Blended learning is the latest buzzword in corporate training. It sounds so simple: mix e-learning with other types of training delivery. But questions persist. What are the best ways to blend delivery types? When do you blend? What blends work best with what? And the $million question: Will the term blended learning replace e-learning? Bersin & Associates set out to understand these issues. In 2002 and 2003, Bersin & Associates partnered with IDC to conduct a study of more than 30 corporate blended learning programs to understand what works.
While blended learning isn’t a new concept, many organizations are innovatively combining electronic delivery with other media to do more with less. In its recently released study on blended learning, Bersin & Associates and IDC profiled 15 leading-edge corporate applications with populations from 250 to over 25,000 learners. Here's an overview of how blended learning is being used to create tremendous value for organizations worldwide and highlight major lessons learned from these 16 major programs.
Blended learning optimizes resources
As Bersin & Associates talked to companies embarking on blended learning, it found that they were all asking the same question. What combination of tools and media will make the biggest impact for the lowest investment?
Some cases, such as Cisco’s reseller certification program that must reach nearly 900,000 people, need a Web-based curriculum simply because the audience is massive and widespread. In another example, because the audience for Siemens’s global change in accounting practices was nearly 10,000 financial professionals, a simulation-based solution was the clear choice.
But simulations and Web-based courses can cost $millions to develop. The cost-justification, therefore, is based mainly on the fact that the large audience acts as a significant business driver. In other cases, however, a cheaper solution is possible. For example, when Kinko’s rolls out a new product to their field sales offices, a conference call and series of job aids seems to do the trick.
The key to blended learning seems to be selecting the right combination of media that will drive the highest business impact for the lowest possible cost. But how does an organization decide the mix?
Our research uncovered a variety of methodologies. Among several companies, a common simple approach was to create electronic content and surround it with human, interactive content. For instance, several of the companies that we interviewed had used this model to roll out ERP application training. They used an initial conference call and series of meetings to describe the project and explain why the new system was important to the company. After this face-to-face interaction, users took an online course. Finally, management held a follow-up meeting and conducted evaluations before the system was actually rolled out. In addition to some cost savings, this method enables most organizations to create high interest among learners.
Each media type has strengths—and weaknesses
To make blended learning more powerful, many organizations start looking at all media types as potential options: classroom training, Web-based courses, Webinars, CD-ROMs, video, EPSS systems, simulations, and so forth. Other media, which is less exciting but just as important, includes books, job aids, conference calls, documents, and PowerPoint slides.
One lesson, Bersin & Associates learned is that programs with the highest impact blend a complex media with one or more of the simpler tools. A Web-based course for introduction followed by a real hands-on interactive class is an obvious mix. Some of the questions you should ask when selecting media are brought to life in the figure below:
Through its research, Bersin & Associates was able to develop a media selection guide that can help companies identify the best media to use for a given problem (see below).
Blended learning forces organizations to think about the business problem
A significant conclusion that resulted from the research was the understanding that when companies are making decisions about what media formats to blend together, they’re essentially managing their portfolios. Similar to the concept of balancing a 401K account, people need a methodology to help decide when to use a Webinar or a conference call and when to build a complex simulation or an online course. When you create a financial portfolio, you start with your goals and factor in risk, time, and budget. When developing blended learning options, the factors are similar.
Specifically what is the business problem or goal? Do you need to increase sales revenue for a new product, for example?
Is it a learning problem, information problem, or a business problem?
What are the characteristics of the audience? How much time will they have access to the content? What connectivity issues do they have? What are the learning styles and education level of employees? How motivated are the learners?
What are the characteristics of the content? How long before information is out-of-date? Where is content located? Will you use SME’s to develop content? Are learning activities intended to inform people, develop skills, or build competencies? (Bersin & Associates developed a paradigm describing the four types of corporate training. Go to www.bersin.com/tips_techniques/Breeze2.htm.)
What sort and how much measurement is required? Measurement efforts are expensive, so be sure to identify specific measurement requirements before launching the development project. Will you measure completion rates, scores, certifications, or nothing at all?
Each of these questions can be thorny. But you can’t hope to answer these questions rationally without understanding what business costs, benefits, and processes you need to be successful.
Technology isn’t as easy or ubiquitous as people think
Here’s an amazing fact: nearly every company we talked to described numerous technology hurdles that they had to overcome. Okay, maybe that’s not such an amazing fact.
In the process diagram above, step three covers identifying how companies implement infrastructure. Across the board, infrastructure is problematic for organizations. Some of the areas that cause the most grief include
Bandwidth. Because some learners lack high bandwidth connectivity (remote locations, perhaps), some content simply will not run on their machines.
Standards. Each PC can have a different browser version and various plugins. You need to set content standards that specify browser version, plugins, bandwidth, memory, necessary CPU speed, and so forth.
LMS limitations. LMS systems are expensive and complex to implement, so some organizations opt to leave out certain features during the initial purchase. For example, if you rely on LMS-driven features for your program, you may find that the assessment tool is missing or wasn’t customized to be compatible with exiting programs.
