Applying the principles of industrialization to developing and delivering learning can result in predictable, reliable, high-quality experiences at the right price.
When looking to improve their ability to run learning like a business — delivering cost savings and greater business impact — many learning executives have hit a wall. They may have already reduced costs by 20 or 30 percent and now find additional incremental improvements difficult to achieve.
How can CLOs take both efficiency and learning effectiveness to the next level? The answer lies in adopting broader and more sweeping approaches to the industrialization of the learning function.
Industrialization represents a relentless drive to discover the essence of how something is optimally performed — and then to do it that way every time. It breaks a task or capability into smaller components, optimizes them, eliminates redundancies, automates and standardizes wherever possible, and then drives the work itself to the most cost-effective and competent workforce available.
Some executives may resist the idea of industrialization in a learning environment. They may feel their business and workforce needs are unique and could not benefit from such an approach. Others may believe that the management of process and people is more art than science. But a number of industry leaders are finding that industrializing the learning environment is a way to reduce risk, improve quality and reliability, raise productivity, create a more agile business and even innovate more predictably.
A Blueprint for Learning
In manufacturing, industrialization begins with the design specs — an effective blueprint for a product, which then becomes one important way to standardize production. Similarly, industrialized learning is driven by what we call a “capability blueprint” — a blueprint for creating a new business capability or a new learning strategy and delivery channel. The blueprint establishes a standardized and repeatable approach to planning and execution, broken down into three dimensions: strategy, performance metrics and business architecture.
Strategy: The first part of the blueprint is a detailed specification of the capability strategy. This is driven by “who, what, when, where and how” questions and requires a clear articulation of what you wish to accomplish. These objectives will vary according to your circumstances and goals, but they generally cover elements such as:
- Vision and mission.
- Target customers and markets.
- Delivery channels.
- Operating guidelines and structures.
- Sourcing approach.
Performance metrics: On the other side of the blueprint are the activities that help you assess how successfully you have accomplished your strategy or reached your goal. If the strategy part of the blueprint is where you set your destination, the performance metrics determine whether you’ve reached it and how things will look when you get there.
Various measurements — including financial, business and process figures — can be used to assess the success of the initiative. More generally, you will need to determine what will change based on your learning initiative — e.g., what will be different about the capability when you’ve arrived at your destination and how much will be different, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Business architecture: The third aspect of the blueprint bridges the strategy and the metrics — the travel plan and the arrival — and looks holistically and in a detailed way at all the parts of the business architecture needed to reach the destination. These include:
- Culture: What motivates team members to do their job? What should they care about most?
- Organization: How do people get the information they need? Who has responsibility, accountability and authority?
- Competencies: What knowledge, skills and abilities are required to realize the strategy and achieve the target metrics?
- Processes: How do we get information into the system? Who validates that the information is correct? Where does the information come from?
- Applications: What tools will we use? How will people get the information they need?
- Delivery vehicle: What learning delivery approach is right for the audience and the need?
Ultimately, the blueprint reduces risk for a learning organization. As good as your people are, you don’t want to rely on them alone. You want to be able to trust the process through which people perform.
Industrialized Learning in Action
To see how industrialized learning works in action, consider a rapid e-learning capability that Accenture recently delivered to its global workforce. Rapid e-learning has become an important force in the marketplace in recent years as the pace of business intensifies, budgets shrink and the lifespan of learning content shortens. However, some companies have used rapid e-learning for the wrong reasons. As a development technique, it is fast and less expensive, but if applied to a capability that is too complex or otherwise inappropriate, the result is still wasted time and money.
Because it appears to be easy, rapid e-learning also can be something that business units attempt to implement independent of a central training organization. Accenture found that to be the case. While Accenture admired the initiative of those groups, it wanted to ensure that it wasn’t reinventing the wheel, that the quality of courses was as high as possible and that costs were contained.
To meet that challenge, Accenture developed a capability blueprint that guided the initiative from the beginning. The strategy component was driven by a simple concept: to enable everyone in the organization to be a subject-matter expert for developing a training course. Accenture defined rapid e-learning as self-serve, meaning that subject-matter experts would create and finalize all content. However, they would not need to develop the final deliverable, test the course or post it to the learning management system.
