By Clive Shepherd
“In terms of working with external providers for skills programmes, over 80% of organisations say that innovative use of learning technology will be a deciding factor in their selection of an external learning provider in the future.”
Finding from a benchmarking exercise conducted by Towards Maturity CIC with more than 400 UK organisations, published in November 2010.
How are you finding things?
Do any of the following apply to you?
- Budgets for training are flat or reducing.
- Managers are finding it harder to release their staff for days at a time to attend training programmes.
- Travel budgets are under pressure making it harder for participants to travel to central training locations.
- Learning & development staff are apprehensive about the idea of using new learning technologies.
- You have had a poor experience in the past of using rather tedious self-study e-learning.
- You are reluctant to compromise on the quality of the solutions you offer.
- You know you really do have to make changes but you’re not sure where to start.
If your answer to any of the above is ‘yes’, then it will be small comfort to know that you are not alone. The fact is that changes are necessary and we believe we can help you to make the right ones.
Read on if you want to explore the problem and some of the available options in more detail. Alternatively, jump to solutions.
Learning providers at the crossroads
Over the past three years, as we in the learning and development profession have battled with almost unparalleled levels of uncertainty and pressure on resources, my colleagues at Onlignment and I have found ourselves engaged more and more often in discussions with learning providers, both external and in-house, looking to reinvent their offerings for their particular markets.
Of course this is not the first time that learning providers have had to struggle with tight market conditions. But this may well be the first time that customers – internal and external – are beginning to question the basis of the service offering. So what’s changed?
First of all, customers cannot any longer afford for their employees to be off-job for protracted periods. That’s because they don’t have the spare capacity they once had to cover the time lost, and they need all hands on deck. They are also short on budget and, as we all know, training (particularly when external) is one of the easiest expenses to cut. However much we might complain about the importance of learning as an investment in the future, I doubt if any company ever went bust because they delayed formal training when times were tight. We have to accept that fact and realise that learning is typically a medium to long term investment, and some organisations have not been so sure they are going to have a medium to long term.
Customers are also more aware of the environmental impact of excessive employee travel. A good proportion of those cars on the motorway or planes in the air are carrying people to learning events, and not always in situations where face-to-face contact is essential to success. The environment may not be the biggest issue on anyone’s agenda right now, but it will return as economic conditions improve. By then, many organisations will have got used to the idea that many meetings and other events can be handled perfectly adequately using web conferencing.
Finally, there is an increasing awareness that stand-alone classroom interventions have a limited impact on job performance. However enjoyable they may be at the time, and however high the knowledge assessment scores might be at the end, these are no guarantee that what is learned will be retained, applied and then put to good use.
What does this mean?
So, what is the impact of all these changes? Well, one obvious result if you are an external provider is that customers will be ordering fewer of your courses. And, as any business-savvy provider is well aware, the real profits are made when classrooms are close to full, when all fixed costs have been covered and every additional participant makes a direct contribution to the bottom line. Half empty classes are the road to ruin. If you provide your services inside the organisation, it may not be your bottom-line that suffers but your very existence.
The second effect is that customers want their courses to be shorter, often much more so. From a commercial perspective, this means less of a return for each sale made as shorter courses will obviously be cheaper than longer ones. It might also impact on outcomes, because only so much can be effectively taught in a given time and trainers are not miracle workers.
To cap it all, customers are also asking for more flexible, lower-cost alternatives that take advantage of new learning technologies. This is not unreasonable given the proliferation of new learning media and the opening up of bandwidth.
Responding to the pressures
Unfortunately, from my discussions it appears that some learning providers are struggling in their response to these pressures. Sometimes that’s because they have very limited awareness of what new learning technologies have to offer, sometimes much less than their customers do. And given that there is no shortage of information about learning technologies available, in some cases this could be put down to ‘burying your head in the sand and hoping it will all go away’.
For many providers, their only experience is in delivering classroom courses, typically from a catalogue of off-the-shelf options. Often they subcontract much of the delivery of these courses, typically to trainers who are used to being block booked by the day and having no responsibility to their trainees once the classroom event is completed. It’s not easy to shift to a blended model in which parts of the programme may be delivered in short chunks online using a virtual classroom, or in which trainers have to support learners as they apply their new skills back on the job.
