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The COVID-19 pandemic: How I learned to stop worrying and love online training!

“Does the person sitting in the middle seat of an airplane get both armrests?” It may sound frivolous, but last year, this question sparked furious debates and polls on Twitter, which ended inconclusively. Similarly, there’s been a debate on the efficacy of offline, classroom teaching vis-à-vis online, distance teaching. While it hasn’t generated much heat, à la, the armrest problem, online teaching is back in the spotlight as the rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide has forced organisations to rely on it for training and learning purposes. There’s no doubt that organisations are keenly ideating on how to scale-up online teaching as soon as the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

The time before COVID-19

Training and learning form a significant part of the employee lifecycle. Organisations mandate that every employee, irrespective of his/her job roles, needs to attend training programs to enhance his/her domain knowledge. These training programs are aligned to the knowledge level of the employees, which help them in attaining the know-how of business processes as well as in developing problem-solving skills. The certifications that the employees receive post the completion of training sessions play a key role in their career progression.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, organisations followed a typical approach towards training and learning. The first step was to identify the topics and the trainers, as well as the number of sessions required. The next step was to prepare a training schedule and inform the participants over email, which included details on the subject, the number of sessions, the competency levels, and a link for registration. While a majority of organisations did provide an option for participants to choose between classroom and online sessions, most of them preferred the traditional student–teacher paradigm and personal touch over online training.

Classroom trainings, however, came with their own set of challenges. The training halls or conference rooms for these sessions needed to be booked and blocked in advance, either 3–4 weeks, or for some sessions, it was more than a month. Occasionally, the training sessions had to be extended over multiple classes since the trainers were unable to complete the topic in a single session. In such cases, the participants couldn’t attend additional classes due to time constraints.

And, then came the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is a black swan event that has affected every aspect of human life: healthcare, economy, culture, environment, and so on. Worldwide, organisations implemented proactive measures to limit the fallout of the pandemic on business operations. Work from home became a standard practice for a majority of employees, which meant that training and learning sessions had to move online. While many organisations were forced to cancel mandated training sessions temporarily because of a considerable drop in enrolment, they still had to find alternative methods to continue training online without delay. One of the first steps was to find a reliable software/program that would connect the trainer with the trainees uninterruptedly.

While identifying the program/tool was one of the many challenges, another challenge was access to certain programs/tools. A majority of organisations limit employee access to programs/tools due to client-mandated security concerns. Further, the employees also needed to be trained on such programs so that the sessions would take place without a glitch. There were questions over whether the employees working from home had access to reliable 24 x 7 internet connection and continuous power supply.

Handholding from classroom teaching to online teaching

As mentioned previously, a majority of the employees were comfortable and familiar with classroom teaching, and as such, organisations needed to devise several strategies to assure them that online teaching would be as effective as classroom teaching:

  • Promote online sessions:

    Run email campaigns and share flyers and brochures to raise awareness about online classes.
  • Engage with candidates:

    Connect with employees who had registered for the sessions and provide constant updates on the requisite processes. Educate them on the significance of attending training sessions regularly during downtime.
  • Increase the number of sessions:

    Allow trainers to conduct more sessions compared with offline classes, as well as coordinate with trainers in other locations to conduct sessions simultaneously. Ensure that trainers in different locations support each other in terms of managing training sessions, reviewing content grid, and initiating recording of each session.
  • Improve training times:

    Introduce fast-track training sessions and reduce training times.
  • Release process documents:

    Provide process documents on the program/tool used for training so that the employees familiarise themselves on the usage and functionalities.

Online teaching in IBPM via the FCoE

For the Infosys BPM Finance and Accounting (F&A) function, the training programs are conducted by the Finance Center of Excellence (FCoE). Established in 2005, the FCoE supports the growing need for business-critical knowledge in the F&A function with a mission to ‘Empower Through Knowledge’. With best-in-class curriculum, the FCoE offers rigorous, metrics-driven training programs to enable and facilitate learning and knowledge continuity among the employees.

The FCoE delivers domain training and certification, identifies and plans domain development interventions, partners with F&A institutions to increase professional competencies, and manages the Practice Ambassador Program. This 9-month program identifies, grooms, nurtures, and promotes top talent within the F&A practice and covers strategy, solution design & business development, talent management & development, operations, and branding.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading rapidly, the FCoE decided to switch over to online training. While the number of enrolments during the initial phases was less, the FCoE ran awareness campaigns, encouraging employees to register for online training. As a result, from April 2019 to March 2020, while around 300 employees received online certifications, the numbers jumped to around 1,300 employees certified online during March–May 2020, which is a fourfold increase in numbers! This is also an improvement over the March–May 2019 certification numbers, which stood at around 800. Additionally, with online teaching, the FCoE reduced the number of employees who were unable to clear certification at the first instance: around 845 in March–May 2020 as opposed to around 925 in March–May 2019. The FCoE also witnessed:

  • An increase in enrolment numbers compared with pre-COVID-19 times.
  • An increase in demand for online training and certification sessions as online classes eliminated the need for mobility with respect to offline classes.
  • Better response rates and improvements in Q&As from candidates.
  • Reduction in time for evaluating answer sheets as tests are conducted online as well as reduction in administrative expenses on stationery.

Is this the end game for classroom teaching?

While it’s too early to predict the decline of classroom teaching, whether online teaching will be the new normal even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides or whether classroom teaching will gain traction over online when organisations begin operations with 100% capacity remain to be seen. For now, online teaching has emerged as a saviour in these troubled times. As the fight against COVID-19 continues, it’s worth considering a future scenario where online teaching would have completely replaced classroom teaching. Now, that’s a ‘new normal’ organisations can live with!