Shell’s demand for training is constant and is spread across 108 countries.
Could e-learning provide the flexibility the oil giant needs, as well as keep
coaching costs down? Sue Weekes reports
Industries don’t come much more competitive than the oil business. Recent
economic shifts in the energy industry have meant that companies have to
produce oil and gas against fluctuating prices while still providing innovative
technical solutions that can meet current and future environmental, health and
To keep in contention, major players have to stay in tune with rapid
technological development, as well as be reactive to changes in the worldwide
The Shell Exploration and Production division, one of five core business
units of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, is one such organisation and is heavily
reliant on technology to keep costs down and overcome the challenges posed by
such a volatile business environment.
The division, which is involved in every aspect of energy production from
searching for hydrocarbons to the delivery of oil and gas to refineries around
the world, employs more than 30,000 of Shell’s global workforce of 100,000
people in over 130 countries.
A consistent and continual programme of worldwide training is required if it
is to create and maintain the kind of fluid and highly skilled and
knowledgeable workforce that is required, but it is not always easy to
Budgetary and resource constraints have meant that Shell’s local managers
are often faced with the dilemma of sacrificing training for productivity and
Shell EP’s learning and education hub, the Shell Learning Centre in
Noordwijkerhout in the Netherlands, is responsible for training the company’s
global workforce in areas such as techncial competence, business leadership,
exploration and production and health and safety.
Around 90 per cent of Shell’s employees are local staff, so training a
workforce of 78 nationalities in over 108 countries can be fraught with
practical and logistical difficulties. Certainly delivering training from one
central point has become increasingly difficult.
Over a year ago, the team responsible for training at Shell decided that
traditional classroom-based training alone wasn’t sufficient to keep up with
the workforce’s needs. "We needed to look at ways of delivering a learning
system that could transcend those challenges," says Paul Wood, learning
technology team leader at Shell EP.
"The actual cost to employee productivity was only the tip of the
iceberg – a whole host of other issues propelled the drive to revolutionise the
way we delivered our learning programmes."
Shell EP needed a system that would ensure that employees around the world
could have equal access to the same high levels of training, no matter which
part of the organisation they work.
"Shell employs an incredibly diverse group of people across the globe
and we need to offer them the opportunities to get the most out of their
careers at Shell in terms of their personal and professional development,"
"In return, Shell benefits from one of the most skilled and motivated
workforces in the industry."
E-learning seemed to offer the potential to transform Shell’s existing
training programmes into a single, manageable global solution and the team at
the Shell Learning Centre developed a concept and a set of specifications in
order to achieve this.
Shell EP evaluated several e-learning systems and products and opted for a
solution from Docent Enterprise, a major provider of e-learning infrastructures
and services, which has its headquarters in California and has offices around
The Docent system offers a platform scalability and flexibility that it
wouldn’t find elsewhere. Wood says, "A prime consideration was Docent’s
open architecture, allowing Shell to introduce its own workflow, desired
features and look and feel. In addition, Docent was very supportive and
flexible during the consultancy phase."
Jan Vels Jensen, marketing director of EMEA for Docent, says Shell’s
implementation was very broad in its scope. "Shell has adapted the system
to suit its needs, probably more so than any other Docent customer," he
"Personalisation of each individual organisations needs is one of
Docent’s core competitive advantages. It’s very easy for any organisation to
get exactly what it needs from e-learning, mainly due to the fact that the
Docent system is 100 per cent web-based."
The Docent learning management system can be accessed anywhere in the world
at any time of day or night through Shell’s intranet. It runs on leased
hardware, which Shell EP pays for monthly, and it includes two powerful servers
which run the LMS via the Shell Website. The servers are each capable of
handling 10,000 simultaneous users.
Employees register themselves for the training via self-service tools, and
there is also online assessment. A post-test option ensures that Shell staff
are aware of meeting their personal objectives and those of the company.
Course content is a mixture of both existing and bought-in material. Shell
has 4,200 classroom hours of existing content which has been specifically
developed for their needs. It was mainly created in Microsoft Word and
Powerpoint and this is now being converted into Web-deliverable content.
