Future perfect

Technology is revolutionising training and career development, even turning
some of the more progressive organisations into virtual corporate universities.
But which are likely to be the key technologies in the future? We offer some
predictions

Visions of the future are notoriously off the mark. Twenty-five years ago we
thought robots would be performing all our household chores. At about the same
time BT executives claimed that mobiles phones were not a practical reality.

In some areas where new technology is emerging, however, we can make some
fairly safe predictions. In the workplace we are on the brink of a revolution
in training and career development, thanks to technological advances.

Progressive organisations, such as BAe Systems and BT, are creating virtual
corporate universities that will eventually give employees access to a huge
range of training materials through their PCs. With the Government placing such
a strong emphasis on lifelong learning and competitive advantage, we are likely
to see many more businesses follow suit. But this is just one way organisations
are harnessing technology to train staff.

Making the most of new developments will not only entail a change in the
attitude of staff and managers towards training, it will also require some
physical changes to the work environment. Here we take a look at what the
learning organisation of the future might look like.

The digi-theatre

Although classroom-based teaching will not disappear, the traditional
elements of the classroom will. Blackboards and flipcharts will be replaced by
electronic white boards, operated by a remote mouse or touchscreen technology.
Course delegates in one of these "digi-theatres" will be able to plug
their laptops into portals and download "handouts" direct from the
trainer’s PC while viewing the white board.

Some schools are already using these multimedia white boards which allow the
teacher to download animation from a PC or laptop and project videos, as well
as present normal text and pictures. Not all companies will need or want
digi-theatres, but as the Government continues to push the concept of community
learning and encourage greater interaction between industry and education,
companies will be able to use digi-theatres at local schools and colleges.

Mobile learners

The new generation of mobile phones are linked to the Internet allowing
users to download information from the World Wide Web. In terms of their
potential as a learning device, their use is limited – you would not want to
read a whole research paper on the small screen of your phone. But thanks to
advances in audio technology, it will soon be possible for digital information
to be "translated" into sound. This means that rather than
downloading text from the Internet, it could be "read" to you via
your mobile’s earpiece. So, a sales executive driving to an important client
presentation, say, could download useful information on the potential client
and listen to it en route to his meeting.

Internets/intranets

Physical limitations like size and distance will not restrict the learning
organisation of the future. Virtual corporate universities are already giving
employees at multi-site organisations access to information, although it is in
relatively small amounts and it is only in the form of text or pictures. In
future, using the company intranet will be a more interactive process. There
may be live on-line tutorials where students are linked through
video-conferencing. Alternatively, delegates may be represented by icons on
screen and communicate through real-time chat rooms.

New computers will utilise their spatial and audio capacity much more than
today’s machines, so computer-based learning will no longer simply be a matter
of reading and learning text on-screen. Learning by game-play will become a
reality. A group of managers, for example, could act out scenarios with virtual
employees on screen. The employees’ actions on-screen will depend on the
decisions taken by the manager/player and will therefore encourage managers to
think through the consequences of their actions.

Learning from home

At the moment most training material within companies is available via the
intranet rather than the Internet because of fears over security. But some
companies are already overcoming security issues by becoming Internet service
providers themselves. It also means that employees will be able to access the
Internet via their company IPS from their own homes. Digital television will
begin to play a much bigger role in learning at home, too. Technical colleges
could transmit employer-approved training modules via the local cable system
enabling employees to study from the comfort of their armchair.

Mentoring

Mentoring has become a buzzword in progressive organisations. One reason it
is so popular is that it allows senior managers to pass on vital cultural and
behavioural knowledge about a company that can be difficult to teach in the
traditional sense. One way technology will facilitate this is through video
cameras. Board meetings and group discussions can be filmed and archived, to be
played back as part of a management training course. Alternatively, trainee
managers could "shadow" an individual director. Cameras are so tiny
now that they can easily be attached to a pair of glasses or a headset when the
director wants to give trainees an insight into what is involved at their level
in the organisation.

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is already used by military and manufacturing to test
products. As yet, virtual reality is not widespread in training but as costs
come down employers will be keen to harness this technology. Wearing a pair of
data glasses trainees will be able to practise medical techniques or learn how
to operate expensive and complicated machinery without damaging the real
equipment.

Research being conducted at the Reading University takes virtual reality
into a new dimension. The department of cybernetics is developing a silicon
chip that will be implanted into the body and attached to the nervous systems.
The chip will allow a computer to record sensations and feelings experienced by
the individual. By the same token, it may be able to transmit messages from the
computer via the chip to the person’s brain allowing them to experience
sensations at the press of a button. The use of this technology outside of
medicine is many years away, but its very existence opens up all sorts of
possibilities for learning. Could sales staff on a motivational training course
experience the high of clinching a deal through a tiny chip inside their
bodies? Will chip technology develop to a stage when information can be
transmitted directly into your brain from a computer? It sounds like sci-fi but
some experts believe it will become reality.

By Isabel Choat

Thanks to Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University;
Richard Scase, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Kent;
Dr Andrew Pember, manager learning networks at BAe Systems; Ed Gonsalvez,
research associate Open University Business School; Geoff Crook, director of
the sensory design research laboratory at Central St Martins; Graham Whitehead,
advanced concepts manager at BT; and Chris Yapp, fellow for lifelong learning
at ICL

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