How learning can capitalize on the best of both worlds.
Yesterday, I ventured forth to try it once again.
Try what, you ask? Along with several colleagues, I sat through a two-hour demo of yet another “breakthrough approach to using online gaming technology for leadership development.” And, I must admit, I enjoyed seeing what some world-class gamers have done to bring engaging play to the dour world of soft-skills training. They’ve worked hard, and they have some interesting new approaches.
It’s just that once again I was underwhelmed.
For more than 20 years I’ve been tracking the application of technology to people skills training. Interactive video, CBT, laserdiscs, CD-ROMs, WBT, DVDs—it’s been a string of promising, but ultimately disappointing, alphabet soup.
In fairness, online learning is finally flourishing. While it took longer than pundits in the ’90s predicted, e-learning in all its various forms is growing rapidly and is certainly here to stay. ASTD’s 2007 State of the Industry Report shows that e-learning has grown for five consecutive years and now accounts for more than 30 percent of the learning hours delivered in the nearly $130 billion U.S. training market.
That said, the preponderance of e-learning in the business world comprises technical training, professional compliance, new product orientation, or customer/user online manuals—not people skills. E-learning is marvelously scalable and can be extended instantly to all reaches of our global enterprises. So, why can’t it work better for people skills and improving leadership behaviors?
Certainly, conceptual knowledge can be conveyed efficiently with online text and graphics. But all research and practical wisdom tell us that behavior change rarely comes from cognitive understanding alone. If that were the case, we all would be extraordinary leaders, because we’ve all read the gurus’ books. But reading doesn’t seem to change us much.
Rather, behavioral change comes from exposure to positive examples (models) followed by opportunities to practice the behaviors we’ve observed; receive insightful, balanced feedback; and subsequently hone our skills through successive cycles of practice, feedback, and application.
It’s easier to practice people skills with people than it is with machines. That’s the basic rub in the soft skills e-learning proposition. Social skills, interaction skills, leadership skills, people skills—by whatever name, the computer seems to be ill-suited to train them.
So why not just keep people in the classroom for soft skills training? Cost is a major factor. Classroom training can be relatively expensive, and it takes people away from their jobs. E-learning can occur at people’s own pace when it is convenient for them—and without travel, venue, and instructor expenses. The promise of e-learning is both fiscally responsible and time efficient.
Plus, some great new technologies—like podcasting, blogs, and powerful search engines—have made learning even easier and offer even greater potential for the workplace. However, none are outright panaceas. For example, while podcasts can be inexpensively recorded and easily spread through the web to users’ highly portable players, the content is confined by the reality of one-way audio. The learner can listen, think, and process the information, but as with the cassette tapes of the ’70s and ’80s, the learning is conceptual and unilateral. In order to effect real behavior change and skill development, practice and feedback are critical elements that these popular new devices can’t easily provide.
While there’s no doubt that e-learning for soft skills has come a long way, like many new technologies it works best in combination with other approaches. The real magic is in the mix of learning modalities, blending various approaches to leverage strengths and mitigate weaknesses—sort of like diversifying one’s investment portfolio.
Blended learning—that is, the combination of various traditional and electronic training platforms—works because learners respond uniquely to different kinds of experiences. By mixing the platforms and content, more true learning occurs than when banking on a single approach.
This notion of combining disparate approaches into a synergistic blend is not new, nor is it rare. A quick perusal of any training journal’s table of contents shows that blending learning is a common best practice. However, it is a little more rare to find success stories in the real world, particularly in leadership development. Following are some strategies for your organization:
Blend with the end in mind
This might sound obvious, but so many organizations work in reverse. They start with an assumption about the modality of the learning intervention. Instead, they should start with a vision for the end result. The learning content and design must be driven by the business intent. What is the purpose of the learning initiative? How will things be different as a result of success? Is there some new knowledge to be acquired or skill to be obtained, or does the organization’s culture need to change?
For example, if the goal is more related to cognitive knowledge—understanding a new price list or a new feature of a product or service—then that could be handled very easily via a printed booklet, in a short online lesson, as a topic in an online support system, or through a combination of these. But if the goal is a major culture change—for example, if the organization needs to become more collaborative or nimble in the marketplace—a fact-based booklet or mini-course won’t be enough. Success in such cases would likely require a complex blend of learning resources and management reinforcement, which is a much more pervasive isolution throughout the organization over a sustained period of time.
All content is not created equal. Be sure to get the “right stuff” for your needs.
With the introduction of new technologies in the past 10 years, many training professionals have focused too much on the technology and too little on the quality and suitability of the content. Learning content has become a commodity, a raw material that is indistinguishable by source.
