The difficulty is where to start. Companies putting together an e-learning strategy face a bewildering range of options, as training web portals spring up to cater for a burgeoning market. One approach is simply to type the company’s needs into a search engine, download some training materials and get started straightaway.
However, while this may usefully fill a gap in some cases, it is unlikely to prove an effective long-term strategy. Experts argue that organisations are too easily attracted to solutions that seem easy and inexpensive but mask unseen pitfalls. Unless applied with careful thought, they say, on-line training can be shallow and unworkable, leading to a loss of credibility for HR.
For instance, e-learning appears to make training opportunities widely available, but this will not happen if no effort is made to motivate staff to use it.
“Five years ago HR managers were persuaded by content suppliers to set up a learning centre, which in many cases simply involved painting an empty stockroom and putting in a PC. But too often it was just left empty,” says Paul Butler, CEO of KnowledgePool.
And HR managers can be seduced by features that on closer examination offer less than they promise. For example, a built-in evaluation mechanism often amounts to no more than a report of how many pages the individual has accessed, which falls far short of a complete learning record. “These flawed models are easy for e-learning charlatans to set up and are apparently attractive to the HR community,” Butler comments.
One of the first tasks is to establish that the Internet is actually the appropriate medium for the job. Scale will be an issue: the more widely the training is to be accessed throughout the organisation, the more economic it is likely to be, especially if the necessary hardware infrastructure is already in place.
Beyond that, decisions have to be made about the suitability of e-learning for the topic. Clearly it is ideal for teaching IT application skills, because users are able to practise on the same medium they use for learning. And where the emphasis is on transferring knowledge, such as product information, a well-designed course – ideally with an entertaining and interactive element – is likely to be appropriate.
Less obvious content would be management and customer-facing skills, although in many cases interactivity and on-line support can provide the elements that enable individuals to learn. KnowledgePool offers a number of courses in topics such as leadership and team development that teach skills through the use of simulations and case studies.
Among the growing number of companies using e-learning for this purpose is House of Fraser, which has been trialling on-line management skills. And a supermarket chain supplied by Xebec McGraw-Hill has introduced modules for presentation skills, with training on such matters as how to understand the audience, speak with confidence and handle the technology effectively.
Tim Drewitt, senior flexible learning consultant at Xebec, concedes that at senior levels on-line training would require a more personal approach that includes video feedback on individuals’ performance. But that can easily be supplied around the e-learning, for instance with a one-day workshop.
“The key is an integrated mix and match that makes the on-line element come alive,” says Drewitt.
Where the need is to provide self-development opportunities, e-learning is likely to prove an ideal solution. For example, Aon Risk Services, one of the UK’s largest insurance brokers with 3,000 employees, has recently introduced on-line tutorials that enable users to evaluate their own performance levels and management to assess skill resources. According to associate director Roger Harrison, the aim is to nurture a culture of learning to achieve higher standards.
Addressing different needs
To be successful, e-learning should address different needs, Harrison argues, in this case offering support for those who need business information and those who are studying for specific qualifications, as well as providing a general information databank.
The next step is to ensure that the business objectives are fully established and the training messages align with company strategy. It is also essential to ensure that everyone in the organisation is behind the training.
Besides senior executives this includes the line managers, whose employees will be working at desktops, and the IT department that will be responsible for ensuring it works. The users also need to be motivated, otherwise the effort will be wasted.
These are tasks that the HR manager will need to initiate, but when it comes to choosing the right package external consultancy will often be advisable. In many cases the vendor itself will be able to identify pitfalls and ensure a close match between the objectives and the solution.
From its own experience, Aon Risk Services recommends the organisation finds a supplier it can work with over an extended period. “It’s not a short-term fix, so ensure that you build a relationship with someone that will take care of your interests in the long term,” says Harrison.
But care needs to be taken when choosing a consultancy. “Look for companies with a proven track record in producing interactive learning, not just those who have recently jumped on the e-anything bandwagon,” advises Helen Watts, training technology manager at the Unicorn Training Partnership, which supplied the Aon project.
Established vendors with a track record are the best placed to offer consultancy, Watts argues. “No-one yet has a wealth of experience in producing Web-based training, so the best bet is likely to be an experienced supplier of technology-based training who has acquired the necessary skills to migrate to the Web.”
Where a consultant can be especially useful is ensuring that the organisation’s technology platform will be able to handle the proposed course. But HR should not assume external advisers will automatically have all the information they need. Unicorn once developed material for a bespoke intranet course before discovering that staff in the company’s call centre worked with a different system so would not be able to access it.
A chief criticism that vendors have of their on-line rivals is for selling sophisticated page-turning exercises that fail to hold users’ interest. So any off-the-peg course should be checked for the degree of interactive content, and the use of video and animation. NETg provides a free software tool that does this automatically, while vendors such as Xebec McGraw-Hill and Epic Group publish guidelines to help managers make informed decisions.
“You have to draw people in and get them involved,” says Ian Farringdon, business development director at Epic Group. “We aim to break the course down into learning objects, which includes hooks such as animation to emphasise a learning point. Users will be asked to practise by entering data and will be prompted with examples and reminders until they are confident they understand it.”
If the aim is to use existing courses, research is needed to find out what resources are available and how they can be adapted for the organisation’s specific needs. Off-the-shelf systems can be used as a starting point, and Farringdon says Epic often proposes existing courses as a template for a semi-tailored solution.
Another consideration is to ensure the course fulfils the user’s own objectives, as well as those of the organisation. “We would strongly recommend that it is a personalised experience,” says Laura Overton, global programmes manager at SmartForce.
“Instead of telling employees this is the only learning they are allowed, take the opportunity to show that you are interested in their development by reflecting their individual preferences.”
Smartforce uses one-to-one customisation technology that tags every element of the learning content to help students focus on their personal needs. The ability to update rapidly helps here, as when users log on they can be offered new items that are relevant to them, underscoring the sense of personal experience.
Perhaps the most exciting advance offered by e-learning is its ability to provide mentoring support. At its simplest this consists of e-mail links with a tutor. But students can also get involved in “threaded” newsgroup discussions, posting up a comment or query on a bulletin board and then reading off the contributions that other members of the class might make.
Support that vendors term “synchronous” is provided by chat rooms, where the tutor can make real-time replies to class queries during a scheduled period.
“Having round-the-clock opportunities to chat and ask questions helps HR manage its resource, especially in companies where the training function is reduced and they have to do more with less,” Overton says.
However, thought will need to be given to how this support will work in practice, and its impact on the role of HR and trainers themselves.
It may be necessary to learn new skills, such as how to stimulate conversation in the newsgroup and use e-mail appropriately. HR will also need to anticipate users’ expectations and set service standards about the extent and speed of responses to queries.
Providing this human element is perhaps the key to making e-learning work. “Don’t get blown away by the technology and forget all good HR practice,” advises Overton. “The Internet offers vast opportunities for learning that meets lots of different styles. Be aware of all the different ways it can help – don’t just to use it to do the same thing in a different way.”