Ten years ago IT skills were solely the domain of the IT-literate elite; today IT is in day-to-day use by everyone within the organisation, making successful IT training critical to the success of the business itself. Clare Spratt, relationship manager at Kaplan IT Learning, looks at the role of e-learning in the ongoing evolution of IT training.

Can you teach a fish to ride a bicycle? No of course not. But you could if a fish had the ability to learn and the potential to do so.

Take me for example. I've been using IT applications as part of a job since my first job 15 years ago. On a daily basis I use four Microsoft applications, one CRM system, one contract management system, three web-based mail services and the internet. Oh and of course, although slightly less often, the online e-procurement systems that I use to book flights, accommodation and the occasional theatre tickets.

And yet I had no formal training in any of them, instead learning as I went, completely on the time and money of previous employers. The amount of time I have spent correcting errors, doing things the long way and bothering colleagues with my unruly spreadsheets and document formatting would amaze even the most sedate accountant. And I'm pretty typical.

Times this by 100,000 people and a cool £1 million or so of investment, and you put yourself in the rather nervous shoes of an enterprise application roll-out team, wondering whether their recommendation to invest in the latest and greatest enterprise application product will be successful. Now you begin to understand why training is suddenly on the agenda of every large organisation and most small to medium-sized businesses.

It is now considered absolutely critical that by the go-live date of any enterprise software system, all users should be fully trained and ready to go. If nobody is going to use the system what would the point be? This hasn't always been the case. In the past 10 years no one could fail to notice that IT has dramatically changed the face of business and the way we do things. We've become more efficient, more accurate and more responsive to demand as a result.

IT has gone from being a quick, easy way of storing data, run by a service department, to running and managing all business processes, and in some cases automating business processes completely. IT professionals have become an essential component to the success or failure of any business.

Ten years ago IT skills were solely the domain of the elite IT-literate. Today IT is in day-to-day use by everyone within the organisation. End-users' skills are now critical to the success of the applications that run the business, and the business itself.

So how did e-learning become so important?

When the HR department used to own training, they were responsible for ensuring people had the right skills to do the job and had a development path that suited the organisation's needs. Training was very expensive as it involved travel off-site, accommodation and the cost of having someone off the job for the duration. The risk was high as you can send someone on a training course but you can't force them to learn. The idea was there but the method was still hit and miss.

As enterprise resource planning (ERP) became central to business process management and the next big thing in money-saving and efficiency, training began to move from the peripheries of annual reviews and once-a-year courses towards the centre of the organisation.

As their heads were usually on the block if things went wrong, the IT department had a sudden interest in the skills of end-users, and solution training became their domain, usually in isolation from the HR training strategy (who after all had years of experience in providing the training).

In the brave new world of last-minute panic, training could be anything from a basic user guide on the intranet, written by the project team or technical author as an afterthought, to a three-day training course in a supplier's classroom.

As budgets became tighter, IT professionals started to use technology to create and deliver training. Once the training was available, ensuring everyone had done the training became the next hurdle.

How could training be more effective and appealing to the masses? But end users are not all the same. They cover every profession and profile throughout the organisation, and somehow training needed to be appealing and engaging in order to encourage people to do it.

The instructional design of a course became the focus to ensure the learner was engaged and learning as they sat at their computer gaining new skills, and not nodding off as they paged through bland content. Real-life scenarios and realistic processes were integrated into the learning content at the front end, whilst statistics about learner activity were caught at the back end and output as reports. Learning management was born.

The next development was to work out how training departments ensure that there is minimal disruption, end users are truly competent in using the targeted software once training has ended, and knowledge and competency levels do not diminish with time due to infrequent use of the software.

E-learning strategy has become learner-centric rather than technology-driven, and the ability to provide a real-life environment identical to the one they will be using on the job has crept up towards the top of the agenda. The ability to learn new skills and immediately consolidate them by hands-on practice is invaluable. However the risks associated with using the live system are almost unmentionable.

Since the late 1990s a new breed of training has been introduced around the world in the form of software simulations. Simulations are enabling companies to train hundreds to thousands of their system end-users quickly and cost-effectively; achieve faster rates of learning and longer periods of knowledge retention; and also to achieve regulatory compliance by enabling them to prove end-user competency.

Simulation-based learning is 'learning by doing' in a safe environment where mistakes made during the learning process do not have a negative impact outside of the training environment. Similar to a flight simulator, a software simulation allows users to attempt tasks in what appears to be their 'live' system environment - with the difference that a mistake made in a simulation does not have a negative impact on the live system.

End-users are guided with step-by-step instructions and support as they attempt to perform a task in the simulation of their live system. The result is faster learning and a higher level of retention and confidence in the end-users' ability to competently use the targeted software.

End-users feel more confident because they've 'learned by doing' in a realistic simulation of the actual system or software they will be working in. They’ve learned by thinking and exploring in the simulation without fear of making mistakes that will affect the live system.

Training managers and IT project managers also feel more confident in letting end-users begin working in the live system, because they’ve been tested or assessed accurately using the same simulation and tracking their actions in the simulation.

Making simulation-based training available at any time is crucial. Learning used to be at the 'moment of need', in the last few weeks before the application roll-out was happening. This is still the critical time to teach people new skills (i.e. right before they need to use it to maximise the consolidation of skills), but equally as important is a continuous path of learning to develop skills at the same rate as the use of the new application increases and intensifies.

A continuous path of development also ensures that a gap does not appear between competent users and new staff, or those who have not consolidated their skills immediately.

Of course the advantages of having a high level of skills throughout the workforce are infinite. Not only are things completed more efficiently and less time is spent in correcting errors, but as skills fulfil the organisation's immediate needs, they begin to exceed them and the level of services and products becomes a unique selling point. Customer service and the ease of doing business with people becomes a compelling competitive advantage.

The advantage of all types of e-learning is not only that it provides a cheaper option that can be delivered to the desk or work station, but it also ensures consistent high-quality information to all, the ability to go back and refresh knowledge and a basis on which to build skills as training becomes available. Organisations can now train thousands of people on the same day and ensure a truly organisation-wide level of skills.

E-learning on its own is not the be-all and end-all solution to training. Trainers are still essential, but they can concentrate on teaching core skills and coaching learners rather than spending weeks producing training courses, supporting documentation and tests. The blended learning approach - a combination between classroom and coaching, and e-learning and documentation - has proven to be an extremely successful strategy.

So had I been offered the opportunity to become competent in my four Microsoft applications, one CRM system, one contract management system, three web-based mail services and the internet 15 years ago, I probably would have snatched it up quicker than lightening.

Not only that, but I strongly believe that every single one of my employers over the years would have wanted me to, if only they'd known how much it was costing them not to, and were aware of an effective and economical way of doing it. Hopefully without the need to repair the damage to their infrastructure afterwards.

About the author

Clare Spratt has over six years' experience in e-learning and is currently working with global organisations using STT Trainer to deliver simulation-based training. STT Trainer is Kaplan IT Learning's Enterprise Application Training Software, enabling clients to create and deliver critical training.