Net gains for training

As well as its implications for the way engineering companies do business, the internet is being harnessed as a training tool in a bid to counter the skills shortage. Richard Cree reports

The CBI’s Employment Trends 2000 survey highlighted that employers see the widespread shortage of skills as their biggest challenge for the future. While the internet is often cited as part of the cause, it also offers some solutions.

Mike Cannell, an adviser on training and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development claims research shows more companies than ever are making greater use of internet and intranet technology in their approach to training. `We have seen a 17% increase in the use of the internet for training in the past year, with 40% of organisations now making some use of these techniques,’ he says.

But what do phrases such as online training, e-learning and e-training mean in practice? Nigel Howarth, vice-president of global marketing at online training company NETg, admits that there is a distinct lack of consistency in definitions: `It is all over the radar screen. The only common thread is they all use web-based technology,’ he says.

Bob Eades, new products manager at training provider, Ascot Systems, says there are two distinct areas: `There is e-learning, which offers self-paced learning, perhaps with a bit of help. Then there is online training, which is a newer trend and which allows for closer monitoring and mentoring of trainees.’ This includes using networked software, which enables a tutor to be linked up to students in almost any location with access to the internet.

Internet training can be seen as just the latest version of distance learning, where individuals benefit from a structured learning programme at a time, place and pace that suits them. Cannell explains: `There are major pluses to such an approach, not least in speed and economy of scale. You can roll out a product launch simultaneously to 10,000 people and it will be almost as cheap as if you did it for 10 people.’

On the other hand, where training requirements are specialised and only relevant to a few staff, a traditional face-to-face session may be more economical.

Commercial training providers think there will be rich pickings in the engineering sectors, especially in the process-oriented and technical areas.

The appeal, as they see it, is the added flexibility offered by online training. This has advantages for companies that have to live with fluctuations in demand. It can be unrealistic to expect a firm to be able to promise one day off a week for training, because the chances are that if there is a busy period or a rush order there is no way that commitment will be kept.

Having the facilities available for employees to train on-location and fitting training around demand patterns may prevent the all too common pattern of training being forgotten as soon as the course finishes.

If the jargon surrounding on-line training seems confusing, however, it is nothing compared with the vast array of providers queueing up to offer e-learning services.

As with traditional training, the key differentiator will be content. NETg’s Howarth says buyers should take their time. `First, don’t just jump on the bandwagon. Form a clear idea of your requirements and then assess whether e-learning or online training meets all or part of those needs. Secondly, formulate a clear strategy, using a project team that includes someone from the training department (to evaluate content), a technical person (to assess infrastructure) and finally a key user or project sponsor.’

As for what the future holds, nobody doubts that some form of web-based training will play an important role. Howarth predicts a fundamental change on the horizon: `The real revolution will be the in ability of trainers to mould and shape content to meet increasingly client-specific demands.’

But Ann Bailey, head of education and training at the Engineering Employers’ Federation urges caution, warning that it is still early days. `There are bits and pieces of materials around at the moment, but not much in terms of engineering training,’ she says. `The key point is to ensure that people are clear that these new techniques complement traditional training methods, they are not in competition.’

Bailey is preparing a number of online engineering training modules, but nevertheless points out that such an approach will not suit everybody. `There are times, in engineering, when there is just no substitute for hands-on experience,’ she says.

Richard Cree is deputy editor of Employee Benefits

Copyright: Centaur Communications Ltd. and licensors