And advances in technology mean that e-learning is not just the asynchronous, text-based studying at the computer screen that some people associate with the term, but stretches to virtual classrooms where participants interact with a tutor and each other in a collaborative, multimedia environment, using the Internet, extranets or intranets.
Pathlore Software, for example, claims to offer a learning management system that can manage all of an organisation’s training “out of the box”, allowing organisations to assess, plan, deliver, manage and improve all aspects of both self-paced and instructor-led learning processes.
And while e-learning is becoming established in the US, it is set for dramatic growth among European corporations, according to research firm IDC. Its latest report, Corporate eLearning Market Forecast and Analysis 2000, estimates that the European market will grow to $4bn by 2004, at a compound annual growth rate of 96%. IDC senior research analyst Sheila McGovern says that by 2004 over 50% of the total will be derived from IT-related training. The remainder will be made up of soft skills training, such as sales, marketing and leadership skills.
“E-learning is a particular issue for large companies with geographically dispersed workforces, from the point of view of updating content quickly and easily worldwide and also for convenience for employees to access learning, as and when required.” As such, she says, e-learning makes a lot of sense for professional services firms like consultancies.
Not surprisingly, many large consultancies are eyeing the market itself as a potential source of significant business. Both Accenture and Deloitte Consulting have teamed up with Docent, a provider of e-learning and knowledge exchange technology, to strengthen their e-learning offerings. Intellinex, Ernst & Young’s erstwhile internal training department, has been launched as a standalone business, and PwC’s Centre for Performance Improvement and Arthur Andersen’s Virtual Learning Network are also vying for business in the e-learning space.
But what of the consultancies themselves? Knowledge is their stock in trade and it is imperative that they keep it up to date.
Lawrence Whittle, vice president for e-learning applications provider Centra Europe, says: “Consultancies have been early adopters – they are so geographically dispersed that the value of e-learning for them is somewhat obvious.”
Centra, which started trading in 1997 and went public last year, has 450 corporate customers, including the likes of PwC, Accenture, Lloyds TSB, Siemens and Coca Cola. Its software allows “live e-learning” on the Internet, extranets or intranets, says Whittle. “People can register or be registered for an event, join the Internet address and take part in a multimedia live event, voiced through the Internet with video and shared applications, very much in terms of a virtual classroom environment,” he says.
Events can take a number of forms: self-service e-meetings, where colleagues discuss the status of a project; classical, highly interactive training in new products and procedures or soft skills such as management training; and large event broadcasts where messages about corporate vision or strategy can be communicated to staff, using interactive question and answer sessions.
When IT consultancy James Martin reengineered its business, renaming it Headstrong, for example, key executives used Centra’s product to broadcast to 80-100 people at a time about the new corporate vision, strategy and values, says Whittle. “Clearly, the company could have recorded a video and sent it out but the ability to be live and take questions was very useful.”
Another key advantage of the technology, he adds, is that all events can be recorded and edited and reused. “Users say 30% of use is in record and playback. Key pieces of a CEO presentation can be reused in another live event, for example. Such editing facilities cut the cost and time involved in creating a multimedia performance from scratch.”
Whittle says there is an growing market for smaller chunks of training and learning transfer. He cites an initiative from Insead. “The business school recognised the need to deliver executive learning – and that top managers can’t afford the time to go to Paris for it. Insead Online is a new service that recognises the challenges of business.”
The value proposition for e-learning falls into many areas, says Whittle. “Clearly the cost of training in terms of travel and accommodation is reduced through the use of a virtual environment. And whatever consultancies may say, their real business is to sell hours and to try to schedule events to fit multiple, busy people is very difficult. This sort of product gives a lot more flexibility.”
He adds: “For consultancy firms many collaborative experiences are typically only 1-2 hours long and wouldn’t merit the travel costs involved in face-to-face meetings. One of the biggest areas for large firms with huge distributed populations is in terms of improving internal communication without high costs. E-learning really comes into play in the ongoing collaborative environment.”
On the back of its alliance with Docent, Accenture is using Docent Enterprise, an Internet-based software platform, to help support its professional education programmes for its 65,000 staffworldwide. The firm, which invested $643m in education programmes during 1999, is transforming its current education approach to support a customised, just-in-time e-learning system.
For Accenture partner Marc Hannah, benefits fall into several categories: cost, growth and transformation. “E-learning has a significant impact on costs, reducing the spend on training by up to a third.” But, he adds, the biggest benefits are in growth and transformation. “The development of an organisation is built on the back of individuals teaching others how to do things, but this is just not a scaleable model. Only so many people are competent to teach others and the growth model is constrained. E-learning allows you to scale.”
And on the transformation front, he says, speed to competence is critical. “E-learning gives you the ability to introduce new skills and capabilities into the organisation at speed. The individual can learn what he wants to learn, when and where he wants to learn it.”
And this is important in attracting and retaining staff. “We have to win the war for talent,” says Hannah. People will choose an employer who will invest in them and give them the opportunity to build their skills, he says. “And the ability to put the learner at the centre of that experience so that they drive when and how they learn is critical.”
Keith Smith, UK MD of Docent explains: “We are trying to provide an environment where people can identify their own personal skill gaps based against competencies and can direct their own personal plan of learning activities.
