Training managers at the European Commission have the same problems as the
rest of us when it comes to releasing time and money for coaching. Could
e-learning be the answer? Sue Weekes reports
The European Commission operates at the very heart of the European Union.
Its role as the source of policy initiatives is a unique and complex one and it
is directly involved with decisions associated with big issues such as freedom
of movement, greater prosperity, and a reduction in the bureaucratic
administrative processes between member countries.
With all of this big decision-making going on, it’s easy to forget that the
Commission is also an employer of a large workforce with everyday jobs to do.
Employees have exactly the same kind of training, motivational and
developmental needs as all workforces and, like many organisations, it often
struggles to free up enough time and resources to facilitate training.
"Training and internal communication are used as tools for building
synergies across our different units and services, creating a strong corporate
identity, establishing managerial excellence and assuring quality," says
Patrick De Boom, training manager, Internal Market of the Directorate General
of the EC.
"As a result, one of the key principles that the we have incorporated
into our annual training plan is that training and development policy should
apply to all staff. However, the EC is faced with a problem not uncommon to
many businesses and public sector organisations alike, namely scarceness of
human and budgetary resources."
The EC has an established relationship with UK training company Video Arts
which, at the end of last year, launched its first e-learning programme. It
turned to the blended training solutions specialist in an effort to address the
growing need for training and balance it with the existing scarcity of
resources. "Now that the hype has died down, many clients are looking to
blend some form of e-learning with what they’re already doing," says Video
Arts marketing director Martin Addison.
Working with the Commission is similar to working with any big organisation,
says Addison, although it is an eclectic workforce, comprising full-time,
part-time and project-based workers from a number of different countries. It is
made up of 36 directorate generals based in Brussels, which operate like
separate business units. The Internal Market DG is primarily responsible for
co-ordinating the EC’s overall policy to ensure the European internal market
functions effectively and the training was required for all staff from
administrative up to management levels.
Video Arts’ brief was to deliver a programme of management and general
customer care skills courses that supplemented existing training. "The
objective is very clearly not to replace, but to complement existing management
"Launching this e-project is inspired not only by a desire to use the
latest developments in technology, but also to improve the existing wide range
of training methodologies for internal and external courses,
on-the-job-training, conferences and so on," explains De Boom. "It is
also designed to enable training to take place in a very flexible manner to
suit the times at which individual officials can be available."
The EC wanted the material to reside and be accessed from its own intranet,
which meant Video Arts having to work closely with the EC’s IT department.
"Normally there is some trepidation working with IT because they do see
themselves as guardians of the network and don’t necessarily view training as
business imperative. They believe the network is there to run the
business," says Addison.
However, the Commission’s IT infrastructure was already robust and the IT
team was happy to help provide the right system.
Video Arts was set up in 1972 by a small group of television professionals,
including, John Cleese. Its 30-year reputation is built on providing inspiring
and compelling content, often involving actors such as Hugh Laurie, Dawn French
and Jennifer Saunders.
However, there are problems turning such all-singing, all-dancing multimedia
content into an e-learning package. Video files amount to a lot of data and an
e-learning programme relies on this data being transmitted down a telephone or
communication line to the delivery platform. If that line of communication
doesn’t have sufficient bandwidth, it will be unpractical to send the video
This is why it’s still largely impractical to download and view video from
websites at home. The domestic scene is still dominated by 56k modems and
ordinary phone lines which, when it comes to downloading video, is like
squeezing a lot of data down a very thin pipe. Widen the pipe, ie increase the
bandwidth, and it starts to be practical and this is now happening with the
advent of broadband technologies such as ADSL (asymmetric digital subscriber
line) and cable modems.
To get over any such problems, Video Arts created a hybrid e-learning
solution running on the intranet and CD-Rom. "Most full training is
undertaken using the full video version of the courses. This is delivered over
the intranet, except for the video elements, which are delivered from the
user’s own machine via CD-Rom," explains Addison.
"The text and graphics version can be delivered completely via the
intranet and delivers the same messages, although using a slide show rather
than moving video. You have to deliver a product that scales to the needs of
Video Arts is currently working on the development of its programmes for
streaming video over the Internet and at optimum levels over EC intranets. It
recently acquired Manchester-based The Learning Pack in a bid to extend its
range of products into tailor-made coaching programmes and the skills of the
Exact Solutions team, as they are now called, are central to this development,
Twenty-one e-learning programmes now sit on the intranet, including such
titles as Meetings, Bloody Meetings, Project Management, The Dreaded Appraisal
and The Paper Chase. Access can only be given by the training manager and
instructions are included on the intranet. The only technology that is
required, in addition to a PC, is access to a CD-Rom player.
To cater for the cosmopolitan workforce, five of the titles are available in
French, six in Dutch, five in Swedish, two in Czech, and five in Icelandic. The
language conversions were carried out in partnership with Video Arts’ local
distributors in these countries, so customers don’t pay for development work.
Video Arts makes a point of avoiding cultural references when the course is
initially developed, so it doesn’t pose a problem if it has to be adapted for a
different audience further down the line.
The suite of courses also feature "just-in-time" modules that are
refreshers that employees can take to brush up on their performance in certain
areas. Using a Viewfinder facility, the user can cherry-pick as much of the
course as they wish. "It may be a two-minute summary of the key learning
points or a full 15-minute section of the course – the choice is theirs,"
says Addison. And clearly this aspect of the training, as well as the overall
programme has entirely fitted the EC brief, according to De Boom.
"E-learning provides personalised, practical and just-in-time training
courses to staff members. The formula is flexible in its nature, but is more
than an entirely free self-study," he says. "With the Video Arts
programmes, performance and improvement can be measured with a valuable
From the technical and implementation standpoint, the programme ran very
smoothly. In common with many e-learning programmes, however, the EC hit some
problems in motivating people.
"The NOP research we carried out showed that of those who hadn’t
embarked on an e-learning programme, cost was the biggest barrier. But those
who had used it said motivating the staff to use it was the biggest
problem," says Addison.
His advice is to promote and market the e-learning programme. "You have
to keep getting the message over," he says, but trainers should always
make sure that the content is engaging or you will lose learners after just a
few clicks. "Too much of the e-learning around today is dull and boring
and doesn’t work. Avoid falling into the trap by remembering that content is
The trial of 50 learners at the EC has now been achieved, with 400 people
due to use the course when it is rolled out at the end of September, and De
Boom is confident it will hit future targets.
"Our training policy plays a direct role in the achievement of the DG’s
objectives. Training and development objectives represent an investment both in
policy work and in internal management," he says.
"We feel that Video Arts has the content we are seeking for high
quality management and soft skills training. And obviously, the humorous nature
of their programmes clearly makes the training more enjoyable and memorable for
EC’s requirement To initially train 400 employees from administrative
to management level in general customer care and skills courses. The workforce
comprises full-, part-time and project-based workers from several countries.
Why? Training and internal communications are used as vital tools to
build synergies across its different units and services. It wanted to address
the need for training and balance it with an existing scarcity of time and
resources. The progamme had to complement not replace existing training
Is e-learning delivering? It’s early days because the full programme
doesn’t roll out until the end of September. The initial trial period of
passing 50 learners through the system has been completed.
Video arts’ top tips
1 Remember, content is king. Make sure it’s engaging and memorable to give
2 Support the learner, don’t isolate them. Use networking technologies to do
this – create virtual networks of users
3 Promote and market your project