Classroom training: villain of L&D?

Going into the ‘classroom’ for ‘training’ has had a bad press but according to Robin Hoyle, it hasn’t been drummed out of town just yet! And, as he explains, there are some great ways to maximise on the opportunities that classroom training presents.

A classroom can be the catalyst for informal learning. It can give people permission to think differently and to plan what they need to learn and how. It can be the start of a journey of discovery in a group of like-minded and similarly motivated.

Imagine the scene: You have a meeting with a head of department to discuss their ‘training’ requirements. You try taking a performance consulting role, identify the challenges they are facing, and suggest all sorts of funky solutions involving collaboration platforms, work-based assignments and line manager coaching.  As the discussion ebbs and flows the ideas are whittled down to those which will be the least disruptive to a busy department. For reasons of efficiency and cost effectiveness some of the more radical ideas are shelved for now – though when things are a bit less pressured, the Head of Department is sure they will feature in her plans for future staff development. But, given the challenging environment, the time pressures and the urgency of the need, she wants to go with a safe option for now.

Two hours after you skipped into the meeting, armed with good intentions, grand plans, white papers, research reports and the recommendations of your personal learning network curated from Twitter, you agree to run a one day training course.

Oh, and two of the team have a really important presentation, so will it be OK if they leave the session at 3.30pm for a briefing?

Sound familiar?

Of course, compromise and accommodation are the very warp and weft for the in-house L&D team. However much we might want to expand our horizons and develop new thinking, when we get in front of the decision makers, we often agree to delivery mechanisms which are far from ideal. In truth, we also know that these are unlikely to deliver the skills or the change that the organisation requires.

We justify our involvement in the less than optimal because we can ‘subvert from within’.  At least, we tell ourselves, if we get a day with a group in a training room we can exert some influence – however small and short-lived.

If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, then a recent research report called Preparing for the Future of Learning, from the excellent Towards Maturity and CIPD, may be of some comfort. The report aims to shine a light on good practice and ‘inspire learning leaders to embrace the increasingly self-directed nature of today’s learners.’

The report looks at those in the top 10% of the Towards Maturity Index (the so-called Top Deck organisations) and highlights the differences in their approach to L&D. While face to face courses figure less significantly in the work of the Top Deck, these leading organisations are still planning to increase capacity in this area. It may come as a surprise to find that they are just as likely to be building classroom capability as everyone else.

The classroom course may no longer be the only game in town, but it hasn’t yet been run out of the city. According to this research, organisations not only still rely on the classroom but want to invest in improving how the classroom contributes to building organisational capability.

In some of the more surprising statistics quoted, 95% of organisations believe traditional classroom delivery skills are a priority for the L&D team. Whilst 52% of organisations in the survey believe that ‘the course is only one option for building skills and performance’.

Another way of interpreting this response may be to conclude that 48% (almost half) believe that courses are the only option for building skills and performance – a staggering reliance on an approach which many of us have been questioning for years.

My fictional scenario at the beginning of this article shows that attempts to wean our organisations off the classroom as the preferred route for training may be an uphill struggle.  What the Toward Maturity data shows is that the traditional course is still an integral component of L&D tactics, if not as central to strategy as once it may have been.

Perhaps, paradoxically, my recipe for those wanting to harness the power of more informal learning is to start from that most formal of L&D options, the classroom programme.

I should point out that I don’t think classroom courses can be relied on to build skills, nor the long lasting behavioural change many organisations seek – at least not on their own. But I do believe that they can be the departure point for a whole range of learning activities determined by the individual, self-directed and integrated into day-to-day work.

A classroom can be the catalyst for informal learning. It can give people permission to think differently and to plan what they need to learn and how. It can be the start of a journey of discovery in a group of the like-minded and similarly motivated.

A classroom event should not be the pinnacle of a capability development initiative, but a staging post for checking out the challenges and issues faced by a group and an opportunity for collective feedback, reflection and action planning.

The course is with us and probably always will be. By reimagining its role and function, we can build informal learning into the foundations of more formal approaches. This is not blue sky thinking. It is a pragmatic, effective and efficient route to better learning

About Robin Hoyle

Robin Hoyle is Senior Consultant at Learnworks and has worked in L&D for 30 years. He is the author of two books Complete Training and Informal Learning in Organizations. Connect with him on twitter @RHoyle

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