There is little doubt that e-learning is the way forward for
organisational development. But how can you convince staff of its benefits if
HR is harbouring technophobes? Nic
During August, while the rest of us are turning our thoughts to holidays,
Colin Robinson, training development manager at House of Fraser, and his team
will be hard at work getting the department store chain’s new nationwide
e-learning network up and running.
House of Fraser has operated an internal intranet system for the past three
years, but it is turning this into a full-blooded e-learning resource, offering
its 16,000 staff around the country access to a range of online learning
The first stage of this changeover came 18 months ago, when it launched
knowledge sharing over the intranet, giving staff advice on how to use
electrical goods for example. This could even be accessed at the tills to deal
with customer queries.
It began piloting online learning of various Windows products and first-
line management skills last year at its London head office and five other
sites. Once established, the system will offer staff the chance to learn skills
such as customer services, management and senior management, communication,
assertiveness, better use of the telephone and finance for non-finance
personnel. Up to 10,000 people will be able to undertake modules in a year.
House of Fraser is not the only business waking up to the advantages of
e-learning. A survey by employment law firm Clifford Chance suggests the
e-learning market is expected to grow by 96 per cent over the next five years.
And a US study by the Corporate University Exchange has estimated that while
only 20 per cent of corporate learning took place electronically in 1999, this
figure could double by 2003.
Yet, according to Clive Shepherd, director of e-learning specialist Fastrak
Consulting, for many HR professionals, e-learning remains something of an
anathema. "Quite a lot of HR people are opposed to the idea of e-learning
because they feel it is too ‘techy’ and too impersonal, but other people within
the organisation may have other views," he says.
So, argues Shepherd, who judged the e-learning category in last year’s Personnel
Today Awards, the first hurdle to be jumped in marketing an e-learning function
is for HR directors to get over their own technophobia.
"HR people should enrol on a collaborative e-learning course – they
will find you can have lots of interaction between learners, and they will get
to remove their own techno-fear," he says.
Once that is accomplished, it is wise to sit back and assess first off
whether e-learning is the best solution for your business. If so, make sure the
learning is something that needs to be done, such as health and safety or
induction training, not just something that is nice to do.
"Make it compulsory. People are slow to change, they will use the old
methods if they can. Link it to something that is important, such as promotion,
money or their development plan," Shepherd says.
It is also important to allocate time for people to use the programmes, and
not to expect staff to do it all in their own time. Getting managers –
particularly at senior level – to take part in courses can send a clear message
of the importance of the strategy. "Typically, people will not do it
unless those above them are doing it too," Shepherd explains.
"Make sure it is not just a cost-cutting tool. It has got to be seen as
positive and it needs to be accessible to people."
The best courses are those that are accredited and offer employees a
tangible benefit or qualification, he adds.
Logistics firm Astron, a finalist in last year’s awards, has put these
lessons into practice. The company, which three years ago was a traditional
printing and warehouse operation, has reshaped itself into an information
logistics firm with the Internet as the focus for its business.
Key to this transformation has been the company’s commitment to e-learning,
with all employees being trained in e-business skills over the Internet and
According to group operations and HR director Kathy Woodward, driving
e-learning is, paradoxically, about playing down the "e" element.
Selling the concept comes down to making it clear to people what e-learning can
bring to their part of the business, rather than the fact they will be training
"We are trying to show that these are products which are actually about
helping you and your relationship with the customer," she explains.
It is also vital to bring the IT department on board from a very early
stage. Astron recruited four skilled software engineers, aged 16 to 18, and
rather than limiting them to one area, gave them free range across the company.
"They are just kids who love the technology, but are humble enough to
teach it throughout the organisation. I think the biggest mistake we make is to
forget that there are people out there who can’t even switch on a
computer," says Woodward.
Issues of concern are aired during daily meetings at 8.30am, and then
e-mailed around the company, meaning performance databases have been rapidly
built up. "We say everybody is a coach. Everybody has to accept
responsibility for coaching. Part of our job role is to share out learning. We are
passionate about the 8.30 process," she says.
Progress can be measured by the fact Astron has grown in the past four years
from a £13m turnover business to one turning over £100m, she adds.
At its most basic, e-learning means the delivery of courses online. It can
also be used as a management information tool providing quick reference and
online job aids. But at its most sophisticated, as Astron has found, e-learning
can be used to help manage the growth of a business.
At this level, argues Tim Drewitt, worldwide manager, professional learning
services at McGraw-Hill Lifelong Learning, managers and staff are expected to
share information and willingly part with knowledge and skills, a cultural
shift that can be difficult to instill.
Courses, whether off-the-shelf, bespoke or a combination of e-learning and
traditional methods, need to be aligned to the organisation’s competencies.
