"Coronavirus was a boost to digital learning"

During the pandemic, in-person training had to be converted into digital continuing training offers in the shortest time possible. The silver lining to emerge from this difficult situation is now the huge rise in the acceptance of e-learning.

It's hard to imagine companies without digital learning. On this point, those attending the e-learning sector talk were agreed. They expect the future world of learning to be a hybrid one.

"Before coronavirus, we had already trialled a great deal in continuing vocational education and training – we had developed new formats and initiated new themes. However, without coronavirus, we would probably have needed a lot longer to digitalise our offers. It was an enormous boost," explains Dorit Schalansky, head of the Global People and Organizational Development team in the co-leadership model.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, the staff at the medical technology company were – where possible – asked to work at home and collaboration and communication was largely switched over to digital channels. The personnel development department actively assisted the employees – numbering over 8,000 in total – in the process of making this change. "Within one week we purchased licences for digital learning offers and made these available to the employees. We also curated content and created playlists. We shelved our entire plan for the year to fully concentrate on the new requirements."

Christina Schulte-Kutsch, Senior Vice President Talent and Organizational Development at the ZF Group, can only confirm this. In week one of the lockdown, she started her new job with the automotive supplier which has more than 150,000 employees. Continuing vocational education and training certainly played a key role at the company however, "in terms of digital learning, demand was minimal" – this is how Schulte-Kutsch describes the situation she found there. "That radically changed as a result of coronavirus. We developed very simple yet very effective solutions very quickly." This started with tips on working with digital tools and on remote leadership. Content was created and sent to the employees. Schulte-Kutsch’'s team then also supported learning among themselves with content which employees had produced individually. "We were massively encouraged by this practical experience. This enabled scope for experiments to be created. It was okay if everything didn't run perfectly to start with. We experienced this boost in e-learning as a result of this and are now also able to digitalise follow-up programmes" explains Schulte-Kutsch.

Upturn in e-learning market

The upturn in digital learning offers was also clearly felt among providers. "As a competence centre for Adobe eLearning technologies, at Reflact we provide learning infrastructure, content creation and virtual classrooms. The latter went through the roof at the start of the pandemic," explains Hartmut Scholl, founder and chairman of Reflact AG. When the pandemic began there was a boom in demand for simple e-meetings, but soon the issue arose of how to bring back more interaction into training and how to transfer tried-and-tested workshop formats, from design thinking to retrospectives, into the digital world. "Now we know it works! This will produce huge opportunities for the time following the pandemic – a period which will be much more about motivational, problem-solving, business-related and, all in all, more agile learning."

Christian Wachter, chairman of Information Multimedia Communication IMC AG, can only confirm the huge demand in the e-learning sector. IMC also experienced huge demand for virtual classroom systems in particular. Besides these it was mainly simple technologies and tools which the companies were purchasing. The pressure in businesses was increasing. Continuing education and training had to go on and therefore simple and easy-to-manage tools had to be produced for implementation in the digital environment. "In contrast, larger projects and customised contact creation ground to a halt," explains Wachter. Companies were being cautious with their investments – in Europe at least. Because IMC also operates internationally, the IMC board quickly identified differences across national borders: “In Europe we very rapidly fell into a huge state of shock. Many adopted a wait-and-see approach to start with, while abroad the opportunities were spotted and exploited. In Germany the uplift was not properly felt until October 2020.

Budgetary constraints initially impacted continuing education and training

In the sector talk, the personal development specialists from Ottobock and from the ZF group confirm that budgets were initially protected. They said it was evident and totally understandable. After all, for many companies it was a matter of financial survival. The specialists explained that if jobs are saved, then investment in continuing education and training is again possible. 

Schulte-Kutsch added that at ZF they had not even been able to fully utilise the available continuing education and training budget since many of the continuing education and training offers had not yet been digitalised and could no longer take place in person. "We can't simply and all of a sudden reproduce three days of in-person training in Teams. You need a concept which has to be developed first," she explains, justifying the situation. She takes an optimistic view of the budget situation going forward: "Investment will increase because the issue of continuing education and training, in particular in the automotive sector, is one of the key themes for the future."

