IT has played an increasingly important role in the planning, provision and management of training. Eddie Kilkelly, Chief Operating Officer, ILX Group plc, examines the latest innovations and weighs up the challenges facing IT directors regarding multimedia content and multi-platform delivery.

In the past two decades, we have moved from the use of office productivity tools to draft learning content, prepare handouts and manually log training completions to the rollout of multimedia and social learning over a variety of technology platforms.

Currently, the most innovative interventions account for only a small percentage of training and training budgets, but the volume of such learning will only increase. Organisations are constantly seeking ways to improve efficiency and the benefits of high-quality, technology-based training are well known. 

Multimedia content, multi-platform delivery

Modern organisations and their employees prize the flexibility and timeliness of technology-based learning. It may be developed, delivered and updated quickly and cost effectively and there are not the same barriers to access and timing associated with classroom training. Content can be delivered over a computer or a mobile device with web access, making it as easy to learn on the train as in an office.

Moreover, a learner can revisit learning content in the future in order to refresh their memory, or the learning may be integrated into the organisation’s systems in order to provide just-in-time training. Arguably such on-the-job learning facilitates better knowledge retention as employees undertake the learning when it fits into their working day and digest the content in short, manageable chunks.

However, HR professionals with support from their IT departments are always seeking to replicate the interactivity of the classroom, and recent technological developments have enabled us to make significant leaps in this regard. The computer-based training of the mid-to late-1990’s - essentially documents presented in a digital format - was then replaced with more engaging solutions that included graphic-rich text, audio and video content and simulations.

Now we can add to that mix external links to further information, to online coaches and mentors, social learning tools and much more interactive tests and games. It is even possible to deliver virtual classroom courses and at ILX we have had some encouraging results from a recent pilot of a ‘PRINCE2® Live’ virtual classroom course for the PRINCE2 Foundation or Practitioner qualification.

Learner expectations drive change

There is a popular misconception that today’s teenagers and new graduates are driving the use of newer technologies in training, but that is not the whole story. Certainly, the ‘Google generation’ use technology instinctively to access information as and when they need it, but equally many older employees prefer to use technology to make their working lives easier.

They have become accustomed to technology-based productivity tools over a long period of time and are just as likely to have mobile phones with data or web access functionality. As consumers, they have lived through the roll-out of home broadband access and 3G telephone networks. They have seen massive changes in the type of content they can access and the speed at which it can accessed. 

Contrary to popular opinion new technologies are not the preserve of young men. Research indicates that just over half of the UK members of the social network Facebook are women, and just under half of all UK Facebook users are over the age of 29. In addition, a survey recently conducted by Information Services Group found that the average social gamer - that is, someone playing web-based games on a social network like Facebook - is a 43-year old woman.

The development of the gaming industry has been one of the most influential factors driving learner expectations of what technology-based learning should look like, so the importance of this insight into social gaming cannot be underestimated. 

In spring 2010, ILX launched a Snakes and Ladders App for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, for several of its best practice training courses. The game is a revision tool to help reinforce core elements of the training programme and prepare candidates ahead of exams.

Critically, the game can be played individually or with up to three other people via a Bluetooth connection, and players can post their results to Facebook or Twitter, reinforcing the social element of the learning. Initial feedback has shown that engaging game play actually improves knowledge retention. 

Barrier or facilitator?

In this move towards multi-media learning, there is a real risk that the IT department could restrict rather than facilitate organisational learning. Perhaps the most important issue is to make sure that the organisation’s IT infrastructure is able to support the demands that will be made of it, in terms of the number of users, the hardware and software that is installed in the IT department and the user’s desktop, and the appropriate connection speeds.

A lack of consistency could result in very different learning experience, which could influence the perception of the programme. This is particularly problematic for multinationals or any organisation where configurations vary from location to location, but common learning needs to be rolled out. There also needs to be a degree of ‘future proofing’. Multimedia learning, virtual classrooms and tools to support social learning are ever more complex and resource-hungry - it is important to ensure the right capacity and standards are in place

The IT manager may also need to take greater control over mobile technology. Delivering more learning content via mobile devices will lead to an increase in mobile data bills. In addition, employees may use personal rather than company phones on different devices across several networks, with varying network speeds and mobile software. This will negatively impact any mobile learning strategy, so it is more efficient to negotiate an organisation-wide contract with standard phones and set tariffs.

If an organisation’s IT management or operations is outsourced, it may also have a negative impact, as it can be difficult and slow to make changes if they are not within your control. There are also issues surrounding the type of information and services that are permissioned for access through the corporate firewall. 

IT managers have to manage a balancing act, opening up the corporate network to enable the widest possible access to potential learning, without leaving the network (and by extension the organisation) at risk.  Many organisations block social networking sites, yet membership of certain sites might be beneficial to the development of particular employees. Similarly, a post-training motivational email distributed to a large number of employees by a learning vendor could be classified as junk mail and blocked, leading to a reduction in the effectiveness of the learning programme. 

To facilitate learning, the organisation needs a high-quality, common technology infrastructure with an effective but flexible firewall that caters for these contradictory demands. IT should communicate regularly with HR and learning & development functions to ensure their programmes are making the most of the organisation’s technological capability and factor their needs into future plans.

It’s also important to be aware of the value of games and social networks in communicating learning and facilitating collaboration and argue against the blanket blocking of such material. Technology has delivered a revolution in learning, helping organisations to improve the capability of their people, but this is a comparatively young market and we have only started to consider the possibilities.