Training plays a vital part
in maintaining business assets, but is often
neglected. Online courses can change this, writes
It has become a cliché for company chairmen and managing directors to say that their best assets are their people. And although, in the majority of cases it is a truism, it is also the case that as assets go, people are not very well maintained.
With customers' needs changing at an ever increasing rate, companies should be adapting faster and faster to keep up. And that means that they should be continually retraining their key staff, especially in IT fields where operating systems, platforms, networks and applications are changing each year. However, a recent survey of 100 staff and management in the UK showed that on average they each had only one day's training each year.
Several reasons have been cited for why training lags behind business requirements, and they are mainly problems with traditional classroom training. Most companies are reluctant to have key employees away from their workplace for three to five days at a time to attend courses. There is also the problem that the dates on which courses are run are not necessarily convenient.
For large organisations there are also the problems brought about by the logistics of organising training across several sites. (See Case Study - NETg at Halifax plc.) Finally there is cost - it can cost almost as much to send someone away to attend a course as it can for the course itself.
With this background it is no wonder that more and more companies are turning to online training. Although it is still a small part of the training market (3% to 5% of a $300 billion market, according to one vendor, Saba) it is the fastest growing segment. There are many good reasons for this.
Benefits of Online Training
Online courses can be accessed over the Internet or company intranet using a standard PC and browser on a 24x7x52 basis. Most companies using them have reported that employees access them when there are lulls in their daily routines. For example, a favourite time is during lunch breaks or when they have a spare 10 or 15 minutes. Other employees access them from home after work, from a hotel room or when waiting at an airport. This flexibility benefits both the employer, who has normal access to the employee while the training is happening, and the employee, who can break a long training course down into more manageable chunks, starting when he is ready and stopping when he has had enough.
Research has also shown that online training can lead to a higher retention of information than traditional classroom methods. There are many reasons for this. For example, the use of simulations to walk the learner through problems has been shown to retention by up to 30%. Also the fact that online training can be scheduled to take place immediately prior to when the skill is needed means that the new skill is reinforced rather than forgotten. This contrasts with classroom training where courses might only run infrequently and anything that was learned is forgotten before it can be used.
The Whole Picture
It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that online training is simply the part where someone sits in front of a computer monitor and works his way through course content. However it is much more than this. Several of the leading online training vendors offer products and services to cover all the stages involved in learning (See Profile - Saba and Training Management): pre-training assessment, courseware selection, training management, post-training analysis, and courseware authoring.
Companies considering online training should investigate all the stages involved. Because to get the real benefits you need to manage the training. After all, it is only through proper management that companies will be able to train their employees effectively and keep corporate knowledge up to date.
For training to be relevant to an organisation, it has to map into its business plan and its employee structure. This means that employees should take part in a pre-training assessment to determine what skills they already have. Comparing these results with the skills required for their present or future posts will indicate any training gaps. "The process of looking at the pre-assessment results is conducted partly online and partly via a tutor or mentor," says click2learn's European technical director Mark Stimson. "It not only benefits the employer, it also benefits the end user by putting him more in control of his own learning and allowing him to pick the delivery methods that best suit his own needs."
Pre-training assessments can also be used to shorten the length of a course. There is little point in someone being made to sit through parts of a course that he is already familiar with. This is another area where online training scores over classrooms. For example Excel classroom courses would typically only be available in Beginners, Intermediate or Advanced levels - i.e. the granularity of the courses can be very crude. They would typically also have to cater for the lowest common denominator and cover material that may already be familiar to some of the course attendees.
"With online training," said NETg's global director of marketing, Pam Burton, "What you already know can be configured out. A eight hour course could end up at four hours because all the topics that you are familiar with can be skipped."
How good a match there is between what you know and what can be removed depends on the granularity of the course. "Typically an eight hour course will consist of a number of units, which are then split into lessons, each of which is made up from a number of topics or NLOs (NETg Learning Objects)." explained Burton. "There could be 100 NLOs in a course, and course content can be configured out on an NLO basis."
