The history (and future) of corporate training

A woman in an online training with a diverse team

That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history. – Aldous Huxley


The history of any industry is a history of problems. Something was wrong, so someone fixed it. Someone else realized the new approach could be improved, so they improved it. And so on.

But sometimes, just sometimes, problems aren’t solved. They persist across decades, irritating and frustrating generations of professionals who lack the insight or tools to do what all good innovators do — turn a challenge into an opportunity. That’s why we’re students of history. Because we want to solve the big hairy problems that loom large over the industry. We know that this is how you make a difference.

Most businesses solve the problems of today; truly great businesses solve the problems that have persisted for decades.

This knowledge of the past has formed the basis of our new learning methodology — Precision Learning — a true breakthrough that we hope will redefine corporate learning for years to come. But before we get into why, let’s examine how we got here and the lessons we’ve learned looking back into the past…

A History of Corporate Learning:
the first 100 years

A printing press

– 1872 – The first documented factory school opens

Printing press manufacturer Hoe and Company created a factory school to train machinists onsite. This was the birth of classroom-based corporate training, although it bears little resemblance to what we do today.

– 1892 – A huge leap forward

The National Cash Register (NCR) company laid the foundation for corporate learning and employee welfare. In 1882, the founder created the NCR Primer, a sales script with detailed instructions for delivering a pitch. In 1901, NCR created the first personnel department in America. It was the birth of Human Resources.  Learn more

The next evolution came during WWI. Emergency Fleet Corporation had to train workers with different abilities and skills, at scale. And to do that they employed a man called Charles R Allen…

– 1919 – Charles R. Allen publishes The Instructor, The Man, and The Job

Allen recognized that poorly trained employees cost money so he developed a four-step training process: preparation, presentation, application, and testing (or inspection).

The Preparation phase established a connection between past experience and the new lesson, while Presentation was the theoretical “lesson” delivered by the trainer. During Application, the learner practiced what they’d learned, under the supervision of a trainer. And in Testing or Inspection, they completed the job unassisted but monitored. Learn more

This was a huge step forward and the innovation didn’t stop there.

If the learner couldn’t successfully complete the task in step four, then the teaching method was adjusted. In essence, Allen had created the continuous cycle of learning and personal development that underpins most modern training.

These early breakthroughs in corporate learning were driven by disruption created by industrialization and a zeal for efficiency through smarter thinking. For the first time, pedagogical ideas were applied in the workplace.

– 1960 – Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO)

Jump forward forty years and the first computers enter the scene. PLATO was the first computer-assisted instruction system. It was designed and built by the University of Illinois and ran for 40 years. Many of the tools and concepts that make e-learning possible were developed on PLATO, including forums, message boards, online testing, and remote screen sharing. Learn more

– 1984 – ADDIE evolves 

ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. It was first developed in the mid 70’s for the US army and has become the foundation of modern course development. Until the mid 80’s, it was supported by a waterfall management system. This was replaced with a more flexible, iterative model and the modern feedback cycle was born. This allowed learner performance to dictate training objectives on the fly and changed corporate learning forever.

Modern solutions (and modern problems)

Business woman in red listening to music.

– 1996 – The more things change, the more they stay the same

By the mid 90’s corporate learning was supported by a solid foundation of pedagogical methods and a century of trial, error and development. It was also gaining momentum in the boardroom. Enterprise leaders realized learning was intrinsic to growth and started to invest in their employees development.

But deployment, how the training is delivered, hadn’t changed much in over a hundred years. In 1996, most professionals were still being trained in small groups in classroom environments.

– 1997 – Self-paced e-learning

This began to change in 1997. Robust, affordable, and portable digital storage systems made it easier to share corporate training materials across an organization. This addressed the issue of access and represented the beginning of e-learning, although the term wasn’t widely used until 2004.

It was around this time that the concept of blended learning — the combination of self-paced e-learning and instructor-led training — emerged. But it remained a hazy dream, rather than an imminent reality.

– 2006 – Charles Graham and Curtis Bonk publish The Handbook of Blended Learning  

Clarity arrived in the form of Charles Graham. Working with Curtis Bonk, he provided a working definition for blended learning systems, describing it as “the convergence of traditional face-to-face learning environments and digital learning”. This soon became the holy grail of corporate learning. Learn more

– 2007 – Online face-to-face

In 2007, the pace of change accelerated. Huge developments in video chat, collaboration tools, and internet speeds meant learners could access content and trainers with the click of a button.

This innovation fueled the race to blend deployment methods, but also led to mistakes. Many organizations treated virtual classrooms like traditional classrooms and failed to appreciate the unique qualities of each deployment method. They also bolted deployment methods together, with little consideration for the user. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster. Programs were uneven, quality fluctuated and managers struggled to get a grip on user performance.

– 2020 – Classrooms shut their doors

This status quo remained relatively unchanged until last year. The spread of lockdown took classroom training off the table and placed a new emphasis on virtual learning. This, in turn, sparked demand for a truly blended solution. And, of course, the need for measurable and dependable learning remained omnipresent.


The future of corporate learning

Precision Learning, the future of corporate learning

So what are the big themes here?

What are the problems that resonate down the years? Here are four we picked up on:

  • A lack of, or limited access to, high-quality content and trainers
  • Inflexible or inadequate deployment options
  • Ignorance of the end user’s needs
  • An inability to measure the impact and value of learning

These are the problems we set out to address with Precision Learning. 

This is a new learning methodology that ties e-learning and trainer-led learning together through an integrated curriculum and a flipped classroom model. It’s based on tested pedagogical principles and is built around the user. Learners have access to a rich library of proven resources and connect with the top 5% of trainer talent in virtual classrooms. Crucially, it’s optimized for speed and delivers measurable, quantifiable results in a matter of weeks.

There are four critical characteristics that set Precision Learning apart. It’s:

  1. Focused: learning is built around predefined outcomes that are mapped to business goals
  2. Scientific: learning methodologies are based on established pedagogical principles, industry-leading frameworks and the latest thinking in behavioral science
  3. Bionic: training is led by expert-trainers and enhanced by digital technologies and AI-powered software
  4. Endlessly-improving: programs are honed and optimized on a continuous basis

This is our attempt to write a new chapter in the history of corporate learning and we’re shamelessly proud of it. We may not manage to solve over a hundred years of issues, but we’re confident this is a true breakthrough on several fronts. For the first time, we’re turning the dial on learning impact, without compromising on speed. And we’re giving learning managers the hard data they need to prove the business value of learning.

If you haven’t guessed by now, we’re excited and we hope you are too.

Discover the fundamentals of Precision Learning.

Read our Precision Learning eBook now.