Bennett began looking at e-learning in earnest when she was asked to develop a leadership management programme in 1999. The 18-month scheme, entitled Management Education Development and Leadership (MEDAL), is targeted at three types of managers, from first-line managers through middle managers to senior executives.
To support the programmes mix of face-to-face live events and online individual and team-based work, the organisation developed a virtual campus, in conjunction with the e-learning consultancy, eLearnity, and the management-development training provider, Clearworth. Part of the campus infrastructure is a virtual classroom product, Centra Symposium, which allows delegates to take part in real-time discussions with fellow students or in a one-to-one session with an expert based anywhere across the globe.
The campus also allows the firms directors to contribute to staff development. Bennett gives as an example the Managing Strategy module. When we came to look at this, we asked our marketing director to get involved. He posed some questions and a case study on the site, which started a discussion going. Then, he came to the face-to-face session and we spent a couple of hours debating the material.
This ability to allow students to work on material at their own pace before attending a live course was an important factor in the decision to use e-learning. As Bennett explains: One of the things that took us in the e-learning direction, particularly when looking at the senior management group, was the time factor. Time away from the business is critical, so we had to be careful with the number of days out during a year.
We also wanted to maximise the work we did face-to-face, such as behavioural coaching. So we looked for the technology that would give us the ability to do the research and start discussions prior to attending the courses.
However, while Bennett believes that the use of technology has enabled the firm to develop a state-of-the-art programme, she advises organisations not to be seduced by IT: While we need to keep abreast of whats going on in the technology world, we have to be careful that we are not lured into IT for ITs sake, she says.
Our Open Learning initiative was born at a time when ScottishPower staff were being asked to change at an inordinate rate, says Paul McKelvie, director of ScottishPower Learning, the second of our organisations that have embraced e-learning. Learning really started to move up the business agenda because if you can help your employees develop the ability to learn, then youve got a workforce that is as able to cope with change as your competitors.
This realisation now underpins the energy suppliers staff-development philosophy. In fact, the company, which has 15,000 employees working in such geographically and commercially diverse businesses as ManWeb, Southern Water and US-based PacifiCorp, has created a single learning organisation to deliver its Open Learning programme.
This programme aims to provide traditional classroom courses alongside a range of e-learning material, which is delivered via training provider NETgs Xtreme Learning portal. Employees can access a catalogue containing details of all the courses on offer, such as online training, videos and CDs, from any desktop in the company. After discussing with their line manager if the training should take place during the day or in their free time, staff can take a course at their desks or visit an Open Learning centre for more in-depth training.
McKelvie believes that senior managers are committed to the concept because they can see significant gains that reinforce their broader business strategy. The benefits for the business of offering a wider range of learning is that you attract better people and existing staff become more motivated, he says.
However, are staff on the front line, such as line managers, harder to convince of the benefits of the initiative? McKelvie doesnt think so: Open Learning works flexibly with the businesses, and the employee and their line manager negotiate the timing of any training that is not in a member of staffs training plans. So I dont think there is a resistance from managers to the concept of offering a range of learning to our people.
Another of the key drivers for the programme was the possibility of enhancing the image of learning. McKelvie explains: E-learning enables us to offer training in IT and customer service, for example, but we also provide courses in subjects such as French or bricklaying. This creates an environment where learning is more easily accepted because its not something that is viewed as a punishment.
One of the problems with the way learning is done in most companies, he believes, is that, very often, people only get learning opportunities when theyre bad at things. In the eyes of the learner, learning becomes a punishment for poor performance rather than encouragement for them to be all they can be.
However, if you offer a broader range of training that is both vocational and personal, he adds, then this turns the tide and allows learning to be something that is positive for the individual. And McKelvie doesnt believe that, by offering a broader range of training, staff could develop training fatigue. Its rubbish to worry that because someone has got to learn PowerPoint, Word and Excel together, for instance, they can become all learned out.
'Its about relevance and context. So someone could be doing quite a lot of development to support their job, but also learning things for their personal life. And the two wont overlap. The only constraint on learning is the time you have.
To help in this crusade, McKelvie and his team are transforming the way courses are made available to the workforce. Theyve hit upon using the desktop approach to take learning to the learner rather than the other way around. And, its a strategy that appears to be working as, this year, ScottishPower has seen the number of courses started rise by 40%, with the vast majority of the training undertaken at the desktop, according to McKelvie.
If youre going to take learning to the learner, he states, people need to be able to study at their desks or in an environment where the training is being delivered to them. Thats where technology comes in because traditional learning methods wouldnt be able to deliver this.
