“They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds.”
“It now appears evident that practice accounts for far more than most of us might realize. Several recent studies have demonstrated that high levels of performance (often higher than experts had previously regarded as possible) can be attained not by those with innate talents and unique abilities, but by perfectly ordinary adults given enough practice. In fact, the producing of an outstanding ‘talent’ seems to be most directly correlated to the right kind of deliberate practice—which involves specifically tailored instruction and training, with feedback and supervision.”
—Michael Howe, “Innate Talents: Reality or Myth”
It seems intuitive. The more we practice something, the better at that something we become. Yet in today’s workplace, learning professionals are often challenged to produce not just proof that it’s possible to formally accelerate the development of employee capabilities, but a practical roadmap that guarantees results.
In his book “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell reveals that great decision-makers aren’t those who process the most information or spend the most time deliberating, but those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing”—filtering the very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables so that they “know” things intuitively. Classroom training has served as the primary means for delivering behavioral skills training for years. Nevertheless, its effectiveness at delivering lasting instruction on its own is now being questioned.
The Research Institute of America has found that 33 minutes after completion of a course, students retain only 58 percent of the material covered in the class. By the second day, 33 percent is retained, and three weeks after the course, only 15 percent of the knowledge delivered is retained. (See Figure 1.) Separate studies conducted by Neil Rackam further support these findings, in which he has reported that 87 percent of the learning from any given classroom workshop is lost within 30 days if not followed by a coaching intervention with the participants’ manager.
Experimenting With Blended Delivery
While these studies don’t indicate that all instructor-led training is universally ineffective at driving retention and improving performance, they naturally encourage experimentation with other forms of training delivery—and the industry has experimented.
Over the past few years, the term “blended learning” has starred as the featured guest in more learning industry articles and conference keynote presentations than Dilbert. And no matter your personal definition of “blended,” most organizations have experimented with some combination of technology, classroom, self-paced and group learning.
So with all this research at hand, can we now define consistent principles that, when introduced into blended learning delivery, significantly improve the performance impact over classroom training alone? Building on the work of Will Thalheimer, Ph.D., of Work-Learning Research, IDC has published a list of seven blended instructional principles that not only improve knowledge retention, but also improve performance over classroom training alone by up to 110 percent. (See Figure 2.)
One key principle highlights the critical importance of aligning the learning with real-world performance contexts (improvement up to 55 percent). The Huthwaite Research Group supports these findings as well, showing that “learners remember more than four times as much from training sessions that are perceived as highly relevant to their jobs.”
Again, this seems intuitive. If I understand how the learning impacts my job, I’m more likely to apply it on Monday when the situation arises. Yet the majority of Thalheimer’s findings point toward the imperative for some form of practice, feedback and repetition over time. So why are these principles not a standard practice for employee development at all levels of the organization? Perhaps more data and deliberation are needed.
A Common Theme: Practice Makes Perfect
Faced with the increasingly competitive economic environment and the significant human and financial capital expended on leadership development, Marshall Goldsmith and Howard Morgan set out to determine what type of developmental activities have the greatest impact on increasing executives’ effectiveness and how leaders can achieve positive long-term changes in behavior. In a study of 11,480 managers and high-potential employees across eight major corporations, Goldsmith and Morgan measured the effectiveness of varying approaches to formal leadership development. Each of the learners participated in formal classroom training, personal coaching or both, and a wide range of follow-up exercises and resources were made available and strongly recommended to them. The findings were conclusive: Follow-up matters.
In situations where participants did no follow-up, the greatest percentage of their responding co-workers (39 percent) perceived no change in their leadership effectiveness. In situations where participants completed some follow-up, the greatest percentage of co-workers reported a slight change in their perceived leadership effectiveness. Yet in situations where participants demonstrated consistent or periodic follow-up, 50 percent of their co-workers perceived a significant improvement in their leadership effectiveness. (See Figure 3.)
The study went on to point out a few additional observations that should be reinforced in any blended learning implementation:
- Learning is a process: Historically, a great deal of training focus has been placed on the preparation for and delivery of a well-choreographed event. However, research shows that real development involves a process that occurs over time, and any retention from the event itself soon fades. To be successful, organizations must support a consistent development process across the highs and lows of economic cycles.
- Learning requires a relationship: The follow-up that Goldsmith and Morgan documented regularly involved interpersonal communication: Executives openly asked direct reports for feedback, employees reported progress to their supervisors, and peers sought coaching from one another or from certified professionals. This type of interpersonal accountability increases motivation and aligns learning with workplace performance objectives—it makes the formal learning real and drives individual improvement.
Integrated Learning Delivers Results
By the spring of 2003, the U.S. Navy had embarked on a “revolution in learning” and embraced its mission to completely overhaul and reinvent the way it trained and developed 800,000 employees around the world. Part of this initiative involved the deployment of a high-quality leadership development program that included many experimental elements. The solution integrated individual assessments, online courses, interactive video-based simulations, personalized workbooks and a library of almost 500 bite-sized reinforcement modules. Furthermore, a customized video from the program’s executive sponsor, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Terry D. Scott, kicked off each learning experience and set the tone for the initiative by aligning individual learning objectives with the organization’s top performance goals.
