Learning technologies

workers play a crucial role in today’s organisations but HR faces a challenge
in keeping them up to date with technological innovations, and persuading
technical staff to coach colleagues. Nic Paton reports

Next time you pull in beside someone at a motorway service station, watch
them closely. Are they munching on a sandwich and listening to Jimmy Young? Or
are they studying on their laptop before heading off to their next client
meeting – as an increasing number of organisations are encouraging their staff
to do?

According to specialist IT research organisation IDC, the number of mobile
workers in the UK will rise from about 2.3 million this year to 4.8 million by
2005. A significant proportion of these are likely to be IT workers, either on
the road selling software solutions to organisations or working onsite with
clients, often on time- critical projects.

For these workers, keeping up to speed with the latest technological
advances in such a fast-moving industry is a key issue, as is ensuring they are
maintaining their core skills and competencies.

Iain Smith, founder and director of IT consultancy Diaz Research, says one
of the main problems faced by IT professionals is the difficulty in getting
released to train. This can be a particular problem among sales staff, where
any time off from selling means the company is failing to make money.

"There are a surprising number of people in IT who have had very little
training. They tend to speak to colleagues or find out things for
themselves," he says.

This attitude can be compounded by the failure of line managers – often
former IT professionals themselves – to recognise the importance of ongoing

"One of the characteristics of IT workers is they are often not
interested in, or capable of, communicating and coaching colleagues. They are
hired on the basis of their technical ability, not their coaching or
supervisory skills.

"For senior technical people it is much easier to tell someone how to
fix a problem, or give them the answer, than sitting down with the individual
to explain exactly why and expose the whole process," he explains.

This problem can be exacerbated when managers are dealing with a mobile or
remote workforce. For such a workforce, offering learning in bite-sized chunks,
rather than sticking people in a classroom for the whole day is the key, argues
Fenella Galpin, a consultant at e-learning specialist
e-learningsolutions.co.uk. "It’s learning they can do in half-an-hour sat
in a lay-by," she says.

Online learning need not mean being stuck in front of a computer in
isolation. The vast majority of packages offer collaborative or interactive
add-ons such as chat and discussion rooms, mentoring, expert advice and
performance appraisal, she adds.

The sort of investment a company makes in this type of training can vary
widely. At its most basic, buying a single course can cost £500 to £1,000 per
employee, with a small organisation probably buying three or four courses for
between five and 10 staff, for example. For larger companies, the cost of
bespoke packages for a far-flung workforce can easily run into hundreds of
thousands, even millions, of pounds.

This, though, has to be set against the saving to the business of not having
to pull valuable staff offsite or off the road for training and not having
employees who are losing competency simply because they are not being trained.
For the majority of companies, the competitive benefits of having a highly
trained IT workforce in place – and one being constantly developed and
challenged – outweighs the cost of putting an online training infrastructure in

Cisco Systems, for example, has ploughed millions of dollars into developing
what is thought to be one of the most sophisticated e-learning systems in the
world, which launched in November last year. A central element to this has been
the development of a global e-learning ‘community’, offering 12,000 courses to
38,000 staff worldwide.

Cisco offers innovations including "personalised learning
roadmaps" – online career plans that identify what skills or experiences
employees need to progress. There are ‘virtual classrooms’ where students in
different locations can join online lectures, possibly led by an expert
instructor in another location. Experts are available 24 hours a day to discuss

‘Video-on-demand’, TV-quality video images can also be used to deliver
high-impact messages. Cisco says these are particularly useful for explaining
complex material and for staff briefings.

In the process, the US technology specialist has switched its field sales
training from being 90 per cent classroom-based to 90 per cent online, as well
as reducing its annual training costs by 40 to 60 per cent.

In total, about 60 per cent of its training is now online and the company
plans to increase this to 70 per cent, estimates Mike Maunder, vice-president
of marketing and alliances at e-learning firm Saba Software, a key player in
the switchover.

A big factor in the success of the scheme was that Cisco’s CEO John Chambers
was behind it from the start. "He was absolutely committed to the
strategy, so it was a top-down approach. That makes it much easier to
happen," says Maunder.

"Cisco wanted to look at not just how people were learning, but the way
it was communicating with its workforce. In the past, companies found
communicating with and educating their staff was a real problem. Just getting
them together in one place was very expensive.

"I can remember years ago going to global sales meetings with 3,000
people in one room. How the hell can you communicate with 3,000 people? Their
attention span is not that good. This is about having the ability to train
people as and when they need and want it. Putting people in a classroom is out
of the question," he explains.

Another company that has tackled this problem head on, albeit on a smaller
scale, is IT recruitment consultancy Elan. For the past year, the company, the
IT arm of Manpower, has offered more than 1,500 online training courses to its
2,500 contractors around Europe, through specialist provider SmartForce UK.

IT certification courses on offer – the benchmark to which IT professionals
train – include Microsoft, Oracle, Novell and Cisco, as well as developing
web-based skills such as Java.

There is an assessment tool to allow contractors to assess their core skills
and competencies before embarking on a course. The online service also includes
video conferences, libraries and, like Cisco, expert advisers available 24
hours a day and discussion and chat rooms.

Sadie King, market development manager, says while contractors are working
onsite maybe for three to six months at a time, it is vital organisations have
a training structure that addresses mobile working. Elan’s service was
initially launched in the UK and Ireland, but has since been expanded to staff
across Europe.

"In a fast-moving industry like this, skill sets are shifting all the
time. It is very important in this particular industry for staff to keep their
skills up-to-date," she says.