There has also been a greater focus on costs at Ottobock during the coronavirus crisis. The company has continued to invest despite this and, for example, has retained the planned global development programme for the very best talent. It began with 120 participants in April 2020, in the middle of the first lockdown. "Management was making a statement with that. A signal that, right now, in the middle of a crisis, we are investing in our employees," underlines Dorit Schalansky.

The companies have now arrived at the point where they are no longer only having to provide digital learning offers at a rapid speed out of necessity. Instead, the phase of professionalisation has begun. What is needed now from the patchwork of learning offers which have been created autonomously, or purchased as learning nuggets, is an overall system capable of being administered. "We have gone as far as we can in terms of learning management systems," explains Schulte-Kutsch who can still see great potential for platform providers. "Here solutions are needed which better integrate digital offers." This also shows, she explains, that digital learning is not automatically more cost-effective than in-person training. The professional infrastructure also requires investment.

The professionalisation phase also involves the priority no longer just being the rapid response to employee demand or the technical implementation in the digital environment. It is now about developing learning concepts for the future. The sector talk participants are agreed that the situation in continuing education and training as it was before the coronavirus pandemic will never return. The digital concepts developed are here to stay. The challenge will be reintegrating in-person training and e-learning together. Blended learning is just one of many learning formats in this regard. The solution is to be found instead in hybrid learning worlds.

The vision for the future: hybrid learning worlds

The hybrid in this case consists of multiple dimensions. One is the mixture of online and offline formats. As before, in-person training will continue to be highly valued and there is a huge need to catch up in terms of direct, on-site interaction. This is because, following the initial experimental phase, virtual working has transitioned into becoming routine and is now causing fatigue. This is already being felt at Ottoblock, explains Schalansky sharing her experience. "I think that when we're able to return to the office, there will be a huge demand for in-person training. That will then wane again over time and settle down." Her assumption is that learning themes, tailored to the requirements of employees, will be provided both digitally as well as in face-to-face form. This means there will be a significant customisation of offers. 

Christian Wachter from IMC shares this view of the future, while also emphasising that "employees won't be able to simply request what they want at will. But the mindset of there being just one offer for a learning goal will be confined to the past." And Schulte-Kutsch adds: "We shall need to understand which goals can be best achieved in which settings." One option could be that online formats will feature strongly for the simple transfer of knowledge. This is because during the pandemic these e-learning courses were very broadly accepted. In-person training courses are likely to become established once more where discussion and direct interaction are required - leadership and communication themes, for example. 

There is also a second dimension to hybrid learning worlds: the combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning phases. While in-person events were previously designed for synchronous learning and online phases for the asynchronous learning, the synchronous phase may in some cases also take place online in future. The challenge here is this: "Some participants will attend the in-person event on site, while others will join online. This type of interaction provides great opportunities, but at the same time we have to prevent a two-speed world," warns Scholl. 

A third dimension of the hybrid learning world is the mixture of three sources of learning offers: the mix comprising user-generated content created by employees, content from external providers, and internal content from the company. In particular, there was a real rise in content produced by employees themselves during the pandemic. However, there was also an increase in acceptance of new formats via which content is provided: "Playlists, subscriptions to learning content and learning experience platforms together with learning recommendations will be enormously important in the future. In this area we have unexpectedly taken great strides forward," commented Christian Wachter.

These formats also give employees much greater personal responsibility for their own continuing education and training in that they can select freely from the huge range on offer. "In the future the learner will have a much greater role in deciding what he or she needs," confirms Christina Schulte-Kutsch.

