Almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic has reshaped learning. With the need for social distancing, the most advisable way to deliver learning interventions now is virtually. Educational institutions and learning and development (L&D) teams are working tirelessly to deliver quality online learning solutions to address business, academic and social needs now that face-to-face learning is not an option. But given the tradition of the “real world” classroom, there is skepticism that impactful learning can happen online.

Failing to embrace online learning may prove a missed opportunity. Nobody knows how long the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptions will last. For business continuity, the right approach is to not push the pause button on capability-building but to embrace virtual learning.

A comparison may help the undecided embrace online learning. Once upon a time, banking meant visiting a building. Today, most banking is done on digital platforms, and banks that embraced the digital wave have become key players in a changing business landscape. Learning professionals must shift to just-in-time online learning (JITL) to offer training opportunities to societies, organizations and groups that this pandemic is transforming.

JITL is focused on enhancing skills when and where it’s needed. It can deliver learning outcomes faster — and demand fewer resources — than other, structured interventions. When the world opens again, we believe that JITL will have become an innovative mainstay of learning.

While it will take time to have real data on the overall impact of embracing JITL, preliminary data is promising. A few years ago, the World Health Organization and Imperial College London reviewed 108 studies on the impact of eLearning for health professionals and concluded that students using eLearning acquired knowledge and skills as well as, or better than, those using traditional classroom methods. During the pandemic, demand for JITL has expanded exponentially to solve problems ranging from enabling sales teams to continue to drive growth to continuing university coursework.

Three important questions tend to come up when executives consider JITL:

    • How can my organization get started?
    • Is JITL a temporary phenomenon?
    • Why should we increase instead of decrease our investment in learning?

Our experience running L&D and consulting in organizational development at Ecobank, Google and other global organizations gives us a unique perspective on answering these questions. Specifically, our involvement over the past few weeks in JITL learning initiatives, which have reached over 14,000 managers, inspired us to publish this framework to help organizations answer these three questions.

1. Adopt JITL Strategically

Just as learning professionals have done in the past, we must start JITL initiatives with clearly communicated business objectives in order to inspire follow-through.

We don’t know how this crisis will end, but this uncertainty doesn’t mean work mustn’t move forward. L&D leaders are uniquely positioned to help their organizations strategically plan their ongoing response. JITL can address two goals at once: developing the skills of the individual employees and strengthening the digital operations of the organization as a whole.

2. Focus on the Learning Experience

JITL can keep people engaged by applying empathy. A good learning experience does not only consider the specifics of the online platform but also the people using it, including empowering them to choose when — and how — they learn.

Adaptability is the currency of impactful learning. Once organizations see the tremendous value of JITL, they will demand more of it (with physical classrooms and eLearning as important supports). We advocate a 40/30/30 model: 40% of learning through JITL, 30% through eLearning (structured, self-paced online learning modules) and 30% through instructor-led training in physical classrooms.

3. Boost Internal Capability

Leaders

Leaders are looking for ways to educate their staff on COVID-19 and the challenges it poses. In doing so, many have become instructors — in some cases to thousands, about matters that will not only keep businesses going but save lives. JTIL provides the opportunity for senior leaders to reach and connect with staff across their organization’s footprint.

Subject Matter Experts

When internal subject matter experts (SMEs) teach others, they deepen their organization’s learning culture. Due to work demands, the best SMEs may not be available to deliver all-day training over two days, but with JITL, they can present content over time, with modules that can range from 30 minutes to three hours in length.

Technology

JITL relies on technology. In fact, the real-time delivery of virtual learning requires reliable technology. Fortunately, vendors are working hard to upgrade their systems overnight, and these improvements are likely to continue. While your choice of technology depends on your needs and budget, it is important to optimize tools and platforms. You will be surprised by what is possible when you apply creativity, a can-do attitude and the right technology.

4. Drive Scalability Through Collaboration

Few people saw this situation coming. The good news for L&D professionals is that we have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and strengthen our role. The winning formula is collaboration between the actual service providers (internal learning teams) and the service enablers (external training institutions). Approaching JITL this way will create fruitful partnership that can co-create ideas and solutions.

We must take a step back, embrace JITL; bring in all parties for virtual design thinking sessions; and quickly come up with a roadmap to deliver more powerful, engaging and beneficial learning.

5. Lean on Data and Agility

The education sector has been slow to adapt and change, but what worked last month may be irrelevant a month from now. We must move more quickly. One powerful benefit of JITL is that it makes data accessible instantly, enabling us to pivot learning as needed.

To contain the current threat, the world is temporarily closed. But learning is vital — we need more of it, not less. The demand for learning professionals to support internal and external clients has increased exponentially. Organizations need JITL — not next month but immediately. The idea of scrapping the training calendar you meticulously prepared at the start of the year is daunting, but it’s reality. Working with speed and empathy — with societal and business interests at heart — will cement learning as an enabler and problem-solver.

Around the world, just-in-time online learning is saving lives. It is also enabling businesses to save money while helping to not only protect but pivot entire industries. It is a humane approach to maintaining learning.

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