Plato’s Republic

has shown the power of internal marketing and branding new initiatives for
employees when it comes to e-learning. We report on the thinking behind its
online strategy and its plans for going forward

Most of us know Plato as a Greek philosopher who, along with his teacher
Socrates and his pupil Aristotle, initiated western philosophy. At Bupa, the
global health and care organisation that has 40,000 employees worldwide, the
name has different connotations, but they are equally high-brow in their own way.

Neatly standing for Personal Learning and Training Opportunities, Plato is
the online portal where employees head when it comes to training and
development. And as well as providing a clearly defined single access point for
training, it has proved to be a vital internal marketing tool to smooth the
transition to e-learning.

"We wanted the brand to be very powerful from the beginning and for the
brand to be wrapped around the e-learning," says Phil Knight, head of
development and training at Bupa UK Membership. "It meant we didn’t have
to have the debate about whether e-learning was good or bad," he said.

While this is Bupa’s first experience of e-learning, Knight has been there
before, having been involved in e-learning projects at his previous companies,
Direct Line and WorldCom.

"I achieved success with e-learning before, but it is a case of
learning how to get it right," he says.

Bupa UK Membership is responsible for the insurance and assurance side of
the business. It employs 2,600 people nationally with two of its main bases at
Staines and Salford Quays. In an increasingly competitive sector, products need
to get to market as soon as possible, which puts pressure on traditional
classroom-based training.

But as well as having a sound business case for e-learning, UK Membership is
also being seen as a test-bed for e-learning by other parts of the
organisation, which wants to encourage workers to take ownership of their own
training and development.

Bupa implemented its first learning management system in April 2002, and
launched Plato at the same time. It had around 30 off-the-shelf programmes
running on the system from standard office software training to generic
management development, but it wanted to find an organisation-wide project to
really push the system.

Eventually, it found one in the shape of the company’s Heartbeat project,
and commissioned e-learning and multimedia developer Epic to develop a
tailor-made programme, comprising of one-and-a-half hours of learning.

"All the product knowledge training was done using the programme, and
we were able to train 800 people in four weeks," explains Knight.
"All the field sales staff could gen up online, and then did any
behavioural training that was needed in the classroom. The feedback was extremely

Knight stresses the importance of bringing in the marketing team at the
early stages of an e-learning strategy, and the first programme reinforced the
Bupa brand with the company’s look, feel and high standards of design.
"I’ve read a lot of e-learning case studies that say ‘get IT on board
early’, but I think the marketing team is just as important," says Knight.

"They’ve been very supportive all along. As well as featuring in
internal publications, Plato is featured on Bupa TVs in receptions and call
centres, and they even sent a big plastic bag of goodies to the business
managers as part of the campaign."

With the contract on its LMS (Learning Management System) due to expire,
Bupa decided to put it out to tender again, and the commission was won by
Futuremedia, which was awarded a three-year contract to provide an LMS, hosting
services and software integration with Bupa’s existing PeopleSoft HR system.

Futuremedia’s proprietary, Solstra LMS, which has capacity for 240,000
users, was installed in just two-and-a-half weeks to coincide with the expiry
date of the previous LMS. It was also vital that the Plato brand was replicated
so that the transition was seamless to the user.

Spencer Cohen, head of sales and marketing at Futuremedia, says:
"Things ran very smoothly, mainly due to the partnership between all the
parties concerned – Phil’s team, Bupa’s IT department who helped us integrate
with the HR system, and our own team.

"Technology can build systems, but relationships are key to implementation,"
he adds.

Cohen says he has noted a vast difference in the way that clients want to
interact with their supplier over e-learning in the past five years.

"Four or five years ago, e-learning was the new toy that everyone
wanted regardless. Two or three years ago, it was a case of ‘it’s all gone
wrong," says Cohen.

"Now clients want us to work far more closely with them and almost hold
their hand throughout. You cannot just leave a client to get on with it, but
have to work together with them on everything from strategy to internal
communications to help drive usage up and secure them a return on

Plato is accessed via the web at the desktop as before, but the learning
management system is now hosted by Futuremedia, and users can go online to sit
courses, book a course and access learning information.

Among the training initiatives it has facilitated so far is a compliance
training project, where 1,400 workers were trained in six weeks. Feedback was
again positive, especially from the company’s ‘Plato champions’, who are
effectively the eyes and ears of the system, and who report back to Knight’s

"They champion the brand and spread the word and we get together once a
quarter with them to talk about things such as usage and any issues that have
arisen," says Knight.

Bupa also extracts usage and other information from the LMS, and it has
enabled the organisation to pinpoint which aspects of Plato are most popular.
The system has a link into Ashridge’s virtual learning resource, and this is
popular with managers, reports Knight.

Also popular are the 10-minute toolkits which support classroom training,
and let users download templates for different tasks such as putting together a
meetings agenda.

"It’s really simple stuff, but people really like it and use it,"
says Knight.

As well as being rolled out internationally to Australia and India, next on
Plato’s agenda is the introduction of discussion threads and virtual
classrooms. Both bring their own challenges, but Knight is also looking beyond
the immediate gain.

"We’ll have to make sure we have good controls on the discussion
threads and the virtual classrooms must be a good fit for purpose," he
said. "We’ve used virtual classrooms already and managers have really taken
to them, and have wanted to go on and use the tools for further discussions
with their team – almost as a form of networked learning.

"For us, it represents a blurring of the line between e-learning and
knowledge management. We don’t currently use technology to capture knowledge,
and this would provide another way of doing so."

Top tips

– Have a compelling business case

– Have a compelling brand associated with the e-learning and
involve the marketing team early on

– Have a clearly interpreted plan and define all of your

In summary
Positive vision

Bupa’s aim: To refine and
continue to develop its e-learning strategy. This includes superceding its
previous learning management system. Bupa wants to encourage staff to take
ownership of their own training and development.

Why? Bupa UK Membership
operates in an extremely competitive sector, and the demands on training to get
products to market are high. It is also acting as a test-bed for e-learning for
other parts of Bupa.

Is e-learning delivering? Phil
Knight, head of development and training, expects to see a return on investment
in three years. Feedback so far has been positive, especially from the Plato
champions, who are the eyes and ears of the system.

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