As is standard with most systems, Elan contractors register for the service
and are given a log in so they can access the training site. Those who will not
have access to the Internet – perhaps because they are travelling or in a
particularly remote location – can use a CD-Rom version.

Each course tends to be in three to four-hour chunks and employees can
simply work their way through them. The website also offers links to White
Papers, news articles and other related topics.

Laura Overton, global programmes manager at SmartForce, believes that, as IT
has become a more central, integrated part of the modern business, so has the
need for good IT training – particularly now. "In tougher economic
climates, people are reducing their reliance on IT contractors, so their
permanent staff are under more pressure to have the skills. The market for
skills is still as important as it has ever been," she says.

And she disputes there is a need for a cultural change towards training.
"In my experience, IT professionals, are very keen to relearn, they are
not set in their ways. They will look for organisations willing to show an
ongoing investment in their skills. They generally suck up information,"
she argues.

SmartForce has worked with a raft of blue-chip names, such as Unisys and
Siemens, as well as smaller companies such as technology firm Lionbridge
Technologies. Its multi-million pound collaboration with Unisys, for example,
led to the creation of an ‘online university’ for the software firm’s 33,000
staff worldwide.

As a result of that collaboration, Unisys saw its training costs come down
and first-time pass rates rise from 75 per cent to 95 per cent.

Another firm taking the plunge has been the business consulting practice of
Andersen – formerly Arthur Andersen. Since last April, the company has offered
its 600 UK staff, of which about 550 are mobile workers, an online learning
network called MindSpace. Similar networks have been established in Andersen
operations in other countries.

MindSpace offers chat rooms, 24-hour mentoring and innovations such as
‘smart seminars’ – live interactive webcasts that are then archived for future
use. Courses can be accessed online, down the phone or downloaded on to a
laptop where an employee does not have access to a phone line. It could also be
built into an employees’ personal learning plan and included as part of their
review objectives for the coming year.

"The key challenge for us has been getting the usage to the level we
wanted," says Robin Blass, head of management development and learning at
the company. "But users have been very positive."

While its usage statistics are currently unaudited, initial indications are
that the most frequent users have been technical specialists tapping into
courses on subjects such as Oracle, Cisco and Windows. Usage in this group over
the past three months has been running at between 10 per cent and 30 per cent,
says UK e-learning project manager Antony Reid.

Since start-up, the average user has used the network for approximately for
5.4 days, a pretty satisfactory level of take-up, argues Blass. To get the
message across, the company launched a marketing campaign including voicemails,
e-mails and group presentations. But the challenge remains to get people to use
it more than once, he adds.

"In a culture where people are getting 100 e-mails a day and people are
out with clients, just getting them to spend a few minutes understanding it has
been the key. Once you have done that, there is a domino effect," he

Initial set-up costs for the MindSpace platform came in at £72,800, with the
content – the courses – being essentially free, because they had been made
available to Andersen through global licenses. The maintenance cost of the
portal has yet to be finalised, but will be in the region of £9,000.

Looking forward, the company plans to migrate the different MindSpace
networks in its various countries into a single global e-learning solution, as
well as bring in more competency measuring and assessment technology.

It appears more and more IT companies are realising that for their mobile
sales staff and contractors, simply sending them out on the road and leaving
them to it is no longer an option.

As Cisco discovered, a successful e-learning initiative needs commitment and
backing to come from the very top. It is in changing cultural perceptions – and
securing buy-in to the idea of constant training and development, for even the
most remote workforce – that HR professionals have a key role to play, argues
Diaz’s Smith.

"The best answer is focusing on communicating to senior technical
people and team leaders that part of the job, part of what they do, is
imparting knowledge and supporting colleagues to learn," he says.

"Why, for example, shouldn’t part of their yearly bonus be dependent on
what junior colleagues say about their willingness to actually communicate
knowledge?" he suggests.

If organisations want to maintain a competitive edge, mobile training has to
be a central part of that day-to-day working experience. The job of the HR
professional working in such organisations is to instil awareness, from the top
down, that this sort of step-change needs to be made.

Should your IT staff be certified?

Nearly half (48 per cent) of IT professionals
said assessing skills and knowledge levels was the most important reason for
seeking certification. A total of 39 per cent cited increasing credibility and
38 per cent increased productivity

Sixty-six per cent of IT
professionals said their salaries increased after becoming certified

Sixty-four per cent of managers said
a higher level of service was a key benefit of having certified staff, with 59
per cent citing competitive advantage and 57 per cent increased productivity

Half of IT professionals said
increasing overall productivity was their main reason for certification,
followed by increasing credibility (47 per cent) and preparing for
certification (45 per cent)

More than 42 per cent of managers
said certified staff leaving their organisation was a major drawback to
certifying employees. Yet only 29 per cent of certified professionals actually
changed employers after receiving certification

Approximately half of all classroom
training took place in a formal, third-party training facility, with 23 per
cent on a company’s premises. A total of 30 per cent took place at both

Forty-seven per cent of IT
professionals’ most useful methods to prepare for certification were
instructor-led classroom training (24 per cent) followed by printed materials
for self-study (23 per cent)

A higher proportion (51 per cent) who
used both self-study and self-assessment tests in preparation for certification
exams passed their courses, compared with candidates who used all other

Thirty-seven per cent of IT
professionals underwent IT training because their employer recommended it

Only 10 per cent of certified
professionals sought training to find another job, while 22 per cent sought
training for job security

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