Digital development

The flexibility and convenience of e-learning makes it a reliable professional development tool. HRM Asia examines the benefits of going digital in employee training.

Digital learning is still leading the way in corporate training.

According to Docebo’s E-learning Market Trends and Forecast 2014 – 2016 report, the e-learning industry recorded revenues of US$35.6 million in 2011. This is forecast to hit US$51.5 billion in 2016, representing an annual growth rate of 7.6% over the last five years.

Furthermore, the report predicts that the Asian market will experience the highest annual growth rate at 17.3%, with the market in this region on track to be worth some US$11.5 billion by the end of this year.

These figures indicate the continued popularity of e-learning as a solution and industry players agree that it will remain an integral part of the professional training sector for years to come.

A recent report published by CMI and Oxford Strategic Consulting in the UK, also found that 97% of managers spend at least one day a year on digital learning for their employees.

Flexible learning

This is unsurprising. While face-to-face training is advantageous in terms of physical interaction, digital learning presents other equally notable merits.

Simon Carrie, E-learning and Training Consultant, Professional Development Centre, British Council, says e-learning is preferred because it is more convenient and efficient than face-to-face programmes.

“Time is the most important element,” he says. “Instead of giving staff time off to attend face-to-face courses, it’s about giving them the time, and helping them to schedule the time during working hours to make the most of e-learning.”

British Council currently provides customised corporate e-courses in business and language that afford participants flexibility through their self-paced learning options.

John Lim, Deputy Director of Continuing Professional Education at The Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants (ISCA), shares Carrie’s sentiment.

“Busy professionals who find it difficult to attend in-person courses on specific dates with a fixed schedule, or who are based overseas, will find relevant e-learning programmes useful,” he says. “E-learning can provide that accessibility.”

Indeed, studies show that e-learning typically requires 40% to 60% less employee time than a traditional classroom training session.

Furthermore, knowledge retention rates increase to between 25% and 60% when employees learn digitally, compared to classroom learning where retention rates are only 8% to 10%.

Carrie suggests this is because self-paced e-learning allows people to think about their existing workplace practices, as well as reflect on what they have learned.

“E-learning gives people the flexibility to learn at their own pace, and to really integrate it into their working practices. Approaching e-learning through a ‘bit-at-a-time’ approach allows constant reflection,” adds Carrie.

He is referring to “asynchronous e-learning”, where learning is not time-sensitive, and can take place at any pace the participant desires. Examples of this include self-paced virtual training, computer-based training, and frequently-asked question pages.

Deddi Tedjakumara, Executive Director of Indonesia-based Prasetiya Mulya Executive Learning Institute, agrees with Carrie. He says the flexibility of learning schedules and hours is a key reason why companies adopt the platform.

“They are now able to move learning hours outside of working hours. Employees can use their personal time to learn, besides work hours,” he says.

Economies of scale

The need for massive-scale learning is another reason e-learning continues to be relevant. E-learning is scalable, whereas conventional mediums are rigid.

Tedjakumara says the efficiency and speed with which many employees can undergo training at the same time is a tremendous cost-saver.

“These are also benefits for HR, in addition to the effectiveness for the learning process itself. HR can track and get more information beyond the capabilities, by using a learning management system, which is usually embedded in e-learning systems,” he adds.

Carrie and Lim are quick to agree.

“For organisations nowadays, it’s more a question of time versus quality against cost,” Carrie says. “Organisations are more reluctant to send staff out for training for long periods of time and incur the costs that go along with that.”

“If there are many learners who need to be developed on certain cognitive skills, e-learning can achieve potential savings via economies of scale,” Lim says.

“If the number of learners is not significant enough to warrant the costs needed for e-learning instructional design and development, then it may be better to save on development costs and implement face-to-face learning.”

The convenience of e-learning also allows both organisations and their employees to keep abreast of rapid industry developments.

“Business cycles have become much shorter compared to the past and many companies feel the pressure to learn fast and outperform their competitors, or risk losing the business altogether,” explains Lim.

“Continuous learning elevates the competence and performance of employees which in turn opens opportunities for companies to transform continuously for the better.”

Lim stresses that the present business climate has made it increasingly pertinent for companies to cultivate learning in order to stay relevant, and, often, in business at all.

“E-learning can be employed to support such a learning culture,” he says.

Learner response

Employees themselves overwhelmingly prefer e-learning solutions to traditional techniques. This is underscored by findings from the Learning to Lead: The Digital Potential report.

It says more than 80% of its research participants said e-learning was more convenient (because they could do it on their own time). Another 66% said they preferred not having to travel, and 68% liked that they could pause or advance at their own pace.

