Courseware is on the right road

knew coaching its 4,000 staff to high levels of IT accreditation was a tall
order – particularly as many employees spend much of their time out of the
office. Sue Weekes looks at how they achieved the mammoth task

It’s fair to say that IT professionals are probably at their happiest when
sat with their noses fixed to a computer monitor.

However, it would be wrong to assume that this means an e-learning programme
doesn’t have to work hard to get their attention and retain their interest
(Opinion, page XVIII).

Obviously, their technical savvy means they have a huge natural advantage
and affinity with the medium, but the course structure, content and delivery
mechanism must still adhere to the principles of good e-learning if it is to be

In 1998, IT solutions provider ICL embarked on a programme to train 4,000
staff to become Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE) and Microsoft
Certified Solution Developers (MCSD) by 2001. It was to be one of the biggest
commercial IT training accreditation projects in Europe and, if successful, fit
out ICL with the world’s largest accredited workforce.

In mid-2001, it hit the 4,000 target and came out the other side of its
mammoth task not only older and wiser, but with a robust e-learning
infrastructure in place that continues to train staff in this particular
programme and further upgrades.

Implementing such a programme helps, of course, when you own a training
company – KnowledgePool – which is seen by many as a pioneer in the field of
e-learning and has the benefit of a 35-year heritage in training and
development, particularly in the area of IT.

It wasn’t just the scale of the project that provided both sides with a
challenge, but also the fact that ICL has a high proportion of mobile workers.

The organisation was predicting that by 2002, 35 per cent of its employees
would be mobile or remote workers. "We have an extremely nomadic workforce
so the main issue we faced was one of mobility," says Paul Lynch, director
of ICL’s Microsoft Accreditation Programme.

As it was, the MCSE and MCSD courses and exams are certainly no easy ride
for anyone trying to fit in study as well as a day job, let alone if they’re
spending a high proportion of time on the road.

For the MCSE, students are required to pass four operating system exams and
two elective exams that provide a valid and reliable measure of technical
proficiency and expertise.

The operating system exams demand that individuals prove their expertise
with desktop, server, and networking components, while the elective exams
require proof of expertise with Microsoft BackOffice products.

MCSD students are required to pass three core exams and one elective exam.
The core technology exams require individuals to prove their competency with
solution architecture, desktop applications development and distributed
applications development. The elective exam requires proof of expertise with Microsoft
development tools.

ICL also encountered the perennial problem of finding the time to release
employees from their work to do the training. "We did this by creating
bottom-up demand in the organisation via publicity and top-down alleviation via
a budget for managers to cover the ‘opportunity cost’ of having staff on
training rather than fee-earning," explains Lynch.

To meet the needs of such a nomadic and constantly in-demand workforce,
KnowledgePool, worked closely with its parent company to create a programme of
blended training, which combined online study with an instructor-led revision
course prior to the final exam.

Courses sit on ICL’s Learning Gateway inside its Café VIK (Valuing ICL
Knowledge) employee portal. "To stimulate students, the courses are highly
interactive, providing practical, hands-on experience through simulated tests
and exercises," explains Paul Butler, CEO of KnowledgePool.

"The technology-based training [from NETg] includes a training
management system enabling students to bookmark parts of the course and to
select tailored training programmes."

Courses allow students to study module by module when they have time,
although they are usually given a completion deadline, to give some structure
to their study.

Students in the Microsoft Accreditation Programme can choose either to study
for an hour or two daily, or if they prefer can embark upon the fast-track
course, studying full-time (six to eight hours per day). The latter method does
involve intense time-scales and is less popular due its lack of flexibility.

On the other hand, according to MCSE student Des Bredbury, "Being
granted the dedicated time was a big help as for me, this exercise required 100
per cent dedication."

A major factor contributing to the success of an e-learning programme is
ensuring that support is always available to students, especially given the
fact that they are often accessing the course material on their own and outside
of office hours.

KnowledgePool takes care of this with an interactive secure area on its
website that students can access via an individual MAP password. Once logged
on, they can access 24-hour, seven-days-a-week support from Microsoft
Accredited tutors. Daily interactive chat sessions are held in this area and
there is access to bulletin boards and e-mail. It’s also the place to receive
feedback on course assignments.

In addition, Café VIK’s Learning Gateway offers community areas that can be
set up by any employees to facilitate discussion on a subject.

Providing interaction of some kind is vital to any distance learning
project, believes Butler because you simply can’t rely on self-motivation.
"KnowledgePool has always advocated the inclusion of interactivity in
e-learning. Just as students feed from the tutor and their peers in a classroom
environment, they need that contact and stimulus in an e-environment. In my
opinion, any learning that relies on self-motivation is doomed before it
begins," he says.

He also believes it’s wrong to assume that IT people are happy to always
learn in isolation. "It’s a myth that IT staff don’t like classroom
training. They actually like being in the classroom with other IT people to
show off their knowledge to each other."

The inclusion of a classroom component in the MAP programme in the shape of
revision workshops away from the office is designed to bring out such
competitiveness and social interaction. And feedback shows that they are valued
by the students, who are encouraged to attend one revision workshop per module.

"They helped me focus on the areas where I felt less confident,"
says MAP student Nick Long. "And, because they were booked for me, before
the exam, they were an incentive to ensure I completed the modules and did some
revision in time."

The workshops range from half a day to three days in length and are
typically held one or two days before the relevant exam.

In the first nine months of the programme, over 2,400 ICL employees had
registered, including employees in the UK, the USA, South Africa, Scandinavia,
Germany, Switzerland, France, Egypt, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, the Czech
Republic, Belgium, Holland and the Caribbean, all of which were studying for
Microsoft accreditation in their own language, following the same course
content at the same time. Overall, the results to date show an over 80 per cent
pass rate.

While Lynch eschews comment on return on investment because it is impossible
to quantify, he believes the e-learning programme has contributed to ICL’s
attrition rate, which is 14 per cent below the industry average. "I
believe it has improved ICL’s perception as an employer," he says.

While clearly there was a compelling business reason to train the workforce
and gain the accreditation, the programme also ties in with ICL’s wider
Web-enabled people strategies, which includes a self-service online benefits
system, all designed to empower the workforce and enhance the company’s
employee brand.

The most successful e-learning projects will always be those which work for
the individual as well as the balance sheet and, with this in mind, we give the
last word to the students. "Like many of my colleagues, I went into the
training thinking it would be easy. Well it isn’t – it’s hard work," says
Graham Smith, who is now an accredited MCSD.

"However, the sense of achievement and satisfaction on passing the
exams is that much more rewarding."

ICL’s top tips

1 Have clear objectives
aligned to the requirements of the business

2 Choose an experienced service provider

3 Create the space in the organisation for the programme

In summary
ICL’s approach

ICL’s requirement: To train
4,000 staff to become accredited Microsoft engineers and developers.

Why? ICL is one of the leading IT solutions companies in
Europe, the Middle East and Africa, employing more than 19,200 people in 40
countries. Accreditation is imperative.

Is e-learning delivering? ICL hit its target of training
4,000 people by mid-2001 with high success rates of 80 per cent. It’s believed
that the programme has helped enhance employee brand and contribute to the
organisation’s attrition rate, which is 14 per cent below the industry average.

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