Rethinking Corporate Professional Development: Achieving Quality at Scale

squaring the circle of corporate professional development

Traditional corporate professional development is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While on-site training is expensive (trainer, venue, travel, accommodation, catering) and bound to a specific time and location, traditional web-based trainings and elearning courses are scalable, but suffer from low didactic quality and thus fail to achieve advanced learning outcomes. Webinars combine advantages and disadvantages of both of these approaches.

What companies need is an effective online learning experience that enables learners to reach learning outcomes on par with the best classroom training – at scale, anytime and anywhere. We believe that asynchronous, active (“lean forward”) learning and social online courses can help to square the circle. That is: achieve advanced learning outcomes at a reasonable price point.

Where Traditional Corporate Professional Development Falls Short

As I have explained in my post about flexible online learning, classroom learning to this day is considered the gold standard of education. Granted, learning in direct interactions with others can be fun. But as everyone who has ever gone to school will know that is not a given. Even it is though, the practical requirement to be present in a particular location at certain point in time makes it more and more difficult to effectively use classroom training in increasingly global companies. Moreover, due to the fact that all of the learning has to take place in one, usually fairly short, block learners can find themselves overwhelmed by all the input. Corporate classroom training often leaves learners with little to no time for digesting content, entering into discussions with other learners or reflecting on what they have learned. While coming together in a group sure is a powerful way of learning, it reveals certain deficits that flexible online education manages to overcome.

Elearning formats promised a more flexible approach, allowing large numbers of learners to learn outside of the classroom. However, it soon became clear that the WBT format is primarily suited to convey knowledge in the form of content. Learners watch videos or read texts in order to learn certain facts or concepts. In addition they usually answer a few multiple choice questions – but that’s about it. This, however, is not enough to understand a topic in depth, acquire new skills or fundamentally change someone’s mindset. This is why traditional elearning is often one-dimensional and neither encouraging nor challenging. Which is why elearning in many companies is still primarily used in the field of compliance, where the learning objectives are relatively straightforward. For learners to reach more advanced learning outcomes, however, they need to apply their knowledge in different contexts and discuss value judgments with others. Which is why we need a new kind of corporate professional development.

What Innovative Online Education Has to Offer to Corporate Professional Development

Innovative approaches to effective online learning manage to combine the advantages of both classroom learning and traditional elearning. This approach to online education gives learners the opportunity to work at their own pace while acknowledging the importance of the interaction among peers. Messaging, for example, allows students to exchange and discuss ideas with each other. They can even set up working group chats and thus solve assignments and problems together with their peers. Being part of a community is a key aspect of the learning experience – particularly in the field of greyscale learning.

The Learning Journal provides a room for learners to collectively reflect on different solutions to course assignments and motivates them to engage in active learning. Learners can reward outstanding works of others by giving posts a heart. By following the journals of other users, they can keep track of what is happening inside the community. Many of these features are widely successful aspects of other social networking sites. Now it is time to leverage their potential in the field of online corporate professional development.

Our online courses use a broad range of assignment formats. Learners have to write free text responses, record videos, visualise or develop a concept, answer open-ended discussion questions or participate in an essay competition and post the result of their work in the Learning Journal. The assignments are challenging as well as entertaining, but most importantly: educational. This hands-on approach requires learners to apply what they have learned in many different ways and contexts. Sharing their solutions with others enables them to learn with and from each other.

A New Frontier for Corporate Professional Development in the Digital Age

Corporate Professional Development Matrix

We believe that this innovative approach to online education will be able to overcome the shortcomings of both classroom learning and traditional elearning. In so doing it conveniently places itself in the top right corner of the matrix above. On the one hand it achieves advanced learning outcomes by providing high quality content, challenging assignments and a community of peers in a flexible organisational setup. At the same time the courses are asynchronous and require little to no active supervision by an expert. Hence they are much affordable per participant than classroom instruction.

Combining scalability and affordability in this way allows companies to tackle wholly new challenges using digital learning. On the one hand it will help to make digital solutions succeed across a much broader range of subject areas; specifically in fields where it was previously thought to be ineffective such as communications skills. On the other hand it will help corporate professional development to finally deliver on the often-proclaimed aspiration to create a “learning organisation”. Strategic change management initiatives often require the  (re-)qualification of hundreds or even thousands of employees. On-site training programs provide very limited economies of scale and require a lot of time and resources to plan and implement. Exciting alternative solutions that leverage the potential of online learning more fully such as corporate MOOCs (e.g. Deutsche Telekom’s Magenta MOOC) may allow corporate professional development to finally gain the strategic importance HR departments have long claimed, but found hard to deliver on.

The times they are a changin’…

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)