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Employers have long understood the importance of continually developing their staff – both in terms of professional development of the individual and also to improve team and organisational performance and productivity.
However, while employee development is a key investment, it does require funding and resources, and it can be one of the expenditures that become vulnerable as businesses attempt to trim their budgets.
So, how much has the current economic climate affected businesses’ commitment to training, and are they sufficiently aware that e-learning is an affordable way of developing employees?
Private and public sector organisations in the UK spend £37 billion per year training their staff, according to the Learning and Skills Council’s national employers skills survey 2008, which shows that money was still being spent even when the world’s financial infrastructure was in meltdown.
“It’s absolutely critical to train staff,” says Dr John McGurk, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development adviser on learning and talent. “There is a perception some have that training should be cut but we have to build capabilities for the future. Even if you get rid of 30% of staff you’ve still got 70% there and they often have to take on new challenges.”
“There is a good argument that a recession provides an opportunity to re-skill and up-skill the workforce, to be ready to take advantage of future improvement in market conditions, but in reality cost pressures often mean training budgets are cut,” says Peter Phillips, chairman of Unicorn Training. “However, the impact of reduced training budgets has actually had a positive impact on demand for e-learning in this recession, largely due to its ability to deliver training at lower cost.”
McGurk agrees: “We are beyond the days where every training solution involves an external price tag.”
And it isn’t just about cost. Ruth Spellman is chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, which has recommended that employers should look to online training and e-learning resources following research that found that 43% of managers anticipate that their training budgets will be cut again next year.
Spellman believes that e-learning can benefit three areas: knowledge, skills and networking.
“With knowledge, it can stimulate areas not covered in an everyday job, giving individuals a wider knowledge base,” she says, “whereas skills learning is finessing the skills you need, including things such as how to deal with office politics.”
Spellman believes that using e-tools has never been more important. “It’s very important, in the form of social networks, discussion groups, online dialog boxes on websites, getting involved in networks across the world.”
E-learning now includes webinars, video, interactive simulations and case studies, serious games and collaborative learning as well as more traditional linear courses.
“Ironically, the birth of the internet caused e-learning to take a giant step backwards,” says Phillips. “From delivering rich multimedia solutions on CD-ROM, we were faced with delivery via slow dial-up modems, with no audio or video and serious limitations even on the quality of static images.
“It has taken a long time for the bandwidth issues to be overcome and for us to get back to where we were at the start of the millennium in terms of e-learning quality and variety, but that point has now been reached and passed. At the same time, there has been a technological revolution. Open source, cloud computing, crowdsourcing, new web tools, social media and mobile platforms are all impacting on the future of e-learning. The days of ‘click next to continue’ are numbered.”
E-learning can also be used to accelerate and propel other traditional forms of employee training in a blended learning way.
One point that HR managers need to consider is whether or not there is a generation issue with e-learning. Are older workers going to be more reticent about embracing technology as an educational medium?
“When you’re talking about generational learning there are a lot of assumptions made,” says McGurk. “Neuroscience research tells us that digital native [younger] workers learn in a different way. However, our evidence is that, given the opportunity to learn through ‘e-tech’, older workers embrace it as much as the younger ones.”
In the same way, it may be assumed that traditional industries are lagging behind, but McGurk believes things are moving swiftly forward.
“E-tech is much more present in new media, with mobile learning and social networking,” he admits, “but the boundaries are blurring and engineering companies and retailers are using it as well.”
If there are concerns over using e-learning as a new, cheaper, more flexible development option, they surround issues such as isolation and the difficulty of evaluation. But these are being tackled by employers and software developers.
Employers, McGurk believes, are happy to supplement e-learning solutions with other, more traditional, forms. “When we ask what’s driving e-learning decisions, people say it isn’t about cost, it’s about the quality of leaning,” he says.
“That’s where wider issues of evaluation come in,” he continues, “and finding out how you use the skills. The answer is to have appraisals, coaching and mentoring. Get people to explain to others – build a project learning environment.”
“One feature of mainstream e-learning solutions is that they can include pre- and post-training assessments, to provide some objective measure of learning and retention. This is useful, but by their nature, these tests often measure knowledge retention, whereas the real measure is the ability to apply the learning in the workplace,” agrees Phillips.
“By designing e-learning experiences to focus on practical application, through scenarios and case studies, it is possible to get closer to measuring competence rather than compliance.
“But this will always be more difficult to measure, and in my view investment in learning, e- or otherwise, will always be, in part, a matter of faith.”