The Time & Need for Next Generation Distance Learning is Now!

authoringToolToday’s enterprise is faced with a number of challenges. One of the top challenges involves motivating and retaining talent. And the challenge increases when you refer to hourly or deskless employees who do not have a corporate email account and have limited or no access to corporate information. How do you motivate, inform and train these employees? Further adding to the challenge is the cultural expectation that communication be video centric. Enterprises with large, distributed, deskless workforces must find a way to communicate, motivate and retain the talent they do have.

The reason these employees are so critical to our success –  As Ram Charan said, “Businesses don’t create value, people do!”  Just like the old adage that says “people don’t buy from a business, people buy from people.”

The cost of turnover varies by industry but general research indicates that high-turnover positions (employees making $10-15/hour) will cost about 15% of their annual salary to recruit, interview, and train a new employee. This translates to at least $3,000 to replace a $10/hour employee.

With turnover in the retail industry averaging more than 50% annually, these costs add up quickly.  For example, a retail organization with 10,000 store associates could save $300,000 a year by reducing employee turnover by just 2%.

Reversing the Trend

The foundation for reducing employee churn is the company CULTURE.  But, creating that culture is not simple – many organizations rely on the fact that people need an income and benefits, and will feel a sense of duty to the company that provides these items.  Unfortunately, this is no longer the case.  And, even when it was the case, it creates an imbalanced culture.

In addition to income and benefits, employees need to have pride, enjoyment and a shared vision of how great the company can be.  It is critical to create engagement with the distributed workforce.

Engagement, as we have heard many times lately, is the emotional commitment that an individual has to the organization and its objectives. There are several studies that have shown when employees are engaged and there is a culture focused on success, the organization will have higher profits, improved performance, happier customers and more.

The reason is simple – engaged employees go the extra mile to make sure that the customer is happy, that the business is successful. But the big question is – HOW does a company, especially one that is distributed across state & country lines, achieve engagement?

Building engagement requires three cornerstone activities – In the book,“We: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement,” Kevin Kruse stated that the three activities are Communication, Recognition and Development. When an organization focuses on these, there will be employee engagement and the culture will be successful.  So, how does an organization improve communication, increase recognition, and focus on development?  The answer is simple.  Utilizing technology to get critical, relevant, and real-time information into the hands of your front line employees.

What is Distance Learning?

Distance-LearningIn a time when companies where “sharpening pencils” and “tightening belts,” enterprise distance learning was born.  Why?  Companies found that they were spending precious capital and time on sending new employees to HQ for training.  Distance learning made training accessible from anywhere at anytime.  And now, with the availability of public and private cloud networks, employees can access training live, on-demand, or in a self-paced environment from any internet-enabled device.

Many people think of distance learning simply as the virtual classroom – made possible by webcasts, satellite broadcasts or by other video technologies.  Simply, distance learning is a way of delivering knowledge and training to a distributed workforce that is physically separated from the various subject matter experts.

The virtual classroom should be supported by a combination of on-demand coursework and field based activities like trying a particular skill in the field.  Additionally, learning can be enhanced by the use of mentors. This combination of instructional styles is sometimes referred to as Blended Learning, a method that is growing in popularity.

A key benefit of this transition was increased consistency of the messages sent.  Further, it opened to the door to greater involvement of company expertise. For example, in a virtual classroom, engineers can interface with sales without leaving their offices.

In the mid-1990’s the automotive industry took a leadership role in distance learning and built out robust virtual learning universities for the workforce. They put subject matter experts on camera to speak directly to the employees at the dealerships.  They included interactivity using proprietary devices. They setup training that allowed the presenter to ask multiple-choice questions, tracking responses down to individual employees. They also introduced the ability for the students to ask questions back to the presenters during the session, using audio bridges and phone lines.

The distance learning industry has advanced significantly and enterprise learning is now robust and an open tool that leverages the global internet, common devices and web browsers, opening the door to a range of training and learning programs.

Interactivity has also improved. Recognizing the need for students to interact not only with the instructor, but also with each other, IDL tools now provide live chat functionality and chat room functions to enable greater learning and development. This interactivity can be delivered using the private or public cloud on a range of devices, and allows students to even share devices during learning sessions.

Another interaction point can be 2-way audio – for spoken questions. In some organizations it is simpler or more appropriate for the students to ask their question using an audio bridge. Providing a way for the student to request the mic and allowing the instructor to help is a powerful component.

During training sessions, it is often advantageous for instructors to ask questions and see immediate results. These are sometimes called “polls” or “surveys” and helps the presenter understand if the audience is attentive and absorbing the material. Additionally, there is the ability for the audience members to ask questions. If the goal is to offer compliance training, there will need to be a tracking mechanism that allows proof of performance tied to an individual’s login.

