A learning portal is basically an online gateway that sits on the intranet or internet and opens on to a raft of content relating to learning and development.
The bulk of the content will typically be made up of e-learning courses. But, increasingly, employers are adding more features in the hope that the portal will evolve into a jumping-off point for all learning and development activity within the organisation – from course finding and booking, to the creation of personal development plans and learning paths.
Learning portals give employers the opportunity to bring consistency to their learning strategies via a single point of entry. They can also help embed learning and development in the minds and desktops of employees.
“A portal moves the learning closer to the learner. It links the employee directly to the business by marrying strategic processes to learning,” says Hugh Garai, director of London-based Echelon Learning, which specialises in content for portals. “Residing prominently on the learner’s desktop, it reduces the distance between learning and action.”
Lars Hyland is director of learning services for customised e-learning developer Brightwave, which has provided content for portals at the Hilton hotel group and DHL Logistics, among others. He says that e-learning portals also provide the training manager with “a simple, single place to go and return to that keeps them in the picture and up-to-date”.
“Portals offer a way of branding learning and fostering the idea of a learning organisation,” he says.
Although portals can develop and gather momentum for learning within an organisation, there must be a clear strategy behind them, and there are a number of key questions to ask before you embark on a project:
- How much content will you make available on the portal?
- Will it be made up of bespoke or generic courses or a mixture of both?
- What are the technical limitations, if any, of your IT infrastructure?
- Do you want employees to be able to access the portal at home?
- Will it be integrated with a learning management system or some other means of tracking and monitoring learning?
Remember that information gleaned from the portal’s use can be useful for management reporting.
Kevin Lovell, director of learning strategy at learning solutions provider KnowledgePool, says: “The value is not just in the portal itself, but the information that comes out of the back of it.”
Get the content right
From the outset, remember it is a mistake to think that the portal is only concerned with e-learning courses. It can also be a valuable source of information for employees on an organisation’s face-to-face and instructor-led courses.
Neil Lasher, managing director of London-based e-learning specialist Trainer1, admits that these are all important considerations, but he believes it is the content that will determine the success or failure of your portal.
And while business needs and strategies will dictate some of this, the portal must be accessible and attractive to users.
“A portal should be a place of community,” says Lasher. “It’s no good asking the supplier what works on a portal. I ask the end users what they want and what they will use. Those are the portals that work best.”
Ideas for content other than courses could include discussion forums, chat rooms, personal development tools, video and audio clips featuring advice from experts, and training tools such as virtual classroom software.
Kay Baldwin-Evans, head of research at Skillsoft at West Drayton, Middlesex, adds mentoring to the list and also suggests making use of some interactive internet tools and devices such as blogs, site summary feds, and wikis – websites the user can edit. “The content must draw people in time and time again,” she says.
Also, links to generally available learning sites and portals can form an important part of the content. Skillsoft, for instance, is rolling out a suite of 14 learning portals this year that contain pre-packaged content on specific areas such as leadership and project management.
Don’t assume that everyone wants all the technological whistles and bells available, says Sue Curtis, e-learning content manager at DHL Logistics.
“A survey among our stakeholders showed that they do not want extras such as virtual classrooms, which are seen as too difficult and too unreliable,” she says. “For most this is a step too far at this time. However, we anticipate that the more technology-aware functions, such as IT, will pilot this first.”
Portals should encourage individuals to take control of their own learning and development, and to do this successfully you need to provide some career management tools.
But there is scepticism as to whether portals have really begun to empower employees in this way since, initially, they were driven by technology.
Failure, says Echelon’s Garai, can often be attributed to ’empty portal’ syndrome.
“Lack of content that is relevant or meaningful to users and lack of portal management and marketing renders it out of site and thus out of mind,” he says. “It only takes one bad experience to turn people away.”
As well as neglecting to update the portal, other classic pitfalls cited by those we spoke to include: over-complicated interfaces, which assume that simply putting e-learning courses on the portal is enough; inaccessible design; and insufficient buy-in from senior management to ensure that the portal can be supported and marketed correctly.
The importance of the latter should never be underestimated. Among the most successful launches are those that brand and market the portal to employees as if it were a consumer product. Trainer1’s Lasher says this is the most forgotten part of implementation. Done well though, it can have a worthwhile impact.
He cites one of his clients who staged a four-month poster campaign leading up to the launch of the learning portal. Initially, the poster simply said ‘It is coming’, with a blurred picture that nobody could make out.
It was followed up with further posters, culminating in an intranet address where employees could register.
“They had a 96% staff buy-in in the first four days,” says Lasher.
- Secure top level buy-in to ensure the portal can be supported on an ongoing basis.
- Market the portal to employees as you would a consumer product.
- Make sure employees appreciate its value to them. Personal development tools and learning paths help to give them ownership of it.
- Ensure the interface design is clear and unfussy so users can find what they want on the portal with minimal effort.
- Ask users what else they would like to see on the portal. Remember that it should be a community area.
Case study: Hilton University
Launched in 2002, the Hilton University online portal represents everything to do with learning, knowledge and development at Hilton, the international hotel group. When it was launched, all courses were instructor-led, but now 80% are delivered via e-learning through the portal.
“We have a learning philosophy that puts the learner into the driver’s seat,” says Maarten Staps, international learning and development manager at Hilton’s Watford HQ. “It is the learner who decides when, where and how long they are going to study a course or topic.”
The university is organised into seven faculties, including management, finance, operations and business development. Its library contains 300 business skills, more than 200 specialised IT courses and 24 finance courses. Courses come from a variety of sources, including Brightwave and Intellexis. Hilton has also added Skillsoft’s Books24x7 referenceware and Centra’s Virtual Classroom software.
“This has decreased our spend on travel and accommodation but, more importantly, has improved and increased the communication between learners all over the world about each other’s best practice,” says Staps.
Hilton is looking at introducing a podcasting element as well as RSS feeds, which allow simple external feeds such as newswires.
With many employees worldwide, Hilton has added language courses in Spanish, German, English, Dutch and Italian. It has also established a learning activity called Culturally Active, where people can read about 65 national cultural profiles.
Staps is in no doubt about the university’s value to both employees and the company.
“Hilton University is a strong brand within Hilton and externally,” says Staps. “It helps us attract future team members. An internal survey has shown that current team members stay with Hilton because of the university and the learning and development opportunities it offers.”