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Target Results, Not Delivery Methods:Technology’s Role in Training for High Performance

The medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan declared this in 1964 at the dawn of the Electronic Age. For an ever-evolving training industry, this perspective reverberates over a quarter of a century later.

Communication media can engage people physically, intellectually and emotionally. For instance, with print, the reader controls the information transfer. They decide how much and how often they read. They use touch and sight to turn the pages and decipher the words. The reader’s mind also visualizes the characters, the setting and the action. Conversely, movies are passive—the viewer must only watch and listen. Dialogue, music, sound eff ects and visuals are presented to the ears and
eyes. Also, movies are usually viewed start-to-finish in a single sitting. Videocassettes and DVDs have impacted viewing habits, but the medium fundamentals remain.

“The medium is the message” suggests that the technology used to deliver information impacts how it is received, perceived, understood and acted upon. Emphasis on the medium and its characteristics—versus the content of the message—assists in distilling the role of technology in eff ective training.

The Training Technology Debate

At the time McCluhan’s ideas were introduced, technology in the training industry was limited to overhead projectors, single frame fi lmstrips and 16mm fi lms. “Stand-up” classroom training was state of the art; incorporating lectures, pre-produced materials and facilitated group discussion. It would be more than 20 years before the VCR became an essential tool of corporate trainers and a decade more until the computer and the Internet combined to create endless new possibilities for employee training.

In the course of this latest evolution, the training profession has found itself somewhat at odds, locked in a central debate regarding the most effective use of technology and how best to blend the various training modalities to achieve the greatest impact on learning.

For decades, the market was dominated by classroom/workshop style training programs often incorporating content presented on video/DVD. As a training medium, video offers many advantages, most notably in behavior modeling. No other type of medium has the power to depict real world situations and incorporate characters and dialogue with which viewers can easily identify. Along with facilitated discussions and other course materials, classroom training that uses video has proven effective in infl uencing employees’ attitudes and changing their perceptions and behaviors. The results combine for positive impacts to the cultures of the organizations in which the successfully trained employees work.

Today, however, many consider that classroom training has been rendered obsolete by interactive, multi-media courses delivered straight to the computers of a globally-dispersed corporate workforce. From an efficiency standpoint, an electronic-based training platform can eliminate the need for classrooms, complex scheduling and travel. Software applications can handle administrative tasks, including testing, certifi cation, courseware updates and many other elements related to managing compliance.

What many have considered to be a training technology debate is, in fact, a complex and nuanced subject. The issue is determining the appropriate combination of modalities, delivery platforms and communication mediums that are best suited to meeting critical training objectives.

The Tyranny of Technology

Most large business organizations have experienced the marketing juggernaut that is the high-technology industry. For every truly transformative technology advance, there is an abundance of hype for technology solutions more complex and costly than the problems they were designed to solve. Yet, “silver bullet thinking” continues to prevail in the executive suite, leading to purchases of new technology that does not always offer a significant business advantage over what it is replacing. Millions of personal computer owners face that fact almost annually, bombarded by relentless advertising campaigns to upgrade their operating systems or be left behind.

The assumption that “newer is always better” lies at the heart of the technology debate. It is, however, a hazardous oversimplifi cation. Rarely is any complex job accomplished using a single tool. Knowing and using the right tool for the right task is the essence of mastery, and training is no exception. Upgrading from a fleet of rolling video carts and DVD players to a networked media server and an enterprise-wide suite of training software could be expected to lead to a signifi cant improvement
in training effectiveness, but is not a given. A fine line separates technology-driven from technologyimpaired.

Content is King

Ultimately, the effectiveness of one delivery technology over another depends on the nature of the subject matter, the course content and the methods that comprise the training to be delivered. Content is king; technology its loyal servant—and the message determines the appropriate medium to be used.

Individually, certain delivery platforms are recognized as more effective in conveying specifi c types of information to learners or providing particular experiences that aid information-transfer and skill building. Print/visual media or basic eLearning technology are extremely well suited to rote learning needs, such as policies and procedures, safety requirements and general knowledge about an organization. However, behavioral learning is best supported through an experiential activity such as role play and dramatization. Subjective and/or abstract concepts (e.g., integrity, inclusion, fairness) benefit from group discussion in a facilitated face-to-face or virtual setting.

