The mission was, I thought, straightforward: create a truly blended leadership and management development offering. That was over ten years ago and we are still working with clients and partners to perfect the offering. I’m therefore fascinated by the question, why are so few people getting it right?

Or to be more precise:

    1. How can we help more clients create the performance breakthroughs that a fully blended and integrated offering will provide?
    2. Can we find a more effective way to collaborate with specialist face-to-face providers, who should be a perfect fit for GoodPractice, with our online expertise?
    3. How can we help the learning and development profession move forward in this area?

Let’s take the last question first: How can we help the learning and development profession move forward in this area?

I’ve been thinking that perhaps it is to do with the expertise and interests of learning professionals. If you were to draw this as a linear line you’d have face-to-face design and delivery specialists at one end and e-learning/online at the other, with everything in between.

Of course this is a generalisation, but you only have to look at the two main learning exhibitions coming up in January to see that there is a huge differentiation. We have a Learning and Technologies conference and a Learning & Skills event. To be fair, the conference website does say: ‘Finding the perfect balance and blend between technology supported learning and more traditional learning methods and services is still key to the success of any learning strategy and the combination of Learning Technologies & Learning and Skills puts you in touch with the best of both’.

However, it seems to me that we are making an artificial and unhelpful split in the way we look at learning when we view it through this lens. Yes, we need specialist knowledge and skills, but somewhere in the value chain we need to look at learning as a value creation exercise focused on creating improved performance. This means being able to look at the performance gap (‘the gap between a learner’s current situation and where they need to be to be successful’1) and then, in a balanced and informed way, decide on the most appropriate method and blend of interventions that will help close the gap. The danger of viewing learning through a technology or skills lens is that this become the lens through which you view and by default design solutions.

During the mid-1990s when I was working at the Royal Bank of Scotland, we stopped undertaking training until we began to implement the major change programme, called ‘Project Columbus’. Perhaps, because we had very few training and development interventions in place, a limited budget and a huge amount of people to develop, we were forced to take a radical view of how to undertake learning and development. I clearly remember sitting down with Sandy Begbie (now Chief Operations Officer at Standard Life) and trying to work out what we had to deliver face-to-face and what elements could be delivered using TV, virtual classroom technologies or CBT (for those of you too young to know, CBT was an early form of e-learning). It was really hard work, but a great exercise that has stayed with me since. We were forced to make choices, not based on our preference, but on what blend would work best for the business to close the performance gaps.

It was quite obvious to us that some development needed to be delivered face-to-face so that skills could be practised, and there were other areas where we could use TV and a feedback loop through the virtual classroom to help people clarify and check understanding. Yet, there were still more areas where basic knowledge and information could be delivered using the CBT technology.

Since then, the technological options have exploded and we have developed specialisms to make the best use of them, but have we, as an industry, lost sight of the basic need to understand the performance gap and and design and blend performance solutions to meet these needs?

Part of the answer lies with the market and the answer to question two: Can we find an effective way to collaborate with specialist face-to-face providers, who should be a perfect fit for GoodPractice, with our online expertise?

It would seem obvious to take a face-to-face leadership and management design consultancy and a specialist leadership and management online/e-learning company and create a marriage made in heaven. Complementing each other and delivering huge value to clients. Our experience is that this is really very difficult and I think there are three issues.
Firstly, a consultancy’s business model is to sell days to clients. It’s built into their DNA and quite rightly, in terms of short-term cash generation. However, that also makes it very hard for them to see beyond solutions that will use their people in delivery. This behaviour is usually subconscious.
Second, but perhaps due to the need to sell days, we find that the design work is often based on the consultancy’s existing experience, plus an online solution. So they add options for the client instead of integrating a blend of appropriate methodologies into the solution. For the client this pushes the costs up and often retains the status quo method of delivery.

Third, on the online and e-learning side we’ve perhaps been guilty of saying the future is with us and surely it’s obvious for the face-to-face providers. Which is far too blinkered and unhelpful a view.
For that reason, I’m delighted we now have two great partners in OnTrack International and People in Flow, with whom we are now designing integrated solutions from a neutral learning perspective and solely focused on finding the right solution to deliver increased performance.

So, returning to my first question: How can we help our clients create the performance breakthroughs that a fully blended and integrated offering will provide?

Part of the challenge is that learning professionals are split into different areas and responsibilities along the continuum mentioned above and so can have had a narrow focus. It’s only very recently that I’ve started to sense clients really pushing the market for truly integrated solutions. More and more clients are starting to ask the right questions and seek a better integration of offerings. A lot of this is being driven by their colleagues, as they get a better understanding of the opportunities to integrate technology into their workplace and learning experiences. They expect more and won’t accept the old offerings.

Which brings me to the last point I’d like to make: to be fully successful, L&D professionals need to be more than specialists in one area of delivery. Indeed, I would argue they need a focus and mindset that starts with the business, and then adds two other major areas of skills and experience: Operational Excellence and Functional Mastery. Starting with the business provides your purpose, and the Operational Excellence and Functional Mastery, when combined, create the value.

Neville Pritchard of People in Flow and I are working on this model at the moment and intend to write extensively on it. The core insight, we have that relates to creating truly great blended learning is that too often we only focus on our functional mastery and that this is frequently too narrow an approach.

So, next time you have a request for leadership and management development ask yourself:

  1. Do we really understand the performance gap that exists and why?
  2. What are ALL the options for closing the performance gap?
  3. To help you think differently, ask yourself: what’s the minimum that I need to deliver face-to-face or by e-learning? Or if I just had half the budget or half the time, what could I achieve?

It’s certainly not mission impossible, but it does require a change in mindsets to successfully create truly great blended learning that will impact on performance. The encouraging news is that the whole profession is starting to ask the right questions and seek the answers.

[1] Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen, ISBN-13: 978-0-321-76843-8.