Carrie says corporate students who come through the British Council are thriving under these programmes.

“It appeals more to younger employees in companies, as they’re often more comfortable with technology,” he explains. “Organisations are also now finding that it is also a better way for employees to collaborate with each other.”

Indeed, Carrie notes that where traditional workshops set up one or two standard situations for employees to learn within, e-learning allows for an exchange of information through the customisation of various scenario-based case studies.

“E-learning provides an ongoing collaborative environment where learning can take place. For employees in the same organisation, this provides a meaningful platform to share ideas and practices,” he says.

Tedjakumara is more circumspect, stating that the effectiveness of an e-learning programme will depend on the demographic in question.

“Younger generations are ready for e-learning as they are comfortable to live in technology and interact through it. For them, technology is the ‘platform’ of life,” he explains.

“For older generations, they see technology as an enabler. They are using the technology but are not as comfortable to live in it.”

Tedjakumara also notes that people who have a more visual and kinesthetic learning style are more comfortable with e-learning than those who learn better aurally.

Yet, it is also worth noting only 48% of the Learning to Lead survey respondents proclaimed that content itself was a reason to use online programmes.

E-learning does have its share of shortcomings, as each of the experts HRM Asia spoke with shared.

ISCA’s Lim warns that e-learning cannot perfectly replicate some real-life situations.

“E-learning’s effectiveness is limited for developing cognitive skills. If the learning outcomes require psychomotor performance such as the ability to play the piano, then it has limited effectiveness as compared to face-to-face training,” he adds.

Another drawback of virtual learning, according to Tedjakumara, is the lack of participant interaction.

“Unless you are using a synchronous e-learning system, the interactions among participants will be limited. Learning from others is a big part of the process. The benefit of networking which usually happens in traditional learning methods is also missing,” he says.

Culture shifts

Tedjakumara says the value of e-learning as an employee training tool begins at the foundation.

“To have an effective e-learning programme, companies (especially in the Asian context), have to make sure that they have already shifted from a ‘training’ to a ‘learning’ culture,” he says.

He adds that companies have to shift from “passively receiving” to “actively seeking” new information. “(They must move) from only storing the information to thinking something beyond information; from applying the tools to implementing the concepts; and from a ‘must do’ to a ‘want to’ spirit,” says Tedjakumara.

Its usefulness also depends on the attitude of workers.

“Despite the concepts, techniques, and tips to develop and to execute, the underlying factor for a successful e-learning programme is the readiness of each participant. Strong motivation, ability to learn independently, and self-discipline are the most crucial factors of readiness,” he explains.

Lim says organisations should incorporate digital development programmes in line with formalised training plans. Companies often fail to design and provide relevant programmes, and this can result in low retention and engagement rates, he says.

Blended learning

Lim says companies can boost the value of these initiatives by proposing relevant e-learning programmes for employees to take up, and then giving recognition when the courses are completed. This will encourage other employees to follow suit, he says.

ISCA has accordingly taken a holistic approach – combining digital learning with face-to-face sessions. Lim says the school provides a suite of bite-sized, e-learning products that complement its existing slate of face-to-face training programmes.

ISCA currently offers such courses in business and accountancy ethics, and counts multinational corporations, statutory boards and non-profit organisations among its list of clients.

This mix of digital content with traditional elements is increasingly referred to as “blended learning”, a concept Prasetiya Mulya is also a proponent of.

“We believe in the effectiveness of blended learning and flipped classrooms,” says Tedjakumara.

The Indonesian professional training institute is at an infancy stage where e-learning is concerned, but it is nevertheless beginning to dip its toes in the water.

“Currently, we are developing a pilot project on e-learning,” he says. “For us, e-learning will be utilised for the ‘what’ part of the learning. The ‘why’ and ‘how’ parts will be still conducted in non e-learning classes.”

Lim says that organisations, ultimately, have to discern which trainings should go offline and which trainings should go online, as well as the target audience that the e-learning programmes are designed for.

Carrie agrees that “crossover learning”, as he terms it, is where the industry is headed.

“People have access to information everywhere, 24 hours a day. Traditionally, people label learning as ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning,” he says.

“Formal learning takes place in an educational setting usually, such as with a scheduled training session or coaching session. ‘Informal’ is reading stuff on your phone when you’re out and about. ‘Crossover learning’ is about connecting formal and informal learning experiences.”

E-learning hits and misses

Advantages

  • Greater convenience and flexibility
  • Greater knowledge retention
  • Opportunity for more enriching content

 

Risks

  • Fewer networking opportunities
  • Interaction and group work difficult to integrate
  • Can be uneconomical for smaller groups

 

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