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Technology versus Tradition

September 6, 2011

We are participants in ‘the knowledge economy’. We talk frequently about the need for new and increased skills. ‘The talent gap’ is s a recurrent theme – or excuse – cited by managers as the limiting factor in business progress and innovation.

So what is the best answer to addressing these needs and equipping people for the demands of our competitive global economy? For many, it was thought to be a transition to technology-based learning. The prospect of open access to knowledge, combined with on-demand availability, appeared to many the solution. Low cost, easy to access, infinitely flexible and updated.

Yet research suggests that technology-based training is not delivering the results that were expected. A recent article in the New York Times reports on studies within the school system that show investments in technology are not generating positive returns in terms of student achievement. And if the generations that have been reared on digital media are not prospering, no wonder that many in older generations feel that the pressure for e-learning is misplaced.

So should we return to the classroom? Well, the evidence there also remains mixed. A recent report by the UK’s National Audit Office castigates government agencies for wasting money on ineffective training programs, largely classroom based.

In many cases, the problem appears to be that objectives are unclear and appropriate measurements are lacking. Indeed, education is suffering the same problem as many service industries; intangible products are hard to design, evaluate or assess for their outcomes.

Many in the field of contract and commercial management are largely self-taught. Traditionally there has been very little training available and they have in any case been starved of budget. The exception has been when there are specific methods to be learned – for example,, when a key aspect of the role is to monitor compliance. This aligns with comments made by Michael Cavanagh on a recent IACCM ‘ask the expert’ program, when he distinguished between ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ project managers. Michael described projects that require rigid methods and oversight (first order projects), for which standard methods and techniques are appropriate. But for complex environments, he discovered that traditional professional credentials can be a handicap, because such projects require broader judgement, networking and analytical skills, not associated with the typical ‘trained’ project manager.

All of this is thought provoking, rather like the unending debate over the value of MBAs or whether entrepreneurs go to university. Perhapa it si the case that a proportion of people need highly structured teaching because their only ambition is ‘to do a job’; whereas others are inspired by what they do and are anxious to ensure self-improvement, in which case they will seek and find the best way to raise their personal skills and knowledge, regardless of what ‘formal teaching’ is available.

I’d welcome your thoughts on the right approach to training and skills development – if there is one!

  1. Guy Clayton permalink

    Classroom and online delivery both have their advantages and I’m not sure that one will or necessarily should, be crowned as the method of choice. More important to the impact of training is an understanding that it is asking for change and whilst some outcomes are more easily measured than others (part of your point re learning standard methodologies, as opposed to broader skillsets), there is dual responsibility on the part of the program designer and the participant. The designer must be absolutely clear what outcomes should be effected by the program and for the participant, its is the active process of understanding how what is learnt is applicable to their day to day or long term planning and this certainly becomes easier when there is someone in a supervisory role following up and asking their colleagues who have participated in a training program to explain what that application actually looks like, otherwise the result is the preverbial dusty training manual left on the bookshelf.

  2. Tim, I agree with Guy’s comments. In fact, I was having a conversation today with a fellow trainer from another organisation who was asking my advice on how to make their training programs high impact and high value for the corporation they are working with.

    I suggested that the client company needs to be encouraged to see the learning process as a partnership between training provider and client organisation, rather than sitting back and demanding ‘deliver training to us!’. My experience of those training programmes that are highly effective (rather than merely a fun experience for learners) is that the client sponsor engages fully in defining team learning goals, setting expectations for participants in terms of how they must engage in learning within an interactive learning team, and in setting the importance of the program for the company. With a fully engaged client, and a clear view of the outcomes sought, a partnership between provider and client can deliver outstanding results in skills improvement and behaviour change.

    As with most things in life, outstanding results require a little effort on both sides! (Strikes me as highly analogous to most buyer/supplier relationships; sitting back and demanding the supplier delivers is rarely enough to achieve outstanding results!).

  3. Jim Bergman permalink

    Perhaps some of the disappointing results are rooted in a failure to view learning as a proactive process.

    If the learner views the experience as merely an event, in which they remain passive, then the ROI will be suboptimized. Those who treat learning as a four phase process – awareness, understanding, doing and discipleship – seem to be well positioned to demonstrate compelling ROI’s. The format selection in the awareness and understanding phases, of whether it should be classroom or on-line, is of subordinate importance to the decision on how one will apply the learnings in real life and share those learnings with others.

    Does it really matter how one matriculates through the awareness and understanding phases if one never plans on applying the materials and ideas to the projects and challenges in front of them?

  4. Learning needs to be combined with action. As Paul alluded to, governance is the key here. Training, whether online or classroom, needs to be part of an overall change management programme. People need to see that it impacts the day job.

    It also helps if delegates co-create the offering – that is, they are active participants whether they fully agree with what is being presented or not. Leadership involves making this expectation clear, and most importantly, the example they provide through how they interact with the trainers/event. As fun as it is to put on a show, making the event all about the trainers/facilitators is a classic mistake. Leaders should be focused on what their people are taking from the event.

    In terms of online learning, there is a wide spectrum of offerings out there ranging from awful to very good. The PowerPoint-based, dry, compliance-oriented stuff is not effective. A -paint-by-the-numbers approach (e.g. do this, then do that, etc.) is not as effective as getting people to think in order to solve problems. Challenging and thought-provoking content, visually-appealing video, combined with things that people have to go away and do is very effective.

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