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Goodbye Training, Hello Learning

It s the training tool worthy of the next millennium. It s tiny, actually—a fraction of the size of an infant s fingernail, half as thin, and weighs less than a strand of human hair. Yet this incredible chip can “store and deploy” an organization s entire training curriculum, including highly interactive, multimedia applications, at speeds that rival human thought. And updating content couldn t be easier. Once the chip has been surgically implanted in the employee s cerebral cortex, a noninvasive laser procedure can be used to modify any behavior you want your people to demonstrate …

All right, so the chip is fantasy. But how far did you read before you knew you were being kidded? Even if you caught on after the second or third sentence, the fact that you got that far shows how accustomed we ve become to dazzling technological innovations. And while the world of surgically enhanced training will remain, one hopes, strictly sci-fi, technological and market forces have changed the face of training forever—and continue to do so every day.

As we enter the next millennium, the most fundamental shift will reflect a redefinition of training itself. To retain key talent, remain competitive and ensure long-term profitability, organizations are making dramatic changes in the way they develop the knowledge and skills of their workforce. Training as something provided for employees will be replaced by learning that employees initiate themselves. Training, when available, will be replaced by learning, when needed. Training for the masses will be replaced by highly customized, just-for-me learning.

Notice a trend? Goodbye, training; hello, learning.

Evolution of the revolution.
The transformation of training to learning is being brought about by forces that have been reshaping the marketplace for the last two decades. The most influential of these change agents include:

Global competition
The incredible growth of competition—locally, nationally and globally—has given consumers virtually unlimited buying choices, forcing organizations to respond to escalating market demands quickly and accurately. For training organizations, this pressure eliminates the luxury of long program development cycles. “Our employees simply can t wait four to six months for a training program,” says Deborah Masten, human resources development director for JCPenney Co. “By the time the program is developed, the market may demand an entirely new or enhanced set of skills. Our people have to learn as needed, not when it s convenient.”

Rightsizing and other euphemisms
Competition and other pressures continue to force organizations of every size to cut costs—and thinning the employee ranks remains the most favored knee-jerk response. In addition, while mergers and acquisitions may not command the headlines they did a few years ago, mergers and acquisitions continue to redefine the corporate landscape. For example, in the chemical industry alone, mergers and acquisitions have steadily climbed to $40 billion in the past five years, according to a September 27, 1999, report by PR Newswire. In another report, this one by Dow Jones & Co., merger-related job cuts for the first six months of 1999 rose by 45 percent over the same period in 1998—a record year for such cuts. The employees who survive these reorganizations often find themselves saddled with more responsibility, yet lack the knowledge, experience and skills to do what s expected of them. Skilled, knowledgeable employees have always been an organization s greatest asset, but retaining them is now its greatest challenge. Many organizations are finding that providing relevant, effective and cutting-edge training helps them meet that challenge.

Changing employer-employee relationships
Ask a group of employees why they roll their eyes at the notion of loyalty to a single company, and chances are they ll ask why employers scoff at the concept of lifetime employment. The entire employer-employee relationship has changed dramatically. Employees know that the responsibility for their careers lies in the ability to stay abreast of critical knowledge and skills; employers realize that they must provide these opportunities to more of their people. “We need to put learning back in the hands of our employees,” says Ralph Bates, vice president of learning and professional development for Fairfax, Virginia-based American Management Systems Inc., an international business and information technology consulting firm with 8,500 employees worldwide. “That s good news, since the best learning is done when individuals are motivated to learn on their own. Employers must take on the responsibility for providing those opportunities.”

No other development has had the impact on the way we do business than the ever-increasing use of and accessibility to high-technology tools. Consider the fact that e-commerce, a term unknown just a few years ago, garnered $2 billion in 1998, and is expected to reach $35 billion by 2002, according to an April 1999 report from eMarketer.com. Also, last year, International Data Corp. s “Computers:Hardware Industrial Survey” reported that spending in the information technology market is doubling every four years, PC shipments have experienced a 20 percent annual growth since 1992. And a March 1999 issue of U.S. News &World Report says 2.2 billion e-mail messages are sent each day (versus 293 million pieces of first-class mail).

Technology is having just as profound an effect on training. The American Society of Training and Development s (ASTD) Industry Report 1998 revealed that formal training by U.S. organizations with 100 or more employees topped $60 billion in 1998—a 26 percent increase since 1993. Fully one third of all courses were devoted to computer training.

So how will these trends shape the world of training as it enters the new millennium? The correct answer is an easy one: No one knows for sure. But based on current trends, it appears that the most forward-looking HR professionals are focusing their time and resources in four key areas: corporate universities, distance learning, self-directed learning and strategic classroom learning.