Sourcing the Training
Once you know what your training needs are, you next have to find your course. One company that specialises in putting people in touch with training is Saba. "We don't sell any courses as such," said Saba's VP of marketing, David Martin. "We help each individual to figure out what knowledge they need and what they have. Then we work out how best to fill any gaps."
And the need for training doesn't just apply to a company's employee base. "We can analyse not only the needs of a company but also the needs of the company's extended enterprise - the suppliers, the dealers and the customers," explained Martin. "For example the extended enterprise of Ford is 375,000 employees, 315,000 of which work for dealers. These could be as different as sales employees or service technicians each with his own needs."
Quality of Training
It is very easy to assume that because online training is delivered over the Internet, intranet or CD-ROM on to a shiny multimedia PC it will be good training. Not so. "You can't assume that because it is online it is effective," says NETg's Burton. "Some examples of online content are simply page turners. At NETg we focus on good learning content. We have produced software to allow users to measure how 'alive' their training software is, i.e. to determine its 'pulse' and to be able to make comparisons between different courseware offerings."
NETg's software is called, not surprisingly, ECG. It measures the levels of engagement between the courseware and the trainee, and presents the results in a format similar to a medical ECG heartbeat chart. It was developed by an R&D team led by NETg's VP of research and development, James L'Allier. "If courses do not teach, they have no value," said L'Allier. "Effective courses must include strong structural design and architecture, high levels of interactivity, use of simulations and the opportunity for feedback."
Another NETg tool, Skill Vantage Manager, can be used to assess the effectiveness of a course by monitoring, for example, how many people took the course, how many passed, how people fared in the pre- and post-assessment tests, etc. "Without tools such as SVM you have to rely on the 'classroom smile sheet' which does little more than ask 'Was it fun?'" says Burton.
After the course has been run a post-training assessment of each individual will determine whether or not the training has achieved its aims. This can take the same form as the pre-training analysis. Not only will it measure how effective the training was, it should also be used to highlight areas that need to be improved, either because of ineffective training, or possibly because the goalposts have moved since the initial pre-training assessment.
One of the misconceptions about online training is that it is a sterile environment, where a soulless computer delivers training content and then abandons the trainee afterwards leaving him unable to ask questions or clarify points. In fact nothing could be further from the truth.
"Individuals are assigned mentors," says relative newcomer BlueU's managing director Ian Clague, "Who's job it is to guide them through the course. In addition each course has a tutor to answer questions."
This approach of backing up the online training with an offline tutor is common to most vendors. For example, NETg has a partnership with Knowledge Pool (formerly part of ICL) who provides the tutoring, primarily for Microsoft courseware. Questions are usually presented to tutors by email, and companies can buy different grades of response.
Knowledge Capture and Authoring
Another way that employees can get more from the training experience is by participating in a learning group. This can simply be exchanging emails with others who have taken the course or it could be by other means, such as threaded discussion groups, chat rooms, etc. Companies can decide whether or not these discussions should be world wide or restricted to within their own intranet.
"Threaded discussion groups are an effective way for the capture and dissemination of tacit knowledge," says BlueU's Clague. "They can be used in a similar way to the push technology used in corporate portals, so that important information on key topics in the discussion group can be directed to those who have an interest."
As well as delivering content, one vendor hopes to make it easier to capture knowledge by making it easier to create courseware. One of the barriers to extracting tacit knowledge has always been the difficulty in expressing it. Click2learn (formerly Asymetrix) expects its online authoring tools will break down these barriers.
Click2learn's courseware and authoring tools take advantage of the functionality to be found in most browsers, e.g. drag and drop, layers, and dynamic content. "Now anyone can do it," says Stimson. "Imagine how effective the ease of expression can be in a corporate scenario. As a parallel, look at how quickly websites multiplied once development tools became freely available and easy to use."
