Every time a company buys in a new software application or installs a new type of hardware device, staff have to learn how to use it, otherwise the value of the new purchase will be lost. Life would be far simpler if every time a company purchased a new application, staff could be immediately "upgraded" with the skills necessary to use it. Skills could filter out of the shrink-wrapped box into the workplace - a sort of osmosis.
Sadly, this is not the case. Nor can staff be expected to acquire the knowledge to use a new piece of software or hardware on top of performing their day-to-day duties. They have to be trained. And sometimes retrained.
The rapid evolution of the IT industry and the increasing complexity of the IT environment is leaving some companies struggling to keep up.
Market analyst IDC believes that demand for IT skills is outstripping supply and leaving some UK businesses facing short-term skills shortages.
The schedules for traditional, classroom-based training do not always fit in with the fast pace of change in IT.
To compensate, companies are looking for what is known in the industry as just-in-time training, where staff are trained as and when training is needed. According to IDC, advances in technology have made education at the desktop more timely and accessible. Moreover, with some training material making extensive use of multimedia, computer-based training has become a far more enthralling experience than was possible before. Towards the future, the web and virtual reality are also likely to have a profound impact on the way people learn new skills, particularly in courses which take a hands-on approach.
There are a number of ways just-in-time-training can be delivered. These include training books, videos, CD-ROM and diskette. The web can also be used to deliver training material to employees' desktop PCs, but this suffers from insufficient bandwidth especially when there is rich multimedia involved. Another alternative is to use an existing company intranet to deliver training. Unlike web delivery, this does not suffer bandwidth problems and so can potentially be used to deliver training courses which make the best use of multimedia.
Just-in-time training is one of a number of options available to companies who need to train their staff. Companies may prefer instructor led courses, either at their premises or residential, off-site venues. Courses can also be public or customised to an individual company's training requirements.
Some training companies are able to offer a combination of training methods which combine printed material, CD-ROM or video and the web in conjunction with a traditional classroom-based course.
Speaking on the attraction of just-in-time training, Anthony Miller, UK research manager at IDC, says: "There is more control over when you get training. It is also more cost effective." Miller points out that it is extremely expensive to send people to off-site courses and the schedules from training companies do not normally fit in with when a firm needs particular skills.
Where IDC sees technology playing an increasingly important role is in the area of end-user computer training. "The technology lends itself very well to computer-based and self study methods," Miller says.
However, just-in-time training cannot be used in isolation. "There is no substitute for being in a classroom with a group of people and an instructor at the front." IDC believes that for certain types of training, such as "soft skills" like public speaking, there will be no substitute for the classroom approach. "You can only go so far with self-paced training," Miller continues. He also believes that computer-based training is unsuitable in some technical areas, such as diagnosing network problems, where demonstration forms a significant part of the course content. But he did not preclude the possibility of using technology such as virtual reality to emulate live demonstrations when such technology becomes readily available.
For technical training company Learning Tree, the reason why people tend to look seriously at classroom-based training is when they need to study a subject area in depth. As an example, David Pardo, managing director of Learning Tree says that a Windows NT support engineer could benefit from the amount of detail covered in an intensive classroom course. But to supplement this knowledge, the engineer may need to learn background information on Visual Basic and SQL Server. Pardo says that while such background knowledge is covered in classroom courses, self-paced and computer-based courseware could also be considered.
Commenting on the cost of classroom training, Pardo says: "Training is expensive and the list price of the course is 50% of the overall cost of attending the course." Additional costs for hotel accommodation, travel and the loss in productivity while attending an course contribute considerably to the final bill. Where classroom training gains according to Pardo is its value for the individual which is "extremely high".
About three-quarters of the courses run by Learning Tree are scheduled, public courses. A quarter are customer-specific.
The problem with scheduled courses is that they are often non-specific and do not address the exact needs of a particular company. Sometimes this is irrelevant, but there will always be cases where company-specific training is needed. Commenting on tailor-made courses, Jeff Hall, vice president of IT training company, Global Knowledge Network says: "The problem with scheduled courses is that they are non-specific. Application-centric training is much more focused." For instance, in the finance or insurance sector, a company would develop its own life assurance scheme based on a packaged application. Training on this particular usage of the application would be required. "Users would want to generate spreadsheets and reports," Hall adds. "But a standard Microsoft Excel course is not going to be relevant."
Customised courses are usually run at the customer's site. According to John Kaufman, business development director at IT trainer Azlan: "Customers look for training on their specific IT installation. There is no better place than a customer's site to learn this." Kaufman adds that at a customer's site, the training not only covers the operating systems but also networks, routers and connections to Unix systems where present.