For instance, until last year, health and safety training in the companys power station business was conducted off-site by a consultant. However, the firm has developed a two-hour online course and test which is delivered at an on-site training centre. This has saved the company around 50,000, and the learning takes less time to complete.
For McKelvie, though, cost savings are an added bonus rather than an imperative for the e-learning programme. It is very hard to prove that by offering online courses in French, for example, the companys profits have improved,' he says. I can explain why that should be the case but I cant say that because a member of staff has completed an online intermediary course in French their business unit is more profitable than before. In fact, its impossible to say that for any training which is not technical in nature.
However, both ScottishPower and Pfizer have seen a welcome side effect from adopting e-learning. McKelvie explains that, by using e-learning, staff can learn about IT. Theres no doubt that the use of technology in business isnt going to diminish. We need to understand that we can help people learn more than just the content.
Bennett agrees: Theres all this technology out there, so we wanted to look at a way to maximise the use of IT. We wanted e-learning to become a tool in itself as well as mechanism for providing training.
But both are keen to stress that e-learning is only one tool in their staff-development kitbag. In McKelvies view: If you use e-learning as part of a mix, you have a solution that takes the best mechanisms you have at your disposal to create a better one than any single channel could offer.
Bennett concurs. She believes it is the balance between the face-to-face events and the online material that has made the MEDAL programme work. I really like the idea that we can build up a momentum on the campus, so that when managers do spend time together everyone is at a certain level of knowledge and understanding.
In addition, blending learning in this way takes into account the hectic nature of many peoples working lives, and offers them the opportunity to find snippets of time to undertake training. Clive Hook, a director of Clearworth, explains: One benefit of blended learning is that it is a flexible medium and it can be key for people, who dont have large amounts of free time. This approach allows them to dip in and out.
Blended learning is the medium that has been adopted by the final organisation in our triumvirate of e-learning success stories the Royal Bank of Scotland. Brian McLaren, head of training and online learning at the bank, says: Blended learning has allowed us to increase the amount of choice available to staff.
This blending extends to the type of material available to the banks 90,000-plus employees working in more than 2,000 UK and Irish branches. For instance, staff can access generic online material, such as NETgs Microsoft end-user courses, via the corporate intranet, while individual business unit employees can dip into bespoke, job-specific content. Finally, learning can take place at the desktop or in internet cafs at offices in London and Edinburgh.
Its obviously a strategy that works, as McLarens department saved the bank 359,000 last year in IT staff training costs alone. Cost savings were not the reason for the project, but they were a lever, he says. They gave the training department a mandate to build the e-learning network. And we have not cut the amount we spend on training since we introduced e-learning, we have simply increased the amount of training business units were getting for their money.
Building the learning network has been of prime importance for the success of the project. The department has become more of a consultant to the business, states McLaren, and we are looking into how we provide learning to ensure that it is flexible for different needs.
This idea of a network chimes with ScottishPowers plans for the future. According to McKelvie: Were developing a framework that will look at maximising the value of e-learning to the organisation. By working with the businesses, we can identify how e-learning can improve the quality of training. For instance, we are working with Southern Water to develop an e-learning course on VDU assessment. This is meeting a training need that, previously, the business was finding almost impossible.
However, in a time of budgets being capped and even slashed, is McKelvie confident that he can build on the successes so far? When asked if the budget for e-learning was safe, he was adamant that, There are no plans in ScottishPower to cut back on the cost of developing people. I know training budgets look like easy costs to cut, he continues, but you wouldnt cut back on looking after your other capital assets when moneys tight, so why cut back on the cost of your most important capital asset?
This is espoused right from the top of the organisation, he continues, including the chief executive and the internal champion of Open Learning, Sandy Begbie, director of group organisation and leadership development, and it goes all the way down.
This spirit of internal co-operation is apparent in all three organisations. When asked who was the best person to take an e-learning programme forward, the overwhelming consensus was that the only way to make it work was via a coalition.
McLaren echoes the views of McKelvie and Bennett, when he states: While the implementation rests with IT, responsibility for the project should lie with the HR function. How you get people to access learning is an HR activity and IT has to support that.
Hook agrees: Part of the problem in the past is that e-learning has been about the technology and not the learning. So I would expect to see a coalition between the person with the most responsibility for learning within an organisation the chief operating officer, who should be questioning its relevance to the business and IT.
In the end, its got to be about developing the capabilities of the organisation, he concludes. So it needs to have a board-level sponsor and a board-level connection.
Donna Murphy is editor of IT Training magazine