Gamification may be an enhancement 

The extent to which gamified offers may play a part in this is still in doubt. The demand for this rose during the pandemic, however this was more the case abroad than in Germany, as IMC chairman Wachter explains. "Gamification is a major topic in Asia. Here training courses always have to contain a game element, such as a quiz competition." Wachter gives an account, for example, of a German automotive manufacturer which was launching its flagship vehicle in dealer organisations in Asia and relied totally on gamified training courses to support this. "This was no longer straightforward e-learning and in-person training, instead it was a highly interactive quiz in which the dealer organisations played against each other and in the process got to grips with the new vehicle." What was important here, added Wachter, was not forgetting the business outcome needed despite all the entertainment. Personnel and organisational development can only justify the outlay by analysing the learning transfer.

Also, not all games are alike. There are offers which are heavily play and points-based and which present the learning as a competition, and gamified training offers based on the principle of achieving expert status – for example in the form of badges for assisting colleagues. "You have to scrutinize the extent to which gamified offers provide more of an extrinsic effect instead of stimulating the critical intrinsic motivation. You need to consider exactly what you want to achieve," emphasises Hartmut Scholl. What does he think the future holds? "I believe, in a similar way to a fitness app, gamified elements will work which focus on your own learning performance and on performance feedback." He adds that gamification will certainly help with specific learning goals, but it is not a game changer. 

Comprehensive concepts needed

It becomes clear from the discussion that the simple offer of a range of different learning formats will come nowhere near to supporting the transformation, which is affecting all companies to varying degrees. Personnel specialists need to develop the hybrid learning worlds in such a way that a viable concept is created enabling them to support the transformation and play a role in driving this forward. This is well illustrated by the automotive sector in particular. Many jobs have disappeared by the wayside en route to electromobility while, at the same time, new ones have emerged with entirely different requirement profiles. The ZF group is midway through this transformation: "We want to bring as many people with us as possible through the transformation," explains Schulte-Kutsch. "We have to be clear here: we are talking about job profiles which have undergone really significant change. It is not realistic to expect somebody to just train themselves under their own steam in a couple of microlearning courses." This transformation requires developed programmes with clear prerequisites for starting. 

A great deal of preparatory work is still needed for these specific development programmes. Dorit Schalansky specifies the individual steps: "Companies first need to be clear about what exactly the ultimate objective looks like. The business models needed for achieving this goal can be derived from this. Roles and requirements can then be defined." The task of the personnel development specialist is then also to support managers in the transformation as they then need to break down the objectives for their teams. Schalansky proposes some key questions. "How are markets and customer requirements changing? What are the consequences of this for my team and what new roles do I need in my team? Which competencies are needed, and can these be developed or do they need to be brought in?"

"For e-learning sector service providers, the transformation also involves a change of role. On the one hand they need to continue providing their customers with the tools to help them in digital learning. On the other they have to offer individual support. It is becoming increasingly critical from the customers' point of view to perform the various roles – guide, enabler, troubleshooter and even supervisor – to perfection," explains Scholl. And in future, product developments will be more heavily based on agile principles. Prototypes are being readied for series production in iterative loops. Reflact has already had experience of this. "Previously, a training project started with requirements which were then worked on and developed extensively. Today we start, for example, with three webinars and then monitor how the learning groups develop. The findings influence the subsequent development."

"In each instance there is no "all-in-one solution" which can automate, implement, or manage this transformation process,” summarises Wachter. What is important is obtaining the underlying information for the company's vision of the future – and artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly important role in this. Solutions are already on the market. "They scan tenders specifically for new job profiles. This creates an overview of the profiles required in the market and these are then translated for the individual company and the employee profiles by means of ontologies," explains Wachter. This overview and the transparency are also necessary for motivating employees for their personal development. "People must see and recognise where the journey is leading and what this means for them and for their job, both now and in the future," explains Christina Schulte-Kutsch. "Only then can we generate the enthusiasm for embracing the learning offers."

Source: haufe.de (website of the publishing house Haufe and their magazine wirtschaft & weiterbildung), revised by iMOVE, October 2021