Wired up to learn

The
wealth of e-learning options available seems overwhelming. But it need not be
daunting, as Sally O’Reilly found

The
Internet and intranets have been rapidly adopted as channels for delivering IT and
technical training, yet soft skills development has proved more problematic.
Few systems have the bandwidth necessary to stream audio and video material,
and without these – most experts believe – it is difficult to get over the
subtle messages about working with people.

The
huge costs involved in creating bespoke leaning management systems means these
are still mainly the preserve of large organisations. The market for these
bespoke systems is dominated by companies such as Epic Group and Vega Skillchange.

“We
supply tailored learning solutions that are delivered via company intranet,
over the Internet or other digital channels,” explains Lars Hyland, key
accounts director with Epic Group. “So our clients tend to be large, bluechip
organisations such as British Airways, The Royal Bank of Scotland, WorldCom and
PricewaterhouseCoopers. We also serve public sector customers such as the
Inland Revenue, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a number of local
government bodies.”

Expanding
accessibility

But
Hyland believes the accessibility of e-learning is expanding as companies
struggle to keep a lid on costs and maintain co-learning as a way to both to
develop and deploy the expertise of staff.

“Too
few training divisions within organisations use this powerful tool to justify
the creation of learning solutions that will genuinely lead to improved
business performance,” he says. “The Royal Bank of Scotland is an admirable
exception. It has proved that e-learning makes a significant difference, having
already created a 7:1 return on its investment. With its takeover of NatWest,
this learning content will be applicable to a much wider audience and yield
even higher returns.”

There
are other signs that the market is broadening. Publishers such as Video Arts
and Maxim Training have recently branched into generic e-learning materials
which can be run on a corporate intranet, and newcomers like the web-based
BlueU.com. are specialising solely in e-learning.

It
seems that these days much smaller companies are seriously looking at adding
e-learning to their training options, often via a portal leased from a
supplier.

Gateway
to web-based learning

The
first decision is whether to opt for your own learning management system or
access online learning via a portal, and use the learning management system
offered by the portal provider. The portal acts as a gateway to web-based
learning – although the available content will depend on which portal you use.

Broadly
speaking, learning management systems are the more cost-effective option for
larger companies with 500 employees or more. More than 60 different systems are
currently available on the UK market. For smaller organisations, leasing a
portal can be a more flexible option.

Exact
definitions of what a “portal” is are hard to come by – US academic Ellitt
Masie has a good guide at www.masie.com – but to get an idea, it is worth
visiting the sites of two of the main portal providers in the UK –
click2learn.com. and newcomer BlueU.com, which was set up in September last
year. Both stress that they also provide a full service to clients when
appropriate and are not in the business of simply hiring out a web-site or a
search engine which will access unfiltered course material on the Web.

Mark
Stimson, European technical director of click2learn, says the technology
needn’t be daunting. “It is a matter of putting materials in a certain place,
so that people can access them on the web,” he says.

“Larger
companies can also get their own private version of this, branded to look like
the corporate intranet. But you could just go to click2learn and pay for the
training you want with your credit card.”

Managing
director of BlueU.com Ian Clague stresses that his company can provide useful
information to employers as well as making access to training materials easier
for staff.

“We
ask the individual user what the job role is for each individual, and the
profiling of individuals is entered in advance – so it is clear what gaps they
have in their learning,” he says.

Linking
with competencies

Tracey
Drewett is managing director of Maxim Training which provides course material
for a number of learning management systems, including Solstra. He makes the
point that on-line learning shouldn’t mean abandoning existing training
structures. “Linking with competencies is very important,” he says.

“We
have linked our training to the management NVQ, and we supply the University
for Industry, which is committed to life-long learning.”

Professor
Keith Baker of the University of Reading’s department of computing, and a
founder member of consultancy Network Knowledge Architects, which acts as a
jargon-buster for companies planning to introduce web-based learning to staff,
believes that making the right choice is getting easier as uniform standards
are now being agreed.

“What
HR managers need to be able to do is put together training packages tailor-made
to the needs of their staff – and to do this they need to be able to use
learning objects (or chunks of learning material) from different sources,” he
says. “Once the various standards bodies develop a standard, companies will be
able to do this – and they will be able to ask whether course material is
accredited or not.”

Broken
into chunks

The
American Airline Consortium Committee (AICC) standard is already widely used
for learning management systems, but although some suppliers have signed up to
it, few are actually accredited, which should be the guarantee that a learning
system will able to launch, monitor and analyse any piece of e-learning
courseware.

BT
subsidiary Solstra has signed up to the AICC standard. Marketing manager Mick
Durham predicts that systems like Solstra will also affect the nature of
training as well as the way it is delivered.

“It
is difficult to absorb material delivered in a linear way – so our system
breaks it up into chunks,” he says. “And it can help prepare the ground for
instructor-led training.

“Updating
is also easier with web-based learning – you can pull out or add information
without changing the whole package.”

E-learning
is a daunting new field, and even companies which invest in state-of-the-art
e-learning products aren’t necessarily using them.

John
Lowe, managing director of Video Arts, says his company has carried out
research which shows that although UK firms spent between £15m and £18m on
management training in the Internet market place last year, few have used it –
either because of insufficient bandwidth, or because the product itself was too
low grade.

Case
study:   TXU Europe (formerly Eastern
Group)
Intranet brings access to just-in-time learning

Based
in Ipswich, the 6,000-strong integrated energy company TXU Europe has
commissioned VEGA Skillchange and Saba to create an intranet-based learning
management system which will be fully operational this summer.

Open
learning manager Lance Spraggons says the company is taking this step only
after careful consideration – and a planning and implementation process lasting
just over a year.

“Now
we have expanded, and staff are more dispersed, conventional classroom-based
training is harder to deliver,” he says. “We are supplementing this form of
training with an intranet based system – but we are also surveying staff to
find out what they think their training needs are.”

The
intranet will give all staff easy access to just-in-time learning, and forms
part of a mixed economy of training. For instance, the system will act as a
form of electronic library, allowing staff to borrow books or CD-Roms through
it.

“People
will also be able to assess their own skills and make their own judgements
about the training they need – making their own gap analysis,” he says. “It
will give them greater personal responsibility for learning.”

Spraggons
believes the secret of introducing a successful learning management system is
to plan carefully and include all the relevant players at every step. He has
brought together in-house IT staff and representatives from three open learning
suppliers, Ivy Software, Maxim Training and EBC, to make the partnership
between course content and method of delivery work as effectively as possible.

But
he sees winning staff over to the new system as the key to success. “We have
got to get staff to see that open learning is just as rewarding as going on a
course,” he says. “And to do that you have to look at their preferred learning
styles – open learning can be a very lonely experience.”

His
hope is that introducing a learning management system will help the company
tailor learning to individuals, rather than make it a more impersonal
experience for staff.

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