Why aren’t corporate classrooms dead?

The dominance of classroom training in corporate learning is one of the most hotly discussed topics in L&D departments around the country, perhaps the world.  Except we don’t talk about classrooms but the inverse corollary: social learning.  Peer networks.  eLearning. Mentoring.  Informal learning.

We discuss these issues for a number of reasons, including:

  • Capital resources
  • Industry trends
  • Learning theory
  • Innovation

What is implied as much as said is that the classroom is dead, or at least on life support.  “New” learning is not discussed as “in addition” to but more often, instead of classroom training.  Someone will always bring up blended learning, and the opportunity we have to replace parts of classroom training with something else.  Context and theory can be delivered via an eLearning solution before a class, behaviors and skills could be reinforced through mentoring, coaching and peer networks afterwards.  Quick tips can be on a portal or through a wiki or sent through a daily text.

Learning leaders that I’ve met are impressive, disciplined and goal-oriented.  By nature, these leaders are also creative and innovation-oriented which can, taken to an extreme, lead to “shiny object” syndrome – the tempting on the outside, but hollow on the inside syndrome that can attack the best of us when we see something new on the horizon.

Listen, there are great reasons, a few listed above, for us to be talking about social and informal learning.  Real estate is expensive, and professional services firms have had work from home capabilities for years.  Many are experimenting with “hotelling” – breaking the assumption that every employee has a dedicated space.  Some are moving to complete virtual environments.  Where the business goes, learning goes.  Large classrooms with signficant technology embedded in the space – video conferencing equipment, smart boards, networked computers etc. – are expensive and even if no one has done the ROI on that expense, we know that it is even more costly if those rooms aren’t used continuously.

Classroom training is expensive, at least it seems to be, since it is people resource intensive.  Again, I’m sure someone has done a true comparative financial analysis on classroom vs virtual training, but as US companies try to find a competitive edge in a challenging economy, the number of people in a training department is a tempting target.

Outside of the work environment, do people really learn in classrooms?  Once you’re out of school, classroom training evaporates, unless you choose to take a hobby course at a learning annex.  But in our day to day life, we don’t expect classroom training.  When I buy an iPad, or try to figure out how to use my Roku device or decide I want to cook Thai food for my dinner party next week – I don’t rush to find a class at some point in the future to learn in.  I go online – to Google or Bing, YouTube or the corporate website.  I look up a recipe in a book or a cooking website.  I experiment and customize to what I want.  When I get tired, I put it down and come back later.

The way our brains filter information is changing.  So should our learning methods.  So why are most companies still so heavily reliant on classroom training?

Why do we describe a car’s engine strength as horsepower?  Why have developing countries leapfrogged developed countries in terms of mobile technology usage penetration?

We’re biased to what we know, to what’s come before.  The first cars were modeled after carriages. Developed countries had spent a century laying phone cables.  Trainers have spent their careers in a classroom.

It’s never spoken, and perhaps not even fully articulated internally, but does anyone believe that classroom training will be anything but an exception 5 years from now?  10 years? 20 years from now – will it even exist at all?

Here’s why I think classroom training, in some form, will exist and even flourish.  Human nature craves connection.  Perhaps the next generation, and the one after that, will find equal connectivity through digital links.  But as popular as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are – so are Meetup.com, Match.com and eHarmony.  Even though travel budgets have been cut,  many companies and cultures still value it as a relationship builder.

We want to meet, in person, with others who are interested in the same things we are.  There is comfort in being in a live community.  There can be an electric charge in a public forum – a spark of synergy, shared understanding and even joy when people get together.

Classroom training gives permission to employees, especially hourly or line staff that have daily crushing deadlines, to take a break and invest in themselves in a way that an online class just doesn’t.  It allows people to physically remove themselves from their comfort zone which is the only place that true learning occurs.  It forces people to interact with people that they don’t know, didn’t choose to sit next to or wouldn’t have access to.

Can you replicate that connection with online forums and discussion boards?  Sure and we should, but in addition to.

Classroom training will shrink.  It will look different.  It will be more peer-learning and action oriented.

But it will exist as long as we seek social connections, a break from our space and an opportunity to see the whole person and not just the persona we create online.

4 thoughts on “Why aren’t corporate classrooms dead?

  1. Sonia, I really appreciate your post. I agree that we should definitely embrace new technologies and ways of thinking while leveraging what has worked for years. When we hold programs for teams, one of the most common benefits they mention is the human connection with peers. They’ll get to know peers in new ways and form new relationships with people that will pay significant dividends in the future. When faced with challenges associated with changes to the business, leaders will often remember something a peer explained in a previous session they participated in, or perhaps in a conversation they had over a meal afterwards. These interactions improve productivity, enagement and retention.
    Without the personal interaction, the dots are often not connected because the stories and examples are not captured in meaningful ways. The connections that are most meaninful are those that serve as the catalysts for behavior change. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Brian, thank you so much for your post! And you make an excellent point about dots connecting through stories (the oldest form of teaching!). We ran a mandatory curriculum for managers in 2011 and believe me, there was a lot of consternation about the time required. But as I sat through the class, with managers at all levels of tenure and experience, I was deeply struck by the connection and camaraderie. For lack of a better phrase, we bonded. Spending those two days together, sharing stories, laughs, concerns and approaches, we emerged both more confident in our abilities but also touched by that ineffable sense that we’re not alone in this. Pretty special!
      Thanks again for your note.

  2. Early classrooms dating back to aristotle’s time, if not earlier reflected the desire to learn from an authority. The socialization aspects came much later ushered in by Dewey who offered two redeeming solutions to ongoing problems. One getting children off the street and getting them to learn the culture, language and principles of democracy–making them loyal and informed citizens. The doctrination in many early textbooks and the orderliness and structure of classroom and discipline demonstrate their implementation of these objectives.The human brain hasn’t changed how it processes and stores information in several thousand years, merely our understanding of how it works.
    You have done an admirable job of citing the many reasons classroom style training persists. The competition for competency demands more than efficient delivery from a sage on a stage. It increases the demand from learners to get the guidance needed to be successful, not indoctrinated. Thank goodness the plummeting price of technologies and the intetgration of new tools to connect and engage people to learn peer to peer makes it possible for learning to occur anywhere anytime. The question isn’t whether the classroom is dead, but how quickly corporate learning will adapt, reallocate its resources to support alternatives that socialize and indoctrinate along the points of differentiation that further the success of their organization.

    1. arjkay – what a great post. You impressively condensed a wealth of historical perspective, including that “learning” has served many purposes in the evolution of human society. What fascinates me most about what we do is the intersection between the science of the brain and the mystery of the mind with emergent technology and how this relates to practical application. Thank you for commenting and for giving me and others much to reflect on.

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