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Squaring the circle – matching executive needs with corporate goals through e-learning


Executive education is good for the employee and good for the employer. The use of e-learning as a delivery mechanism makes it even better for both parties, argues Michael Smith, Director of Business Development at UK eUniversities Worldwide (UKeU).

Traditionally, most training programmes in large organisations focused on immediate job-related skills such as word-processing. In recent years, though, there has been a growing trend for companies to invest in the education and professional development of key executives. This enables them to achieve a more efficient and more effective business operation, to recruit and retain better people, and to plan long-term change and succession more effectively. Employees, for their part, can significantly improve future career prospects and current job satisfaction through gaining professional qualifications whilst continuing to work. Thus in a recent international survey conducted on behalf of UK eUniversities Worldwide (UKeU)(see bottom of page), less than one-third of respondents said they would prefer an immediate salary rise of 10 per cent over a qualification that enhanced their long-term earning power.

Clearly, then, executive education is beneficial for all concerned. However, it can also represent a significant cost to the organisation, particularly as executives have to take time off from their normal duties to attend external courses. New learning technologies, especially e-learning, offer a potential solution to the cost and time issues. Nevertheless, e-learning experienced mixed results when first used to deliver corporate education. At the same time, early e-learning technologies were immature and sometimes poorly implemented, with insufficient attention being given to content. The UKeU survey found that quality of course content was the most widespread concern about online courses, being quoted by 54 per cent of respondents.

Fortunately, the new generation of e-learning systems is much more powerful than the old. Courseware, specifically designed for delivery using e-learning, can be tailored to support the specific needs of an organisation.

Extending the benefits

When used for executive education, e-learning programmes such as those delivered by UKeU provide both employee and employer with a host of benefits that traditional approaches cannot offer. These supplement the benefits that accrue regardless of the delivery method.

For employees, e-learning:

  • Supports self-directed learning by providing material that is designed for learner-pull rather than teacher-push. The emphasis on self-directed learning mirrors current educational theory, which holds that learning is most effective when the learner functions as an active seeker of knowledge rather than a passive receiver. e-learning enables learners to follow their own paths through the course material, with the system itself keeping track of what has been covered and checking progress by means of online questions. Opportunities for further study can be linked into the basic material.

  • Is extremely well suited for collaborative learning, with technologies such as online forums, email, instant messaging and shared workspaces providing the means for people to work together effectively on group tasks. This can lead to the establishment of long-lasting peer networks within the organisation. Indeed, collaboration has other significant benefits - employees can benchmark their own practices and performance with peers across other organisations, and gain valuable insight into how other organisations - or even departments internally - deal with issues in practice.

  • People can remain in the workplace while they are learning. As well as being far less disruptive to their day-to-day jobs, this enables them to make immediate use of new skills in a relevant environment. The learning process is therefore reinforced in the most effective way possible.

  • Material can be delivered as and when required by the learner, who controls the pace of the education process. To reinforce learning, material can be worked through repeatedly if necessary; conversely, it can be skipped over if already familiar. The course content can be divided into small modules so that people can fit periods of study around their work schedules and lifestyles. This is an important consideration: in the UKeU survey, 68 per cent of UK respondents cited lack of time as a serious inhibitor of study.

  • When the learner has finished the programme of study, the material can still be available for just-in-time support and reference when required.

  • Automatic assessment capabilities enable material to be presented in the way best suited to each learner’s ability and progress. These capabilities also allow the learner to be provided with immediate feedback and encouragement, whilst trainers can be alerted if the rate of progress is unsatisfactory.
  • These benefits translate directly into benefits for the employer. Because they learn more quickly, executives who follow an e-learning programme can apply their new-found skills and knowledge sooner than would otherwise be possible. Because they learn more effectively, they can contribute more to the organisation. In doing so, they may well leverage the new collaborative relationships they have developed while studying.

    E-learning systems also make it easy for employers to present material consistently, even on a global scale, and to update this material as required. Furthermore, the automatic assessment capabilities of e-learning systems help employers to monitor the effectiveness of courses and course modules, thus contributing to an accurate assessment of return on investment (ROI). Finally, as we have already seen, e-learning can provide the employer with cost and time savings as well as minimising the disruption caused by key employees being absent from the workplace.

    This is not to say that e-learning is a panacea. Indeed, many see it as most effective when it is combined with other delivery methods in a blended learning approach. Nevertheless, a well-designed e-learning programme can and should provide a superior learning experience and better ROI compared to classroom learning. Where executive education is concerned, e-learning supports the employer’s needs and the employee’s aspirations equally well, leading to a more profitable business and a more satisfied workforce. Little wonder, then, that 73 per cent of respondents in the UKeU survey believed that many more people will gain further education qualifications through e-learning in the future. In a world where the demand for continuing professional development far outstrips the capacity of traditional methods to deliver it, e-learning is set to play a central role.

    Interviews conducted in spring 2003 with a total of 1,040 white-collar workers (aged 25-44) in four major economies: Hong Kong, Singapore, the UK and the US. For additional information, consult the UKeU Learning Report 2003.


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