How to get started?

A company will always have budget considerations as it starts into this process. For companies facing tighter budgets, it is possible start with audio-only sessions, and then build from there as the company recognizes the benefits.  While listening alone may help drive engagement, there is an old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” IN today’s age, “a video is worth a million.”

Video on Demand

As you begin offering video for corporate messaging and training, you can create a video-on-demand (VoD) solution. Doing so enables employees to search topics and watch subject matter experts speaking about various topics.  Additionally, the company can provide mechanisms for viewers to rate content so that the value to the organization can be tracked and measured. With this in mind, when evaluating a VoD solution, ask whether the existing wide area network (WAN) can accommodate the volume of traffic that will be generated. If the answer is yes it can support VoD, consider a software-as-a-service solution. A hosted SaaS offering will greatly reduce the upfront investment and will allow the organization to evaluate the value of the communications before making larger investments.

If there is concern about VoD on the WAN, consider a solution that puts the VoD content at the distributed edge of the network. Distributing the content to a device located at a remote site, accessed via standard web browser. The device at the remote sites can be an existing server that has capacity to store content and serve up web content or a dedicated appliance designed to receive, store and report on usage.

Town Hall Meetings

IDL_Town-Hall_Laptop_iPad_iPhoneAs the organization grows its the use of video, there will come a time when it is desirable to create a live video event. Does the ability to view the live broadcast help achieve corporate goals? Is there business benefit to having the audience see and hear the event live? If the answer is yes, then you can add Virtual Town Hall meetings to your portfolio of engagement solutions.

When the time arrives and the business is ready to add interactivity, decide what level of interaction is needed to accomplish the communication goals. Do distributed employees need to see the presenters? Do the distributed employees need to ask questions to presenters? Do the presenters need to ask questions to audience and likewise track results?

 In order to make such a solution successful, it is imperative to account for devices, operating systems and tools that will be used to participate. Seek a device agnostic, OS agnostic and browser centric solution.

And always remember mobile employees who may not be in a company location yet wants and needs to participate in training and learning sessions.

Measure, Track and Report

Let’s not forget to mention analytics and reporting. It has been said that if you want to improve something, measure it. And if you want to speed up the improvement, measure it and then report on it. There are a number of important measures when exploring distance learning initiatives.

Certainly you want to keep a record of chat transcripts, so you can see what questions were asked. You also want to know who attended what, did they leave the session early, did they answer the questions correctly.

You also want to show how much time is being spent on training and learning, grouping the amount of time by store, location or job category. All of this helps to correlate with business results and comparing performance and possible improvements.

And remember that we are talking about training and learning. This means that we need to track down to the individual for reporting. Whether we are tracking for internal career development or tracking for compliance reporting, the solution needs to have tracking that is granular enough on both the content and on the user side.

Return on Investment

There are a number of ways you can measure ROI on distance learning. You can compare the reduction in travel costs and headcount to the cost of implementing the hardware and software. This was something I was able to witness firsthand with one of our very first distance learning customers, and it was very impressive. 2x ROI in the first year against the costs of implementing. Then in the outlying years they are seeing even higher returns because of the savings to the organization.

While the CFO will appreciate that calculation, the ROI that I believe is more important is when leadership has seen the value of this development tool and have likewise increased their demand to use the tools and communicate with associates across all locations. This certainly comes as a result of feedback from the field on how much they appreciate hearing from leaders and having the chance to regularly interact with them.

Content Strategy

Content and its creation, is an important discussion that you must have in the early stages. When considering training and learning, make sure to design content and lesson plans with the virtual classroom in mind. Find ways to emulate the live, in-person classroom as often as possible. Remember that short (7-10 minute) segments are preferred when using video on demand. For live classes, it is critical to understand that  the human mind can only absorb as much as the backside can endure. Because you have the advantage of delivering content without significant travel, spread out the content.  Users do not have to complete the entire curriculum in a short window.

Also, be open to what we discussed earlier, blended learning. It is a great tool for delivering subject matter expertise into the field, and it should be paired with on-demand viewing content and hands-on activities to help reinforce the learning concepts.

Summary

All of these functions are available today and a solution can be designed that allows the organization to start with a SaaS offering and scale into broader features and capabilities.

As your company prepares for a Distance Learning program, look for a service provider who can help you. When evaluating service providers, find those with networking, video and corporate training experience. Remember you are the expert in your business, don’t worry about being the technology and delivery expert too, let others provide that service for you.

Do you think your organization might benefit from a distance learning program? Let’s continue the conversation, you can find me on LinkedIn (Mike Tippets) and Twitter (@HughesMediaVP).

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