Perfect timing

Just-in-time learning is all about providing online learning at just the right time to those who need specific knowledge or skills.

A programmer has an important project coming up using a new technology. The week before she gets underway she logs on to her company intranet and learns all about the new technology - just in time for her new task.

An account manager is due to meet with a client who’s launching a website. He’s not up to date in e-business, so before his meeting goes to the website of a training company his firm has partnered with. There he uses an online course to brush up on e-business strategy skills.

These are examples of just-in-time learning. It’s about providing online learning at just the right time to those who need specific knowledge or skills.

Accenture HR partner Brenda La Port doesn’t believe people get true learning unless they can put it into a “point of need” situation. There’s no use providing training that someone won’t get value out of for months, the consultant argues.

Melbourne-based La Port has been working in the utilities industry. For the past year there has been huge pressure on utilities in the reform programme Australia is undertaking – the sort of reforms New Zealand has already been through.

She says there is a lot of pressure going on call centres and the business to keep their people “injected” with new learning and ideas.

“It’s not going to be practical for organisations to continue to take people out to classrooms to do that …They have to find ways to push it out to the desktop.”

She believes just-in-time learning will become increasingly common as the technologies that enable it become cheaper, more robust and more accessible, and as companies need to deliver improved services and deliver more quickly.

“People are going to have to respond real-time, learn real-time and continue to re-invent themselves real-time.”

Online = just in time

Oracle New Zealand’s national education manager Doug Berquist says e-learning is the perfect vehicle to deliver just-in-time learning.

“The window of time to get just-in-time is smaller, because with a live class you’ve got the added logistics of an instructor being available, a classroom being available, the right number of students being available. So let’s say that you need the learning or the knowledge at a specific point in time, you’ve got to backdate from that far enough to make those logistical elements happen.”

Trade New Zealand, a geographically spread organisation which makes use of online training, is discovering the benefits of just-in-time learning.

After conducting a needs analysis the government's trade promotion body chose online training through DigitalThink, an online training provider, as part of an e-business project. The aim has been to educate both staff and clients on e-business. Staff members were all required to complete the online course so they could deal with clients knowledgeably. Tthe programme is also being offered to clients who want to get into e-business. The DigitalThink programme allows for the tracking of how employees are going on the training, which was one aspect which appealed to Trade NZ.

Anne Chappaz, an account manager in the apparel and textile division for Trade NZ who has completed the course, says its timing was ideal because it was provided just before the organisation began promoting e-business to exporters. She was impressed with the content.

“It meant that we had the vocabulary and the concepts at our fingertips and I think that was really valuable because people were phoning us up and saying ‘well, why should I get involved in e-business? What is the point?’ ”

The course is made up of three modules and takes 20 hours to complete, says Lee Blair, who project-manages the education stream of e-business for Trade NZ. Online tutors are available for six months for those who need help. People who do the course have it available on their computer for a year afterwards.

Chappaz believes the tutors will be useful. “Especially if I had a key client who was developing their business along those lines, and I felt that to add value to my client base it was important for me to check something out or to remind myself of something.”

In addition to the DigitalThink programme, Trade NZ has also rolled out an online training programme for staff to be trained on software applications. It came about after IT staff, who need to upskill frequently, began exploring online providers. They were impressed with Element K, and after it was piloted among the IT staff, a programme for training on various applications was introduced to about 30 non-IT staff in New Zealand and about 120 offshore staff.

Again, the just-in-time aspect has been important, says Trade NZ training consultant Lia Mattei. “One of the criticisms of the traditional training that’s been done in organisations is that it’s been a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

She says when training is provided regardless of whether people need the skills there and then it might meet 50% of people’s needs if you’re lucky. With Element K people receive the training when they need it.

“You may do a PowerPoint [course] and then find you’re not actually preparing a presentation in the week or month after you’ve done that course. With the online course you can just go back and review about the time you’re putting things together so it turns into a review process.”

Ironing out the wrinkles

What challenges does e-learning bring? Increasingly companies are learning that policy challenges are just as important as the technical challenges.

For example, Oracle’s Berquist says some organisations don’t allow streaming video played over the internet, either because of internal bandwidth or because of concerns about the content people might be viewing. That needs to be addressed if you want to provide anytime-anywhere learning at work.

“That can be got around by accessing it from something outside their own firewall. But then you lose some of the sophistication of administering – who’s taking what, etc.”

Other policy issues include the question of how companies compensate people for taking training out of office hours.

“If I go home and choose to do a course that might take me four hours a night to do for three nights in a row, what’s the company’s policy on that?”

Berquist says companies are addressing that in a variety of ways from “This is something we need to do to be competitive and that’s just the way the world works”, to formal policies that say for every hour of after-work learning time staff get lieu time or compensation of some sort.

It was the sort of issue Trade NZ had to grapple with. It says a big challenge for staff -- and clients -- has been finding the time to study.

Mattei says because Trade NZ required staff to complete the DigitalThink course, it recognised it had to allow employees to do it in work time. However, she says the organisation has open-plan offices and for some people that’s a huge distraction. Often they prefer to work from home.

Blair did 90% of her DigitalThink study at home and Chappaz completed hers at home at weekends.

“It’s very hard to do online learning [in] your normal work environment," says Chappaz. "When you’re in an open plan office the phones don’t stop, the people don’t stop coming past and it’s very difficult to tune in to something like that where you need to concentrate and put the hours into it.”

She says it wasn’t a major problem for her because she found the course interesting, and had a JetStart fast internet connection at home. “So I had easy access and no real costs.”

Chappaz suggests is companies are going to introduce online learning in a work situation they could set up a special study room in the office, or organise a study group at the weekend, perhaps with a social event afterwards.

Keeping your staff happy

Many of the education specialists say that change management is a big issue for companies embarking on online learning – something they don’t often think about.

For example, says Accenture’s La Port, if you’re expecting a call centre agent to behave differently and continually absorb new information – perhaps learn about how to manage a relationship with a customer rather than just answer a question about their bill - you need to think about what that does to their job. You measure them by how quickly they get on and off the phone, but you’re now asking them to provide a broader service so you need to look at our their job is measured.

You can’t ignore the sort of effects online learning can have on staff, she says. While online learning has its benefits, different people will react in different ways.

La Port says at some companies – particularly heavily unionised environments – there is a paternalistic view of training. She says some people see it as the company’s responsibility to deliver training. She believes that has to be changed to a view where the learner takes charge of learning.

At Trade NZ, Chappaz says the online training was a very painless way of upskilling herself and her attitude was typical of staff there. However, she recognises the sorts of issues La Port mentions.

“There are some people for whom a training programme means going into a room and sitting down with a facilitator and doing teamwork and having lunch and they don’t necessarily see the learning itself as the core value proposition. They see it almost as a chance to meet your mates at a different level. Expecting people to be able do this sort of thing does mean [companies] need to set up a few specific conditions to make it happen.”

Once you’ve got the policy sorted out, you have to make sure you address the infrastructure issues such as bandwidth and server space.

Most of Trade NZ’s offshore offices are on dial-up connections. Mattei says one of the reasons the organisation selected DigitalThink was the fact it’s designed to work on modems as slow as 33K.

“However, some of our offices have such poor connections that in the end we went to a CD-ROM and have installed them on the local servers. Those staff then go online to take the tests so the learning management system captures that activity at that point. With Element K it has not been such a problem, she says, possibly because content is provided in "little bites”.

Mills is IDGNet's online editor.

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