Hi-tech ladder to new skills

Companies and workers alike are recognising the value and flexibility of training that can be delivered at home or in the workplace, writes Helen Hague
FORGET talk and chalk. When an adult learns a new skill today, he or she is more likely to switch on a computer, sit down to watch a video or to sign up for a correspondence course than to go back into a classroom.

The concept of open learning is spreading as more companies realise it is a flexible and cost effective way of strengthening the skills of their workforces. And workers realise that self development at their own pace will help them keep their CVs in good shape.

With "jobs for life" looking like an outmoded concept, it clearly makes sense to re-skill and to acquire fresh qualifications throughout one's working life.

Technology is transforming the learning experience. By plugging a CD- ROM drive into a personal computer, or an interactive CD into the TV, people can load up with the appropriate software for an interactive multi- media study session. And do it at their own pace.

Smart companies that recognise the positive business benefits of investing in training are making sure that they, and their employees don't miss out.

Open learning can be used to challenge organisational culture, bringing the benefits of increased flexibility and a freshly motivated workforce. Such change is happening at the military aircraft division of British Aerospace, which used to rely heavily on orders from the Ministry of Defence. All that has changed since the end of the Cold War.

Ian Dixon, BAe's employee development officer, explained: "The days of supplying the MoD with 650 Tornados has long gone. We have to compete in the global market and shift the culture of the organisation."

At the company's five sites, open learning centres have been set up and used as a catalyst for the "learner-driven" training ethos which is spreading through the company.

"Historically, training was seen as something that happened to others - if someone couldn't do a job, then send them on a training course. There was little personal development," Mr Dixon recalled. But to get the adaptive flexible workforce that the company wanted, its people had to be "switched on to learning opportunities", he said. And managers had to ditch their entrenched views on what kind of on-site learning was appropriate.

Staff use the centres in working time - with their managers' approval, of course. About half the training that employees opt for is not specifically related to the jobs they do. But it whets their appetites: fitters are being re-skilled as trainers, or training themselves for production planning. A security guard is shifting to administration.

Nothing is compulsary, but three out of 10 in the workforce have already signed up for open learning. "People are looking for opportunities to learn" said Mr Dixon. "They come into the centres, pick up on something that interests them, then often move on to something that will directly benefit the business. We don't force them to do that; we just hope that it will happen" - and it does. The centres are thriving. They have just started to stay open outside work hours.

Advances in technology have given CD-ROM training a boost. Motion picture extended graphics (MPEG) have given CD-ROM the quality of interactive video. People working on CD-ROM courses can now have a full-screen video on their PCs.

The training revolution would not be possible without software to cater for growing demand. In January, Futuremedia and its distribution arm, Lasermedia UK, launched a CD-ROM course using the MPEG technology. The two-disk course helps companies train staff to meet a new internationally recognised quality standard - 1S0 9000. Getting accredited is helping companies perform better at home and abroad. And it is spreading: a company in Croatia recently won accreditation.

The CD-ROM "Training For A Winning Team" is a fully fledged interactive multimedia course: graphics, pictures, text and sound combining to train staff at their own pace and spread the quality management culture through companies. It is also proving to be a boon for companies which have already received accreditation but need to train new employees.

Seven years is a long time for software companies. Xebec Multi Media Solutions started out in 1988, producing bespoke interactive videos for such blue-chip companies as IBM, BT and Price Waterhouse. Three years ago Xebec started producing a series of courses on CD-ROM in management and communication skills for a wide audience. The Business Series is aimed at employees up to middle management, and includes a pre-course assessment quiz which allows users to adapt it to their own skill levels.

Richard Maugham, the company's business development consultant, believes the fall in the price of hardware will allow firms to have a computer terminal dedicated to open learning in every department.

"It costs about £200 to convert a PC into a multimedia learning station, upgrading to CD-ROM and installing a sound card," he said "With the machine in the corner, people would not even have to leave their departments to train."

The Open University pioneered distance learning for degree courses 25 years ago, using the postal service and summer schools. Today it, too, has embraced the latest technology to further the spread of knowledge. Some students already receive course work on a CD-ROM loaded with text and graphics. They file their assignment by e-mail and take part in down- the-line conferences.

At home, the Open University, through its Business School, accounts for 40 per cent of those enrolling for distance learning MBAs. It is now also the largest provider of MBAs in Europe, a growth fuelled by the hunger for self-paced management training.

As the former Eastern Bloc countries adapt to market economies, the demand is huge for management development courses that offer flexibility and quality. About 7,500 managers in Russia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech and Slovak republics are taking Open University Business School courses in their own languages.

As we hurtle toward the millennium, open learning looks poised for further growth, led by technology and the changing demands of the world of work. The desire for self-improvement and the need for companies to compete in global markets with a flexible and skilled workforce can both be satisfied, in large measure, by well thought out training strategies.

And a strategy that is cost-effective, flexible and motivating certainly makes sense. Open learning looks like being around in the next century.