Classroom-based training is outmoded and ineffective for some employers. Does this spell the end of the training room, asks Anna Hipkiss?
It is an open secret that too often classroom training does not work. It is like taking a recreational drug: trainers and trainees experience a brief high, but that soon fades – and for many there is little of value to take back to the workplace.
Many companies are finally waking up to this and, having questioned its effectiveness, are finding ways to replace the classroom.
John Phillips, head of learning and development at financial services company Experian, believes there is a huge misconception about how we learn. “From the age of five to 21, we reinforce the classroom method of learning,” he explains. “A large percentage of the population is conditioned to be educated purely by attendance. But today, the training room is just one way to acquire learning, not the only way.”
Love to learn
It is a view that is widespread. The 2006 learning and development survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reported that just 17% of organisations found formal training sessions were the best way to learn.
Two-fifths said on-the-job training was the most effective learning method, with just 1% plumping for e-learning and 13% for coaching and mentoring.
Why is classroom-based training in decline? There is a marked switch from employees being the passive recipients of training to the proactive learners, according to learning and development professionals.
People learn in many ways, they say, so classroom training is no longer central to this process. Consequently, many employers now focus on helping individuals to find their own learning style and use the learning methods that best suit them.
Malcolm Tulloch, head of organisation development for natural gas specialist BG Group, says: “Learning to learn is a subject people are experimenting with more and more.” BG runs an initiative called the flexible management programme, which orients people to their own learning style and guides their development.
Employers are also beginning to realise that experiential learning – learning by doing, reflection and real-world application – has a far greater value than simply sitting in a classroom.
“It used to be easy to take people away [on a course] for three or four days. Now it is difficult, even for a day, at senior level,” says Tulloch. “Recognising the importance of experiential learning is vital.”
Nicola Wicks, head of training and development at Mothercare, agrees. “You can’t train the old way – set up a workshop and everybody comes along – you have to find something more practical. We take a pragmatic approach. Our methodology is different and we really focus on learning through actions rather than theory,” she says.
What’s more, the predictions in the late 1990s that e-learning would replace classroom-based learning have not been realised. E-learning is just one of the options available to organisations.
Get stuck in
Experiential learning is about far more than on-the-job training. When the learner is active, expects to have a coach and a mentor, and is working to a structured development plan, the value is far greater.
Now, the portfolio of training available to staff can include not just classroom courses but also structured projects or secondments.
Rather than spending all of their time producing busy training schedules and lists of courses, progressive learning and development departments now have time to structure the real-world projects, which make a lasting difference to performance.
At insurance company Zurich, for example, staff are offered several learning options. Paul Tuck, its head of talent, learning and development, encourages coaching, individual ownership of training programmes, and lots of learning options – of which a training course is just one. “We do lots of project assignments,” he explains.
No longer the centre stage of workplace learning, the classroom must now take its place as just one of a host of learning options for employees.
Anna Hipkiss is a consultant and coach to HR and learning and development professionals.
Case study: IBM
Computer giant IBM has placed experiential learning at the centre of its employee development strategy.
“Business is moving much faster now. It’s difficult to get people for even a half-day session. So we move learning to the workplace, rather than the learner going to the classroom,” explains Mia Vanstraelen, director of IBM Learning.
The company uses a system of blended learning, involving e-learning, coaching and learning labs and workshops for real teams. It supplies staff with information in advance so that they can attend a ‘high performance group session’, which might be a two- to four-hour workshop about a current business issue. Follow-up might then take the form of individual or group coaching.
“It is a highly business-centric approach,” says Vanstraelen. “We ask our internal customers: ‘What is your timetable?’ We no longer issue a course schedule, we fit around them.”
This month in Training & Coaching Today
One thing training should be is memorable – for the right reasons. We look at how to address this issue by making training stick.
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