"We can buy in commercially available content, but only if it can be
adapted to our needs," explains Wood.
"I see this as a way of saving on the content construction costs. As a
comparison, one can think of it as requiring 10 per cent effort to adapt
content, compared with 100 per cent to construct it, it really is a huge
One of the common problems facing a training manager who is implementing an
e-learning system is motivating the workforce to actually access the e-learning
program. Wood says that although the initiative represents a learning curve for
Shell EP, staff feedback is good and motivation to use it is not an issue
because they are giving the workforce the training they need and want.
"People at Shell want to do their job well and this system delivers
results quickly, so people are getting the benefits of e-learning fast.
"The pattern is that people learn a little, go off and do their job
where they can use the learning, and then come back having done the job and
learn the next steps to help them do an even better job," he says.
"We’re beginning to see exactly that happening with additional
performance being seen in jobs already."
But Shell EP did face its own set of problems. One of these stemmed from its
back office integration. It had changed its administration system and was planning
to install a SAP system.
It had already chosen the Docent LMS and wanted to stick with this, but had
to figure out how this could be integrated with the SAP back office function.
"In effect, we ended up doing a reverse functionality from the back
office into the LMS, which is now working fine – it was challenging but we
managed to stay on time and on budget," says Wood
The other main problem it had to get over was one of global technical
issues, with incompatibilities over browser and e-mail software.
It has now developed a standard Shell desktop built around Internet Explorer
and Windows 2000, which is used as a starting point to standardise desktops.
Return on investment
The question of when an organisation is expected to get a return on investment
from an e-learning programme is one that is frequently sidestepped by
Most ROI is based around processing and efficiency, but because Shell’s
workforce works fundamentally differently to this it makes it even more
difficult to measure ROI accurately. A decision made five years ago, for
instance, may only now be coming to fruition.
Despite this, Wood claims he will be seeing a return sooner rather than
later. Conventional cashback measures are easy in a business where even a 1 per
cent improvement in oil production can see revenues increase by $200m annually.
"However, we are training post-graduate engineers who can make just one
decision that may in fact provide payback for the whole e-learning system for
ever," he says.
"These employees make decisions that can cost hundreds if not billions
of dollars, so the potential cost savings and potential income benefits can be
"Shell is very much a learning company – we believe that learning is
crucial." (Shell actually tries to assess its competency levels five years
ahead and is currently pursuing research into new and improved ways of
Currently Shell EP has 4,000 registered users and the company predicts that
more than 10,000 employees will be using the programme over the next year.
E-learning is not something that organisations should undertake lightly,
says Wood, because he believes the technology isn’t yet understood by everyone
properly and people may well be disappointed by a lot of products available.
"You have to choose very carefully," he says. However, its own
programme is there for the long-term and with human capital widely considered
as the main differentiator in business today, he believes e-learning will help
employees constantly learn so that they become "too fast to follow".
"By offering a voluntary worldwide training programme in strategic
technical areas, our employees are able to develop portable skills that add
value to their personal development at no extra cost to the stakeholders,"
" I am convinced that e-learning is going to be key to the success of
our learning business in the coming years. It’s going to create opportunities
that we never before knew existed," he says.
Shell’s requirement A
scaleable training system that could be deployed globally to over 108 countries
and which ensured equal access and that the same high standards would be met
across Shell’s worldwide business. The system it chose had to allow integration
of Shell’s own course material and be flexible enough to adapt to rapid
technological change when it came to course content.
Why? Delivering advanced training from one central point
had become increasingly difficult. Additionally, budgetary and resource
constraints have meant that training has often had to be sacrificed for
productivity, and vice versa.
Is e-learning delivering? Shell EP currently has 4,000
registered users and expects that more than a third will be using the system in
a year’s time. Potentially, the ROI could come quicker than expected (given
that a 1 per cent improvement in oil production could see revenue increase by
Shell eps’ top tips
1 It will be far bigger and more
difficult than you imagine
2 It will cost a lot more than you expect, so budget carefully
3 It will use a lot more resources than you plan for, so make
sure you can handle it