The Hosting Portal
The final choice companies have to make in going online with training is where to host the courseware. This will depend on a number of factors, including the company's security policy. Most of the online training software can reside as easily on an intranet as the Internet. However using an intranet can remove the availability of the software to employees wanting to access it from their homes.
Accessibility is seen by some customers as not simply an issue of internet security. "Credite Suisse has an open policy on learning," says NETg's Burton. "Employees are encouraged to learn, even if the skills are not job-related. It increases motivation and leads to higher staff retention."
Click2learn provides click2learn.com as a hosting solution not only for their own courseware that they sell there, but also for third party solutions. They will also advise customers on all aspects of the complete training infrastructure including corporate portals.
While it still only occupies a small percentage of the overall training market, there is little doubt that online training will capture a larger share: growth rates of anything between 150% and 200% are being suggested. However, paralleling the adoption of Internet technology, the UK is still lagging the US in the uptake of this new medium.
Potential users of online training should not simply look for the benefits in the training itself, but in the whole package, including the decision support tools and the management software, which all contribute to helping companies keep up to date with their customers' requirements.
Case study: NETg at Halifax PLC
Halifax is the UK's third largest bank, employing 36,000 staff and serving 20 million customers with savings products, mortgages, loans and share dealing. It has a large in-house IT department spread over six sites. "Originally we were one site as part of the Leeds Building Society before we merged with the Halifax (Building Society)," says Halifax's technical training officer Sarah Russell. "We had been using CD-ROMs from NETg to deliver training. But when, after the merger, we were spread across six sites, it became impossible to keep track of the courses. People wouldn't send the CD-ROMs back, or would request a course urgently."
The solution was to move to Internet-based training. "This provided a significant logistical benefit to the organisation. We also wanted to offer a broader range of training and to take advantage of new features such as NETg's Skill Vantage Manager (SVM)."
SVM is NETg's measurement tool that enables employers to track student's progress and produce usage reports. Companies such as Halifax can quickly identify skills gaps and consequently develop workshops and promotions on specific courses that employees need to take.
Individual training requirements are determined from a competency framework. Each person has a generic job description that defines the competency levels they need to progress, and they can use the framework to see what courses they need to take for the next step.
One advantage of online training is that they don't have to be completed at one sitting. "The online training covers core technologies used within Halifax, including NT, Visual Basic and Oracle. We find that employees don't just follow the courses from start to finish," said Russell. "Some might use 25% of a course to help them meet the pre-course requirements for another training course, or use the software for help after the course. They like NETg's courses because of the level of granularity and flexibility they offer."
Last year the employees covered by the online training scheme averaged eight days training. "This year we are expanding the scheme to cover other departments in Edinburgh, Birmingham and Bristol," said Russell, "increasing the number of employees with access to online training from 1400 to 2000."
Profile: SABA and Training Management
Saba is a leading provider of business-to-business learning networks that connect people to learning over the Internet. Saba doesn't sell courseware, but provides companies with software to help them identify their training needs and to put them in touch with the training that will satisfy those needs. It also provides software to enable companies to manage their training, from start to finish.
"There are five basic steps in managing training," says David Martin. "These are Targeting, Assessing, Planning, Learning, and Improving." Targeting looks at where you want to be and what is the required knowledge in that rÛle. For example it could be that you want to be the best sales rep. The next step is Assessment. This in turn can be broken down into five different methods of determining the training needs. These are Testing (which can be pre-, post- or delayed post-training tests), Self-Assessment, Manager Assessment, Multi-reader (or 360 degree feedback) and finally Learning Completion (i.e. did I get to the goal level that I was aiming for).
Training planning is the third step in the sequence. This involves looking at the training catalogue and determining the training that best fills the gap for each individual. Part of the planning is deciding how best to deliver the training (classroom, book, CD-ROM, Internet) and when the training should happen (now, three months from now, etc).
The fourth step is the training itself, followed by the fifth step, Improving. This is similar to the Assessment step, but with the question "Did I learn anything?"
"Training is a continuous process," said Martin, "And more and more companies are realising that to stay competitive their people must be continually learning."
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