E-learning curve

E-learning’s hey-day may well be over, but despite scepticism about its true
merits, it can still be a valuable addition to company training programmes.
Caroline Horn reports

Once regarded as the panacea to all training needs, companies are now taking
a much more measured and realistic approach to e-learning. After a period of
rapid growth, the uptake of e-learning has reached a plateau, and there is
considerably more scepticism about what it can actually achieve.

But while e-learning may not be able to deliver everything trainers dreamed
of in the early days, it can make a valuable contribution to company training
programmes. Ian Webster, head of e-learning at Accenture HR Services, says it
is good for importing knowledge over a large customer/user base, and for
delivering material that does not require contact with machinery or people. But
he adds that companies need to think carefully about how best to deliver such

Like any other kind of learning, the content of an e-learning programme
will, be driven by the company’s training priorities and business needs, and it
is crucial that the designer of the e-learning programme understands these.
Many companies once settled for generic, off- the-shelf training packages, but
research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD):
E-learning, The Learning Curve indicates that bespoke software developed to
suit a corporate’s needs delivers better results.

Marketing e-learning

It is also crucial to obtain the right design in terms of technical
infrastructure. It is easy to get carried away by the latest gizmos, only to
discover that your company’s PCs aren’t powerful enough to use them, or that not
everyone is linked with the company intranet.

The CIPD study shows that motivation and support are key to ensuring an
e-learning programme’s success, but many employers are still surprised to find
that they need to ‘sell’ the programme to employees. Marketing consultancy The
Church Agency, argues that companies should be looking to market e-learning
programmes in the same way as they would a product or service to their
customers, with ongoing communications including e-mail bulletins and updates,
direct mail and face-to-face briefings.

Programmes that deliver highly personalised content will help to engage the
user, but one-to-one contact might also still be required. In an ideal world,
an e-learning model will be backed up with a local trainer, by ‘phone contact,
or in ‘virtual’ discussion groups. BT Broadcast Services is developing video
technology so that companies can broadcast live events onto people’s desktops.
This facility can be integrated into structured training to the point where it
will offer a ‘virtual classroom’ as part of a course.

Part of the working day

Delivering e-learning successfully will also depend on the capabilities of
those involved in the programme. Webster says: "If some people have
difficulty using e-learning and you haven’t connected with them after 15
minutes, then forget it."

Car manufacturing firm VW overcame this problem by encouraging all its staff
to become internet-savvy says David Birchall, director of learning and teaching
services at Henley Management College.

It is also important that people have time for e-learning, and to have that
accepted as an important part of the working day by line managers. 3M gives its
managers free time for ‘blue sky’ thinking, or when they need to tackle issues
away from the job, which emphasises corporate support for learning.

Deciding who takes responsibility for training will vary per company, says
Webster. "You need someone at the top to engender the culture of learning,
but at a local level, it could be someone in the operational unit."

As well as championing the programme, HR may also be responsible for other
tasks, such as ensuring its smooth operation and providing regular programme
updates, collating staff feedback .

Evaluating the effectiveness of e-learning can be tricky, although companies
can check the pass rates of those who have participated in the programme and
ask people to complete online feedback forms.

The programme’s success can also be measured against goals agreed at the
outset, relating to whether people are doing their jobs better in terms of
increased sales, etc, although this is no different to any other kind of
training scheme.

Case study: Barclays

Barclays had a series of disparate
leadership programmes that it wanted to bring together under one umbrella, and
it decided e-learning would form a large element of that programme. Paul Rudd,
business development director for Barclays University, says: "The
advantage of e-learning is that it is accessible when people want to use it and
they can immediately put what they have learned into practice."

The company designed a programme that was 80 per cent
e-learning. Parts of the programme were ideally suited to e-learning – for
example, providing small ‘nuggets’ of information that individuals can use as and
when they need them, perhaps before going into meetings with difficult members
of staff. But the company recognised there are facets of management, such as
coaching and mentoring, that do not easily fit into e-learning.

Therefore, Rudd wanted the programme to include other elements
to help bring what was learned to life, and felt that dialogue was key. Line
managers, for example, act as coaches when people have completed an e-learning
course, to discuss how the theories that have been learned could impact locally.

Barclays’ research had also shown that work-place e-learning is
not always effective because of constant interruptions, so the company formed a
partnership with Learn Direct, offering staff a network of regional learning
centres away from the workplace where they have the space and time to learn.

The company also ensured that all staff were informed of the
programme, using The Church Agency to communicate the learning facilities and
benefits to staff.

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