Launched in March 2008, Whitbread is rolling out a blended learning approach to employee training, covering subjects from till systems to food allergies. Noreen Wolfe, head of e-learning and Sandra Kelly, core skills training manager at Whitbread, talked to IT Training about how they are combining traditional classroom based learning and e-learning.

Whitbread, which has businesses in the hotel, restaurant and coffee shop sectors, has set its sights on a fast paced growth of continuous improvement. By 2010, the company plan to open 1,000 new sites which could result in another 20,000 employees. This would be on top of its current 35,000 employees serving 11 million customers, who each month, visit 1,400 outlets across the UK.

Whitbread relies on its thousands of employees to deliver brand promises. 'To guarantee continuous improvement' is one such brand promise. Whitbread ensures that each employee caters for every guests need. To enable this Whitbread required an efficient method of training its workforce.

The company was hesitant to purely rely on one methodology of training. It needed to investigate multiple methods of pedagogical delivery, namely classroom based learning and e-learning.

Noreen Wolfe, head of e-learning at Whitbread, said: 'It just wouldn't be practical to train all of our employees in classrooms. There would be colossal labour, course, travel and overnight accommodation costs, not to mention the environmental costs.'
A further challenge that the company faced was the limited availability of resources and computers at some Whitbread sites. For an employee to complete an e-learning course, computer availability is of the utmost importance. At sites where there is only one computer, business critical systems are the highest priority. Therefore an alternative solution was critically required.

Whitbread was keen to develop a relationship with an e-learning provider that matched its objectives. After a thorough investigation, the company decided to purchase the el-box from ThirdForce, the UK's leading e-learning provider.

The el-box is a tablet PC, particularly suitable for sites that do not have access to a separate room for learning. Not only does it remove many logistical barriers to learning by making it available anywhere anytime, it also allows learners without basic IT skills to learn on a fun, user-friendly platform.

Wolfe explained: 'We assigned el-box Champions to act as trainers. The champions were trained on using the product and were then asked to coach other employees how to use the application. This has proved to be highly successful in terms of greater responsibility for the champions but it has also enhanced team work and collaboration in the company.'

The company currently offers five courses through the el-box, including foundation health and safety, foundation food safety, disability discrimination act, food allergy and intolerance, and licensing law for bar persons. Furthermore, the company has developed three of its own courses: bar excellence, the business account, and Premier Inn housekeeping.

Wolfe said: ‘We have recently designed the housekeeping course in nine languages in order to cater for our top nine nationalities. The course is very multimedia orientated such as video, voice over and animation. The only aspect of the course that we were keen to keep in English was the Health and Safety element. If an incident was to occur in the workplace, our employees would need to know how to cater for the guest’s needs in English and not their mother tongue.’

Whitbread also has its own internal learning platform 'Academy Online' which is available on the Whitbread network. The academy highlights specific training plans for individual employees, aligned to their core skills and job specification. Areas such as managing teams, guest relations and managing costs and resources are addressed via Academy Online.

For Whitbread's workforce to gain the maximum benefits from its training programme, the company decided to blend e-learning with classroom based training. Three 1-day classroom based courses are available for all new managers to ensure they learn to use the systems which manage their products (stock), tills and labour at site.

There are geographically aligned training centres which host the Micros product management, till management and labour management courses. The key objective of the three courses is to provide new managers with a sound understanding of the systems used at site within the company.

Sandra Kelly, core skills training manager, explained: 'The delegates use "like for like" office systems in the training centres which include tills and ticket printers to complete practical activities and tasks with real life scenarios. The level of confidence at the end of the training is significantly increased and is reflected in course feedback forms which monitor the shift in knowledge as well as skill, thanks to this 'hands-on' experience, whereby delegates actually demonstrate competence.'

Sandra continued: 'We feel that supplementing e-learning with a "hands-on" approach in certain core skill areas allows the delegates to truly gain the knowledge they need to manage their business through the systems at site.'

Whitbread has witnessed an array of benefits through 'the blend' of classroom based learning and e-learning, for both the employee and the company.

Using the el-box from ThirdForce to deliver the company's training has allowed for the employees to complete their training in a 24/7 manner, training anyplace and anytime. The technology is truly mobile allowing employees to maximise their productivity during working hours, ensuring home-life is not encroached on.

Classroom based learning, allowing the employees to work on a live till system with a trained tutor, blended with e-learning, allows the students to learn in both a practical and theoretical manner.

Wolfe said: 'Having rolled out our blended learning approach earlier in the year, we look forward to a post completion review in September. We are adjusting the system to meet the needs of our employees, as and when we receive feedback.'

Technology has thoroughly pervaded Whitbread, which recognised that e-learning offers an array of benefits for the students, and also itself as the employer. But, the company also identified that to offer a superior training solution that meets all the needs of its employees, traditional classroom-based learning is also required. The more hands-on tasks, such as learning to use the till system requires live demonstrations and learning experiences.

Wolfe concluded: 'In essence, the key to our blended learning approach is selecting the right combination of media that will drive the highest business impact in the most cost effective manner.'