Too Formal, Too Informal, or Just Right? How to Create Blended Learning Programs

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In the beloved fable “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, the picky heroine samples each bear’s porridge, chair, and bed, determining which one is “just right” for her. Finally, she falls asleep in Baby’s Bear bed, only to wake up, terrified, when the bears come home and become angry about the mess she made.

Many training and development organizations are having their own Goldilocks moment these days. Across industries, training professionals are struggling to find the right balance between traditional, formal learning tactics and the newer, more informal modes that an increasing number of employees prefer and seek out. According to a Bersin & Associates report, “72% of companies believe their most valuable learning approaches are informal, yet only 30% of resources are focused here.” Without the right strategy, these organizations are in danger of waking up too late to the changes that are shaping their businesses.

Formal Learning vs. Informal Learning

First, let’s clarify what we mean by formal and informal learning. Formal learning is what most of us are familiar with from school: instructor-led training in the context of a physical or virtual classroom setting. Typically, it includes assessments and others ways of testing what’s been learned. Over the years, simulations, games, and other eLearning tools have become part of the formal learning playbook, too. We can think of this as a “push” model, in which content and instruction is pushed out to the learner.

In contrast, informal learning has arisen in recent years to describe learning that happens on the job or through exposure to real life situations, mentors, peers, and new ideas. Think of this as more of a “pull” model, when the learner pulls down content and expertise when she needs it. Informal learning tactics might be embedded in work, such as reference materials and customer or peer feedback, or come from social networks, podcasts, learning portals and wikis, and more.

Much like Goldilocks, organizations are sampling both formal and informal tactics, not sure what will work for them. On the one hand, relying solely on slide-based content and in-classroom learning is “too formal!” On the other, building programs that only present on-the-job learning through forums and Google searches is “too informal!” Is there a compromise in between?

The “Just Right” Compromise: Blended Learning

In fact, there is a “just right” compromise: blended learning, a customized combination of the formal and informal training tactics that meet your business needs and facilitate continuous learning, long after the initial orientation of a new employee. As the recent Brandon Hall Group 2014 Learning & Development Benchmark study put it:

“Learning is no longer an event. The event is only the starting line on a longer continuum as learners go back to work to adopt and adapt what they learned. It has become critical to support learners along the entire continuum.”

Five Key Parameters to Think About

If we think of learning as a continuum, then how might that change the way you structure your learning and training programs? How can a blended learning approach give you the best of both formal and informal learning? Of course, only you can answer these questions for your particular organization and training program. Still, we’ve seen that, by framing the discussion around some key parameters, you’ll be more likely to create a successful blended learning program. Here are the five parameters we recommend addressing as you plan a transition to blended learning.

  1. Think of your business objectives. Contrary to popular belief, training doesn’t happen just for training’s sake. Instead, companies invest valuable resources, time, and money into employee training because it’s necessary for certain business objectives and because the company is likely to get a return on that training investment.

    Ask yourself: what’s important for my employees to learn? How could better training positively impact our business goals? From compliance and technical training to soft skills and leadership workshops, your programs should always contribute to broader business objectives.

  2. Think of your employees, now and in the next 5-10 years. The best training is a conversation between educator and learner, and the more you understand your learner, the better. Just like any good marketer or salesperson is always striving to understand their audience and what drives them, so too should trainers and learning development professionals strive to understand their “customers”.

    Overall, what age group and education level are you serving? How will those demographics change in the next year, five years, or even 10 years, as millennials enter the workforce in growing numbers? Are your employees tech-savvy or slower to adopt new technology? Do they prefer structure or demand flexibility? How do they learn and engage with content outside of work? What motivates them?

  3. Think of your metrics. Once you align your programs with business objectives, then you’ll need to make sure you have the appropriate metrics in place to analyze if you’ve met those business objectives or not. Try to make them as specific and meaningful as possible.

    For example, “75% of employees should score 8 out of 10 or higher on the final quiz after a month” is much clearer and more meaningful than “Most employees should pass the test”. Ask yourself: what measures of competency will satisfy your business objectives? Is it more important to look at test scores or how many pages were read or notes taken in the text? As you introduce new techniques, skills, or information, will you re-test people? What kind of analytics framework do you need in place to make reporting easy and fast?

  4. Think of your setting. No one works in a vacuum. Where someone does his job greatly affects how he does his job, and your training programs should account for that. Are most of your employees in one headquarters in cubicles or an open plan office? Do many of your employees work remotely? If they’re remote, are they working from home or out in the field, as a distributed workforce? If you’re in the services or retail industry, do many of your employees learn on the job, with actual customers? Do they face environmental constraints or physical hazards at work, like being on an oil rig or dealing with electrical cables? Increasingly, mobile learning, or mLearning, is becoming an important component for non-office workers, who are on the go and can’t carry around binders in the field.

  5. Think of your company culture. Last but certainly not least, training is a critical extension of your company’s culture. From orientation and onboarding to continued skills development throughout the employee’s career at your organization, training is a critical component to inculcating your company culture in each individual.

    What experience do you want to give to your employees? How can your training get them excited about the company and help them to become great brand representatives both in and outside of the workplace? For instance, by incorporating greater interactivity into your training content, you can naturally share company values like entrepreneurism, creativity, teamwork, and so on.

The Bottom Line

In the face of the current Goldilocks moment, many organizations are moving to the “just right” approach of blended learning. As with any transition, now is a great time for your organization to pause and determine what kind of blended learning approach works for you, based on the parameters I outlined above. It’s an exciting time to be in training and learning, and with some planning and thoughtfulness, you’ll be poised to make a bigger positive impact than ever on your organization and the professional lives of your learners.

To learn more about how Inkling cloud publishing platform can contribute to your blended learning program, request a free demo from our sales team