How to grow intellectual capital

A
robust technological infrastructure which responds well to training needs will
nurture knowledge management. Sue Weekes reports

Who’d be a training professional charged with the task of implementing an
e-learning strategy?

Every company you meet appears to be offering so-called e-learning. And to
complicate matters, everyone tells you that its approach is the best route to
take.

The only thing that seems clear is that there is more than one right way to
introduce e-learning, which is almost certain to mean that there is more than
one wrong way of introducing it as well.

In his book The E-learning Revolution – from proposition to action, Martyn
Sloman talks about human resource models being regarded as absolute when they
"should be evolving". This is certainly the case with an e-learning strategy
– it’s impossible to achieve everything in one go.

And while Sloman suggests a number of propositions in his book, his
following three characteristics of a new training paradigm serve as good
guiding principles for training professionals to keep sight of.

There should be, says Sloman, "emphasis on the learner and his or her
acceptance of responsibility, a holistic (or integrated) approach to creating
competitive advantage through people in the organisation and the need to ensure
that resources are focused appropriately and managed effectively."

While it’s true that there is no one size that fits all, the most successful
e-learning strategies are those that have started small, but have had a bigger
vision attached to them from the start.

The advantage of building a system in an organic, modular way like this is
that e-learning starts to be embedded in the culture of an organisation.

Gartmore Investment Management, a major player in the field of global equity
and fixed income assets, began with a pilot to train two groups of 100 people,
and the system is now available to the global workforce spread across Jersey,
Germany, Japan and the US, as well as the UK.

"I definitely recommend a pilot with an eye on the bigger picture as
opposed to a big bang approach," explains learning and development manager
Karen Martin.

"We started in a small way and as people talked about it and word
spread, it created intrigue inside the organisation with people asking, ‘Why
haven’t I got access to it?’. Now it’s open to everyone in the company."

The e-learning nirvana lies in creating a robust strategic and technological
infrastructure that, once in place (and put in place for the right reasons), is
allowed to grow organically and be capable of responding to training needs
anytime and anywhere, as and when the business or the individual requires them.

Ideally, the front-end manifestation of this should be an employee-branded
learning portal which acts as an integrated gateway to every type of training
service offered by the company, from a short, sharp online top-up course
(sometimes called just-in-time learning) through to traditional classroom-based
training.

One of the best working examples of this is IT solutions provider ICL’s
Learning Gateway, which sits inside its employee portal Café VIK. Café VIK –
Valuing ICL Knowledge – was launched in 1996 as a knowledge management system
and has grown into the company’s employee portal with self-service HR tools
such as online flexible benefits.

The Learning Gateway provides access to a database of over 5,000 learning
options including online, CD-Rom and classroom-based courses and also provides
a vital link to the knowledge management system. It allows employees to set up
online communities on a particular subject, so learning discussion or even
collaborative learning can continue beyond a course.

Similar self-propagated special interest groups are rife within the employee
portal Channel W at IT services company Wipro, where the link with learning and
knowledge management has also been forged.

"Managing our intellectual capital efficiently has become one of the
most critical factors that will help create business value and provide
competitive advantage. Channel W is a vehicle to help achieve this," says
vice-chairman Vivek Paul.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy route to the perfect learning environment.
Technically and without the right vendor, "it remains a minefield for the
novice. "You should take it slowly, slowly and grow the thing
organically," says Jan Hagen, solutions sales manager at content provider
and consultancy Wide Learning. "However, if you put the wrong piece in at
an early stage, it can make it difficult for you to scale up later on."

Often, this wrong piece has been put in place because of panic and pressure.
"There are two scenarios where it goes pear-shaped," says Nige
Howarth, vice-president of international marketing at NetG. "One is when
someone from on high has made a statement that you’ve got to shift 50 per cent
of your training online and this cascades down to those at the coalface who
panic and think ‘better get the vendors in’.

"The second one is when someone senior has just decided that they are
going to have e-learning as an adjunct to their existing training."

E-learning vendors may disagree on a great deal of things, but they are
unanimous that the opportunistic bad practices that take advantage of the above
scenarios, such as companies being sold a learning management system and then
promptly being left to get on with it, must end.

However, mistakes won’t happen in the first place, if you apply some good
old-fashioned principles and common sense and don’t allow technology or the
vendor to become the driver of the project.

Gartmore’s Martin says there’s no substitute for going to exhibitions and
doing your own homework and research, but always stick closely to your wishlist
and checklist.

"There is a wealth of information available online where you can keep
up to date not only with products but also current thinking and trends such as
the US-based Masie Center (Bookmark of the Month, pXVIII).

The commissioned research on e-learning that is being made available by the
Learning in Business Research Associates (Libra) may also prove useful (News,
pIII).

Good vendors, of which there are many around, can also bring a huge amount
of experience to the party from which you can benefit.

Before you approach the providers, though, it is vital to assess the
compelling business reason for having e-learning in the first place, because
without this you’re unlikely to get the executive level buy-in you need (see
pVIII).

Worldwide HR consultancy Watson Wyatt found that companies with the most
successful e-learning programs have adopted a set of strategic steps and have
made sure that it is aligned to their corporate mission, vision and values.

Senior consultant Bruce Walton says he is a fan of the pilot approach, but
is also mindful of the bottom line values. "If it’s corporate HR which is
driving the project, it is going to be looking at bringing in a learning
management system and taking an overall approach.

"However, it could equally be the guy in the sales department who’s
more interested in getting the courses in and getting things moving."

His sentiments are echoed by KPMG Consulting’s David Parlby, partner
responsible for its Interactive Learning Solution. "Sometimes the benefits
are so big that you have to run as hard and fast as possible with it," he
says.

None of this should panic you into rushing or skimping on planning, and
Walton suggests six steps when devising your e-learning strategy (see In
Summary, above). Once these are in place, you can invite the vendors round for
tea and begin to look at components such as content and learning management
systems.

When meeting with the providers, you should beware the bandwagons of which
e-learning has had a fair share charging through over the years.

The current trend for blended learning – where courses combine online and
traditional methods – is a sound one and is highly appropriate in many
instances. But it is also something of a crowd-pleaser, being less radical than
a pure e-learning option.

"Vendors are now punting products that are ‘blended’. People like it
because it’s less controversial and less threatening for the trainer,"
says David Wilson, managing director of Elearnity.

"But ask most people what it is exactly and they’d struggle to tell
you. What many don’t realise is that an integrated learning model also breaks
the classroom part into bits." For IT training for instance, instead of a
traditional classroom solution, the online learning could perhaps be more
effectively followed up by a coach walking the floor.

The disparity in demands, thinking or approaches that exists in e-learning
has often led trainers either to compromise or fragment their strategy along
the way, neither of which is a good idea.

No strategy exists to suit everybody, all of the time, but a holistic,
integrated approach as suggested by Sloman, which can be facilitated by an
organic infrastructure, will ultimately ensure that you can serve most needs at
most times.

As NetG’s Howarth says, "All of the components discussed are just
little acorns. Bring them all together and you’ll start to get nuggets of
success. Then you can really grow your system and see it start to work."

Further reading: The E-learning Revolution – from proposition to action,
published by the CIPD, 2001. ISBN0-85292-873-4

In summary
Key steps to successful e-learning

1 Gain executive-level support

2 Build a sound and compelling business case that can be easily
communicated

3 Develop a phased implementation plan to ensure successful
results reasonably early in the programme

4 Build the right implementation team

5 Plan carefully for the employee adjustment period to help
everyone thrive in the new training environment

6 Understand that employee feedback is good and set up
well-understood communication channels for this

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