A little about Nicola & Athena
I practised as a barrister before moving to become Director of Legal Skills Training at the University of Warwick, School of Law. In 2009, I founded my first learning company delivering accredited qualification programmes to regulatory bodies. I co-founded Athena Professional in 2013. We have since won several national and global awards: the Association for Business Psychology Award Excellence in Training & Coaching in 2017 & 2018: the Lumina Learning Global Award for Excellence in Training & Coaching: Finalists in the Learning & Performance Institute’s Learning Provider of the Year 2018. Our use of blended learning and, in particular, the ability to create personalised learning using Lumina Learning tools, has played a significant part in our success.
What is blended learning?
In 2020, blended learning was an expressed priority for 98% of businesses (Emerald Works “Back to the Future Report 2020”). So what is it? Blended Learning uses a range of learning delivery methods to take people on a journey from conceptual understanding to practical application. At Athena Professional we have used a blended approach for many years. We know it is more than a mix of methods.
What differentiates a blended approach from merely doing activities sequentially, is design. At the conclusion of the learning process, people will be drawing on knowledge, skills and attitudes which we have carefully sewn into their learning journey. The beauty of a blended approach is that people move from awareness to action. The effect is cumulative and the impact is intended to be transformational. And thanks to Lumina, it is also personalised.
It always amuses me that, prior to the pandemic, we offered experiential virtual workshops as part of our blend routinely and nobody wanted them! Post lockdown, of course, they have been a big part of our offering. We combine them with bespoke e-learning, individual and team-coaching and work-based learning as part of the blend on offer. In-person workshops are yet to make a come-back in my experience, although they are getting back on the agenda.
Learning for Impact
All too often, formal learning courses are brief and high on theory. This approach satisfies the need to have “done” some learning. It does not lead to sustained impact on work practice. By introducing people to Lumina Spark we are able help people connect what they learn to their own behavioural preferences. We start to create meaning which can affect the way people feel and act.
The pandemic has triggered a reality check in respect of learning activity. Historically, the “training day” has been the default. The 2019 Towards Maturity Benchmark Study found that 53% of businesses relied on in-person training. In the last 20 years, e-learning has become another “quick fix” learning approach. Both can have value. However, their value is vastly increased if they are part of a blended approach, because, we have to be honest, the impact of either in isolation is limited.
“…digital learning tools alone aren’t enough to have real impact. Real impact requires behavioral and cultural change in parallel to digitalization.” (Emerald Works “Back to the Future Report 2020” p20)
The rationale for learning is designed into a blended approach. At every stage of the design process, the question of impact is addressed. In practice, that looks like:
1. Having good bench-mark data to indicate the nature of the learning need
2. Being crystal clear about intended outcomes
3. Thinking of content and delivery method in terms of the intended application of learning
The traditional “nice to have” or “ought to know” rationales for learning do not stand up to this sort of analysis. Return on investment is likely to be low.
Why use Lumina as part of the process?
We believe that learning at work is about shifting people from conceptual understanding into an appreciation of the potential application of new ways of working. In order to achieve that, we have to design learning which meets organizational and individual needs, so that learning can take root and flourish.
Lumina Spark helps to bring learning to life for people. Once people have the language, new ideas and theory can be framed in terms of behaviours. Using a blended approach, we can design opportunities for people to contextualise their understanding using that language. Lumina Spark builds connection between the person, learning activity and the workplace.
This is especially important when we think about learning design for cognitive bias. Meeting people where they are in terms of comprehension and context is so important. It is the difference between telling them what they “should” be doing and enabling them to perceive the choice they have to engage with what is possible.
During the pandemic in Autumn 2020, Athena Professional delivered a blended learning programme to young lawyers at LawNet firms. LawNet is a procurement umbrella organization with 70 SME members. Typically, newly qualified lawyers learn “by osmosis” in businesses of this nature. Before the pandemic, many were not yet paperless and had relied exclusively on in-person working. The transition to remote working was a huge challenge for these firms. Maintaining client service was naturally the priority, with little or no attention paid to development.
After researching learning need, it was clear that the programme needed to relate to established work practice and connect participants with a sense of the radical changes likely to affect legal practice in years to come. In other words, we had to meet people where they were – under intense pressure of work, struggling to access support and largely unaware of the changing legal landscape – and help them (1) to work more effectively now and (2) to engage with the possibility of change.
We decided to build our blended approach on a clear rationale for business application. For this reason, we chose to start with understanding the traditional law firm financial model. A key message of the session was that cash-flow is increased when people are able to communicate pro-actively.
Lawyers tend to behave in Outcome-Driven, highly disciplined ways. By making the case for communication based on a core business priority, we worked with their cognitive bias to be critical of new ideas and structured in their work practice. We were then able to sew together learning around communication and behavioural preferences generally using Lumina, together with a strong thread around the impact of digital transformation in legal. We could then turn to project management development, taking learners to the next stage of capability by giving them an opportunity to collaborate on a future-facing topic of real business value.
The programme included:
- Interactive virtual classroom sessions delivered on Zoom using a range of interactive tools
- Peer support groups hosted via Slack
- Work-based learning tasks also delivered on Slack and tracked via Trello
- Group coaching delivered in single firm groups where possible
- Project work in peer groups on topics of business value
Getting a client to understand the value of investing in a blended approach can be difficult. Often the brief is to deliver, as I like to joke, “the moon and the stars over a sandwich lunch”. Making the case for a more strategic approach can be hard.
A good place to start is to agree to the metaphorical lunch, preferably including some of the people who are allegedly in need of the learning, and explore what the moon and stars might look like. If people can start to express for themselves what it is they need to learn, it becomes easier to get decision-makers to see the value of providing opportunities for application.
Of course, being able to offer case study evidence of impact is compelling. There is some good data available about the effectiveness of the blended approach. It is surprising how few businesses have an effective learning strategy which aligns with business need.
The pay-off of a blended approach is a much greater likelihood of impact in comparison to isolated learning activities. It is cost-effective, efficient, reduces carbon footprints and delivery is often close to the work effort. Our experience is that it can be genuinely transformational.
In the LawNet example, we ran two programmes for a total of 33 participants from 12 firms. Feedback confirmed that participants were able to use what they had learned about their own behavioural preferences in the project-work. The project sessions produced valuable proposals including a digital service to capture, analyse and record due diligence data in mergers and acquisition work; to methods to improve time-recording; to a pro bono initiative to support business growth using online resources. In each case participants demonstrated how proactive communication could deliver increased business value.
Using a blended methodology, we were able to help participants to develop three core abilities:
1. Demonstrable awareness of self and impact on others
2. The ability to collaborate on a project of business value
3. Engagement with the changing dynamics of the legal market
At the outset of the programme, participants were almost completely unaware of the potential for change in the legal sector. In a reflective exercise at the conclusion of the programme, we asked participants to tell us how they were feeling about the impact of digital transformation in the legal sector. Unsurprisingly, there was a mix of emotions!
Blended Learning and the Autonomous Learner
It is fashionable to suggest that ideally people should be offered a variety of opportunities to learn and allowed to exercise their curiosity and use their initiative to meet their learning needs. It might involve blended design, or not. It could be terrific, if it is a genuine offer.
In order to track learning at an organizational level, a fairly sophisticated Learning Experience Platform is required. More importantly, without a budget and time, and a cultural expectation of engagement with learning, the offer looks like additional pressure to me. Some people love to learn and will do so come hell or high water. Most people focus on what is in front of them, which is usually the task and the target.
High quality, high impact continuous learning is going to be a vital source of energy and capacity as we make our way through uncertain and difficult times.
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