Characteristics of Effective Online Learning

Many companies are trading in their "training" approach for a "learning" focus.

DURING the past decade, "e-learning" has become a familiar term and a routine part of many corporate training programs. Most typically, it has referred to the use of computer-aided technology, either via the Internet or in stand-alone modules, that provides standardized information to employees. By allowing virtual learning, the technology has enabled many organizations, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to IBM, to provide far-ranging training programs to a dispersed audience.

The e-learning experiences of the 1990s and early 2000s have evolved into a more comprehensive understanding about what makes a workforce training initiative effective and how online learning can be integrated into that initiative for maximum advantage. Leo McKnight, director of Training for Hilti North America (manufacturers of power hand tools and fastening systems for contractors), is intimately familiar with the changing face of online learning and explains how it has changed. "Training is an investment in a company's future," he says. "It's an investment in its employees and, basically, those employees are a company's future. The point isn't just to dump information on people; it's to give people the skills they need to do their jobs and to advance in their fields. Online learning can play a real role in that effort if it's done right."

Training for More Than Compliance
Safety training has traditionally been based on the requirements of regulatory compliance. Certainly, the ability to comply with increasingly complex regulatory requirements is of critical importance to any organization. Beyond simple compliance, safety is, in fact, a key factor in most companies' standard operating principles. In addition to the obvious impact on the injured worker, few companies would dispute the detrimental impacts on their operations, performance, and workforce of on-the-job injuries and accidents.

Statistics show that a regulation-based approach worked for many companies. Increasingly, however, companies are embracing a new framework of "doing it right" that focuses on empowering their workforces to meet the growing challenges of a "knowledge economy."

Several different factors play into the interest of firms that are trading in their "training" approach for a "learning" focus. Perhaps most immediately, professional development in its broadest sense has emerged as a key recruiting and retention tool. For those companies, keeping the best employees means giving those workers a path upward--and that means providing them with the knowledge they need, not just to stay safe on the job but to progress in their careers. For these companies, compliance has become a means to an end, not the end itself. For them, "the end" is improved business performance; a safer, more stable workforce; and a substantially improved risk management.

A second concern of many companies is the upcoming loss of seasoned employees as the Baby Boom generation prepares for retirement. Transferring knowledge from these longtime employees, whether they represent senior management personnel or on-the-line production workers, is likely to be a challenge for any organization. Meeting that challenge, however, is not a choice, but a requirement for organizations determined to grow and prosper.

And a third concern is recognizing that, apart from mandatory annual safety training, every employee needs to learn a specific set of information important for a particular purpose and does not want to spend time "relearning" what has already been learned.

An Effective Workforce
Not so long ago, building an effective workforce meant delivering a standard set of instruction in a standardized format and on an established schedule to workers. Today, building and maintaining an effective workforce capable of responding to the challenges of today's workplace demands providing the right knowledge at the right time to the right people. It means getting away from providing a pre-set program of instructor-based or online learning and creating a "competency-based learning culture."

"The point no longer centers on how much training a company provides, but how well the necessary knowledge is delivered, learned, and applied in the work environment," notes Dr. Karl Kapp, an acknowledged learning expert from Bloomsburg University. "And, critically, that applies just as much to managers as it does to production employees."

Every safety manager has laughed about the one-size-fits-all online course that provides heat-stress information to workers in Ontario or explains the impact of extreme low temperatures on industrial processes to workers in Miami. Safety managers have seen the inherent problems when all training is focused only on production workers, leaving a knowledge gap among the managers charged with implementing or designing safety initiatives. And new hires have a special need to learn about site- and company-specific policies and procedures.

Beyond Safety: A Successful Learning Culture
Although each company has its own standard operating procedures, its own unique culture, and its own vision of the future, virtually all successful companies share a pragmatic need to increase quality and productivity. It is in this area particularly that online learning has evolved. To be effective today, a program must adopt a three-tiered strategy that acknowledges the role of the organization itself, management, and the individual worker. Each group has its own stake in the efficiency and effectiveness of the strategy--and each group has its own needs.

* Start from the beginning; get support from the top. It seems self-evident, but training is effective only when it is supported from the top. In organizations where learning is treated as a costly "add-on" to the more "important" business of running the company, the learning solution will fail. A substantial commitment to professional development and quality indicates to employees the company cares about their safety, well-being, and performance. It confirms the company wants its employees to succeed, and typically it is rewarded by employee loyalty, productivity, and performance.
* Assess the organization. The point of an online learning program today is to enable employees to contribute to the company's identified business objectives and goals. To do that, the company must have a clear understanding of its short- and long-term objectives and how a workplace knowledge solution can help it achieve those goals. For example, a company committed to a five-year business strategy of rapid growth will recognize the need for extensive new-hire learning systems. Questions a company must answer range from its expansion strategy to the anticipated mix of its products and services, planned new product introductions, anticipated retirement of employees, and recruitment plans.
* Assess the learners. Each learner brings his or her own levels of knowledge, confidence, and concern to the learning table--whether the learner is a senior manager or a new hire for the factory floor. Effectively determining what knowledge any individual needs may be one of the most substantial challenges for any initiative, and online learning is no exception. It is a critical requirement of an effective system. Where are the gaps, what does the learner know, what does he or she need to know? These questions must be answered before an effective program can be developed and delivered.
* Measure, measure, measure. If it can't be measured, it can't be monitored. And more to the point, if it can't be measured, it can't be modified, improved, upgraded, or expanded. The reason to provide a knowledge system is to enable employees to learn valuable skills, information, processes, and procedures that ultimately change behavior in a way that promotes the larger business objectives. For that to happen, it is imperative that systems be developed to track not only which employees have learned new skills or knowledge, but how it is applied. Measurement is especially important during times of tight budgets, when there is no room for error and any management initiative must be cost-justified.
* Provide the justification. Just as managers must provide program justification to their senior managers, they also must communicate the "why" of the programs to their workers. For the programs to be effective, employees should understand that the learning initiative is a means for them to improve their value to the company and, ultimately, to themselves.
* Involve the line managers. Any learning program should involve the direct supervisors of the learners, not just senior managers or safety directors. In many organizations, that individual will be the line manager, whose active involvement reinforces the importance of the learning program as a key component of workplace performance, not simply an added-on safety requirement.
* Involve the learners. It is a rare company that does not give lip service to the value of its employees, yet some firms do not follow through with that sentiment. Most employees will demonstrate remarkable involvement and loyalty when they understand the role they play in their company's performance--when, in effect, they are empowered to be part of the company's success. As companies around the world are learning, an empowered workforce can be the difference between innovation and stagnancy, success and failure. An online, competency-based format is an ideal opportunity for companies to promote that empowerment by showing their employees how they fit into the whole and how they can progress in the organization.

Learning for Success
Knowledge and the transfer of knowledge is part of a long-term business strategy that includes quality, compliance, and performance management. A definition of "effective" in today's online culture includes methods that recognize a learner's needs, teach to those needs, manage the information, and transfer the knowledge gained.

An initial investment in time and talent will result in a program that effectively meets business objectives and develops employees--the real goal of any learning activity.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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