Blended learning crucial to business survival

Originally published in HR Magazine | 5 March 2021


One year on, the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on businesses globally has been devastating. Many businesses have had to pivot their business models to remain relevant in a contactless, virtual world.


We have seen the collapse of many retail giants - Debenhams and the Arcadia group’s prize assets including Topshop and Miss Selfridge - acquired by Digital Commerce pioneers Boohoo.com and ASOS respectively.


What does this tell us? Workforces across all industries need fresh skill sets to deliver against new business goals, driven to dramatic and irreversible changes in customer behaviour and the impact of technology.


This has put unprecedented pressure on L&D teams who have had to transform. We’ve seen quick fix training programmes being used to rapidly upskill and reskill employees, but the learnings from these training sessions are often ignored as employees default to “business as usual” behaviours once back at work.


Businesses need to look at how they can drive long-term behavioural change and make new learning models a part of everyday working life.


Delivering virtual training


Digital transformation presents challenges in the form of technology adoption, its impact on process and organisation structure. It opens up great opportunities for training.


The lockdown months have proven that remote working frees up more time for learning and we have seen a rise in both employee involvement and engagement. In particular, we see an increase in engagement amongst junior employees. By removing physical and psychological boundaries - including the “scary boss in the room” - employees often feel more comfortable speaking up on a virtual platform.


Let’s not pretend virtual training is perfect though. The face-to-face learning dynamic cannot be replaced with online learning. However, there are clear benefits in incorporating smart technology to drive regular interaction online which translates into behavioural change.


A recent McKinsey report cited that 87% of learners participating in newly adapted virtual experiences agreed that they were at least as effective as an in-person event.


A blended approach


Looking ahead to the end of lockdown, businesses should prepare themselves for a blended approach to building and sustaining digital skills for their people.


Isolated training events simply don’t work. Employees need clearly defined learning journeys that incorporate vital knowledge around topics like customer-centric marketing and personalisation, omnichannel customer experiences, data-driven decision making, product and service innovation.


In our experience, the most effective training programs involve cross-functional teams focused on solving real-time business challenges and creating roadmaps to translate learnings into practice.


The output should be clearly defined responsibilities allocated to participants for driving change initiatives. After a period, follow up review sessions help to identify challenges with implementing change initiatives, often constrained by outdated ‘silo-based’ ways of working.


Learning from the experts


Google delivers innovative and effective training principles for their own employees. These principles have proved extremely effective, and their techniques and other businesses could benefit from adopting similar training styles.


Google has designed a combination of two hour Mini Labs which tackle a broad range of digital transformation topics. The Mini Labs include a few essential elements and outputs:


  • Clearly defined goal for the session

  • Pre-reading and tasks ahead of the session to help participants make the most out of the time available for the Mini Lab

  • Fully inclusive and interactive learning using virtual whiteboards

  • Reinforced learning after the training with defined tasks for all participants to apply learned skills to their day jobs


Remote working and learning will continue beyond the pandemic. It is vital that L&D programmes are tailored for both physical and virtual delivery, to prove engagement and practical outcomes.


The future of learning needs to be interactive, inclusive, and focus on solving practical business challenges.


Digital skills development should be treated as an ongoing investment, rather than a cost. After all, surely it makes sense to empower and motivate your own loyal teams rather than allocate time and budget on finding replacements?


Rob Thurner is CEO and founder of Burn The Sky

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