If a learning provider moves to a blended delivery model then they are in a very different business. Within the team they need a much better understanding of the design of blended learning interventions as well as the ability to develop materials that are a lot more engaging than the usual handouts and PowerPoints. On top of this they need the development tools and delivery platforms, and the people who are willing and able to use them.
This is not an insignificant change. It takes some time and, like all change, it can be painful. For those classroom trainers well established in their careers it may almost be necessary for them to go through a process not unlike grief as they leave behind their familiar way of working. But the alternative is a slow and inevitable decline in volumes that will be much more damaging in the long term for both the individuals and the companies involved.
As Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, famously warned us, “When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight.”
What are the options?
Any learning provider faced with these pressures and looking to respond positively has essentially three options:
3. Option one, if you are a commercial provider, is to continue with the same business model but fight for a larger share of a smaller market. This clearly is an option and one that involves very little change. The problem, of course, is that only a limited number of businesses can succeed in this endeavour; and some might say that this is just postponing the inevitable.
3. Option two is to maintain a focus on classroom training but to establish partnerships with specialist e-learning developers, as and when you are called upon to respond to requirements that take you outside your comfort zone. This could work as a short term fix, but poses several difficulties. Can two organisations so far apart culturally really work together to create the integrated solutions your customers want? Do you really want to lose control over the shape of the finished learning solution? And if you are a commercial provider, will you be able to compete against those companies who have all the skills under one roof.
3. Option three is to transform your organisation from the inside out to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Equip yourself to provide the innovative and highly-responsive solutions that others, whether they currently specialise in classroom delivery or in developing stand-alone e-learning solutions, so often fail to offer. It is this third option that provides you with the most secure grounding from which to both respond to current pressures and prepare for leadership as the economy recovers.
Onlignment can help you to:
- assess more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of your current offerings, and the opportunities and threats facing you in the future;
- identify realistic opportunities for enhancing the service you offer through the creative use of the full range of online learning technologies;
- establish achievable goals for the integration of new learning technologies into the services you offer, without impacting negatively on quality;
- identify the impact this might have on the way you organise yourselves;
- identify the potential skills gaps relating to new learning technologies and the options you have for resolving these;
- determine the tools you may need to support your future plans.
Onlignment is ideally positioned to help you transform your operation:
- Our consultants have unparalleled experience in learning and development over many decades and many industry sectors. In particular we have helped many hundreds of l&d professionals to upgrade their skills in the use of new learning technologies. Importantly, although we all have extensive knowledge of the ways in which technology can be employed, we are dedicated first of all to the task of improving performance at work through learning and development.
- We believe in empowering l&d professionals by providing them with the knowledge, skills and above all the confidence to take advantage of new learning technologies. While some tasks related to new learning technologies, particularly in content development, are best carried out by specialists, we believe that in most cases these will be the exception and that l&d generalists are more than capable of integrating new technologies into their roles.
- Our unique blended learning model ensures that media choices – including the use of technology – are secondary to the selection of appropriate learning strategies and methods. We do not believe that quality has to be sacrificed in the name of efficiency – both are achievable.
- We believe in a form of blended learning which will dramatically outperform stand-alone classroom or e-learning interventions. It incorporates all social contexts – self-directed, one-to-one and group – and a wide variety of strategies, from simple exposition, through instruction, guided discovery and performance support. Above all, we believe that every situation is different in terms of the learning requirement, audience characteristics, and the practical constraints and opportunities, and that these differences need to be reflected in the design of the solution.
- Our learning technologies competency framework allows us to determine, for each role in your organisation, what existing skills are available and where there are gaps that require attention. In some cases you may be surprised how little is required to bridge the gap; in others you will know where to start taking urgent action and how.
Let’s talk it over
We’d like the opportunity to find out more about your particular situation and to explain how we might be able to help you transform the way you provide learning services to your customers. Contact us and we’ll arrange a preliminary chat, with absolutely no obligation.
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