You wouldn’t try to build a house with just a hammer. You would rely on a complete set of tools—hammer, wrench, saw, etc.—each of which performs a specific function that helps you construct the perfect home. Similarly, when educating and training your employees, you wouldn’t rely on a single method because, like the tools in a toolbox, each serves a particular purpose in building the foundation for a proficient employee. An increasing number of companies are realizing the value and benefits of bringing all of these tools together to create an end-to-end learning solution. Doing so significantly impacts productivity by making employees smarter faster, and contributes to an organization’s overall success.
Classroom training is the perfect starting point for this discussion, because it is one of the tools that many in the industry have been eager to discard. When e-learning started to take hold in the late ’90s, proponents thought it would completely replace classroom training because it was quicker, cheaper and more effective. But despite the predictions, classroom training still exists today and will likely always be a core element of most organizations’ training programs. The reason for this is that classroom training is very well suited for role-playing, networking and teaching soft skills—valuable activities that an e-learning course could never effectively capture or convey.
E-learning, on the other hand, is a great tool for quickly bringing a dispersed workforce up to speed on standard information, such as products and services, policies and procedures, etc. A company launching a new product doesn’t always have the time or resources to pull its sales force out of the field for two or three days of classroom training. Instead, e-learning courses delivered over the Web or company intranet provide a quick and efficient way to get information into the hands (and heads) of those who need it. In other situations, e-learning can complement classroom training, enabling companies to provide a vehicle for ongoing, self-paced learning after a live event. Because these materials can be revisited as often as needed, employees end up retaining much more than if they sat through a series of lectures.
Like classroom training and e-learning, software simulations also serve a very specific training function. As companies roll out or upgrade IT systems, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) software, they can utilize software simulations to train employees how to complete specific tasks or processes by creating an environment that simulates the actual application. This provides an interactive experience for users from which they can learn without risking error to the live system.
A recent addition to the training toolset is knowledge-sharing. Unlike classroom training and e-learning, which can be classified as formal training, knowledge-sharing embodies the ad hoc ways in which employees learn—through e-mail or telephone conversations with subject-matter experts and their peers—and provides on-the-job access to critical information or know-how without interrupting the flow of the workday.
Let’s revisit the example of the company launching a new product. Although the sales team was first trained at a two-day event, it is not possible for them to have learned or retained everything that they need to know on the job. (In fact, studies show that students retain at best 25 percent to 30 percent of what’s covered in a course.) E-learning courses may have helped round out product knowledge, but there will always be one-off questions about things like specific features, pricing and competitive differentiation. When salespeople have these types of questions, they pick up the phone or send an e-mail to subject-matter experts, such as product managers. But subject-matter experts are often overburdened repeatedly answering the same questions, which exacerbates the challenge of getting quick and accurate information to the salespeople so that they can continue going about their day.
Here, knowledge-sharing can pick up where formal training left off. Knowledge-sharing enables an organization to define its experts, which could be a product manager, the head of a business unit, etc. When a user asks a question, the system automatically searches for keywords and routes the question to the appropriate expert in that area. Using everyday tools, such as e-mail and Microsoft Word, the expert can then capture the answer and centrally store it within a knowledge base, making it available to the entire organization. This enables others with the same question to immediately self-service their own answers, which, in turn, relieves experts of the burden of constantly explaining things to others and allows them to focus on higher-level tasks.
In order to increase job proficiency, organizations are looking to an integrated approach to training and knowledge transfer that utilizes each of the tools in the “toolbox” for the area in which it is best suited: classroom training for soft skills, e-learning for product updates, software simulations for IT training and knowledge-sharing for conveying tacit knowledge. This approach ensures that companies are able to get the right information to the right person at the right time, thereby increasing employee proficiency, while driving increases to the bottom line.
Jeff Whitney is vice president of marketing at OutStart, a provider of systems for learning and knowledge-sharing based in Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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