Corporate universities are taking training “virtual.”
The corporate university is not exactly a new idea. Hamburger University, McDonald s worldwide and world-famous management training center, has been around for 37 years. And many other large organizations have adopted similar approaches to educating and training their employees.

But while the idea of a corporate university isn t new, the nature of these learning centers is changing in two primary ways: content and structure.

First, the curriculum itself will reflect the need to respond to the evolving needs of today s workers. MMI Companies Inc. is an international health-care risk-management services company based in Deerfield, Illinois. Four years ago, MMI recruited Nancy Prendergast, a former college professor, to create a university for the organization and serve as its dean. Today, MMI Insights University provides a wide and constantly changing curriculum for its more than 900 employees.

“When I used to think of training, I thought of a reactive, skills-based activity—something created in response to a market need,” says Prendergast. “This approach simply isn t enough to keep pace in today s knowledge-based economy. We need learners. Corporate universities can meet the needs of learners by repositioning the whole approach to acquiring and applying knowledge.”

At Insights University, this approach is embodied in the university s mission to teach its learners how to move from information to knowledge to wisdom.

“Technology is putting more and more information into everyone s hands,” Prendergast explains. “Our job is to help them gain the knowledge from that information to deal successfully with specific situations. The next step is to move from working with knowledge to working with wisdom—to figure out how you can make a difference. You can t accomplish all that with static content. You ve got to keep your curriculum fluid, constantly adding new courses and new methodologies.”

To keep employees thinking about big-picture issues, Insights University sponsors bimonthly teleconference calls, conducted by a senior executive and open to any employee. During the call, the executive facilitates a discussion on an article or a topic featured in a recent business magazine or journal. This approach, says Prendergast, gives everyone an opportunity to reflect on what s going on in the market, and discuss any impact those trends may have on their own business.

The second change in the corporate university approach impacts the structure of the university itself. JCPenney, which calls its corporate university “The Learning Place,” has torn down the wall of a tradition—literally.

“There is no bricks-and-mortar facility for our university, outside of the production studio,” says JCPenney s Masten. “We ve created a completely virtual university. When people need knowledge, they need it immediately. They can t wait until it can be scheduled, then hop on a plane and spend a week in a seminar.”

To accomplish that, The Learning Place has a production studio at the company s headquarters office in Plano, Texas. From there, Masten and her staff of 14 use a variety of technologies to train all of JCPenney s 200,000 store and catalog employees on a virtual basis.

Distance learning is a growing trend.
To make their corporate universities work, Masten and Prendergast are deeply involved in the second major trend that s transforming training: distance learning. Their experience reflects the growing trend among more and more organizations to put learning more directly into the hands of its geographically diverse and highly mobile workforce.

MMI s Insights University, for example, relies on online and audio technologies as part of their distance-learning strategies. Participants dial an audioconference number and simultaneously connect to a Web site. The facilitator appears in a small screen on the computer monitor, along with text or graphics applications that are part of the training. Participants without Internet access can participate via the audioconferencing component.

JCPenney s Learning Place uses videoconferencing with satellite capabilities to conduct sessions for its employees all over the world. A facilitator in the production room in Plano can conduct a session for store managers in thousands of different locations around the country. Using a touch pad, a participant can signal that he or she would like to ask a question or make a comment—and then ask the question or make the comment so that all other participants can hear it. The facilitator can also gauge how well the learning is absorbed by conducting interactive quizzes and getting an immediate score. Masten says participants enjoy distance learning because they can learn what they want, when they want it.

This approach has an immediate and obvious impact on the bottom line. Masten says the virtual approach adopted by The Learning Place saves her company at least $1 million a year. “The airlines and hotel companies may not want to hear it,” she says, “but we ve eliminated all training-related travel. We also save money on training materials because all our materials are available online.”

However, one current drawback to distance learning is the still-evolving technology. For example, the bandwidth limitations of the telephone lines that most people use to connect to the Internet or a company s intranet put severe restrictions on the motion quality of video, throwing sound and motion synchronization off and increasing idle time while the data is being transmitted. This makes the video component a less-than-ideal aspect of the training—and may even hinder a participant s involvement. Advances are being made every day, and most experts agree that the bandwidth problem will be overcome fairly soon.

Technology guides self-directed learning.
As employees take more responsibility for their learning, they re going to be doing it more and more on their own time. And no matter how many courses a virtual university may offer, there will be times when the knowledge is needed but the facilitator is unavailable. Therefore, organizations must look for ways to make information and learning opportunities available 24-7. More and more organizations are doing that through self-directed learning technologies, such as computer-based training programs.

