The hybrid workplace combined with the increasing pace at which employees’ skills become outdated has highlighted the need for a new form of employee training known as blended learning. But what is blended learning, and how can organizations design and measure the success of such programs? HR experts shared insights on these questions at the recent SHRM India Annual Conference 2021.
Defining Blended Learning
In the past, “blended learning was just a combination of e-learning and classroom training,” said Nirmala Gopalakrishnan, senior service delivery manager of professional services at Skillsoft, an online training provider in Chennai, India.
In recent years, however, the concept of blended learning has evolved to include learning that is imparted using tools like games and videos, and combines practical with theoretical training.
“When we combine classrooms with focus group discussions, surveys, small activities, white papers and blogs, and marry this in a format that is feasible to learn and is more effective, that is blended learning,” said Karthik Rao Ammathi, regional head of HR services at Societe Generale Global Solution Centre, a technology service center for the eponymous French bank in Bengaluru.
Blended learning encompasses the use of new styles, like mentored learning, social learning or peer learning. “All that can also be called blended learning,” said Tapann Sabharwal, assistant vice president and head of training at Sutherland, an outsourcing firm in the greater Hyderabad area.
A blended approach also involves anticipating skill shifts, said Mark Fernandes, senior vice president of HR and head of organization capability and development at Kotak Life Insurance in Mumbai. Rather than leaving this entirely to the organization’s learning and development team, Fernandes said employees should be involved in spotting such skill shifts when they happen.
“When you start empowering people, you make learning more relevant for people. They start taking charge and come back to tell you what is relevant for them,” Fernandes said.
A combination of offline and online learning continues to be a big part of blended learning, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, during which more employees are working remotely. In the past two years, organizations have rolled out platforms that allow employees to learn at home, at their own pace and chosen time.
“Blended learning is different and important because it reduces the learning curve,” Ammathi said.
Creating an Ideal Blended Learning Program
To create an ideal blended learning program, experts said organizations should first identify what the learners need to gain from the training. Next, understand the needs of the business and identify the gaps between what’s required and the employees’ existing level of knowledge and skills. Finally, create plans on how to bridge those gaps through training.
Once this roadmap is clear, a suitable curriculum can be created and decisions can be made on the best approach to impart the training, such as through bite-sized video lessons or games. When planned this way, “you’ll see your program encouraging learners to engage more, participate more and come out a lot more ready,” Sabharwal said.
Measuring How the Program Is Working
Once implemented, it’s important to keep track of how the learning program is working, Gopalakrishnan said.
“Quite often we see these blended programs start with a lot of fanfare, endorsed by a senior leader and so on, but over a period of time they lose their focus,” he noted.
Measuring the success of a blended learning program remains tricky. In the past, they were measured by the numbers of hours of training given or the number of people trained. But the ideal measure of success is based on outcomes of the training program, and whether they meet business goals. At Sutherland, Sabharwal said they use the Kirkpatrick model to evaluate the results of training programs, but added there are several other models that can be used. The key is to measure frequently.
“If you’re able to evaluate the learning program success at every juncture, such as after completing a module, then you’ll know how the learning experience is and how the learners are getting through the topic,” Sabharwal said. “You’ll find out what their feedback is, which tells you continuously how engaged that whole thing is.”
At the end of the day, experts said a training program is successful if it helps achieve business goals. For example, if a company hires and trains new employees to work on a project and the project is completed successfully, that means the training given to the new employees was effective.
Blended learning is also useful to train leaders, experts speaking on the panel said. Ammathi shared his experience of creating a blended learning program for potential leaders. They started with a psychometric assessment of the potential leaders, then imparted knowledge through multiple “small shots” of e-books, documents and blogs, and combined that with coaching and mentorship over a three- to six-month period. Using this approach, learners received resources and support “while they were moving from a managerial to a leadership position,” he said. At the end of the training period, there were multiple behavioral and functional assessments.
Measuring behavioral training is more complicated than measuring the effectiveness of other programs. For one thing, an employee’s behavior should not be judged immediately after the training program is over, Ammathi said.
“It takes a lot of time to get rid of old habits,” he said. Rather, behavioral changes should be measured consistently over a period of time. In response to an audience question about how to measure innovation and leadership, Ammathi said one way could be to make ideation a part of the learning process. Potential leaders can be brought together and given a real-life problem to solve.
“Innovation is about solving problems,” Ammathi said.
Shefali Anand is a New Delhi-based journalist and former correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter.