Try a "Pick and Mix" approach to boost your skills

No time for long training courses? Then try a different approach! Karen Mannering explains why using a mixture of techniques can enhance your skills far more effectively

By Karen Mannering

Everyone needs to keep their skills in tip-top shape, but finding time to go on traditional training programmes can be difficult and may not result in the level of learning you were expecting. No one would argue that we all learn differently, so why do we expect one mode of learning, such as the traditional training day, to suit everyone?

We commonly think of training as one or two days out of the office, being wined and dined while we soak up the knowledge of the facilitator. As pleasant as this may be, it is not always the best way to learn, and full days out of the office can be expensive, not only in their cost but more so in time lost from work. With the Government's drive on re-skilling and up-skilling a more combined approach can offer a faster method of learning that is also more time and cost efficient.

This new approach, called "blended learning", offers a way forward that reinforces learning and appeals to different learning styles. Blending involves a planned combination of approaches, such as coaching by a supervisor; participation in an online class; breakfast with colleagues; competency descriptions; reading on the beach; reference to a manual; collegial relationships; and participation in seminars, workshops, and online communities. Options for blended learning go beyond the training room. They're formal and informal, technology- and people-based, independent and convivial, and directive- and discovery-oriented.

How does Blended Learning work?
Not all training programmes can offer a quick-fix approach, especially those which aim to change ingrained behaviour and habits. For example if you wanted to improve your assertiveness, a programme that offers a blended approach makes more sense. Although the basic techniques can be given in as initial input, the real learning and practising needs to be exercised over time. Learners can then get additional feedback and support when they need it through workshops, coaching sessions, support groups, and online classes and performance support tools. Blended learning prevents that "cut off" feeling one can get when returning from a training programme, only to find that your manager feels the "problem" (your training need) has now been fixed.

There is no doubt that blended learning has come out of the increased use of IT in training. However, the dawn of e-learning has been heralded for some time now, and although popular for some subjects, it has also been found to be wanting in a few other areas. Fantastic graphics combined with interactive learning has increased the promotion of computer-based training, but e-learning still does not address the need for the learner, in some training situations, to speak or debate directly with others. Neither does it allow you to try techniques out on real people.

Taking the "Pick and Mix" approach
IT is not a popular method of learning with everyone. Whereas we may enjoy one module of training delivered through IT, a whole programme being delivered in this way may feel too much. We all have different ways we like to take in and process information, and the varied approach of blended learning ensures that each style can be catered for within the whole programme.

Which type of learner are YOU?
People development gurus Honey and Mumford identified four main learning styles in a ground-breaking move. Can you identify your style?

Theorists — Learn best by analysing things logically. They dislike ambiguous, subjective areas where there is no clear structure or theory. However, they like activities which are logically structured, allowing for examination of underlying theories. They like to be given opportunities to question, and then allowed time for drawing their own conclusions.

Activists — Learn best from experiences in association with others. They learn by trial and error — by real-life experiences. Activists prefer learning experiences to involve activities such as games and challenges. They dislike passive learning — lectures, detached analysis, and solitary effort.

Pragmatists — Like trying out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. They learn best by problem solving in the real work situation and like to see an obvious benefit.

Reflectors — Like to stand back, ponder over, and observe experience from different perspectives. They like to think things through before taking action. They learn best by drawing on their own and others' experience, observations, and reflections. They dislike being thrown in at the deep end, or group activities.

Simply from the above descriptions you may have been able to identify which learning style you have, and therefore which mode of learning suits your style best. However, even if each of us has a predominant style, recent theory concerning the brain and how we learn points to the need to stimulate as many areas as possible in combination to achieve good quality retention.

Have you ever wondered why it is so much easier to learn a song, than pure facts? It is because the combination of music and words stimulate both sides of the brain to enable more effective learning. Blended learning can use all or any combination of techniques to ensure that subjects are developed in a way that suits your learning style, and is then further reinforced for retention.

Does this sound the death knell for the traditional training course? Not at all. There will always be room for training programmes that require personal input by a professional, but in the 24/7 world we live in, training no longer needs to be two days out of the office. It can be a longer, more comprehensive programme that is tailored to your needs and brings about real skills and behavioural change.

Karen Mannering is the director of Karen Mannering Portfolios, a personal development consultancy, and the author of several business management books. She specialises in the promotion of women in the workplace, offering solid career advice and coaching.

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