They can take the learning when and in the format they need, knowing that it will address their particular shortfalls, rather than going on a course for five days because that’s what everyone does.”
And, from the consultants’ point of view, this is a major advantage. Hectic lifestyles make it very difficult for them to schedule training courses. With travel already a major part of their working lives, the desire to be away from home on a course may be less attractive to those with families.
Hannah foresees a paradigm shift from the notion of training to one of continous learning. “It will become seamlessly embedded into what people do everyday on the job. And mobile learning is going to be huge, not just in terms of scheduling but as part of the learning experience.” Already deployed on laptops, this will be rapidly pushed all the way to the PDA, he says, allowing learning objects, five minute vignettes of instruction, to be integrated into the working day. “That is a powerful model for a consultancy. The ability to synthesise knowledge and put people in a position to use it successfully for our clients, on the go, is going to be incredibly powerful and important for us.”
But this brave new world is not all-pervasive. Both vendors and consultancies agree that there is still a role for the classroom. Says Docent’s Smith: “E-learning doesn’t suit everyone. We advocate a blended learning environment. We shouldn’t forget how people want to learn.”
Hannah adds: “Certain topics such as application software should almost always be an e-learning experience. But, as sophisticated as these virtual tools are, nothing replaces social interaction.”
Jim Moore, learning development manager for Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, agrees. His firm offers staff traditional training classes and e-learning.
“We don’t want staff to think we are pushing them down the e-learning route because it is cheaper,” he says. “We find that if you give people a choice they will naturally choose the best learning style for them – which benefits the organisation because it means they really start learning.”
The disadvantage some consultants find with e-learning, he says, is that it does not offer the face to face communication and networking of traditional courses. “People definitely value that.” Some CGE&Y staff do a complementary mix, he says.
Costs per se are a major driver in the take-up of e-learning. But it is less easy to measure its effectiveness. Hannah says that Accenture’s Docent technology allows it to measure the impact of e-learning, by capturing performance data on whether people are completing the courses or dropping out. “This gives us a better understanding of both macro and micro learning in the organisation.” But Moore says measuring the effectiveness of any type of training is problematic because of the subjective nature of feedback.
Jane Massy is a European e-learning consultant and was a keynote speaker at the Online Learning 2001 Europe event held in London in February. She says a lot more evaluation needs to be done on the impact of the use of technology on learning.
“Most people find it very hard to be independent learners,”she says. “And, how do you support learners online – is that an internal or external requirement?”
She adds: “A simple comparison of the metrics of putting 100 people through a course doesn’t gauge the impact for the people trying to do the learning in the work environment remotely, trying to find an hour here or a half hour there.”
And this may be a concern for consultants. If they are to do significant amounts of e-learning, how will they fit it in to their busy schedules?
Says Moore: “Consultants have more freedom to be able to say yes I can learn whenever I need to – they are not driven by a factory environment.But I know that an awful lot of distance learning is done on trains, planes and at home.
“If the training facility were only available during work time some of the problems of availability come back into it – consultants can be too busy to do it. So people may go home slightly early one day to do some training, for example. It’s all about choice. And it is only by providing choice, between e-learning and traditional training, or a combination of both, that people feel satisfied that the employer is helping them to learn,” he says.
Just in time, just for me and just enough
Mikkel Krogsdal, a consultant based in Denmark, is part of PwC’s Centre for Performance Improvement. “We analyse learning needs and define who needs to learn what, how and when, and develop the training for them,” he says. Krogsdal himself focuses on synchronous e-learning tools, virtual classroom technology.
Not surprisingly, he is very comfortable with e-learning. “Mostly I use it for meetings or collaboration but I have taken courses online,” he says. He finds that time is a little too short for these, however, mainly because they do not focus on his specific needs. “What I want is not always available in an e-learning format – which means I can’t get it because I don’t have the time for it.”
But, he says: “The technology allows you to do things that you wouldn’t have time for at all if they were traditional.” Here he cites recorded vendor presentations and training sessions.
He enjoys virtual training as much as traditional, he says, pointing out that it is not just a one box category but a range of experiences.
As far as the networking aspects of traditional courses go, he says: “You have to stop and think what you actually need. Is it social interaction, is it specific information, is it networking? You have a need for all of those but they are not covered by one media. Sometimes I would prefer going to a training class, other times I would be more interested in getting information and can’t take time out of my schedule to go anywhere. Then e-learning makes sense – the social thing would just be in the way.”
“What I like most are courses which focus on a specific topic within a very short timeframe which can give me the information I need.” He adds: “E-learning to me is very much about just in time, just for me and just enough training.”
The smaller the chunks of information, the better, says Krogsdal. “I can do them faster.” He would be interested in the longer term in very focused training by universities on specific areas, such as an overview of CRM, for example, given by leading proponents. “Through e-learning they would be accessible to me, no matter where I am. It’s not just about topics, it’s about quality.”
Initiatives from universities and business schools like Wharton and Insead are all very well, he says, but they do not allow you to pick the chunks you need.
In-house, PwC uses Centra products for e-learning, combined with traditional methods. “Project management, for example, utilises an integrated approach,” says Krogsdal. “Before and after the classroom part, you have to do a certain number of e-modules.”
“So does he find that he has enough time for his personal development plan. “Yes and no. I could always use more time,” he says.
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