• David Sharp
  • 20 December 2016

Learning to let go

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the way we do everything has changed, not least in the workplace and in the very way we learn. In his final blog of 2016, International Workplace’s Managing Director, David Sharp, takes a look at the rise and rise of blended learning, and what it might mean for you.

The first thing to get straight is that I’m not what might be described as a ‘learning professional’. Unlike my colleagues here at International Workplace, some of whom are qualified L&D practitioners or eLearning development specialists, I’m the Managing Director of a company that started off as a publisher 21 years ago and now delivers the vast amount of that knowledge through training courses instead of paperback and hardback books.

What that does make me qualified to do is to comment on the way knowledge and skills are acquired by people at work and how that process has changed over those last 20 years or so.

I’m not aiming to analyse market trends here: anyone involved in the management or delivery of training programmes will be only too aware of the more recent focus on the learner-as-individual; the importance of self-reflection as a way of measuring learning progress; and the increasing demand for courses and qualifications that are accredited by renowned professional bodies.

David Sharp

And there can’t be anyone – learner or L&D professional – who isn’t aware of the massive growth in the use of eLearning at work.

Unfortunately, many people’s experience of eLearning is the tick-box courses they are subjected to on compliance subjects that allow their employer to say they have ‘done their bit’ to meet their legal obligations to their employees (DSE risk assessment course anyone?) or their shareholders (bribery and corruption).

I hope this doesn’t sound too cynical on my part: eLearning is a set of relatively new technologies, and in its early stages was bound to be rather basic. It genuinely does lend itself to a tick-box approach, and it’s a very effective way of recording compliance. The problem though is that as a result eLearning has historically been very dull.

You will often hear me quote the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) annual L&D survey results that suggest that while eLearning may be the third or fourth most popular tool in the trainer’s toolbox, it’s deemed to be only the tenth most effective. Despite a huge shift in learning technologies available to developers and L&D practitioners, this statistic hasn’t changed much in the last five years or so.

Here at International Workplace we don’t regard that as a bad thing, rather as an opportunity. We don’t want to make eLearning less popular, just much more effective.

But I do also wonder whether focusing too much on eLearning isn’t actually devoting too much attention to answering the wrong question? That question is surely: how do we make learning better? Not how do we make eLearning better?

In the early years of the new millennium, the mantra was that no business would prosper unless it was a dotcom. New internet start-ups were born every day, with the perceived wisdom being that you needed ‘first-mover advantage’ and if you didn’t have an ecommerce operation you’d be out of business overnight. There was a lot of disruption, but what’s happened over time is that the best businesses have managed to combine the strengths of both clicks and bricks in their business models. To make the analogy, in L&D terminology, you might refer to them as ‘blended commerce’. 

The same thing is happening in L&D, and the pace of change is tangible. With the increasing adoption of mobile and social learning, the way people want to learn has become what retailers might describe (in a reverse analogy) as ‘multi-channel’. It’s likely that eLearning will be one of those channels – so we need to make eLearning better by making it more interactive and engaging – but it will still only be one of those channels.

As such, I hope it won’t be too long before phrases like eLearning and blended learning sound as dated as dotcom, and we can just go back to calling it plain old simple ‘learning’.

Despite this, I can’t tell you how much resistance I come across when meeting with prospects and clients to discuss how a multi-channel (blended learning) approach might help them get more bang for their buck. I have complete sympathy for their views, which are often borne of the need for stability in a fast-changing world. For corporates especially, the logistics of delivering and tracking learning interventions across a large, disparate workforce can be particularly difficult.

But it doesn’t mean these views shouldn’t be challenged, and indeed I would regard it as my job – as someone who isn’t a learning professional – to help them work through the commercial challenges to get the very best outcomes for their organisation and their employees.

So if you are feeling slightly overwhelmed by the blended learning phenomenon, my question to you is: can you learn to let go? If you’re not actively embracing blended learning in your business, why not make 2017 the year you go multi-channel? Why not try it out on just one course, by switching some classroom time for eLearning, and monitoring the results? I’d be interested to learn how you get on.


David Sharp is Managing Director of International Workplace. He was a Support Judge and Lead Judge for the Learning and Career Development category of the BIFM Awards from 2013-2015, and has been a Judge of the Pattenmakers Young Facilities Manager Award for the last two years.