In the learning space, we often talk about innovation, but rarely is it in relation to the classroom. And yet classroom training represents roughly 70 percent of training budgets, according to ATD. Boring and unloved – is the classroom obsolete?
On the contrary, instructor-led training (ILT) is still the most widely used and most effective training delivery method. For example, 56 percent of ILT modules are deemed highly effective against 21 percent for e-learning, according to a Brandon Hall Group study. But with a widening skills gap pushing for faster training and increasing pressure on budgets, it is increasingly hard to justify the costs.
So what is innovative classroom training? Is it connected classrooms? Collaborative experiences? Personalized, blended curricula? Yes, but not only. Many companies are still missing the immersed part of the iceberg – the huge amount of back-office operational processes needed to plan, manage resources and report on classroom training. The reality is that much of these processes are still managed manually in spreadsheets, and there is much room for progress. Banks, for example, need operational savings of 15 to 20 percent to maintain viability, according to a PwC survey. Perhaps in no other industry is the need for more efficient training management more obvious.
But the classroom of the future is not bound to be inefficient and opaque. In this article, we argue for an entirely new, impact-oriented approach to managing ILT, one that reduces costs and administrative workload while increasing flexibility and visibility.
Front-Office versus Back-Office: What’s the Difference?
While most innovations until now have been in the “front-office,” we advocate for innovating in the “back-office.” What’s the difference? We can think of learning technologies as a continuum between training professionals planning the learning strategy and delivery, and learners engaging with the content. Of course, this relationship goes both ways.
- Front-office: The front-office is relentlessly focused on the learner’s needs. This sets a high bar for intuitiveness, user-experience, flexibility, etc. Goals for these innovations can be better learner engagement, impact and retention. Examples of front-office classroom innovations include the flipped classroom model, connected tools, collaborative platforms or games.
- Back-office: The back-office is focused on the training professionals’ needs, who require advanced optimization and business-oriented features to facilitate their jobs. Back-office innovations can improve efficiency by simplifying large-scale planning, optimizing resources and budgets and significantly reducing the administrative workload. These capabilities have been largely ignored, hence why these processes are often done in Excel or not at all.
Note: Even as we implement experience-focused initiatives, we rarely consider how it will affect operational processes. But this is a two-way street: connected classrooms, for example, mean new equipment and venues to manage; personalized learning journeys require flexibility and visibility for highly flexible scheduling, etc.
Why is the Back-Office Stuck in the Stone Age?
Currently, companies mostly use their learning management system (LMS) to manage ILT. But the LMS was never designed to manage ILT, which drives the use of additional tools such as spreadsheets or internally developed solutions, leading to a clunky architecture.
Why exactly can’t an LMS properly manage ILT? ILT is fundamentally different from e-learning. It involves more complex back-office processes, a wider range of resources, and as a result, tends to be more costly. A successful ILT program hinges on the achievement of three core goals:
- Streamlining logistics, scheduling and administration: Rationalizing back-office processes has a very tangible impact on efficiency – every rescheduled session and hour spent on low-value added tasks represents a cost and time loss you could avoid.
- Managing resources: One reason why ILT tends to be costly is that the instructors’ time, travelling costs and classroom capacities are not properly managed. While resource utilization rates generally hover around 50 or 60 percent, efficient organizations should actually aim for 75 percent.
- Optimizing the budget: Budget optimization is the #1 challenge when managing ILT because ILT involves a wider range of processes and resources than e-learning. Appropriate technology should help proactively track costs and align the budget with your strategy.
The LMS was not designed to achieve these goals, it was built with the mission of delivering e-learning. E-learning’s main strength is its low cost and flexibility, so why would LMSs develop optimization features? More technically, the LMS software uses the learner as a building block, not the session. This is not optimal for ILT, for which the business logic is driven by the training session. An example is cost distribution (i.e., an LMS consolidates cost per learner to define session costs). However, most ILT costs are fixed regardless of the number of learners (e.g., room reservation, instructor fee, etc.). This is why LMSs struggle to provide accurate cost tracking. It also means that LMSs have a hard time planning future investments for which learners are not yet identified by name.
The Lean Classroom: How to Manage ILT in the 21st Century
Managing ILT in 2018 should be three things. First, cost-effective to compete with online solutions and respond to tight training budgets. Second, collaborative to improve efficiency and data consolidation. Third, transparent to enable reporting and decision-making.
To this end, we propose a completely new way to think about ILT, resting on strategic planning, operational excellence and technology to maximize impact and minimize costs.
- Strategic decision-making
Unlike online training, ILT is inherently less flexible and scalable as it entails scarce resources and limited capacity. For this reason, planning is crucial and represents our first step.
Plan global strategy: This entails forecasting enterprise-wide training needs for all populations, including external audiences such as customers and partners, non-desk workers who don’t have LMS portal access, and leadership programs. Then comes the creation of a comprehensive long-term training plan based on these forecasted volumes. Lastly, transferring this forecast into your provisional budget will allow you to create a budget truly in line with your learning and development (L&D) strategy.
Prioritize training investments: This entails consolidating complete training costs, including both variable costs such as catering and flights and fixed costs such as venues and instructor fees. A clear picture of costs will allow you to identify the highest return on investments and select only the most strategic training sessions. Lastly, simulating different budget scenarios will help you in making an optimal investment decision.
- Operational Excellence
After having decided on an optimal training plan and budget in line with your L&D strategy, the next step is operational excellence, which means managing ILT in the most efficient and flexible way to reduce costs.
Streamline logistics and administration: Two distinct capabilities are needed to improve efficiency. First, logistics capabilities such as instructor and resources curation, flexible course and resource scheduling, as well as occupancy rate monitoring and optimization. This can be done for example through enterprise resource planning systems. Secondly, an administrative capability that includes, for example, automated registrations and waitlists, electronic document management, and internal and external communication tools.
Optimize budgets: Tracking and reducing training costs in real-time is probably one of the most difficult hurdles in classroom training management. It can entail anything from precise cost-computations, including amortization of fixed assets, invoice management and currency-consolidation. Tracking costs in real-time then feeds into a higher-level monitoring of the remaining budget, which can be benchmarked against your initial plan. This should ideally be done with custom indicators reflecting your priorities.
Frequent reporting is key to make sure that your teams can remain lean in responding to falling performance, sudden change in training volumes, rising costs, or other unexpected challenges. This is a three-step process. First, access real-time shared data, key performance indicators (KPIs) and reports, enabled by the consolidation created through operational excellence. Second, identify weaknesses and opportunities by benchmarking actual versus planned metrics. And lastly, make clear-sighted decisions based on your initial strategy and track improvements.
For years, we’ve been driving innovation in learner experience. This makes sense in online learning, whose main strengths are cost and scalability but suffers from inferior engagement. Innovations in the classroom have been timid and mostly focused on learner experience. But this is not the most pressing fix. It’s time to address the classroom’s true Achille’s heel, reduce costs, improve back-office efficiency, and bring it into the future.