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When Choosing Training, the Medium Depends on the Message

March 29, 2002
Related Topics: Training Technology, Featured Article, Training & Development

You might think that Krispy Kreme’s toughest challenge would be turning outdoughnuts quickly enough to suit the customers and investors who made thecompany’s stock rise faster than its hot glazed treats. But in 1999, KrispyKreme 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 tocreate a blended program combining online learning with its traditionalclassroom and on-the-job training. Not every company is growing as fast asKrispy Kreme, but all face new challenges in finding the most effective trainingmode to meet their business needs.

The e-learning labyrinth
Companies today face a mind-numbing array of training choices. They cansupplement or convert classroom and on-the-job training with everything fromCD-ROMs to live virtual classroom courses to sophisticated self-paced modulesaccessed via the Web. Some high-tech companies like Dell and Cisco Systems haveput at least 90 percent of their training online. There are certainly compellingreasons for this shift. Independent researcher Brandon Hall studiedorganizations with outstanding training programs and found that their topreasons for implementing online learning were greater access to employees,reduced costs, and speed.

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

But Hollahan cautions that companies can suffer from "techno-lust," whichleads to initiating online projects regardless of the business need. He sayssome 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 leadinge-learning company. He says the trend is for organizations to find out how tomake class time most effective by augmenting it with online elements such astutorials and assessments. "The idea is that by the time we get toface-to-face instruction, students have done so much work that the classroom isreally 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 virtualclassroom training, Webcasts, CD-ROMs, printed material, and on-the-jobtraining. 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" tablecan help. You may also want to talk to other HR and training pros to get theirthoughts.

Saul Carliner, an e-learning consultant and an associate professor ofinformation design at Bentley College, says that if you’re trying to decidewhat type of training mode to use, find a consultant who won’t actuallydevelop 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 fourthousand 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 outwhat 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 takeit.

  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 studyshowing that only a third of training directors felt comfortable talking totheir 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 hardlook 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-LearningCompanies" last year.

"The first thing we did was look at our 2,000 hours of offerings and askhow much of that was supportive of our business strategy," chief learningofficer 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 offered550 programs and 4,200 hours of learning. McGowan says it is all very wellaligned with business strategies. Roughly a quarter of the training isWeb-based, with the rest instructor-led. McGowan says he can see the percentageof Web-based training eventually moving closer to 50 percent, but he’s notsure it will exceed that. "There are too many things you need to haveface-to-face," he says.

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

"Some things become pretty obvious," he says. "If we’re offeringcore-level technical training such as accounting, tax, or auditing for a largeaudience, and it needs to be imparted in a relatively short period of time, it’san ideal situation for Web-enabled training. If we want someone to learn how tobe a more effective coach, we might give them concepts in brief Web-basedlearning. But we know we have to get them into instructor-led training. There,they also have an opportunity to practice their skills and make significantchanges 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 conversionof 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 toppriority. For Krispy Kreme, rapid expansion forced a revamping of itsmanager-training program. Barbara Thornton, the former vice president of humanresources and community affairs, says the doughnut chain needed to speed up andstandardize the training of new managers, while also keeping better tabs ontheir progress.

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

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

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

Handshaw says, "It seems absurd that someone even invented the term blendedlearning. What else would you do? Every time there’s a new technology, werelearn 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 itshugely successful IPO was completed. In the 12 months before the online coursedebuted, 60 employees were trained as managers. In the following 12 months, 149were trained under the blended program. Krispy Kreme is now expanding its onlineprogram to hourly workers.

Customized solutions
Chris James, of Sun Educational Systems, helps businesses decide which typeof training mode to use. The trend toward a blended approach is growing. Hesays, "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- ormanager-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 washaving a performance problem with IT systems administrators. Janet Anderson, Sun’seducational services manager, says front-line people weren’t able to resolvecalls the first time because they didn’t have enough product knowledge oradministrative skills.

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

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

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

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

  • Reduced maintenance calls: 89 percent

    Sun also created a blended solution for a company that had to get itssalespeople 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 theclassroom. So the project focused on 15-minute Web-based modules with flashanimation. Salespeople were able to download key benefits of the new products totheir personal digital assistants, allowing them mobile, just-in-time learning.

Targeting the learner
    Element K’s Bob Mosher says one mistake that organizations sometimes makeis basing an e-learning initiative on content rather than the learner. Forexample, companies often want to begin with a simple course, but that may meantargeting a user who is not technologically savvy. Mosher says that a greatplace to start instead is with IT staff, because not only are they computerliterate, but they also tend to be independent learners who often take classesfor certification.

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

    She says, "We’re finding that employees are appreciating that they don’thave 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. Wewanted to make sure we were tailoring it to individuals as well as benefitingthe company, so that everyone wins."

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

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

    But advances in virtual classrooms and Webcasts will undoubtedly contributeto the continuing drop in classroom training. Research from Corporate UniversityXchange, a New York-based consulting firm, indicates that classroom usage incorporate training will fall from about 80 percent in 2000 to 60 percent by nextyear.

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

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