By early 2004, this integrated learning solution was being deployed to more than 30,000 learners a year, and with 95 percent completion rates, it was achieving substantial positive feedback and anecdotal success. Yet the Navy needed more quantitative results. Having adopted this solution in place of traditional classroom delivery, it needed to measure the real impact on time and cost savings, technical and operational scalability, knowledge retention and, most importantly, on-the-job behavioral change.
The Center for Naval Analysis, a third-party independent research firm, was retained to address these questions and measure the effectiveness of blended leadership development at the U.S. Navy. Here are a few of the study’s key findings:
- The study focused on 3,968 of the 34,000 chief petty officers (CPOs) using the courses, with emphasis on those with aviation and information technology ratings.
- The study measured a 44 percent improvement in knowledge retention.
- The study employed 360-degree multi-rater assessments before learners launched a course, and again three months following completion of the course. Additionally, a retrospective survey of the CPOs was completed six months after completion of the course to evaluate individual characteristics and identify indicators of performance improvement and retention.
- The study concluded from the multi-rater assessments and retrospective survey that the integrated development program had a statistically significant impact on sustained behavioral change of the CPOs, estimating a 6 percent to 8 percent improvement in their leadership effectiveness.
- Furthermore, the study found that this integrated solution cost 94 percent less than traditional classroom training and was completed in one-tenth of the time. In one year alone, the Navy saved three days of classroom training plus two travel days (five days total) for 3,892 active-duty and 800 reserve CPO candidates.
Measuring the ROI and the Cost of Reinforcement
Blended learning solutions are more complex than traditional classroom training alone. They require more coordination, more technology and more follow-up work. All things being equal, one would expect that more complicated solutions would cost more and result in a lower return on investment. However, if implemented properly, organizations have shown that they can often reduce the conventional expense of materials and facilitation services, as well as critical intangible costs (such as time off the job), while actively improving the real impact to performance and productivity.
The study by Goldman and Morgan indicated that consistent, ongoing follow-up can increase behavioral effectiveness from “none” to “significant.” And the U.S. Navy’s experience further documents how an integrated learning solution can improve individual on-the-job performance by an average of 7 percent. As newly trained employees teach and lead those around them, this effect multiplies, and the change initiative influences an ever greater population of employees throughout the organization.
Additionally, leading organizations have begun to shift the role of the trainer from “presenter” to “facilitator or consultant,” and are engaging more managers and professional coaches to develop employees outside of the classroom. This leaves the most expensive time together for action learning, real-world problem-solving and team-specific application.
For example, Figure 4 (on page 58) shows innovative new approaches can successfully reduce the time and cost of traditional two-day classroom workshops while increasing the performance impact at the same time. Assuming that the productivity of a leader with $100,000 in salary improves by 7 percent, thus increasing his or her relative value by $7,000 per year, the result affords organizations a potential 10-times return on their investment before considering any impact on other employees.
As long as blended learning initiatives leverage high-quality content, engaging online experiences, consistent follow-up and group activities, they should continue to deliver on their promise of lower costs and higher returns.
Implementing Sustainable Blended Learning
While there is clearly no simple, one-size-fits-all model for implementing blended learning, there are some fundamental shifts organizations must be prepared to make.
First, evaluate each development initiative with its distinct objectives and learner base in mind. It may require a difference balance of learning principles or the elimination of some components altogether. Second, challenge the model of event-centric delivery, and explore opportunities to implement sustainable processes that offer reinforcement over time. You’re better off deploying fewer programs and making sure they stick.
Finally, consider this five-step integrated learning process as a model for future blended implementations:
- Plan: Align the program with organizational and personal performance objectives. Provide tools for learners and managers to establish goals together.
- Learn: Optimize the learning process with high-quality, media-rich self-paced courses and simulations. Your learners will thank you for making it flexible and engaging.
- Apply: Provide opportunities for learners to meet, physically or virtually, to share their progress and apply new ideas to real team issues.
- Sustain: Implement ongoing programs to reinforce the learning and hold employees accountable for their own personal development.
- Measure: Track and measure individual and group progress against learning and operational goals. It is possible to use predictive data and select sample sets to minimize the time and cost of measurement while building a valuable business case.
Why are these proven principles for effective blended learning not a more standard practice for employee development at all levels of the organization? Because they take time, discipline and consistency—things in which large organizations aren’t always willing to invest. But with the right partners and thoughtful planning, this new approach will soon yield much greater results than previous generations of event-based instruction ever did. (See Figure 5.)
After all, if the development of all outstanding talent is most directly correlated to the right kind of deliberate practice, isn’t it intuitive that developing our employees would follow the same natural principles?
Jeff Snipes is the CEO and founder of Ninth House Inc., a leadership development firm that provides blended learning. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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