Ultimately, the eff ectiveness of one delivery technology over
another depends on the nature of the subject matter,
the course content and the methods that comprise the training to be delivered.

The Evolving Landscape

Text-based eLearning has emerged as an option suitable for factual, information-heavy training needs. Course content is readily accessed through a menu-driven interface on a desktop computer screen. Individuals can move through courseware at their own pace, be tested at specific intervals and, based on the results, be redirected to areas in which additional study is indicated. In the background, individuals’ progress is being charted, their test scores reported and their capabilities catalogued.

But what about equipping employees with critical interpersonal skills and eliciting desired new behaviors in the workplace? This is where training that incorporates video excels, regardless of platform or learning modality. The ability to watch others handle diffi cult situations, for example, is a powerful learning tool. When employees see people like themselves and their coworkers dramatize credible scenarios onscreen, it serves as a catalyst for individuals to adopt new points-of-view, consider different responses and try out modeled behaviors. Traditional eLearning, even when incorporating a highlevel of interactivity, simply cannot deliver emotionally charged learning to the extent that video can when it is a key component of the training design.

Fortunately, eLearning platforms have become increasingly “video friendly,” led by advances in highspeed broadband networks and high-performance media servers. Also, the training audience is increasingly video-centric owing to the widespread popularity of YouTube and other Internet sites featuring digital video content.

Putting the Range of eLearning in Perspective:

HIGH

eDesign offers high level of interactivity

  • Text, graphics and stills
  • Non-linear navigation/access to information
  • Opportunities for reflection and testing of knowledge with learning check feedback
  • Multiple branching opportunities

Application Example: Traditional eCourse on acquired business skills

eDesign offers highest level of engagement

  • Text, graphics and stills
  • Video or computer-generated animation
  • Non-linear navigation/access to information
  • Opportunities for reflection and testing of knowledge with learning check feedback
  • Multiple branching opportunities

Application Example: Robust eCourse on critical interpersonal skills or compliance requirements

eDesign offers clarity of information

  • Text, graphics and stills
  • Linear navigation/access to information
  • Rudimentary interactivity with opportunities for refl ection and basic pre/post-testing of knowledge

Application Example: PowerPoint page-turner sharing critical organizational policies for new employee orientation

eDesign provides emotional connection

  • Text, graphics & stills
  • Video or computer-generated animation
  • Linear navigation/access to information
  • Rudimentary interactivity with opportunities for refl ection and basic pre/post-testing of knowledge

Application Example: PDF or online course with imbedded video for real-world behavior modeling

LOW HIGH

Today, the imperative to build a high-performing workforce means the demands on training are more sophisticated than ever before. Any organization that limits itself to one or even two approaches risks putting its company at a competitive disadvantage. It is not about video versus eLearning or self-directed versus leader-facilitated; rather it is about seamless integration of training methodologies into a powerful whole.

Effective training strategy begins with a clear idea of the organization's overall business issues objectives.

The eLearning Design Spectrum

A Full Range of Options in Functions, Features and Requirements

Linear Navigation
(content presented in predetermined sequence)
Non-Linear Navigation
(content/information accessible in any order)
Static Event; Scheduled Access Dynamic Process; On Demand/Just-in-Time
Synchronous; Instructor-Controlled Asynchronous; Learner-Controlled
Compliance to Strict Standards Platform Independent and Transformability
Use of text, graphics and stills only(no rich media) Use of Rich Media (Flash, streaming video, animation, etc.)
Limited monitoring, administration, tracking Integration with Learning Content Management System

Creating an Effective Training Technology Strategy

The design of every training strategy begins with a clear idea of the organization's overall business issues/objectives. It is an exercise in reverse engineering, envisioning what success would look like—then walking back through the logical sequence of steps that will ensure that employees have the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to bring about the desired business outcome.

Borrowing a practice from project management, the initial task is the creation of a "training breakdown structure" that reflects the framework of component parts, practical requirements and other relevant considerations:

By following a disciplined, strategic process, selection of technology is based on its effectiveness, not on whether it is the current trend in the training industry.

