Strong case for training but what medium?

30 Jan 2003

IT skills are now a serious business issue for many companies, because it has become clear that managing information is the key determining factor in business performance.

Another major factor is that in a rapidly evolving and globalised business world, the ability to respond speedily to changing markets is increasingly dependent in turn on the supporting technology.

“With ongoing change and increasing complexity of information technology,” Therese Bradley of Software Paths points out, “the very solution that’s designed to give organisations the ability to respond quickly is creating a skills gap between the actual skills of employees and the technical proficiency needed to take advantage of IT.”

She goes further, in fact, and says “the future growth of many businesses is being stalled by the inability of employees to acquire the skills needed to use technology to its full capacity.”

Accepting that this is true – and many analysts have pointed it out in similar ways – you could expect a high demand for appropriate IT training. Yet the Irish training market, like its counterparts elsewhere, has experienced a slowdown, if not a falling back, in corporate demand.

There is a healthy interest at lower levels – in the ECDL and now IC3, for example – as consciousness of the importance and pervasiveness of IT continues to gain public ground. But business is being slow about it. It seems fairly obvious that so much of Irish business is relatively small, mostly without specific IT departments, that at least part of the reason may not be any reluctance but the difficulty of sparing people from their day-to-day responsibilities in tight economic times.

In this context, e-learning has been touted as the ‘anywhere, any time’ self-development panacea since it was ‘computer-based training’, or CBT, in the early Nineties. The CD-Rom format and then the web made e-learning even more feasible and attractive technically because information, interactivity and smart multimedia presentation can be flexibly delivered.

For some, the new dawn would replace – inexpensively – traditional training with a live teacher using both ‘chalk and talk’ and a set of networked computers in a dedicated training room. A couple of years ago the training industry started to use the term ‘blended learning’ to describe a mix of both types as a universal answer to training needs.

Today, even the vendors of e-learning courseware accept – but quite happily – that its capabilities are still limited. “In the beginning we all probably put too much emphasis on the ‘e’ and not enough on the ‘learning’ part,” says Paul Colbert, director of the Educational Multimedia Group. “As for ‘blended learning’ that’s actually just a de facto thing because it’s what real people actually do. Today we talk about ‘distributed learning’ to complement traditional tutor-led training. But in truth we are all just taking the very first steps when you think that Western teaching methods go back to ancient Greece, if not beyond.”

A similar acknowledgement is made by Jonny Parkes, MD of The Electric Paper Company, a company that is probably the doyen of the Irish CBT industry: “E-learning is maturing and we are learning all the time. What we are sure of is that this kind of training works – and very well at that – but for some types of content, some people and in some contexts. We can certainly point to specific IT skills and the ECDL is a particularly good example of where it works well. Apart from that you can look at anything that can be credibly simulated on a PC – so flight simulators, for example, are well proven. Learners also get instant feedback, assessment when they are ready and personal control.”

In a similar vein, Emmett Hedigan is MD of the rather younger Irish e-learning company Unlimited but has been in the business for over a decade: “To date, e-learning has failed to deliver on its promise. It is very effective for PC literacy. The ECDL and IC3 are fundamentals that in a sense should or could precede traditional forms of training so that students would get better value because of the groundwork. It is also proven to work well, for example, in induction programmes where new employees are introduced to procedures and a desktop interface to the organisation’s systems can be readily simulated.”

The strength of e-learning in his view is that it is scalable, infinitely repeatable and consistent – especially in testing – in a way that is not possible where the human factors predominate. Where the technology is used for in-company training the key to value is to choose content areas that will not change too much or too quickly.

That human factor, on the other hand, is the basis of the effectiveness of traditional training. “A full 95pc of the demand we see is for instructor-led training,” says Mike Prendergast, MD of Dublin’s Eden Training that runs courses across the IT skills range. “People are more comfortable with it, quite simply, and so are more confident to invest in it. But e-learning and old-fashioned teaching are not in competition – they are complementary and each subject area and type or level of training will find its natural balance.”

By Leslie Faughnan