Smart moves: Cheap and cheerful training

Thanks to new technology, in-service training can be served up in digestible chunks, by-passing the tedious residential course, writes Rachelle Thackray
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The Independent Online
INSTEAD of the coffee break or the fag break, there is a new diversion: the learning break. Aimed at assisting employees to read, learn and inwardly digest new information in a relaxed environment, those who have tried it are queueing up for more.

The idea that you can slope off for half-an-hour to watch comic role plays and click interactive boxes on a PC is particularly appealing when you consider the alternative: a week away from your dangerously bulging in-tray on a management development course somewhere in Wales. The idea is driven by the principle of self-managed learning, part of the revamping of the old psychological contract between employer and employee.

As Andrew Constable, a speaker at this week's Human Resource Development (HRD) conference at Olympia, said: "It's often a powerful and profound process. Implicit in the approach is the notion of development as a continuous process, embracing all aspects of a person's behaviour and outlook rather than one small part of it."

One exhibitor at Olympia who is streaking out in front of the pack to implement an infrastructure for self-managed learning is Xebec, the interactive learning company founded by a former Atari gamesmaster, Chris Horseman.

Tools range from CD-Rom customer service programmes used by 5,500 Mecca bingo hall assistants to top management strategy programmes used by Price Waterhouse chiefs. Both levels of training combine vernacular humour and video simulations - set in locations such as Denny and Doris's "donut diner" - with imaginative graphics, easy-to-learn mnemonics and detailed question-and-answer sessions.

Heather Beattie, HR director at Mecca, wanted to ensure consistency and keep employees "on-message" across 130 sites. "We needed to make sure we had the right tool," she says. With Xebec's CD-Rom, employees enter a password, participate in a colour-coded half-hour session with a series of possible scenarios, and send their results by network back to head office.

"We tried to make it really fun," says Chris Horseman, who was a vice- president for Atari in the US at the age of 24 and founded Xebec with two colleagues. "People in that environment didn't necessarily want customer service training. You've got to create something that's really going to inspire them to carry on; something entertaining, stimulating and challenging." Since instituting the programme, Mecca's "mystery customer" scheme has monitored a four per cent improvement in service scores. "People thought their customer service was fine, but they were not seeing themselves doing it," says Ms Beattie. Mecca was a test bed; Rank's other chains, such as Odeon cinemas and Ritzy nightclubs, may follow.

Another satisfied Xebec customer is Lloyds TSB, which introduced training audio cassettes in the 1960s and has increased its programme for 80,000 staff from a total of 9,800 hours four years ago to 60,000 hours. Ex-Lloyds manager Tim Drewitt, who supervised the rise, is now given a free hand as a manager for Xebec; he is one of several former competitors coaxed by Mr Horseman into the fold. (The company was named after a small, legendary pirate ship which had a square-rigged mast, sails and oars - the whole shebang - to make it go faster. "It was just apropos," grins Mr Horseman.)

One of the problems with interactive learning, says Mr Drewitt, is that recalcitrant line managers find it hard to "own" the training, particularly if it is generic rather than specific. While Xebec tailor-makes packages on request and reshoots video material for American-English speakers, it simply dubs European versions, which are produced at its Swiss office.

Mr Drewitt, meanwhile, is an old hand at persuading management of its virtues; after taking 10 sceptical Argos executives for a morning, he had convinced them to give Xebec training a try. "They had had another bad experience, but I proved to them it was effective. Often people see it just as a matter of getting a CD-Rom, but then it's left in a closet," he says. He helps managers ensure there is a balance between isolated PC-based learning and face-to-face appraisal and debriefing. For higher levels of management training, the approach differs: case studies are introduced, for example, and cartoon gags are more sophisticated.

Its proponents believe interactive learning has advantages both for employers, whose costs are dragged down with multiple use of the tools, and employees, who love the unpressurised environment. "We've heard of people cancelling courses when they found out it wasn't multi-media," says Chris Horseman. "Interactive learning is self-paced, and people leave it when they feel comfortable with the material. Nobody is judging them - it's done in privacy - and they can make mistakes."

Xebec's next project is to develop its own training computer language, provisionally named Krakatoa (a volcano west of Java and a nerdy in-joke). "We're trying to provide a solution for our customers," says Mr Horseman. "As much of a complete solution as possible."