The imperative to build a high-performing workforce demands seamless
integration of training methodologies into a powerful whole.

Sample Training Breakdown Structure

Business Objective

-Increase sales revenue by 20% over 12 — 24 months

What Employees Need to Contribute to Goal

-Greater product knowledge and consultative selling skills to close more initial sales and up-sell current customers.

Training Content
(Desired Knowledge, Skills, Capabilities)

-Product features/advantages/benefits, recommended applications, etc.

-Ability to assess customer needs (e.g., formulate probing questions and follow-up)

-Closing skills

-Understanding of relationship-building for competitive advantage

Requirements & Constraints

-Minimize training impact on centrally located sales staff (e.g., employees to remain onsite, maintain normal sales function).

-Demonstrate a commitment to employee development by making training an ongoing process rather than a one-time event.

-Provide a significant amount of self-directed training.

-Stretch training dollars and speed rollout by sourcing high quality, existing content rather than developing custom, in-house courseware.

Modalities/Methods

-Build product knowledge through use of online learning modules and self-administered tests to indicate comprehension/retention.

-Bring in a sales coach to lead brown-bag lunch sessions on how to assess customer needs; include role-playing exercises for employees.

-Source video-based scenarios that model the behavior of successful sales professionals.

-Have sales staff read a company-selected business book on customer relationships and subsequently offer performance incentives tied to the book’s main ideas/best practices.

Execution Plan

-Develop complete curricula, metrics, milestone schedule, roles and responsibilities and other details for implementation.

Putting an End to the Argument

To continue the historical debate over training methods is to miss the point.

Increasingly complex demands on the modern workforce call for increasingly sophisticated training solutions. Toward that end, utilizing a thoughtful and informed blend of technology, modality and content should be the ultimate goal of every organization. The coming of age of eLearning platforms has opened a whole new world of possibilities for engaging employees of every generation and learning style.

Nevertheless, the dramatized "real world" scenarios long associated with video-based training will continue to play a critical role in both self-study and group settings. Whether the story unfolds in a meeting room, on a video monitor, on a computer screen or an iPhone, video retains its unique capacity to cement learning that involves behavioral, emotional and interpersonal skills.

The Finite Limits

The 21st century has brought a watershed of high-technology options for delivering sophisticated training 24/7 to employees working on the front lines of businesses around the globe. Although a comprehensive training methodology can provide relevant examples, a chance to reflect and discuss, opportunities to practice and time for application planning, learning at the deepest level is achieved only through on-the-job practice. Regardless of modality or delivery platform, all training has its finite limits—practical experience remains the best teacher.

Though Marshall McLuhan did not live to see the historical convergence of media and information that is the Internet, there's no doubt he saw it coming. Not surprisingly, his fundamental insights continue to resonate along with it. Whether the channel is silicon or celluloid, the ability to foster understanding depends on choosing the right medium to deliver the right message as intended to its target audience.

Today, McLuhan might say to everyone setting out to make a buck, make an impact or make a diference with what they have to say in the Electronic Age: Cavere Clamator - "let the speaker beware" if he fails to appreciate that the medium is the message.

About the Author

Laura Bernstein is an acknowledged master trainer and innovative business executive. An active leader throughout her career, her contributions to the training industry are reflected in the development of award-winning training programs, her tenure on the board of ISA (Instructional Systems Association), her numerous papers and publications and her prior experience at The Dow Chemical Company, Delta College Corporate Services, AchieveGlobal and American Media. Bernstein received an executive MBA from Michigan's Northwood University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Information Systems from Saginaw Valley State University. Bernstein has presented at many national conferences and has been invited as guest lecturer at several colleges and universities.

Terms & Definitions

Asynchronous:
Literally means “not at the same time”; learner-controlled without interacting live with a facilitator
Delivery Platform:
Refers to how training is “hosted”; can be physical media (e.g., DVD) or virtual (e.g., web-based portal to access eLearning).
Media/Medium:
Various means of communication used in training design/delivery.
Modality:
Distinction made between self-directed/self-study and groupfacilitated training
Rich Media:
Collective term for interactive media combining text, audio, video, computer-generated animation and other technologies
Synchronous:
Literally means “at the same time”; involves interacting with an instructor via the web in real time

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