Thursday, October 26, 2006

It's All in the Mix

I can't seem to read a training journal, magazine, or conference abstract lately without hearing about blended learning. It seems that everyone is in search of the holy grail of the perfect mix of classroom and online, real-time and anytime, instructor-led and self-service learning.

What is the perfect mix? Well, it depends. Most specifically, it depends on:

The Nature of Your Learning Goals

Some types of learning goals (e.g. complex technical skills, human interaction skills, intense behavioural change) are best handled in face-to-face real-time learning environments. Others (e.g. knowledge attainment, grasping new processes, compliance issues) may better be handled asynchronously online. The best situation is one in which both modes support what happens in the other. For example, self-paced online modules could prepare learners for intense face-to-face role playing sessions in order to maximize the efficiency of these real-time events.

The Nature of Your Learners

When blending learning modes, much will depend on the nature of your learners. Where are they? Are they centrally located or geographically dispersed? What are their ages? What is their experience and comfort with technology? What are their learning styles? Answers to these questions will have a significant bearing on the kind of blending that is necessary and practical.

The biggest mistake when blending different training modes is to stack them together without any thought to real integration. This can lead to disjointed and/or repetitive training programs.

Getting the right mix in blended learning is a lot like cooking. You want all the constituent ingredients complementing each other, rather than over-powering each other, and fighting for attention.

We will explore these issues in some detail in a webinar on November 2nd titled Blended Learning: How to Get the Right Mix.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Creating a Culture of Compliance

Our webinar on compliance training yesterday attracted 50 participants, including a good representation from financial and pharmaceutical companies (not surprising, given the degree of regulatory oversight in these sectors). We did a critique of some typical compliance training, discussed some of the possible legal repercussions of poor training, and presented a demo of some best practices in compliance training. The upshot of the webinar was that it is not enough to merely require that employees participate in training. Rather, the goal should be to create a culture of compliance to ensure that the goals of compliance (whether improved safety, zero environmental infractions, proper accounting procedures, etc.) are realized.

When we asked participants about their experiences with compliance training, the results were decidedly mixed. Although some had success with blended approaches, many thought that their compliance training efforts, especially those conducted online, left a lot to be desired. Comments about compliance training included:

"Dry and boring..."

"Boring PowerPoints handed down by corporate..."

"'Just the facts ma'am' style - not engaging..."

"Staff just click through it yearly..."

"End users not really happy when it is time to complete the annual training..."

This is unfortunate, because eLearning holds out the possibility of reaching employees across the organization with a consistent message and approach. It allows learners to proceed through the learning at their own pace when it is most convenient to them. Documentation of who completed the training can be automated and the organization can have real-time completion stats at its fingertips. And eLearning can be a more cost-effective approach than in-class, especially with large numbers of learners and over time.

However, for compliance eLearning to be effective, it has to be good. We were lucky to be joined on our webinar by Michael Korcuska, the VP of Operations for ELT Inc., a San Francisco-based producer of online compliance programs. We took a tour of their new Workplace Harassment program. ELT takes an innovative story-based approach to such training. The scenarios they create are realistic (based on actual cases), present sympathetic characters, focus on workplace behaviour, raise pertinent and challenging questions, and compel the learner to focus on their own attitudes, preconceptions and behaviours. This is definitely not a dry and boring click-through approach.

Our other special guest was Bruce McMeekin, a partner with Miller Thomson law firm in Toronto. He impressed upon participants that if something does go wrong (e.g. someone gets hurt or is killed on the job, chemicals are released into environment, customers are injured because someone did not follow proper procedures, etc.) your training efforts could come under scrutiny. Reasonable care must be taken to ensure that your compliance training is thorough and of good quality.

One participant brought up the point that it is not enough to have good training, you must also have systems in place to ensure that the desired behaviours are actually occurring in the workplace. Bruce agreed entirely, stating that there should be periodic audits to ensure proper behaviour, and that the importance of this message be clear from the very top on down in the organization. In the end, proper approaches to training are important, but it is a "culture of compliance" that ulimately ensures compliant behaviour.

