Corporate learning initiatives are nothing new. For years, employees have taken time out of their workdays – and sometimes even their personal time – to attend courses that build the skills necessary to do their jobs. However, imagine if learning could be embedded into the workday, making it a seamless aspect of daily job responsibilities.
Although “on demand” is a fairly new term, it has already been widely accepted and practiced among the world’s top enterprises, as companies leverage strategy, technology, process and content to make information or services available anytime, anywhere. However, few companies have made corporate learning immediately available. Most organizations do not realize that with the right technology – and strategy – on-demand learning can become a revolutionary addition to any business plan.
By harvesting the learning knowledge, experience and expertise that a company’s workforce needs to fulfill its job requirements and making it available on demand, a company can gain a competitive advantage. Aligning the learning construct with overall business objectives is a differentiator for any learning organization. Further, integrating that content into a single platform – such as a portal – gives employees a central location to easily and quickly access timely information.
Understanding On-Demand Learning
Making learning available on demand shifts the experience from a single discrete event into a process that is embedded into the daily workflow. In the past, learners might have been confined to a classroom. With on-demand learning, employees can log onto an intranet to take online courses, post to a message board and even chat with colleagues thousands of miles away about a business challenge and collaborate on a solution. Just as we have become accustomed to turning on 24-hour news channels or logging onto the Internet to access information anytime, learners will be able to do the same with their education. While traditional classroom learning will not become obsolete, the face-to-face experience should focus on applying the concepts that are taught, rather than just transferring information.
It is important for companies to apply the concept to their learning methods to further support the fast-paced corporate world, which demands a responsive and proactive workforce. If an employee is asked to respond to a client immediately on an unfamiliar topic, it is vital that the information needed is available at his or her fingertips. Enabling employees with the tools, information and other resources they need, when they need them helps them succeed in their daily job responsibilities and maintain happy client, collegial and working relationships.
Businesses can set up portals designed to provide users with a single consistent interface – tailored by job role – to access content, applications, business processes and people, anytime. In fact, most companies already use portals or intranets to share company news, policies and directories. This technology can be adapted easily to transfer important learning material. In addition, because portals can be accessed throughout the company, providing on-demand learning is a strategic way to maintain consistencies across business lines.
Benefits to Using Portal Systems
To help unify knowledge, process delivery, culture and people, a portal should serve as a productivity engine for the global workplace to create an environment where people dynamically interact with integrated business processes, other employees, partners, suppliers and customers.
This is especially important when employees work in different environments at the same company – from offices where workers have constant high-speed connectivity and are surrounded by peers, to the worker who is constantly on the move and does not always have reliable network access or interaction with colleagues. With such extreme differences in work environments, it is critical to support all audiences to enable them to execute effectively.
A portal framework should provide functionality for usage tracking and reporting, personalization, application integration, content searching, customization, collaboration, authentication, authorization and content delivery. The portal can be the face of the company’s intranet and can enable value across multiple dimensions on a global scale, including cost savings, business innovation, employee satisfaction, operational efficiency and alignment of IT investments.
A portal system for learning can provide many benefits for companies, including improved operational efficiency, faster response to customer demands, increased revenue and a reduction of costs related to course delivery and travel. In addition, individual employee benefits include:
- Immediate access to information.
- Content-sensitive support aligned to the job role or function performed.
- Ability to go at their own learning pace.
- Interaction with co-workers miles away via chat rooms and message boards.
- Access to mentors and experts when help is needed.
U.S. Army Builds Smarter Enlisted Force
Recent world events coupled with live embedded media have cast a spotlight on the sophisticated weaponry that the U.S. Armed Forces brandish in battle. But according to analysts, armed conflicts may soon be decided by which force possesses the most comprehensive access to knowledge. To confront this reality, the Army identified a need to recruit and retain soldiers who are better trained, better educated and more knowledgeable to optimize its chances of operational success and improve its military leadership. In addition, the Army recognized another significant obstacle – the soldiers’ own desire to cultivate themselves, outside of the service. Soldiers completing their tours of duty are often eager to pursue an education rather than re-enlist.
To address these challenges, the Army recently launched one of the most innovative e-learning programs in the world: eArmyU. Designed to help eliminate the need to choose between personal development and a military career, eArmyU provides active-duty enlisted soldiers with easy access to more than 140 online certificate and degree programs offered by 29 accredited colleges and universities – all from a single online portal.
The Army’s distance-learning initiative is enabled by a scalable infrastructure that supports multiple online course management systems, student support services and administrative functions. Once enrolled in eArmyU at military installations around the world, students have access to program mentors, who can provide support with navigating the portal, selecting and accessing courses, and coordinating the delivery of textbooks. This enables the Army to offer soldiers a valuable educational opportunity while continuing to focus on its mission-critical operational objectives.
Soldiers also can access self-paced courses on the eArmyU site using a single logon from a standard Web browser. Once online, they can navigate course offerings through catalogs with sophisticated search options and customized views to help quickly find courses that best fit their learning styles and time constraints.
