The word ‘e-learning’ used to conjure up images of a bored looking employee sitting at a desk, dutifully going through an online training module that offered no interactivity or discussion, simply a series of multiple-choice answers.
The emergence of mobile devices such as smartphones and the use of social media platforms are transforming how e-learning is being delivered in organisations. Dixons Retail and Virgin Media (see case study, p25) are just two examples of companies that are taking a pioneering approach to their staff development.
Research company Towards Maturity’s 2011 Benchmark Study, which surveyed learning and development specialists from 600 organisations, found that a growing number believe technology can help their businesses become more agile, release new products faster, respond to organisational change and share good practice across departments.
E-learning has become anything that is educational and linked to electronic devices, says Charles Elvin, chief executive of the Institute of Leadership & Management. “Webinars and discussion forums on Twitter all come under e-learning if they add to information and knowledge through electronic means. I think there has been a huge transformation about what e-learning can do in different forms.”
Organisations must do an audit of whether they need to buy e-learning products. If doing it in-house, they need to ensure they have the skills to deliver the training
The e-learning environment has indeed changed dramatically since the late 1990s, says Paul Matthews, founder of leadership and management development firm People Alchemy. “Traditionally, it was computer-based training with a CD. Then the bandwidth increased and organisations were able to put videos on employees’ desktops. There was a lot of dire e-learning in the 1990s when organisations took classroom content and structure and put it online. When hearing the word ‘e-learning’, many people still think of module-based kit.”
However, only a minority of organisations have incorporated social media platforms, mobile applications and virtual classrooms into their learning management systems. According to a report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2011, Focus on e-learning, only 20% of organisations in the UK used webinars and virtual classrooms and only 3% provided mobile learning via smartphones.
Virtual learning environments – platforms that combine blended learning with knowledge management systems – were only used by 6% of organisations, while a third used blended learning programmes where a variety of learning methods are combined with online content. These include face-to-face learning, action learning sets, project-based learning and other approaches such as coaching and mentoring.
Social media tools can harness the knowledge of employees inside an organisation, says Matthews: “You used to have knowledge management systems where organisations stored databases full of information, but what was important was the conversations that went with the database. This is why the social media way of doing knowledge management is useful.”
Using social media tools can also support the performance of an employee in real time, adds Matthews. “It’s about supporting the person in their actions so they are capable and ready to do the job. This involves making content available so people can reach out and grab it, and then they can share what works and what doesn’t. The days of page-turning online are shrinking, but they are not completely gone due to the need for compliance training.”
The use of social media platforms in e-learning means that employees can generate their own content to solve problems or improve their performance in an organisation. An innovative example of the latter was demonstrated by electrical goods firm Dixons Retail, which used e-learning company Fusion Universal’s Fuse platform, a completely secure social media platform that enables video content to be created, shared and rated by employees within an organisation.
Technology is great, but as the scale and reach of it increases, you need to be mindful about how you use e-learning.
Boyd Glover, the former head of learning at Dixons Retail, was responsible for introducing this type of e-learning into the organisation. “We brought a learning management system for compliance reasons,” he says. “I decided to leverage and build a different learning strategy.” One of the e-learning pilots involved using the Fuse platform for its sales force, explains Glover. “One of the pilots was opening the system up for staff to create their own content. We asked them to show us how they would sell their own laptop. We had hundreds of sales staff create video content and 500 videos were uploaded onto the system. The videos were on how to sell a range of laptops and its benefits. Out of the 1,200 sales staff, almost 50% set up an account and created content.”
The bottom-line impact of this type of e-learning was that the stores which participated in the early pilots increased their average retail laptop price by 30% compared with those who did not, says Glover. “What was interesting was that we saw a difference in laptops being sold. Generally speaking, sales staff were selling laptops with a higher retail value. It was very fruitful knowing that people sold more because they got involved in the videos.”
However, the emergence of user-generated content through social media platforms creates challenges as well as opportunities for organisations. “User-generated content is difficult to control in a learning environment,” says Elvin. “Technology enables learning to happen, but one challenge is how to make that effective inside the organisation. Some companies restrict usage to certain communities that have access to creating content, for example, and only make social media platforms available to employees in sales.”
Another challenge presented by user-generated content is the validity of the source of learning, adds Elvin. “In the e-learning environment this becomes even more important as a lot of people believe they are an expert in a particular topic. The self-proclaimed expert is one of the greatest risks in an open-forum environment, which is why many organisations have closed environments. However, the ability to generate content and have a dialogue about it is incredibly valuable and this wasn’t even possible 10 to 15 years ago.”
One clear trend in e-learning is the increasing use of mobile and smartphone technology, says Vincent Belliveau, senior vice president of Cornerstone OnDemand, a provider of cloud-based talent management software. “You can video some learning on your mobile and share it using social media tools, and it can then be rated by other employees,” he says.
It’s tempting to see all these new technologies and how they can transform learning as a panacea for an organisation’s training needs. But there are challenges facing organisations that embrace the latest trends in e-learning. The CIPD report showed some worrying trends among UK organisations in terms of implementation and the impact of e-learning. These included a low completion rate for courses, poor user experience and the fact that many firms are focusing only on the economic benefits of deploying e-learning.
The report also found that e-learning often focused on compliance issues such as health and safety, financial services skills and the induction of new employees – and the cost of poor training in these areas can be considerable.
“It’s easy to be seduced by technology,” says Dr John McGurk, learning and talent development adviser at CIPD. “Technology is great, but as the scale and reach of it increases, you need to be mindful about how you use e-learning. Organisations must do an audit of whether they need to buy e-learning products. If doing it in-house, they need to ensure they have the skills to deliver the training or they may need to recruit the skill set to design it.”
One of the challenges presented by e-learning is how to make it relevant for the employee, says Elvin. “Learning is about the application of knowledge and that is the big challenge around e-learning: how to make it relevant and appropriate so people use it correctly in their organisation. It’s not enough to be shown one thing and think you know it.”
Elvin is quick to point out that e-learning should be used as part of an integrated approach with other types of learning, such as face-to-face training: “Organisations need to know how to use the tools in the right way for the right purpose and inter-mix them.”
E-learning tools give an organisation more options to use learning more appropriately, says Elvin. “The more tools you have, and the wider your understanding of how to use those tools, then the better chance your organisation has of making a difference to its performance.”