If you missed it, here is a recording of the webinar.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Taking Compliance Training Seriously

The Masie Center recently reported that 60% of all new learning initiatives in large organizations are driven by legal compliance regulations. They are scrambling to meet the demands for training in a wide range of areas, including health and safety, environmental regulation, privacy, financial reporting, and human rights. And many see the advantage of reaching a dispersed workforce with such training via eLearning. They can overcome the challenges of time and distance to reach many people at once, and have a record of such training having been completed (important for compliance).

I have examined a lot of what passes for eLearning compliance training and it isn't pretty. There is a great deal of online tell-and-test memorization exercises, but very little that aims at changing behaviours in the workplace. Because compliance training is something that we HAVE to do, we tend to look at it as a nuisance to be gotten through, rather than an opportunity to effect real and beneficial change in the organization.

Unfortunately, many training departments look for the fastest and cheapest way to be able to check compliance training off the list. They buy something off the shelf or slap something together themselves, make their employees endure it, and then declare that they have met their obligations.

When the primary goal becomes checking off your list, the focus is on the training, not the compliance.

What would happen if we turned things around? For example, instead of starting with the objective of getting x number of employees to complete hazardous materials handling training by x date, we had an objective for our training of reducing hazardous materials handling incidents by x per cent in the next year? I think that this would focus our attention on creating a learning intervention centred on changing the way that our employees actual handle hazardous materials, not just on having them complete a quick-and-dirty top-level program that allows us to check this off our list.

Too many training departments confuse cost and value when doing compliance training. Doing it right may cost a bit more, but the value is in effecting positive change (e.g. lower accident rates, less human rights complaints, positive financial audit outcomes, zero environmental incidents, etc.), that not only brings the organization into compliance, but improves the bottom line.

We will explore these issues in a webinar on October 19th titled Compliance Training: Going Beyond the "Check-it-off-the-List" Approach.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Set Your eLearning Free

We ran another in our continuing series of webinars on Thursday. I think we struck a chord out there, as 43 individuals from across North America, and as far away as South Africa, logged in and participated in an event centred on creative ways to break free of various technological constraints when designing and delivering eLearning. The title - Don't Box Me In! - summed up the theme of the webinar.

In relating their own experiences in eLearning, various participants lamented limited functionality in the technology they are using, lack of interaction it affords, differing technologies not able to "talk" to each other, lack of proper user tracking, and limited IT support for learning technologies. These are familiar refrains that hear from clients every day. Our response, and the one we delivered today, is as follows:

1. There is No "One" Way to do eLearning.

The possibilities are virtually limitless. A learning management system (LMS) is not always necessary. Vendors will have you believing that an LMS is the be all and end all. There are so many creative things that can be done without an LMS by mixing and matching various technologies (e.g. Flash modules / discussion board software / back-end recording keeping database) that can deliver your required functionality without a huge up-front investment required in a packaged system.

2. Technology Choices Abound

We are living in an age of abundance in terms of the range of easy-to-use technologies that we can deploy in the service of eLearning. There is a plethora of choice, from open source courseware, to free Web 2.0 social networking software (blogs and wikis), to open source downloadable plug-and-play widgets. It doesn't have to be a one system, one-size-fits-all approach. You can take a flexible approach and grow as you learn. Some day you may require an LMS, but if you are starting small and experimenting, keep it simple.

3. Get IT Folks on Side

The IT people can make your life a joy or complete hell, depending on the extent to which they help or hinder you in reaching your goals for your eLearning. If possible, get your own IT person or team right in the training / learning function. That way, they work for you and are less likely to be obstructionist. This is especially true in very large organizations, where the IT function is quite often uniform and rigid.

4. Technology Should Not be Your Starting Point

Our mantra hasn't changed over many years. Strategy should drive technology, not the other way around. Too many organizations think the first thing they have to do when starting eLearning is to buy a "system." Wrong. The first thing you should do is determine why you want to do eLearning, what results will define success, and the particular situation of your organization and the nature of the learners you will be reaching. Then, and only then, should you start thinking about the types of technology that will help get you there.

For those who missed the webinar, here is a link to the recording.