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Can computers teach us people skills? – e-learning feature


This feature article was provided by Karina Ward, Marketing Communications Manager at NETg.

Do you ever get the feeling that history books of the future will be a lot thicker than history books of the past? The pace of change – particularly technological development – has increased exponentially in the last century. We moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age over the course of many generations, whereas in the past twenty or so years, the world seems to be reshaped almost daily. Blink and you’ll miss it. From the PC, to the mobile phone, to the Internet, the technology age just doesn’t stand still. From a training perspective, we see an intriguing example of this in the sphere of e-Learning.

The global market for e-Learning is vast. The number of corporates that are seizing the e-Learning opportunity is expanding by the hour, while the number of smaller organisations entering the fray is growing at a similar rate. e-Learning definitely seems to have won people’s confidence, but for what? What exactly is it being used for? The answer, overwhelmingly, is IT skills. In other words, IT is being used to transfer IT skills.

Just as the wider technology community evolves at an unrelenting pace, so e-Learning continues to mature. Analyst house IDC believes that by 2005, business skills training content delivered via e-learning will mushroom to 26%. So does this kind of claim surprise many people? Yes and no. The concept of using e-Learning to transfer business and professional skills is by no means new. However, concerns persist about the ability of e-Learning to transfer non-IT (specifically business and professional) skills.

The reason, superficially at least, is quite straightforward. As we mentioned above, the history of online learning has centred around using IT to teach IT. It seems to make intuitive sense that such an approach would work – to understand a particular computing skill, you need to use a computer. By the same token, argue the sceptics, to learn interpersonal skills, you need to be taught by people. To them the idea of being able to learn how to improve your leadership skills (to pick one example of many) without interacting and role playing with other humans is counter-intuitive at best.

There is, however, a powerful argument against that view. And whereas the proponents of e-learning for business and professional skills were at one time all vendors, the loudest voices are now coming from analysts and, more importantly, from the learners themselves.

One caveat: learning programmes aren’t black or white. E-Learning, as I’ll go on to suggest, is an incredibly attractive way to transfer skills, but its use should stem from a more strategic source. Learning is increasingly fundamental to business performance. Each member of your team should take advantage of an intelligent blend of learning, matched to his/her needs and learning style. e-Learning, in all likelihood, will play a crucial role in that mix, but – in varying quantities – will be augmented by the likes of instructor-led training materials and mentoring. In other words, your bigger corporate learning picture should have a number of strings to its bow.

But back to the business case for business and professional skills e-Learning. Let’s begin with the concept of role-plays. The best business and professional e-Learning courses draw heavily on real-life interactive role plays. That means that as learners progress through a course, they are presented with scenarios and asked to choose the response they would give. Upon answering through these recorded simulations, the ‘intelligent’ e-Learning course shows them what the real-life outcome would be. For example, a learner may be asked to react to a video clip showing a potential client asking a question about the integrity of your company. You are then given a number of options to answer, such as, “You will find out for yourself when you work with us”, or, “Feel free to ask our existing clients”, or even, “Ask my lawyers”. According to the answer you have chosen, the video will act out the consequence of your decision, whether it be that the deal falls through or you win the client.

In a classroom role-plays do take place, but in e-Learning simulations you actually get to see the true repercussions of your decisions in a true workplace context, making for powerful learning. Because the learner is shown exactly what would happen, the final correct decision is more likely to be remembered.

Another factor relates to self-confidence. It is a perfectly natural human instinct to take the decision that will in some way impress your peers, rather than the one that you suspect would be your normal choice. This isn’t the most effective way to learn. E-Learning provides the element of privacy that allows you not only to learn without the element of peer pressure (whether you’re frontline staff or the CEO), but also in an environment where you can actually experiment with the wrong answer to see what the outcome would be. After all, we all know that learning from mistakes is a key part of knowledge transfer.

Flexibility is another crucial point – and it’s as central to the effectiveness argument as it is to the financial business case. Picture the scene: it’s a cold, blustery March morning. You’re in your car, setting off on the 50 mile drive to Milton Keynes, where you’re to join your colleagues to do a full day training session on teamwork skills. Eight hours later, despite your earlier, bleary-eyed scepticism you’re impressed - the course was good, your peers were enthusiastic and the trainer was outstanding.

Fast-forward six months. You’re put in charge of a newly-assembled team. The chemistry doesn’t seem to be there, but it needs to be. You have a major deadline in three days and it won’t be met if the team isn’t slick. You refer back to your notes from that excellent training session. Only you can’t find them. Neither can you remember much of what you learnt that day…

One of the key benefits of e-Learning is that you can learn, or brush up on, skills as and when you need them. By taking a refresher course on team-building at the time you need to use that skill, the knowledge ‘sticks’ more effectively. That’s as true for business and professional skills as it is for IT skills.

So that’s the business case, but to round this discussion off, we should touch on the business context of learning these skills. Increasingly, organisations understand that learning needs to be viewed as a strategic issue. To get ahead, stay ahead, and to attract and retain the very best people, a business needs to be able to offer learning programmes that draw on a range of learning techniques that are matched to the needs of each unique individual and that, crucially, feed into meeting business objectives. In tough economic times, training can fall by the wayside – high quality e-Learning can help you to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Training departments can now draw on an incredibly sophisticated and broad range of courses; they can offer employees learning in the format and at the time when it will be most powerful. It’s because of this that the use of e-Learning to transfer the business and professional skills that today’s corporate culture demands, needs to form a central part of the learning picture.


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