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When Choosing Training, the Medium Depends on the Message

April 21, 2002
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You might think that Krispy Kreme’s toughest challenge would be turning out doughnuts quickly enough to suit the customers and investors who made the company’s stock rise faster than its hot glazed treats. But in 1999, Krispy Kreme decided it was going to double the number of its stores within three years -- and that meant finding a better, faster way to train its managers.

The North Carolina company, which now has more than 200 stores, decided to create a blended program combining online learning with its traditional classroom and on-the-job training. Not every company is growing as fast as Krispy Kreme, but all face new challenges in finding the most effective training mode to meet their business needs.

The e-learning labyrinth
Companies today face a mind-numbing array of training choices. They can supplement or convert classroom and on-the-job training with everything from CD-ROMs to live virtual classroom courses to sophisticated self-paced modules accessed via the Web. Some high-tech companies like Dell and Cisco Systems have put at least 90 percent of their training online. There are certainly compelling reasons for this shift. Independent researcher Brandon Hall studied organizations with outstanding training programs and found that their top reasons for implementing online learning were greater access to employees, reduced costs, and speed.

E-learning consultant Jim Hollahan says many companies no longer have the luxury of debating whether to do online training. "Costs are going to be the criteria," he says. "If we can deliver education as effectively for 50 percent less, doesn’t it make sense to do it?" IBM, for example, estimates that it saves more than $400,000 for every 1,000 classroom days converted to Web-based courses.

But Hollahan cautions that companies can suffer from "techno-lust," which leads to initiating online projects regardless of the business need. He says some companies try to jam all their training through an "asynchronous" (self-paced) tool, when in reality you need a "synchronous" (live) environment for at least a portion of your educational strategy.

Bob Mosher is the executive director of education for Element K, a leading e-learning company. He says the trend is for organizations to find out how to make class time most effective by augmenting it with online elements such as tutorials and assessments. "The idea is that by the time we get to face-to-face instruction, students have done so much work that the classroom is really powerful," Mosher says.

Getting started
A blended approach can involve any combination of classroom training, self-paced instruction accessed via the Internet or an intranet, live virtual classroom training, Webcasts, CD-ROMs, printed material, and on-the-job training. These choices all have trade-offs in terms of cost and effectiveness. If you’re not familiar with these trade-offs, this "pros and cons" table can help. You may also want to talk to other HR and training pros to get their thoughts.

Saul Carliner, an e-learning consultant and an associate professor of information design at Bentley College, says that if you’re trying to decide what type of training mode to use, find a consultant who won’t actually develop your course, but will advise you on which path to take. Carliner says, "If it saves you $50,000 in stupid mistakes, it’s the best three or four thousand you ever spent."

If you’re making the decision yourself, Carliner advises:

  1. First take an online course yourself. If you don’t like it, figure out what you don’t like about it.

  2. Start small; don’t come up with a plan to convert more than one course. Do a pilot to make sure the first course is going to work. Let key users take it.

  3. Don’t feel you have to transfer everything you taught in the classroom. What worked face-to-face isn’t necessarily going to work online.

  4. Make sure you know the technology. Carliner said he recently did a study showing that only a third of training directors felt comfortable talking to their bosses about key issues such as learning-management systems.

Aligning training to business strategy
Before you even start thinking about training modes, it helps to take a hard look at current training offerings. That’s what Ernst & Young did in 1999, helping to make it one of Brandon Hall’s "Global Top 10 E-Learning Companies" last year.

"The first thing we did was look at our 2,000 hours of offerings and ask how much of that was supportive of our business strategy," chief learning officer Ray McGowan says. "Frankly speaking, 1,200 hours wasn’t supportive, so we scrapped it, leaving us with 800 hours of training."

Ernst & Young then rebuilt its portfolio, and as of last June, it offered 550 programs and 4,200 hours of learning. McGowan says it is all very well aligned with business strategies. Roughly a quarter of the training is Web-based, with the rest instructor-led. McGowan says he can see the percentage of Web-based training eventually moving closer to 50 percent, but he’s not sure it will exceed that. "There are too many things you need to have face-to-face," he says.

When it comes to choosing the best delivery channel for training, McGowan considers three primary factors: content, audience, and the level of performance change the company wishes to see.

"Some things become pretty obvious," he says. "If we’re offering core-level technical training such as accounting, tax, or auditing for a large audience, and it needs to be imparted in a relatively short period of time, it’s an ideal situation for Web-enabled training. If we want someone to learn how to be a more effective coach, we might give them concepts in brief Web-based learning. But we know we have to get them into instructor-led training. There, they also have an opportunity to practice their skills and make significant changes in their performance before they go back to learning online."

When there’s no time to waste
Typically, companies don’t jump into e-learning with a wholesale conversion of their classroom training. So, how do you decide which course to start with? Consultant Jim Hollahan says your most urgent business need should be your top priority. For Krispy Kreme, rapid expansion forced a revamping of its manager-training program. Barbara Thornton, the former vice president of human resources and community affairs, says the doughnut chain needed to speed up and standardize the training of new managers, while also keeping better tabs on their progress.

    The old manager-training program consisted of 12 weeks of on-the-job training combined with 4 weeks of classroom training. Krispy Kreme hired Charlotte-based Handshaw & Associates to create a blended, multimedia approach. It starts with six weeks of on-the-job training at a certified training store, supported by Web-based training modules, video, and hard-copy materials. Trainees then take a week of classroom instruction, followed by another six weeks of on-the-job and Web-based training. Training ends with a final week in the classroom.

