to have it done by tomorrow.' In that kind of context, the traditional classroom has nothing to offer. It is not timely, it is not task-based, and it is not packaged appropriately."
Consultant and author Marc Rosenberg is not sure that the corporate classroom is fading but believes that it is certainly changing in purpose and physical structure. Pressing economic realities, an inability to scale classroom training, an increasingly mobile workforce, and progressively easier-to-use technologies have come together to simultaneously push more learning online. "It's a perfect storm of change for corporate classrooms," he says.
But more than anything else driving these trends, it is the realization that learning takes place 24-7 - in the workplace, at home, and on the road - that is changing the balance between classrooms and technology. "The classroom was never designed to effectively support such diverse learning needs. This doesn't mean the end of the classroom but rather a major rethinking of its role," says Rosenberg. Fewer classroom hours will mean that the time that is devoted to face-to-face learning will involve far less content delivery, but far more collaborative and creative applications of knowledge learned online.
Indeed, a large number of training initiatives combine online learning with time in the classroom. In a typical combo, such as IBM's Big Blue for new managers, people bone up on the basics online, collaborate virtually to complete assignments and get acquainted, and then come together in person. By the time they meet face to face, these managers are already part of a community that has more in common than just a new role.
As more responsibility for acquiring knowledge passes from experts and instructors over to employees, people in training departments are switching to new roles as facilitators and enablers of learning. Instead of designing and teaching courses to small groups in a classroom, a growing number are involved in setting up and managing virtual tools that enable vast numbers of people to learn on their own from experts or knowledge banks.
Such a shift assumes a base of tech-savvy employees with an urge to learn and a company culture where it's okay for experts to spend time sharing their knowledge. A number of companies, seeing the rapid spread of Web 2.0, are getting their employees up to speed in blogging, tweeting, virtual networking, and resource sharing. At Telus, the Canadian utility company, it is one person's entire job to change the company into a Web 2.0 organization. That person, Dan Pontefract, describes "learning 2.0" as "shifting from training as an event to learning as a continuous, collaborative process." He adds, "We need to stop the madness of training events."
The example of the Intercontinental Hotels Group should inspire any organization. IHG runs a virtual "leaders lounge" where hotel general managers and senior leaders from around the world share resources, help each other solve problems, and network on a regular basis. Lynne Zappone, senior vice president for AMER HR and global learning who helped launch the lounge and get the managers involved, calls it "the next generation of leadership development."
IHG managers took to the virtual lounge with alacrity as soon as they saw its value. The lounge breaks down barriers to development by providing instant access to learning and to conversations with the CEO and the senior team. As the recession cut into hotel bookings around the world, managers began to use the lounge to share ideas for winning back business. In a little more than one year, roughly 1,300 leaders have completed profiles. About half use the lounge once a week or more.
IHC's usage data contradicts a common assumption that online learning is mainly for the young. "Until recently," says Aldrich, "there was a trend toward hiring young, tech-savvy people and assuming they could Google their way to whatever knowledge they needed." But he feels that there is a renewed appreciation for the expert. The use of collaborative tools has certainly become more widespread, and not just among young people. In a February 2009 survey, Nielsen ranked Twitter number one in terms of growth. In 12 months, it had grown 1,382 percent. The biggest group of unique visitors were people ages 35 to 49.
A 2008 survey from McKinsey, "Building the Web 2.0 Enterprise," states that 94 percent of executives report that they are using Web 2.0 technologies to boost internal communications specifically for managing knowledge (83 percent), fostering collaboration across the company (78 percent), enhancing company culture (74 percent), and training (71 percent).
Despite the fact that even grandmothers have Facebook accounts, youth demographics are bound to shape the future of learning. According to a classification used by Don Tapscott in Grown Up Digital, there are three generations in the workforce born between 1946 and 1997, and a fourth, born since 1998, who will start their first jobs in a few years. Three of the four were born after the launch of the Internet in 1962, and the Net Generation, born between January 1977 and December 1997, have been exposed to computers and digital media all their lives. Using these tools is as natural to them as the air they breathe.
The Net Generation is significant for a number of reasons. It is the largest age cohort in the workforce today, accounting for 27 percent of U.S. workers and a rising percentage in other countries. The work habits, learning styles, and collaboration skills of this group are already having a profound influence on organizations, and one that will only increase.
Tapscott identifies eight "norms" of the Net Generation: they want freedom of choice and expression; they want to customize the media they use and not just observe but change what they see; they look for corporate integrity and openness; they want entertainment and interactive play in their work, education, and social lives; they have been bred to collaborate; they need speed; and they are innovators, especially when it comes to learning and work.
These attitudes and behaviors can create fresh approaches to work, but they also challenge traditional practices in managing talent. Tapscott, and another researcher, Robert Bernard, concluded that old models of employee development - train, supervise, and retain - are outdated for this generation. Reciprocal, relationship-oriented approaches work better to engage Net Gen employees in their learning and their work.
Tony Bingham, president and CEO of ASTD and co-author, with Marcia Conner, of the forthcoming book The New Social Learning: A Guide to Transforming Organizations Through Social Media, says, "That is why social media, virtual games, and other Web.2.0 tools are expected to play an increasing role in this group's learning at work."