Even better than the real thing

When L’Oréal launched its online Marketing Basics course, it met chairman chief executive Lindsay Owen-Jones’ demands of finding a training tool that ensured employees were trained to the same standard. No mean feat when have a workforce of 50,500 spread across the globe and a clutch of high-profile brands that include Helena Rubenstein, Maybelline, Ralph Lauren Parfums and Vichy (it is also active in the dermatological and pharmaceutical markets). But as well as pleasing the CEO, the initiative also introduced a radical new learning medium at the world’s number one cosmetics company – a virtual classroom.

The concept of a virtual classroom is one that continues to stir debate. Is the technology ready yet? Can you engage learners? And how can you gauge the training’s effectiveness? Even pioneers and early adopters would have to admit that we are in the formative stages of this technology, but it is already proving to be a valuable training tool, popular with participants.

L’Oréal’s virtual classroom attendance rates stand at nearly 90 per cent attendance, completion rates exceed 95 per cent and more than 95 per cent of participants would recommend the seminar to others.

The Marketing Basics seminar, a blended learning solution, was put together by L’Oréal and global marketing and strategy development consultancy, StratX. The latter’s area of expertise is designing and deploying simulation-based, interactive seminars which help companies build a marketing edge over their competition (as well as L’Oréal, clients include GE, Exxon Mobil and Novartis). Its learning was 90 per cent face-to-face, but two years ago, the organisation decided to expand into remote learning to capture a larger customer base.

StratX was convinced that a distance-learning approach needed to be instructor-led, with coaching based around its business games. It wanted to duplicate the classroom environment but some of its customers did not want to install software on their systems that might cause network congestion. This led it to WebEx and its Training Center product, which creates a virtual classroom that enables remote learners and tutors to interact and share documents, software applications, whiteboards, PowerPoint presentations, 3D objects and streaming media.

“For some companies, it’s a matter of policy not to allow partners to install anything on their computers,” says Delphine Parmenter, StratX director of e-learning solutions. “WebEx is a light programme on the client site. It takes minutes to set up and is very firewall-friendly.”
Put simply, users load a plug-in on to their PC and then log on to the web to join the virtual classroom.
The use of WebEx opened up a new e-learning channel for StratX, and L’Oréal was among the first to take advantage of the remote learning opportunities it offered.

Target learner

The Marketing Basics seminar is aimed at new employees to L’Oréal to help promote a proper understanding of the mechanics of marketing. It aims to ensure that all new marketing staff and others who need this knowledge (such as communications executives, management controllers and recruitment executives) receive the same level of training across the world. It is an international initiative and the course is tailored to suit local needs (although it is only produced in English, because all L’Oréal marketing staff must be able to speak it).

Breakdown of the course

The course combines e-learning and face-to-face coaching and incorporates support from the learner’s manager. It stretches over six weeks, with four complementary steps: Learn, Practice, Validate and Apply.

  • Learn: the first step consists of a number of e-learning modules designed by StratX and L’Oréal that can be taken when it suits the employee. “This is the only ‘lonely’ part of the course,” says Christophe Lajouanie, director of knowledge management, L’Oréal corporate marketing. The modules cover the main pillars of marketing, including market research, segmentation, positioning, pricing and advertising and are set at different entry levels. “These are very flexible and allow us to upgrade and add to the content,” says Lajouanie. “We can support changes to the marketing profession in the coming years, which is important.”
  • Practice: This gives participants the chance to test their knowledge by playing a business simulation game developed by StratX called Athena. The game puts the learner at the helm of a fictitious company and recreates the conditions of the cosmetics market.
  • Validate: A marketing instructor is brought in who benchmarks and provides feedback on the decisions made during the game in an online class, in which learners from different countries can compare notes.
  • Apply: In the final stage, the line manager steps in and assists the learner. Together they apply the new knowledge to the product or brand they are responsible for.  “It’s a blended system,” stresses Lajouanie. “The web part works well, but L’Oréal feels it is important to maintain the human touch in training.”