Timing constraints. When you deploy a large program you must be ready for massive throughput in a short period of time.
Metrics. Measurement is difficult if you haven’t outlined metrics specific for your organization’s efforts. Beware: most LMSs have fairly unsophistocated off-the-shelf reporting systems.
Deployment processes is key to success
The single biggest issue companies spend time and money on is the marketing launch and deployment process. In order to be successful, organizations must develop an integrated go-to-market plan for all learning programs. Each plan should include
Executive support. The highest levels within the company need to influence line managers to give employees time to take courses.
Launch programs. Whether you use Webinars, phone calls, or email blasts, be sure to explain the importance and urgency of your program to potential participants.
Rapid feedback systems. You will uncover problems with the rollout efforts and learning programs immediately. These issues must be addressed within hours, not days. If someone can’t access content to work, they’re likely to leave and never return.
Business process integration. You need to think about how training integrates with your company’s existing business processes. For example, because managers thought their sales associates were too busy, the associates weren’t given time by their managers to participate in training. How are you going to prompt people to take time for training? Do you need to integrate training into peoples’ performance plans? Are you going to present certificates or tie bonuses to completions?
Marketing. Too much is made of “marketing” e-learning. Truly marketing your programs requires adherence to all of these efforts. Sending email alone won’t do the trick. You must make sure that you’ve answered the question: Why would a busy employee stop what they’re doing to take this course or program? Once you understand the answer to that question, communicating it becomes easy.
Blended learning does not have to cost $$$
Another interesting outcome from our research and interviews finds that many companies outsource major e-learning projects—often spending millions of dollars. For example, one companies outsourced the creation of a business simulation that trained financial professionals how to use new accounting principles. In this particular case, the problem was global and the cost of potential on-the-job failures was steep, so it was worth the cost. If you have an extensive audience and a sizeable problem, you often can cost-justify a great deal of money on content.
There are no standard tools.
In-house development is 1/2 to 1/5 the cost of outsourced development.
It is possible to drive content development below $1000 per course hour.
The simple cost equation for blended learning is the tradeoff between development cost and delivery cost. For Web-based training, high development costs can be amortized by low delivery costs if the audience is large. For classroom training, lower development costs and higher delivery costs are justified when the audience is small.
However, Bersin & Associates found that the opposite was occurring in most cases. Several companies seem to be developing Web-based content for US$100’s per instructor hour. How do they do that? They often hire a supplier to teach them how to build courseware. Next, they pull together a small team of three to four people and build the content internally.
One company developed a major SAP upgrade program that was business critical for more than 10,000 employees, for a total development cost of $75,000. This is less than $7. 50 per employee for development cost, which is cheaper than the cost of lunch in most big cities. Those are the cost ratios that most organizations should strive to meet.
Major impact is possible
The most fascinating finding was that blended learning does, indeed, have an huge and measurable business impact. Most of the companies Bersin & Associates studied said that the blended learning programs they built solved problems that were impossible to solve in any other way. After a review of all responses, we found that the most noteworthy business benefits of blended learning revolve around scale, speed, throughput, complexity, and cost issues.
Scale. You can roll out a new initiative or program to global audiences and reach more people than ever before. This was the promise of e-learning, and it’s being realized by several companies.
Speed.If you need to train people fast, you can reach thousands of people simultaneously though e-learning. Although there’s a fixed time to develop content, the time to deploy can be rapid. If the business problem is NOW and the content will become stale, blended learning is the answer.
Throughput.If your training problem is bottlenecked, you can eliminate the obstacle and improve training throughput by orders of magnitude. For example, one telecommunications company had such a backlog of training that technicians were driving around without work to do for weeks?waiting for new-hire training slots.
Complexity. Many training challenges are just too complex for a single Web-based course or PowerPoint-based Webinars. If the material is complex and your business need demands that people internalize and change their behavior, using multimedia can result in higher completion rates and stronger results.
Cost. Many companies have found that e-learning doesn’t save as much money as they thought it would. You buy and implement an LMS. You buy collaboration tools and a content catalog. You start building lots of Web-based courses. The bills pile up, and you find that the total cost shifted from instructors to infrastructure and Web development. By using the blended approach you can avoid price tag explosion. For example, one company that we interviewed starts with job aids and moves to more expensive media only if the problem demands it. By thinking about every problem as a blending challenge, you can select the lowest cost media which solves the problem.
In the late 90s, plenty of companies jumped on the e-learning bandwagon. In reality the promise of e-learning was still immature. Developers now understand that different problems require different solutions—a mix of media and delivery methods. Nearly everyone agrees that the key is to apply the right mix to a given business issue. Hence, blended learning is effectively replacing e-learning. It’s simply the natural evolution of e-learning into an integrated program of multimedia applied toward a business problem in an optimum way.
To be sure, I believe—and the research indicates—that blended learning is here to stay.
Published: July 28, 2003