Northern leading light

Employers
and unions are working together in Norway to ensure the success of a national
on-line learning system. Dominique Hammond compares its experience with the
UK’s efforts 

Norway,
land of the northern lights and the midnight sun, sits on the outer edge of
Europe, not far from the Arctic circle. It has a smaller population than most
of its counterparts, at just 4 million, but like Britain and the rest of the
Western world, Norway is facing the challenges of a changing economy.

The
oil and gas fields that have kept it afloat for generations are drying up and
it has realised that if it is to find other ways of competing in the global
marketplace, it needs a highly-skilled workforce.

To
achieve this, trade and industry minister Grete Knudsen has launched a national
training project. It is the Norwegian Competence Network (NKN), a nationwide
on-line learning system launched in August which will be accessible to all 1.2
million workers, through computer terminals in their workplaces.

“We
have a very good education system in Norway, but the pace of change is so rapid
that it is necessary for people to get refills several times through their
careers,” says Tore Egil Holte, chairman of NKN.

“For
both the employer and the employee this is a way that everyone can get the
learning they need flexibly.”

The
project has massive support from the government. It passed a law in 1998 giving
every person in Norway born before 1978 the right to free secondary education
through their workplace and to on-going training. This law kick-started the
scheme, but it is business and the unions that own it.

Partnership

In
an impressive example of partnership, the project has been developed and paid
for jointly by the Norwegian Confederation of Business and Industry (NHO) and
the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). Between them they have put up
half of the 20m kroner (£1.5m) development cost. The rest came from research
councils and regional development funds.

This
alliance has not always been comfortable. There has been an on-going row over
who should pay what and they have refused to divulge the final split. Yet the
benefits are considered so important to both sides that they have managed to
work together well enough to see it through.

They
commissioned Saba, an American company which has designed e-learning networks
for companies with thousands of staff, such as Ford and Cisco Systems, to
develop the software. Bobby Yazdani, president and CEO, said he could not turn
down the opportunity to develop a system for a whole country.

“We
have never seen transactions at this scale on the Internet before,” he says.

“When
we developed the system for Ford, 30,000 people used it in the first three
days. But this is e-learning for a million people and that is unprecedented. It
is pushing the technology to the limit and that is very exciting.”

So
what does NKN have to offer? To start with around 200 courses from 40 providers
will be available on the system. These have been chosen based on what is most
in demand and what is easiest to teach on-line. They include courses in IT,
health and safety and various business skills. Over the next few years
thousands of courses covering every skill imaginable will be added, Holte says.

“There
will be three types of offering,” says Holte. “The first will be the standard
course off the shelf, language courses, for example. The second will be courses
developed by individual companies and distributed to their employees through
our network.

“The
third will be industry-specific courses developed by industrial organisations
and distributed to companies belonging to them. Through this system it is
possible to choose who gets access to particular courses.”

Companies
will pay for their employees to use courses. Each employee will have a career
development plan and discuss with their supervisor which skills they need to
develop based on their aptitude and the skills the company needs. The company
will give staff time off to learn.

Savings

Norwegian
business currently spends an estimated 20bn kroner (£1.5bn) a year on training.
Learning on-line does away with expensive training centres and having to give
staff whole days off to attend. Although some learning will continue to be
classroom-based, providing the bulk through NKN is expected to bring massive
savings.

“We
want to keep our competitive edge and get more for our money. With this scheme
people learn more per kroner,” says Finn Bergesen, chief executive of NHO.

“A
few years ago life was in compartments. You had your education, then your
training, then your working life, then your retirement. But we don’t live like
that any more. The shelf life of training has become very short. We need to
update ourselves.

“Many
workers are reluctant to start skilling themselves again, but we are making it
easier by bringing the skills to them. It is the individual’s responsibility to
make sure they update their skills, but it is also the responsibility of the
employer, because he will get left behind and go out of business if his
workforce does not have the right skills.”

Update
on the UK

This
month, learndirect, an on-line learning system set up by the British
Government, will become fully operational in England, Wales and Northern
Ireland.

Its
main aim is broadly similar to the Norwegian system – to enable people to learn
beyond school and college and to keep updating their skills through courses on
the Internet, yet unlike the Norwegian system it does not focus principally on
business. In fact the vast majority of the 251 learning centres are in
libraries, railway stations and community centres. Just 13 are in workplaces
and only two companies – BT and the Army – have signed up to become “corporate
learning hubs”, although this number is expected to grow.

Anne
Wright, chief executive of the University for Industry, the company set up to
run learndirect, said it will be driven both by employers and individual’s
needs.

“It
is for all adults – those in work, those seeking work and those considering
returning to work. Its aims are to drive up the demand for learning by helping
adults improve their employability through acquiring new knowledge and skills,
so that businesses become more competitive.

“UfI
has a target for 1 million people a year to be using learndirect courses by
2003.”

There
are 250 courses available and another 250 will be on-line this autumn. Courses
in numeracy, literacy, key business skills, and IT are being prioritised, as
are courses for four industry sectors: environmental services and technology,
multimedia, retail and distribution, and automotive components.

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