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There was a time when formal classroom learning was just about the only option a company had for employee training.

As Jenny Dearborn – senior vice president and chief learning officer at SAP – describes the situation in an article about redefining company training for the 21st century, “For most of the last century, workplace learning had a familiar look and feel:  students sat in rows taking notes as an expert stood at the front of the room and dispensed information.”

And the trappings of the traditional education model didn’t end there. Some large corporations even maintained dedicated offsite learning centers complete with dormitories.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

“In the very near future, workplace learning will be about social collaboration, team-based activities, and decentralized peer-to-peer learning, writes Dearborn. “Learning will be mobile, and access will be continuous and instantaneous. Workers will attend fewer scheduled classes and online training sessions.”

Investing Billions of Training Dollars

Why the change?

To start with, the classroom model can be both costly and limiting. Travel is expensive, and having dozens of employees away from their jobs and customers all at one time can definitely put a crimp in corporate productivity.

But high training costs don’t seem to the big issue here. Spending on corporate learning is soaring these days, according to many industry analysts. Writing for last year, Josh Bersin noted the annual investment in corporate training has grown to more than US$70 billion in the United States and over US$130 billion worldwide.

Rather, it appears that companies are seeking more effective ways to spend all those billions.

How It’s Done at Al-Futtaim

For proof, look no further than Dubai’s Al-Futtaim Group. Al-Futtaim is a conglomerate representing more than 225 international brands in the automotive, retail, real estate, and financial services sectors. The group’s more than 200 companies operate in 35 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and South East Asia.

With its global reach, diverse business lines, and 42,000 employees, Al-Futtaim has significant training needs. And as described in this SuccessFactors Business Transformation Study, Al-Futtaim traditionally delivered its training via the classroom.

But the content and quality often differed among countries.

As a result, Al-Futtaim is now taking a new approach to corporate training based on the “70-20-10” principle. That is, 70% of learning and development happens on the job, 20% occurs through coaching and mentoring, and just the remaining 10% requires a classroom.

It’s all part of a comprehensive learning program that Al-Futtaim is currently rolling out called “iGROW.” iGROW represents a blended training model that features more on-demand courses as well as collaborative learning opportunities.

“This approach enables us to make learning solutions more widely available and to introduce new ways of learning for all aspects of the employee lifecycle,” explains Dipesh Mistry, group learning technologies manager at Al-Futtaim.

More than 350 offerings have already been entered into iGROW, and more are expected. This new program is helping Al-Futtaim provide its employees with the right learning solutions wherever and whenever they need it – while ensuring that the group’s learning and development services directly address the needs of its various businesses.

And while trimming the training price tag might not be the primary objective, the group has reduced costs by reducing the need for trainers, materials, and facility space.

Training Tomorrow’s Workforce

Industry analyst Josh Bersin points out that many companies today suffer from a significant “skills supply chain” challenge, and that some industries will have to “train, retrain, and jointly educate” the people they need in order to grow.

So it’s likely that in the years to come, corporate training will play an even larger role in shaping the future workforce.

We could always build more corporate classrooms to meet this growing demand. And in places like Dubai – home of the tallest man-made structure in the entire world – you wouldn’t expect companies to shy away from constructing a sleek new mega-training center, if folks thought it was a good idea.

But it seems companies around the world are learning there are better ways to invest those training dollars.

Click here to read more about SuccessFactors Learning.

And please join me on Twitter at @JohnGWard3.