Again, this idea isn t a new one. But until recently, computer-based training was used primarily in technical applications. The next major transformation already underway in self-directed learning is using this technology to learn professional development—what many call “soft”—skills. This is made possible through recent advances in video streaming and other technologies that can help create realistic, highly interactive computer-based simulations that can branch off into dozens, even hundreds of realistic conversational pathways. The direction depends entirely on how the user responds to the character in the simulation.

According to Clint Everton, president of DBM Knowledge Communications, a professional development software division of Drake Beam Morin, the most effective software for teaching soft skills share the same components of a best-selling video game. The user becomes totally involved in the situation, he says, and reacts much as he or she would in real life. “With simulation, it all comes down to learning by doing—still the best, most effective learning method,” says Everton. “When I see beads of sweat forming on the participant s forehead, I know the program is working.”

As with distance learning, there are a number of advantages to self-directed training that put it high on the list of trends to watch. First, the cost savings are obvious and significant. Travel time and expenses are all but eliminated. Because the programs are already developed, expensive programming costs—unless highly customized software is required—are also eliminated. Productivity is maintained, even enhanced, since learners can take the training on their own time.

Next, there s a level of consistency you simply can t get when rolling out traditional, instructor-led training. With professional development software, participants in Los Angeles and New York City deal with the exact same situation, presented in the exact the same way. Plus the content and goals are all linked to organizational objectives.

Another benefit is faster “ramp-up” time. As noted earlier, in the new economy, some managers have outdated skills; others haven t had the time and experience needed to acquire them. Professional-development software helps both groups of learners review, acquire or get up to speed more quickly.

A concern many people have about self-directed learning is that you reduce group interaction and the ability to build on ideas. If an organization relies too heavily on self-directed learning, employees may miss out on such opportunities as meeting and networking with colleagues and corporate executives. These face-to-face encounters are essential to creating and maintaining an organization s unique culture, and help employees gain a better understanding of how things really get done in their organizations.

These are valid concerns and should be addressed as part of the organization s overall training and development strategy. With the increase of self-directed learning, the organization needs to consider how to facilitate interaction and communication in different ways. You need to be creative in setting up opportunities for that to happen, and technology can often play a part (for instance, with videoconferencing, telephone conferences and online coaching). One solution can be strategic application of classroom training.

Enter the strategic classroom.
Does the move toward virtual universities, distance learning and self-directed learning spell the end of traditional, classroom-style training? Hardly. There will always be the need for the interpersonal, face-to-face contact that you can only get in a classroom setting. But because the demands and needs of today s workforce are shifting so dramatically, classroom training must be adapted to complement the easy access and on-demand capabilities of technology-based learning. The good news is that when the technology and classroom work in concert, the entire learning process can be much more efficient, targeted and strategic than ever.

The efficiency factor becomes apparent when you consider the traditional acquire-practice-transfer learning model, which rightly holds that knowledge and skills must first be learned and practiced before they can be applied to the employee s work environment. In a classroom setting, a major portion of the training is dedicated to these two critical steps—limiting the amount of time that can be spent exploring specific, real-world applications of the strategies and skills. However, technology-based learning enables participants to acquire the knowledge and practice the skills before they step into a classroom. A well-designed technology course charts progress, provides feedback and ensures that completion of the program guarantees a certain level of competency.

Not only is classroom time used more efficiently, but the content of the program can be more effectively targeted. This, in turn, translates into more strategic training, since content can be linked more closely to specific organizational objectives. The time and money spent on classroom training yields results more quickly and efficiently, since the emphasis is less on acquisition and practice, and more on strategic applications.

Using this strategy, human resources can assume the role of a valued learning partner—one who drives the learning needed for the organization to select, retain and continually develop the organization s most important asset: its people. Moreover, its learning activities and initiatives become regarded less as an overhead expense and more as bottom-line, results-oriented applications of critical knowledge and skills.

Think like a business pro.
So how can you turn your organization into a learning organization? Do what the employees who are positioning themselves for the next millennium are doing. Assume the responsibility for change, investigate the many options available, keep the big picture in mind—then act.

But a final and very appropriate word of caution from Mark Laurin, director of global HR training and development for Rosemont, Illinois-based Galileo International, an electronic distribution services provider to the travel industry: “Don t fall prey to technolust by confusing high-tech presentations with performance.” Laurin insists that the most important change in HR that must take place as we enter 2000 is anything but technological.

“We have to think less like trainers and more like business professionals,” he says. “We have to forget for a moment the high-tech gizmos, so that we can focus on the big picture. And the big picture is that performance problems aren t always solved by training. We must become fluent and comfortable with evaluating what we do, and recommend non-training solutions when appropriate. We no longer have the luxury of saying, ‘I missed. Can I try that again? Because in our competitive marketplace—one that will only grow more competitive—it ll already be too late.”

Workforce, November 1999, Vol. 78, No. 11, pp. 35-42.