Thornton says one of the most successful aspects of this approach was putting structure around on-the-job training, which previously had not been very formalized. She also liked being able to track performance on the computer-based modules. "It’s very important to have all management trainees on the same playing field before they come for classroom training. Previously they had been all over the board." Dick Handshaw, president of Handshaw & Associates, says, "The generic principle is if you can get people in at the same behavior level, you can get them out of the classroom in half the time with better mastery."

With a blended approach, Krispy Kreme was able to reach different kinds of learning styles. Employees could learn by doing, reading manuals, and interacting with the Web-based training. Thornton, who is now on Handshaw & Associates’ Advisory Board, says, "When you designate that a certain percentage of your learning be online, you ignore the most important part of the equation -- the learner. You have to look at what’s going to make the learner most successful. The best way to transmit knowledge is not going to be the same answer every time."

Handshaw says, "It seems absurd that someone even invented the term blended learning. What else would you do? Every time there’s a new technology, we relearn the lesson that not everything should be delivered in the same way."

Krispy Kreme’s Management 101 went live on April 5, 2000, the same day its hugely successful IPO was completed. In the 12 months before the online course debuted, 60 employees were trained as managers. In the following 12 months, 149 were trained under the blended program. Krispy Kreme is now expanding its online program to hourly workers.

Customized solutions
Chris James, of Sun Educational Systems, helps businesses decide which type of training mode to use. The trend toward a blended approach is growing. He says, "We look at what makes sense to develop as Web self-paced instruction, what must be done face-to-face, and what parts should be coach- or manager-enabled, with everything linked much closer to business activities." James says he has steered customers away from doing an all-Web initiative, because usually the blended approach is more appropriate.

For example, Sun worked with a large Internet service provider that was having a performance problem with IT systems administrators. Janet Anderson, Sun’s educational services manager, says front-line people weren’t able to resolve calls the first time because they didn’t have enough product knowledge or administrative skills.

Sun first provided online questionnaires for self-assessment of employees and developed customized tests to identify skill gaps. Sun was then able to provide each employee with his or her own training plan. It averaged one online hour for every three hours of face-to-face instruction.

    Nearly 200 people were trained in less than a year. Sun says that results included:

  • Cost savings: 62 percent, or more than $1 million, in comparison to standard classes

  • Time savings: 68 percent, or more than 17,000 person-hours, in comparison to standard classes

  • Reduced maintenance calls: 89 percent

    Sun also created a blended solution for a company that had to get its salespeople up to speed quickly on new products. But in this case, James says, they wanted to limit off-the-job time and the time employees spent in the classroom. So the project focused on 15-minute Web-based modules with flash animation. Salespeople were able to download key benefits of the new products to their personal digital assistants, allowing them mobile, just-in-time learning.

Targeting the learner
    Element K’s Bob Mosher says one mistake that organizations sometimes make is basing an e-learning initiative on content rather than the learner. For example, companies often want to begin with a simple course, but that may mean targeting a user who is not technologically savvy. Mosher says that a great place to start instead is with IT staff, because not only are they computer literate, but they also tend to be independent learners who often take classes for certification.

    One of Element K’s clients is AAA, a national federation of more than 44 million motorists. Patty Kleinfeldt, AAA’s manager of quality and education, says AAA has done a lot of marketing to make employees feel comfortable learning online. For example, employees can leave their desks to train in computer rooms. Kleinfeldt says that people who really feel uncomfortable learning online can opt for classroom training. Few employees are choosing that route.

    She says, "We’re finding that employees are appreciating that they don’t have to be away from the office, they don’t have to learn at the lowest level, and they don’t feel embarrassed if they’re not at the highest level. We wanted to make sure we were tailoring it to individuals as well as benefiting the company, so that everyone wins."

    Most of AAA’s online offerings are completely self-paced, with technical subjects like Microsoft Office and Java the most popular. But Kleinfeldt says she believes strongly in a blended approach for areas such as leadership training. "It’s important to have some discoveries in the classroom. You talk about each other’s skills and difficult situations, so you learn as much from each other as you do from the training."

What’s ahead?
    Some in the e-learning industry argue that synchronous online classes can generate the same kind of discussion and group learning as the traditional classroom, without the travel costs. But Mosher says virtual classrooms are still very immature. It’s difficult for some employees to access the information because there are firewalls that help provide security. He also says that synchronous training can be "a double-edged sword." It is less convenient than self-paced training. Mosher says because people don’t have to actually drive somewhere, they often don’t show up. Another problem is the quality of instruction. He says, "There are a lot of very gifted, captivating people who are hideous online."

    But advances in virtual classrooms and Webcasts will undoubtedly contribute to the continuing drop in classroom training. Research from Corporate University Xchange, a New York-based consulting firm, indicates that classroom usage in corporate training will fall from about 80 percent in 2000 to 60 percent by next year.

    Most e-learning advocates don’t think face-to-face instruction will eventually disappear. Saul Carliner says, "The trend toward blended learning has been like Prozac to the industry -- a great mood-controller." He says people are relieved that they don’t have to put everything online. But now the challenge is finding just the right mix of traditional and online instruction that will meet the needs of your organization and its learners.

Workforce Online, April 2002 -- Register Now!

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