Alice Rowland-Weisz explains e-learning

Information Technology employees can order training anytime at McDonald's. That's because in June, McDonald's I/S organisation development manager oversaw the implementation of a new self-paced e-learning programme.

          Information Technology employees can order training anytime at McDonald's. That's because in June, McDonald's I/S organisation development manager, Alice Rowland-Weisz, oversaw the implementation of a new self-paced e-learning programme to serve 410 IT employees working at the company's headquarters in Oakbrook, Illinois.

          In evaluating e-learning programmes and content, Rowland-Weisz had to determine not only the Fortune 100's current and future training needs but also the company's technical future.

          Part of Rowland-Weisz's assessment meant making an important determination: Is IT training an employee benefit or should there be an ROI? The answer for one of the world's largest food service retailers was that training of IT employees must result in a positive bottom-line impact.

          Rowland-Weisz recently spoke with InfoWorld senior editor Loretta W Prencipe on her experiences in choosing e-learning content and evaluating vendors.

          In this economy, many IT managers find that their training budgets are being cut. Why did McDonald's decide to go forward with this e-learning initiative now?

          There are two different approaches to training. One is that training is an added employee benefit, the other approach is that you're expecting improved business results based on making training available. We're clearly expecting better business results. We're in this camp and expect training to increase our ability to deliver products.

          How do you measure training's impact on that ability?

          From a project standpoint, coming in on time and on budget. I gathered data on what content people are using, what learning is getting accessed based on the particular hardware and software we use. I compare that with project implementation. If 50% of the projects are using a particular hardware or software and no one is accessing the learning, then we will rethink the product.

          Rethink the product?

          We're not going to stop using Microsoft, for example, but we might have to rethink how we provide learning opportunities and how we work with that vendor. Maybe there is a greater responsibility for that vendor to help us craft learning.

          Did you have to make a business case to move ahead on the e-learning project? To whom?

          Yes, I did. I went to the directors group -- the CIO staff's direct reports.

          How did you make the case?

          I determined what [training content] people used in the past and the value they got out of it. I made a best guess for the organisation's future training and technology needs. I also got information on how groups were planning to spend their training monies and what training they needed. Then I reviewed vendors' offerings against these determinations. The big question was, If we build it, will they come?

          How did this affect presenting to the directors group?

          I had to present to the directors group the problem and then the solution. I had to stand by my prediction that if we did [implement a new e-learning programme], we would have high user numbers and experiences, and that we would really get project-level benefits. My best guess was, yes, we would do this with KnowledgeNet because of the user experience, the engaging interface, and content selection that made sense for the I/S projects McDonald's is working on. When I presented it this way to the directors, it made sense.

          How long did it take to determine which e-learning vendor you would use?

          It was a six-month process -- with the last four being very active months in evaluating vendors. I had time for little else. We looked at our previous vendor and five others.

          How did you make the selection?

          I sat down with KnowledgeNet and asked, "What do you have?" We matched current and future technology needs with content available. We did that with each vendor. There are two camps [of thought]: One, you tell them how many users you have and you get access to all their content. In the other camp, you tell them what you need and select the content. You have to make selections based on your budget and needs. There has to be a balance. If there were seven people in the organization who need particular content, maybe e-learning is not the answer for them. You can't be all things to all people.

          Describe the system and offerings chosen.

          The e-learning product that we're working with is provided via web delivery and addresses technical content from skills-building and development viewpoints for our technical professionals -- Cisco, Microsoft, Unix, and web development including Java, HTML, CompTIA's A+, and SQL Server. We're really trying the best that we can to provide content on the key hardware and software that we work with at McDonald's. We want to enable people to have access to e-learning content so they can adapt and perform in their jobs. We expect that this e-learning product will augment our structural end-training.

          Will any of the offerings prepare McDonald's I/S employees to take certification exams? Does McDonald's pay for the exams?

          Through the content offerings, employees can work toward A+, MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer], and others. We do pay [for the exams] on a case-by-case basis, if it qualifies for the employee's current or next job. We work that out with each individual. We're asking for certifications more and more in our hiring process.

          Why self-paced e-learning? E-learning has its critics.

          We have a six-year history -- with computer-based training, then internet delivery, then web delivery of technical content. Certainly from a cost per user standpoint, it is economical to use self-paced learning. ... Employees can go in and get the module for what they need and quickly apply [the learning.]

          What's on the technical training and e-learning horizon for McDonald's?

          Those are the "I wish" statements. I wish that Oracle was easier to work with. I'd like to have access to good certified Oracle content. With Oracle it's hard to find good content. The other thing that I see [on the horizon] is that people are going to take greater opportunities to use synchronous projects -- live products. People will be doing more of that. There are times when self-paced learning doesn't work well. You allow the demands of the fast-paced work environment to push off [self-paced] learning. When you have written a check and scheduled a live [training] event, you prioritise. You don't want to waste that money.

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