Understandable, well-researched, and effective content doesn’t grow on trees, and the difference in results from good versus shoddy content can be significant. Be sure the content is well-researched and “tried and true” (unless you savor the prospect of being a lab experiment for a new content-development effort). And of course, be sure the content you choose will drive toward the result you have in mind. These are standard considerations for curricula selection, but for blended initiatives, there are some additional issues to consider.
- Was the content adapted to the media in the mix? Content is not like water; it doesn’t easily take the shape of the vessel into which it is poured. A lot of ineffective online learning is the result of forcing classroom materials, printed manuals, or slide shows into an e-learning medium. Another error is the use of classroom video that is too long for the more interactive nature of e-learning. Well-designed web-based training courses, online performance support systems, and/or audio podcasts are created specifically for the medium being used, and are usually ill-suited for use in another medium without adaptation.
- Is the content consistent across units/courses? Many organizations don’t think about the confusion that learners can experience if they are exposed to a multitude of conceptual models or points of view within and across topics. Some e-learning curriculums provide a cornucopia of guru-centered courses. Each might on its own be appropriate, solid content from a popular author, but when combined with other such offerings from a variety of authors, they can create a bewildering landscape of inconsistent models, concepts, and terminology. Good e-learning curricula have units that share a consistent lexicon and point of view. Otherwise, learners will feel like confused athletes getting conflicting advice from an army of coaches.
- Is the content consistent across modalities? Some blended programs have been patched together with components from a variety of sources, creating a confusing mix of terminology and concepts. For example, learners might take courses online with one approach, but then work within a performance support system that gives them an entirely different slant on the topics they’ve just learned. Many of the advantages inherent to blended learning solutions are compromised when the elements of the mix aren’t conceptually integrated. Be sure all the elements in your blended learning mix are “singing from the same hymnal.”
Find balance in the high-tech, high-touch conundrum. How does an organization reap the benefits of e-learning without losing the human touch gained through classroom experiences? Some organizations are adopting a strategy of first using asynchronous (any time/any place) online courses for training the basic principles and important concepts across several interrelated topics. Then, the learners convene synchronously (at same time) in a real or virtual classroom (i.e., a group webinar) to interact with each other. They discuss the skills they’ve learned, practice using them, give each other balanced feedback, and plan for individual and group on-the-job application. This “practice lab” approach leverages the investment in the online courses by bringing the human element into the learning. The organization enjoys the efficiency of the online mode as well as the effectiveness of group learning environments.
Another blending approach is to use high-impact classroom courses for the learning initiative and then leverage the organization’s intranet by providing online job aids and support tools related to the classroom learning. Electronic content support also can be used prior to the classroom experiences for preparation and accelerating learning in the topic.
Practice and application are critical. Too many blended learning solutions are long on knowledge acquisition, but short on skill acquisition and practical application. The “practice lab” approach described earlier is one way to ensure better skill acquisition. But what about the e-learning courses themselves? Can they go beyond conceptual learning? The good news is yes, some online soft skills courses include realistic skill-building exercises that challenge learners to choose from among several options for action (the “whats”) and also (and this is critical) from among several alternatives to interact with others in these options (the “hows”).
In addition, well-crafted online courses conclude with a significant unit helping the learners plan for on-the-job applications of the newly learned material. These can include suggested job activities, stretch projects, and planning aids. Some application units go so far as to help learners plan how to approach their manager to request coaching, guidance, and opportunities for trying out the new skills. The key is to help learners move out of the theoretical and into the real world of their jobs.
Blended designs also can move beyond the course and practice lab with “learning communities” on the topic via chat rooms and monitored blogs. These provide learners with an ongoing environment for sharing, problem-solving, and growth.
Executive support is imperative. Well-designed blended solutions can’t exist in an organizational vacuum. Without the support and reinforcement from the learners’ managers all the way to senior leaders, the best of efforts will be short-lived “programs du jour.” In a way, this should take care of itself if the blended training system is built with a business-related goal in mind. Executives will support a system that aligns employees’ efforts with major business initiatives, and then managers up and down the line can easily be recruited to make it happen. Of course, it isn’t always easy to get their ear. The key is to sell the vision for how the blended solution can work in your organization’s culture.
Man and machine
The journey toward technology-based leadership development has been uneven, but full of promise. With commitment to business focus, high-quality and consistent content, a mix of online self-study with group practice, and sound management support, there is a bright future for the learning nexus of “man and machine.” I’m sure that as technology improves and evolves, electronic systems will eventually be able to support even richer simulations for behavioral learning. I will venture forth again soon to monitor the progress being made in game-like learning environments. In the interim, it is through the creative blend of modalities that the industry can affordably prepare our leaders for the demands of tomorrow.