How should business leaders utilize new approaches to training?

Training is currently undergoing disruption, moving from the classroom to the cloud. This process involves more than moving existing material to a new format. It requires a rethink of the whole process.

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Learning new skills, keeping up with technological advances and developing a career path are all important aspect of what we might call “the employee journey.” Providing training opportunities which help people to meet their goals is important for attracting and retaining staff. And doing this in a way that fits in with the strategy and direction of the organization helps to boost performance.

But training is currently undergoing disruption, moving from the classroom to the cloud. This process involves more than moving existing material to a new format. It requires a rethink of the whole process.

In the old days, programs usually followed a rigid path – there were classroom-based sessions, often provided by a third party, and hefty printed training and instruction manuals to carry around. It was the best we could do at the time – but it was a one-size fits all approach.

Most of the IT courses, for example, were three days – of which the first day would be learning where the exits and restrooms were, the second day would be easy technical stuff most of our people knew anyway, the third morning would be the stuff they really wanted to learn and then everyone would leave early in the afternoon to avoid rush hour. A lot of energy was wasted. You then spent the following week catching up on your day job and by then had forgotten most of what you had learned!

Now the Cloud offers the potential to make available an almost infinite variety of training, available on demand, in bite-sized chunks for people to do whenever they wish. Employers can facilitate the process but employees increasingly self-direct. They choose when they want to learn and, except with basic mandatory modules, they can increasingly select what they want to study in line with where they see their career going, and they can display the resulting certificates and badges on their profiles.

Instead of owning training pathways, managers are becoming more like curators, organizing and planning what is on offer. As well as offering access to individual programs, with unbundled qualifications which people can access as they wish, they can set up opportunities for creative collaboration between cross-functional teams, and encourage people within the organization to contribute materials for others to learn from.

Recently we have seen Salesforce exploring the potential of cloud-based learning with its Trailhead training program, which was heavily featured in last year’s Dreamforce in San Francisco. This is available to partners and customers as well as employees and covers general subjects like communication skills as well as more specific technical ones. People can devote a half hour a week to it, or they can sit in front of their smart TV in the evening and learn a completely new skill.

Like Trailhead, most forms of cloud-based training adopt elements of gamification. The subject is broken down into bite-sized modules. There will usually be a short quiz at the end of each one and if you pass, you get a badge or a certificate. There can be amusing questions, or videos using actors which demonstrate say, the dos and don’ts of handling drunk customers for bar employees.

What is the role of a business leader in this process? I would argue that this is another area where transparency is key. I have written elsewhere about the importance of a shared understanding of the organization’s strategy and direction. That feeds back into training decisions individuals make. If they have a clear picture of where the organization is headed, they can see what skills they may need to work on. Which skill-sets are in decline and which are emerging? How can individual employees develop their potential in a way that fits with the strategy? That extends throughout the organization – business leaders are not immune from the need to learn new skills, and brush up the old ones.

The cloud will increasingly provide the best forum for teaching and learning. But classrooms still have a place. From time to time, a change of scene and meeting people from a different specialism can be beneficial. Getting out of the office for a couple of days to think about something completely different can be productive. In my experience, it generally leaves people feeling challenged and invigorated.

It was our practice in one of my previous companies to send people on courses in different disciplines, for instance to send software developers to learn TV presenting, to develop their communication and other soft skills. We also sent project managers on HR professional development courses and they gained insight and confidence from working alongside HR professionals. This helped us to differentiate from competitors, with both employees and customers.

There is still a role, also, for getting cross-functional or international teams together for group learning within the organization. This enables discussion between them. It allows business leaders to hear back from employers and it creates an opportunity to provide motivation and inspiration – these are all things that are better done in person. Or perhaps, one day, this will take place in virtual reality. I may need to go on a training course about that!

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