To Blend or Not to Blend?

We recently completed an exhaustive study. We wound up speaking personally with everyone, everywhere that has ever implemented any blended learning. After that, we poured through the mounds of data we compiled, cross-checking it against every article, white paper or blog that has ever been written on the topic.* Our results have produced three considerations every training professional should reflect upon when deciding whether to blend or not to blend. And, here they are.



In January of 2009, the Bersin & Associates Research Bulletin featured a report entitled “First Ever Drop in E-Learning.” This paragraph in particular caught our attention at the time:

Budget and staffing cuts are primary contributors to the shift away from online learning. This is somewhat ironic, since many companies originally turned to online learning to save money. But, the investment in learning technology, content and internal staffing resources adds up – and now companies are looking for less costly delivery methods, such as coaching, collaborative exercises and on-the-job or experiential learning.

The cost-cutting examination all of us had to embrace in 2009 is still trending strong. As a result, “blended learning” has come to mean so much more than diving headfirst into cyber space to surround an instructor-led workshop with “some really cool online pre-work and follow-up.”

First off, we have some newer toys in the box along with others we’re really figuring out how to play with much more effectively. Mobile platforms, social media, short podcasts, “live” webinars with real interactivity and the more prolific use of leaders teaching leaders (finally) and other internal SMEs. The blends now are really being targeted at “value” (i.e., limited time and increased reach).

Successful learning strategists today understand and can articulate the costs and benefits of each training delivery method available (instructor-led, virtual classroom, online, mobile or “other”). Beyond that, they can determine the mix those methods need to take to effectively respond to what undoubtedly are unique circumstances. In one form or another, “people like us” have to have really good answers to questions like those provided below (because in one form or another, there is a really high probability they will be asked):

  1. How much is this going to cost?
  2. Any other options (i.e., that’s a lot more than we have to spend right now)?
  3. How are you going to measure that?
  4. Would you bet your career on this recommendation??


We (like most if not all of you) would define “good training” as training that changes behavior. In Kirkpatrick’s hierarchy, that would translate to “Level III outcomes” (i.e., trainees learn something, implement it on the job and produce meaningful results). And, our research would suggest that a blended strategy has pretty much always been the foundation of “good training.”

Long before the vast array of technology-driven options appeared on the horizon, effective training was a function of:

  • Preparing learners to learn (and preparing the managers of those learners to sustain that learning)
  • Ensuring the learning event was both relevant and engaging (Kirkpatrick Levels I and II)
  • Support for the training with on-the-job reinforcement (sustainment initiatives)

If anything (as it applies to blended learning), technology has produced formidable challenges and (at least on occasion) brought the credibility of well-intended training professionals into question. Here’s how:

  • Under the auspices of reducing costs, having managers and frontline employees take less time away from the job, the training department develops a “blended strategy:”
    • This blended strategy introduces / leverages a bunch of technology (i.e., LMS chocked full of a whole bunch of courses learners will now have the ability to access online which will augment the instructor-led aspects of their development)
  • There are “problems with the LMS” (learning curve sorts of things)
  • There are “problems with the programs:”
    • Learners aren’t “engaged:”
      • “Did somebody really think all they had to do was take slides from a two-day program and provide access to them online?”
      • “Data from the LMS suggests that, on average, learners are completing the online version of our two-day Leadership Essentials program in 7 minutes”
  • There are “problems with the pull-through:”
    • Managers drown in the “sea” of options provided. The number of courses offered and apps suggested are overwhelming. Even the most supportive managers can be heard saying things like:
      • “I think the training department is living in a different world than I am”
      • “We have so much stuff available that I literally don’t know where to begin, so I just do what I think makes sense based on what I know”

Bottom line, regardless of the form it takes, the training you are responsible to provide has to be good (why, thank you, Captain Obvious!). In Kirkpatrick terms, Level I and II outcomes are strong predictors of Level III outcomes (i.e., if learners aren’t engaged and the training isn’t relevant, there is a limited probability learners are going to implement anything they learned). A blended design that takes a two-day classroom experience and turns it into four, hour-long, web-based modules in combination with a half-day skill-building workshop had better produce the same (or better) results than the two-day ILT. And, the app or the job aid that is designed to help the next-level manager reinforce that learning had better be intuitive, helpful and easy to implement.


There is no shortage of imaginative advertising campaigns out there today. For us, one of the absolute best is ATT’s series on the iPhone 5. When you pair a left-brained adult moderator with a focus group of four, right-brained, 6-year-olds, “magic” is about to begin! Before you read another word here, play the video below for a refresher:

In the context of blended learning, speed may admittedly be a subset of cost, but it does beg the question, “If you have a program/block of content (a.k.a., Grandma), and you can ‘strap a cheetah to its back …'” (i.e., achieve the same outcomes in less time) “… why wouldn’t you?”

* Maybe “every” is too strong a word; let’s just say we did our homework.



  • Identify an instructor-led training (ILT) program that your organization currently offers that would be a suitable candidate for a blended design
  • Keeping each level of Kirkpatrick’s evaluation model in mind:
    • What form would your blended design take?
    • What would the costs be for converting the offering you selected to more of a blended approach?
    • How would the updated design provide additional benefits to the targeted learners as well as your organization?