Accenture also defined the outcomes it sought: to reduce the time from assignment of a subject-matter expert to the deployment of a course; to significantly reduce costs; to maintain satisfactory level one evaluation scores; and to achieve take-up by three major company groups within 12 months.
Accenture then worked at the middle part of the blueprint, identifying components of the business architecture that this new capability would affect. The majority of Accenture’s effort focused on both defining all the processes that would take it from strategies to metrics and assigning a person to own each process. The owners determined which existing processes Accenture could leverage or modify and which it would need to create. These analyses led it to review technologies involved in building e-learning courseware, design and testing processes and communication vehicles.
In each case, Accenture looked for ways to reduce time and cost to benefit parts of its practice that often cannot afford traditional CBT development. Industrialization principles drove the effectiveness of the planning. Accenture dissected what it took to create and roll out an e-learning course and broke it down on a step-by-step basis. In addition to building courseware, Accenture had to address a number of issues, including how to enable subject-matter experts to produce acceptable quality content; how to enable its development team; how to modify its testing procedures; and how to post courses on the LMS.
It is this process of analysis, guided by the blueprint, that enables organizations to discover ways to increase efficiency and reduce costs as they industrialize learning design and delivery. For example, for much of Accenture’s traditional learning work, designers are essential. But as it looked at designing the self-serve e-learning experience, Accenture determined that the value of instructional designers would be only incremental.
Removing designers from the process meant trusting the content experts to explain their content — with a minimum amount of training in activities such as creating audio files. As a result, Accenture also has been able to realize cost savings and increase the business value of its instructional designers, who can now focus on projects where their skills are truly differentiating.
The analysis also helped achieve additional industrialization and cost savings through the use of an offshore delivery center. That is, Accenture realized that it could train the offshore delivery team, which manages content for its knowledge management database, to build, test and deploy courses for it — if it could industrialize the process sufficiently. As part of that training, it created a detailed job aid that the offshore team could use during development.
The rapid e-learning initiative has delivered significant positive results, both intended and unintended. Cost savings and faster time to delivery are two of the more impressive outcomes: The design and delivery cost for each course has been reduced by 92 percent, and the delivery time frame has been reduced by 83 to 86 percent.
But Accenture also is seeing people use rapid development in ways it hadn’t entirely anticipated. It was clear that this capability would appeal to groups with urgent needs and tight budgets, but many of the company’s experts have turned to rapid e-learning as a way to streamline the process of getting out messages to multiple parties or to disseminate urgent and timely information. And geographic units that encounter language barriers to traditional training have turned to the capability as a way to deliver training in local languages without exhausting their training budgets.
The direct involvement of subject-matter experts in the learning-creation experience has had another positive outcome: Learners are commenting positively about the personal flavor and passion of the expert that comes out during the learning experience. The rapid e-learning capability has removed an emotional “filter,” as it were, enabling a greater investment of the expert’s personality in the content.
A Foundation for Innovation
Industrialization of learning is also a means for companies to drive more consistent and predictable innovation. To be sure, this is a counterintuitive observation to some. But the inefficiencies in processes and functions in a non-industrialized environment — redundancies, delays, performance issues, multiple operating models and the like — constitute “noise” that has to be eliminated if the voice of innovation is to be heard.
Organizations need to focus their innovation energy more effectively. If they stabilize the operating environment and get it to run optimally, they can look beyond the urgencies of today toward the innovations of tomorrow. By industrializing the basic learning development and delivery processes, learning professionals can focus on activities and capabilities that have greater business impact. They also can use the savings generated by new efficiencies in other areas of the learning function or the business.
For example, although mobile learning is still a leading-edge phenomenon for many organizations, Accenture has been able to use the industrialization principles discussed here, including a capability blueprint, to deliver training to its executives’ mobile devices.
In the end, industrialization in a learning environment needs to be seen as something driven by much more than cost reduction. Certainly the success achieved in lowering cost of delivery is a significant business benefit, but there are others. As seen in the rapid e-learning initiative discussed here, industrialization also can increase the reach and relevance of learning.
Industrialization is now moving into more innovative and potentially complex learning platforms and approaches — helping improve the efficiency of e-learning, virtual collaboration, informal learning, mobile learning and knowledge management solutions. As learning organizations become adept at industrialization principles, they can innovate with less risk by applying the same principles to newer technologies. Truly, it is learning’s next great frontier.
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