Main challenges

Probably the biggest challenge facing anyone using a virtual classroom is ensuring that the learner is engaged. Fortunately for clients, WebEx has already gone some way to meeting this challenge with the features it has built in to the Training Center product.

Learners can dynamically interact via webcams and even virtually raise their hands to ask or answer questions. An emotion indicator platform allows them to click on an emotion allowing instructors to read their moods. Devices and mechanisms such as the annotation tool, the ability to share documents and pictures and to take online polls are all key to heightening the interaction.

“We have to find ways of making the online experience highly interactive and engaging,” says Sanjay Dalal, director of Training Center at WebEx.

“Never let the learners sit still for more than five minutes,” he says.

Next, WebEx, whose Training Center technology has been adopted by a number of universities around the world, will be looking at how it can further develop the product to assist the online tutor, explains Dalal.

“We are looking at how we can make the classroom more intelligent,” he says. “For instance, how can we let the instructor monitor who is taking part during the programme?”

Apparently, checking e-mails is one of the most popular activities of individuals who should be taking part in a virtual classroom session.

L’Oréal doesn’t use webcams in the Marketing Basics seminar, but still manages to generate plenty of interaction. This is helped by StratX senior consultant Dana Allen, who acts as marketing instructor.

“One of the first things I do is make a class picture using PowerPoint and then show it to everyone,” says Allen, who jokes that the picture sometimes encourages creative use of the annotating tool. “It’s a good ice-breaker. People sometimes start drawing on it.”

Her sentiments are echoed by StratX colleague Parmenter.

“We understood the importance of teaching marketing in an action-oriented manner. If you want to retain someone’s interest on screen, you have to get them to interact with the consultant every five minutes,” she says. “We adopted the polling aspects of the WebEx technology to complement this experience-based teaching methodology.”

Dalal agrees that group interaction must be encouraged at all times. “Learners should be allowed to see who else is there,” he says. “There should be a social element to a virtual classroom like there is with [conventional classroom] training.”

The game that StratX has developed for L’Oréal also promotes interaction since learners play in teams of 15. They take the knowledge they have gained from the first stage of the course, in which they studied subjects such as market research and positioning, and use it to play the online business game. The game also serves as a motivating factor in ensuring the learners complete the initial online modules.

“They’re very competitive and keen to play and beat another part of the company,” says Lajouanie. “It’s part of the learning process and it gives them a good opportunity to share knowledge.”

Lajouanie is also keen to stress the importance of the instructor, who gives feedback during the Validate stage.

“They have to be skilled and dynamic as they only have one hour to answer questions, debrief and discuss the results,” he says.

Because the software runs on the web and requires only a software plug-in to be loaded on to the client site, the technical challenges weren’t great, says Lajouanie. However, clients must accept that there is a learning curve for users when they first use the WebEx product and L’Oréal says it blanks out a week before the course begins for individuals to get used to the technology.

“They spend time with the IT department,” explains Lajouanie. “We have different IT equipment in different officers, so doing this makes sure we address any technicalities before the training begins.”

Rollout and success rates

Nearly 300 people in 30 countries as far afield as Taiwan and Indonesia have now taken the online Marketing Basics course, and Lajouanie says this figure will rise to 450 by the end of the year.

Attendance and completion rates remain high (at 95 per cent and 90 per cent respectively) and coaches believe that employees leave the course with enhanced skills. The next stage is to continue updating the course to ensure it stays current and in line with the latest marketing thinking.

“It must not be static – that’s a key part of the programme,” says Lajouanie, who adds that another part of the company is looking at using WebEx to train financial controllers in new US accounting rules.

StratX continues to see growth in its remote learning business, and predicts that 40 per cent of the business may be delivered in this way by 2008.

Top tips

  • Don’t let learners sit still for more than five minutes
  • Introduce icebreakers and allow people to introduce themselves. Remember that the social side of training is important
  • Devote adequate time to setting the technology up before the training begins.

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