In addition, students can download ancillary course materials, such as instructors’ notes, sample quizzes and student assignments. They can work on these projects offline, in the field or when Internet access is otherwise unavailable, then automatically synchronize documents online when connectivity is restored.
Results of the distance-learning initiative arrived with remarkable speed. When the U.S. Army opened its eArmyU.com portal in January 2001, there were 1,660 students. Today, the virtual university has enrolled more than 54,000 students – and more than a quarter of these never attended college. eArmyU now reaches soldiers in all 50 U.S. states, 51 countries and four U.S. territories.
Cingular Wireless Meets Challenging Organizational Demands
Cingular Wireless had a vision to make learning available to its workforce on demand. Cingular was consolidating all of its wireless brands from mergers and acquisitions. As part of that effort, the company determined that it needed to quickly improve its means of effectively and efficiently managing course development, content delivery, student registration, content sharing and other attributes required of a leading company.
Cingular’s initial step was development of a learning strategy that focused on streamlining governance, technology, content and training processes. The solution had to be scalable and flexible to meet the demands of the changing telecommunications industry. Cingular’s approach was to implement a blended learning program and to align e-learning efforts to key business initiatives to showcase value. Cingular’s learning management system (LMS) implementation included consolidating multiple training systems to provide self-service and ease of management and administration. Only 29 enhancements were made to the out-of-the-box LMS system. On the first day, 34,000 users were live on the system. The entire system was implemented within 100 days. Cingular also implemented standard content processes, authoring and simulation tools, and virtual classroom technology.
The company then embarked on a major customer relationship management initiative to enable its U.S. workforce, including agents and outsourced call centers, to operate as a single company. Building on the success of the internally implemented LMS solution, Cingular wanted to implement an externally focused agent learning portal. To reach 26,000 agents and provide analytical support for determining the impact of targeted role specific learning on the revenue improvement of these agents, IBM became the host of the solution, provided help-desk functionality and delivered outsourced LMS administration services.
Cingular’s scalable learning solution enabled its workforce to operate as a single company upon the close of its merger with AT&T Wireless in 2004. The business required rapid development and deployment of more than 36,000 hours of content to an audience of over 120,000 users in 18 days. During this time period, overall delivered hours exceeded 2.1 million, and the quality of training exceeded expectations.
Transitioning Your Company
When transitioning a company to accept an on-demand learning model, there are five dimensions of change that can be expected:
- Governance and Management: Reinventing the role of learning requires innovative thinking at the governance level. This can take the shape of a centralized learning organization, a decentralized business unit model or a hybrid. When enabled by a governance and management system that understands how learning can impact an organization, learning can deliver real business value and ROI.
- Design and Delivery: Implementing the future of learning requires adapted design and delivery that expand instructional design to include more focus on learning that is embedded in work and centered on the learner.
- Technology: For a company looking to create a formal learning program using portals, start off with a requirements analysis to determine if there is a current system that can integrate learning material. Most companies these days have internal portals or intranets that could easily accommodate learning material, such as reading material, progress reports, Web-streamed lectures and chat rooms. However, to create a learning hub, a company must have an LMS, virtual classroom technology, learning content and collaboration tools.
- Organizational Alignment: The most successful learning programs are those with goals that are aligned with the organization’s overall business priorities and individual job roles. For the organization, a focus on growth and innovation requires ongoing alignment of learning initiatives to business priorities. For employees, when learning is made directly relevant to their position and they understand how learning can directly impact their performance, they will be more engaged and motivated to complete the program.
- Culture: To make a truly strategic change in the learning paradigm, companies must look at how they think about learning and foster the organizational culture accordingly. If learners are to be empowered to shape their own learning experiences, then businesses must change the way they think about learning. Learning may be redefined to include anytime access to key subject-matter experts, or have just-in-time information available via handheld devices.
As organizations understand how to tap technology, they provide their employees with new ways to interact, even if they are on opposite sides of the globe. As large enterprises become global entities, communication among different regions becomes even more important. On a larger level, organizational learning can help corporations with multiple offices quickly align employees with changing organizational priorities and strategies.
A Future of Possibilities
As corporations continue to take advantage of constantly evolving technology and the individual’s motivation to learn, they can create learning programs that keep their employees engaged and better equipped – opening a new world of delivery and communication that will empower competitive workforces for the 21st century.
Learning methods need to reflect the rest of the technology advancements being made today. We rely on technology daily to enhance our lives – through the Internet, DVDs, MP3s, digital cable – and when entering the workforce, we expect the same just-in-time information that is customized to meet our individual needs. The modern-day workforce will expect to have access to the most current knowledge and expertise available to help them fulfill their daily job expectations and excel at their positions. While on-demand learning relies on technology, it can go beyond portals. Only the future can tell how technology will evolve and how corporate learning can adapt to these advancements.
Mary Kay Vona, Ed.D., is the Americas learning and development partner for IBM’s Human Capital Management practice. She also leads L&D for the Communications sector. Piero Granelli is the worldwide leader of IBM’s Learning & Development consulting practice and an advisor to IBM’s HR-Learning department. Mary Kay and Piero can be reached at email@example.com.