"If it is related to the business goals, that will be a motivator in
itself and you will be able to get staff to accept it," he explains.
It is also vital to involve the end-user – in most cases the line manager –
from day one. Presenting a package as a fait accompli and leaving the manager
to bed it down is unlikely to gain HR many Brownie points.
The company, which is known in the UK as Xebec McGraw-Hill, runs a series of
practical workshops on the issue three times a year. Martine Garland, UK
manager of the company’s Professional Learning Services, who organises the
courses, argues HR should not be afraid to draft in outside expertise, such as
from the marketing department, to get its message across.
"If managers do not buy into e-learning, they will make life so
difficult that end-users will not be able to do it. You have to show them that
e-learning is a corporate-wide, business-critical initiative, not some ‘wussy’
HR thing," Garland says.
Teaching employees in a "real life" situation brings home the
benefits of learning online much more quickly, argues Richard Barkey, chief
executive at Imparta, a specialist in e-learning simulation and implementation.
And when advertising agency and Imparta client J Walter Thompson put in
place its e-learning function, it made sure it had about 40 champions in its
offices around the world to promote the switch, run workshops and help iron out
difficulties. A "chief learning officer" was also appointed to show
the importance the company attached to the process. "It was like a
pyramid. Each level spread the word out to the level below it," Barkey
Most e-learning systems have performance appraisal software embedded in them
to help measure user achievement. Appraisal can go from the most basic – users
ticking sheets to say if a course is good or bad – through to showing what
impact there has been over time on the profit and loss statement.
Creating a bespoke measuring tool for managers may be a good idea, but an
off the shelf will do just as well. Regular checks that look for changes in
performance or behavioural skills can also monitor progress.
The HR manager should not forget the effect e-learning will have on the
company’s traditional training department, adds Fenella Galpin, consultant at
E-Learning Solutions. Tutors and trainers can often feel threatened by the
arrival of e-learning, so its consequences need to be thought through and
The other element to look for is what is known as the "killer
application", where e-learning shows immediate successes, she argues. This
might be simply induction training or specific guidance that helps a salesman
close a deal. But it is vital to remember the technology must remain secondary
to the main goal – the learning.
"Lots of people get excited about the technology but they can end up
ignoring the learning," Galpin says. "You only get one launch. If you
launch it and something isn’t right or a button doesn’t work, that’s a real
turn-off, so project management is crucial."
House of Fraser’s Robinson agrees. Any business wanting to make a go of
e-learning must first recognise it cannot completely supersede conventional
methods. Its e-learning system is, for instance, supplemented by work books
that staff can take home and study in their spare time.
"E-learning does not replace workshop or face-to-face learning. But it
can deliver more training to people locally when they want it," Robinson
Ahead of its full launch at the end of August, House of Fraser has been
running "teasers" on its intranet and training sessions have been
organised from board level downwards, with two-hour on-site sessions for
Once it is up and running, monthly "health checks" will be carried
out looking at knowledge retention, how learning is being applied back and how
it is helping the key business targets. There will be an employee response
survey and the progress of each department will be checked. Further down the
line, House of Fraser will look to update and refresh its systems, he adds.
Wider evidence of success will come over time – if staff turnover can be
reduced and motivation improves. "E-learning will offer more training to
our staff generally. It will improve management skills, as we have quite a big
population of early middle managers. And it is more cost-effective as it is
training people in their location, not training people away from the floor so
much," Robinson enthuses.
Five dos and don’ts:
1 Tailor the message to the
individual audience or organisation. Make sure learning is aligned to the
company’s business problems, and that its goals are reflected in the training
2 Get backing at the highest level
possible, create champions throughout the business
3 Use it to solve real problems.
Make people see how it can work for their department. Make it simple, with
hyperlinks straight through to what they want
4 Start small, with a pilot or
trial. Get it right and you can grow it, get it wrong and no-one will listen
5 Reward success. Find some early
wins and publicise them
1 Forget to explain the basics. Many
people, even today, don’t know how to turn on a computer, let alone learn
through one – that may include the chief executive
2 Assume you can buy an e-learning
product off the shelf, plug it in and simply forget about it. Keep monitoring
performance and communicating its benefits to ensure there is not a peak of
usage at the start, which then tails off
3 Try and do it alone. However good
your boardroom backing, without the support of the IT department it will be
much harder to make it happen, while the expertise of the marketing department
may help to bed it in
4 Automatically assume e-learning is
the best solution simply because it is the latest buzzword. Take a long, hard
look before taking the plunge
5 Believe e-learning will
immediately replace conventional face-to-face learning. Create a mix that is
flexible, but robust enough to offer something for everybody.