On-site classroom training can also work out cheaper. Not only does on-site training cut out hotel and accommodation expenses, it can also help balance training with other work commitments. "It costs less too," Kaufman added. "There is a cost benefit when six or more delegate are trained on-site."
But Kaufman does not believe many companies have the resources to run on-site training courses effectively. A prime problem is training enough people at the same time. Another concern is that office space must be set aside for a special training facility. While it may be possible to run a course at a nearby hotel, sometimes course content will dictate a large amount of equipment which cannot be set up practically.
There are a whole variety of ways a company can train its staff. A few companies are attempting to bring all the different methods of training staff into one coherent package. An example of such a training course is provided by the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI). One company running MOLI courses is Peritas. Training is web-based and when a user signs up for a course he receives an introduction pack comprising a video and books from Microsoft Press relevant to the course. The MOLI approach is a bit like a correspondence course which runs over the Internet. Students can go online and talk to tutors and submit exercises via Email.
Comparing self-paced training to MOLI, Debbie Walsh, IT skills development manager at Microsoft, says: "Self study gives you the freedom to learn when you want. But you need the stamina to keep going." MOLI provides a way to motivate students by giving them the ability to converse with a course tutor by Email and have their course work examined.
Lack of motivation when using self paced training material was a prime concern among delegates in last month's Institute if IT Training's annual conference. In a debate comparing classroom training with self study, 51% of the 174 attendees polled, said that it was possible to use self study material if there is the motivation. Interestingly, 66% also believed that its use will grow. However, attendees felt that there was a strong need for classroom and self-paced training courses to complement each other, rather than compete. Over 60% were in favour of integrating the two approaches.
The future, from the IDC perspective, is a combination of computer-based and instructor led training. The role of the instructor will change, and be combined with media-based delivery of training material. It also expects to see a surge towards web-based education services over the next couple of years, fuelled by the increasing growth of the Internet.
This means people will be able to buy self study courses as books, videos or CD-ROMs and these will be backed up by regular supervised classroom courses. By combining the two, people will be able to take courses when they want, and have the backup of a tutor. This will allow companies to provide more flexible training for their staff.
Cabinet Office: large-scale end-user training
As part of the Cabinet Office's IT migration from MS-DOS to Windows NT, over 850 civil servants needed to be trained in the uses of Windows NT and Microsoft Office 95. The staff ranged from senior civil servants to secretarial and administrative personnel.
Training was handled by Global Knowledge Network. Following a complete training needs analysis earlier in the year, Global Knowledge Network developed a programme designed to cater for the individual needs of people with different job functions and varying degrees of IT familiarity.
The programme was based on a series of awareness seminars combined with a general introduction to the new system and one to three days of classroom-based training. This was designed to cater for the different levels of competence. It comprised one-to-one tuition for senior civil servants and included workshops which addressed specific professional requirements.
According to Global Knowledge Network, as of June, 96% of the Cabinet Office's staff have been trained to the initial level of IT literacy and Microsoft Office 95 proficiency.
Future plans include the provision of additional post-migration training and on-going support. The Cabinet Office is evaluating running lunch-time user clinics and the provision of on-line training in Microsoft Office 95 via its new intranet, which is being piloted during the summer.
"Our analysis identified a very wide ranging level of skills," explains Tony Corbin, project manager at Global Knowledge Network. "We discovered that some people had never used a computer before, while others demonstrated a very high level of IT competence." Corbin adds that Global Knowledge Network also had to take into consideration the different needs and requirements of clerical and administrative staff, along with those senior civil servants.
Fire Service College: virtual reality
The Fire Service College is using virtual reality and multimedia to train officers in the fire service. The operational training system was co-developed by the Fire Service College and Colt Virtual Reality.
Training fire fighting crew is obviously paramount. The Fire Service needs to protect itself against increasing insurance company litigation.
It is also coming under pressure to meet National Health & Safety Executive regulations to reduce some of the risks involved in fire fighting.
Traditional real-life fire fighting exercises are usually only available to small numbers of officers. These can be dangerous and require large investments in time and money to arrange and attend. Training one officer in a real-life exercise can cost u25,000 or more.
To set up an exercise involving four fire engines, with appropriate personnel, replacement equipment and staff may involve 20 people. But only one officer will get the experience of commanding the incident.
Using the Vector operational training system, officers are put in a virtual command centre, either on site or at a remote location. The software is designed to test a range of skills to analyse the situation, devise a strategy and react to unforeseen and frequently changing events.
Updates come in by radio, fax and data links. To tackle these, Vector provides the trainee with a resource board to allocate available staff and equipment.
The Vector software runs on a desktop PC with 800Mb of disk space. It includes 400 video clips, 600 audio clips and an artificial intelligence engine which is used to mirror special local conditions and ensure that no two exercises are the same.
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