The wealth of e-learning options available seems overwhelming. But it need not be daunting, as Sally O’Reilly found
The Internet and intranets have been rapidly adopted as channels for delivering IT and technical training, yet soft skills development has proved more problematic. Few systems have the bandwidth necessary to stream audio and video material, and without these – most experts believe – it is difficult to get over the subtle messages about working with people.
The huge costs involved in creating bespoke leaning management systems means these are still mainly the preserve of large organisations. The market for these bespoke systems is dominated by companies such as Epic Group and Vega Skillchange.
"We supply tailored learning solutions that are delivered via company intranet, over the Internet or other digital channels," explains Lars Hyland, key accounts director with Epic Group. "So our clients tend to be large, bluechip organisations such as British Airways, The Royal Bank of Scotland, WorldCom and PricewaterhouseCoopers. We also serve public sector customers such as the Inland Revenue, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a number of local government bodies."
But Hyland believes the accessibility of e-learning is expanding as companies struggle to keep a lid on costs and maintain co-learning as a way to both to develop and deploy the expertise of staff.
"Too few training divisions within organisations use this powerful tool to justify the creation of learning solutions that will genuinely lead to improved business performance," he says. "The Royal Bank of Scotland is an admirable exception. It has proved that e-learning makes a significant difference, having already created a 7:1 return on its investment. With its takeover of NatWest, this learning content will be applicable to a much wider audience and yield even higher returns."
There are other signs that the market is broadening. Publishers such as Video Arts and Maxim Training have recently branched into generic e-learning materials which can be run on a corporate intranet, and newcomers like the web-based BlueU.com. are specialising solely in e-learning.
It seems that these days much smaller companies are seriously looking at adding e-learning to their training options, often via a portal leased from a supplier.
Gateway to web-based learning
The first decision is whether to opt for your own learning management system or access online learning via a portal, and use the learning management system offered by the portal provider. The portal acts as a gateway to web-based learning – although the available content will depend on which portal you use.
Broadly speaking, learning management systems are the more cost-effective option for larger companies with 500 employees or more. More than 60 different systems are currently available on the UK market. For smaller organisations, leasing a portal can be a more flexible option.
Exact definitions of what a "portal" is are hard to come by – US academic Ellitt Masie has a good guide at www.masie.com – but to get an idea, it is worth visiting the sites of two of the main portal providers in the UK – click2learn.com. and newcomer BlueU.com, which was set up in September last year. Both stress that they also provide a full service to clients when appropriate and are not in the business of simply hiring out a web-site or a search engine which will access unfiltered course material on the Web.
Mark Stimson, European technical director of click2learn, says the technology needn’t be daunting. "It is a matter of putting materials in a certain place, so that people can access them on the web," he says.
"Larger companies can also get their own private version of this, branded to look like the corporate intranet. But you could just go to click2learn and pay for the training you want with your credit card."
Managing director of BlueU.com Ian Clague stresses that his company can provide useful information to employers as well as making access to training materials easier for staff.
"We ask the individual user what the job role is for each individual, and the profiling of individuals is entered in advance – so it is clear what gaps they have in their learning," he says.
Linking with competencies
Tracey Drewett is managing director of Maxim Training which provides course material for a number of learning management systems, including Solstra. He makes the point that on-line learning shouldn’t mean abandoning existing training structures. "Linking with competencies is very important," he says.
"We have linked our training to the management NVQ, and we supply the University for Industry, which is committed to life-long learning."
Professor Keith Baker of the University of Reading’s department of computing, and a founder member of consultancy Network Knowledge Architects, which acts as a jargon-buster for companies planning to introduce web-based learning to staff, believes that making the right choice is getting easier as uniform standards are now being agreed.
"What HR managers need to be able to do is put together training packages tailor-made to the needs of their staff – and to do this they need to be able to use learning objects (or chunks of learning material) from different sources," he says. "Once the various standards bodies develop a standard, companies will be able to do this – and they will be able to ask whether course material is accredited or not."
Broken into chunks
The American Airline Consortium Committee (AICC) standard is already widely used for learning management systems, but although some suppliers have signed up to it, few are actually accredited, which should be the guarantee that a learning system will able to launch, monitor and analyse any piece of e-learning courseware.
BT subsidiary Solstra has signed up to the AICC standard. Marketing manager Mick Durham predicts that systems like Solstra will also affect the nature of training as well as the way it is delivered.
"It is difficult to absorb material delivered in a linear way – so our system breaks it up into chunks," he says. "And it can help prepare the ground for instructor-led training.
"Updating is also easier with web-based learning – you can pull out or add information without changing the whole package."
E-learning is a daunting new field, and even companies which invest in state-of-the-art e-learning products aren’t necessarily using them.
John Lowe, managing director of Video Arts, says his company has carried out research which shows that although UK firms spent between £15m and £18m on management training in the Internet market place last year, few have used it – either because of insufficient bandwidth, or because the product itself was too low grade.
- For a glimpse into the future world of learning, look out for Personnel Today’s special feature on 29 March.
Case study: TXU Europe (formerly Eastern Group)
Intranet brings access to just-in-time learning
Open learning manager Lance Spraggons says the company is taking this step only after careful consideration – and a planning and implementation process lasting just over a year.
"Now we have expanded, and staff are more dispersed, conventional classroom-based training is harder to deliver," he says. "We are supplementing this form of training with an intranet based system – but we are also surveying staff to find out what they think their training needs are."
The intranet will give all staff easy access to just-in-time learning, and forms part of a mixed economy of training. For instance, the system will act as a form of electronic library, allowing staff to borrow books or CD-Roms through it.
"People will also be able to assess their own skills and make their own judgements about the training they need – making their own gap analysis," he says. "It will give them greater personal responsibility for learning."
Spraggons believes the secret of introducing a successful learning management system is to plan carefully and include all the relevant players at every step. He has brought together in-house IT staff and representatives from three open learning suppliers, Ivy Software, Maxim Training and EBC, to make the partnership between course content and method of delivery work as effectively as possible.
But he sees winning staff over to the new system as the key to success. "We have got to get staff to see that open learning is just as rewarding as going on a course," he says. "And to do that you have to look at their preferred learning styles – open learning can be a very lonely experience."
His hope is that introducing a learning management system will help the company tailor learning to individuals, rather than make it a more impersonal experience for staff.