European organizations are painfully aware of the workforce training issues triggered by the digital economy, and they're embracing U.S.-style solutions in response.
Internet technologies, the e-commerce revolution, and myriad other workplace innovations have served as catalysts for warp-speed change?change so fast that it's outpacing the ability to learn. The concomitant effect of this faster-than-ever pace is a dearth of highly trained and knowledgeable people. The skills shortage is evident across the whole of Western Europe, and it is largely responsible for a fundamental transformation in the way corporations are beginning to view, finance and manage training and development in the 21st century.
Most European training professionals?like those in the United States?have historically labored under the banner of "back-office support." Training was viewed as a cost center that rarely escaped the CFO's scalpel when economic indicators turned for the worse. Today, European senior managers speak the language of learning. They're signing off on multimillion-dollar training initiatives and proclaiming "people are our most important asset" with actual sincerity.
That's the good news. The bad news is that by 2002, if the major economies in Europe cannot find a solution to the learning problem, as many as 500,000 jobs in the technology sector alone will remain unfilled, according to International Data Corp. (IDC). It's this issue, rather than an altruistic conversion to the training ethic, that has shaken European firms and is forcing them to take a more strategic approach to training and development.
"Large organizations are clearly accepting and understanding that they have to raise the skills and knowledge base within the organization, and they have to do this on an enterprise-wide basis," says Kevin Young, CEO of SkillSoft Europe, London. "When you think about adopting that sort of model?to deliver training to everyone?the traditional model of putting people through classroom events really falls under tremendous strain."
Enter the learner-centric strategy. Rather than being "fed" training from a prescribed menu, this strategy allows the learners to select what, when and how something is learned. How well this strategy works for European organizations largely depends on the size of the workforce, cultural and diversity issues, and the type of learning to be delivered. A mix of traditional and technology-driven training initiatives has surfaced as the best solution.
For some of the bigger European organizations, however, the solution is a corporate university, a robust and sustainable virtual learning institution. Still others are looking externally, partnering with a single vendor to integrate the training solution seamlessly into the business. But since most training in European organizations still is carried out in the traditional manner, content, resources and services (increasingly technology-based) figure prominently in defining the best learning solutions.
"Corporate Universities are an American invention so you'd expect to see global U.S. companies replicating the strategy in their international markets," says Jeanne Meister, CEO of Corporate University Xchange, New York. "What we've seen over the last two to three years, however, is a steadily increasing number of European organizations investing in the concept."
Part of the increase, according to Meister, is the simple fact that European organizations are underscoring the importance of education as key to their business. "The ultimate driver to this renewed focus on corporate learning is to attract and retain the very best talent," she says.
For FedEx Europe, the problem hasn't been in attracting people, but retaining them. "We learned through exit interviews and climate surveys that a lack of career development was a big factor in why people leave the organization," says Margaret Owens, managing director of human resources for FedEx Europe, Brussels, Belgium.
FedEx responded by establishing "learning and growth" as one of its four key business strategies. FedEx Quality University?a global learning system with a virtual campus hosted at the company's Memphis, Tenn., headquarters?is the backbone of the learning and growth strategy. More than 140,000 worldwide employees have access to content. But for European employees, some of that content will soon be localized, hosted on a server in Belgium.
When FedEx employees cannot find a suitable course in the Quality University, they can take courses from outside sources that are paid for by a personal learning fund?a $2,500 annual allotment that FedEx offers every employee.
"I wouldn't sanction someone paying to get a private pilot's license," explains Owens, "But if the course has some business connection?however tenuous?I'll sign off on the expense." FedEx's intent is to become an employer of choice, she says. "But we can't do this unless we have a total commitment to continuous learning, not just for managerial and professional workers, but for everyone."
The learning needs of Xerox's 19,000-strong European workforce, which includes people from 35 countries speaking 15 languages, also are met though a virtual university. Dubbed the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), the corporate university is a new, $2.5 million venture hosted in Blanchardstown, Dublin, Ireland. A quest for greater employee development programs and retention are behind the investment. "With our VLE, we are making a significant investment in our employees? training, which will have a direct, positive influence on their job performance, career progression, and internal career opportunities," says Deborah Doyle, distance learning and education specialist.
While a corporate university or training center is not a new phenomenon to European organizations, only recently have the traditional bricks and mortar sites been supplemented with distance learning. Last year, Unipart, the British automotive parts group in Oxford, England, added a virtual component to Unipart U, a fixed-facility corporate training center that the company established in 1993. The online learning component, called Virtual U, delivers electronic courses to 10,000 employees.
The development of Virtual U was a natural extension to Unipart U, says John Neil, group chief executive. "Virtual U will enable our employees to learn at the speed of light and give them immediate access to the knowledge and tools they require. The responsibility to learn is on the individual, but if the organization can make that learning easier, then learning can become a competitive advantage. That's the challenge for organizations everywhere."
Vendors and external training consultants have been a part of the training mix for decades, so what's different about strategic partnering? Like many U.S. companies, once European organizations align training to the core objectives of their businesses, they need a solution that locks both vendor and client into those core values. European organizations have come to realize that this won't be achieved with the "need it, buy it" method of sourced training.
The alternative to ad hoc outsourcing is partnering with a strategic vendor that has the capacity and wherewithal to understand European business and the many cultural differences. Although still in its infancy in Europe, strategic partnering offers a viable alternative to the multimillion-dollar corporate learning institution?traditional or virtual.
Mirroring the United States, these massive training investments are in large part a result of the ongoing mergers and acquisitions taking place in many European technological and telecommunication business segments.
"The number of competitive pressures facing organizations in high-growth segments combined with all the mergers and acquisitions have forced organizations to renew their focus on how people are managed , and particularly, how organizations manage change," explains Jac Peeris, CEO of Skillvest, London.
Skillvest works with clients to help them understand the learning needs at the organizational, team and employee levels. "What companies really need is an ongoing training and development cycle that intrinsically links individual performance to the performance of the organization," says Peeris. "The traditional model, though still in widespread use across Europe, is obsolete."
E-learning expenditures in Europe will hit more than $3.9 billion by 2004, up from just $717 million this year'representing a compounded annual growth rate of 96 percent, according to IDC. Content expenditures are predicted to show the strongest growth, ahead of services and delivery solutions. Non-information technology training, including soft skills, sales, marketing and leadership, will grow to almost equal IT training, increasing from $222 million in 2001 to $1.8 billion in 2004.
Technology lies at the heart of the new learning focus in Europe just as much as it does in the United States. John Chambers? now infamous "e-mail rounding error" comment may have energized the North American market, but in Europe, training professionals are sensitive to the issue of instructional integrity. Generally, Europeans want more than linear-learning and talking pictures; they also want training in their local language with cultural references to which they can relate and connect. The current lack of e-learning content that meets these needs is one of the reasons for the relatively slow acceptance of e-learning on the European continent.
Overcoming the localization issue is, therefore, key to the growth of distance learning across the continent. Although it's less of an issue at the management level where English is the common business language, vendors must develop culturally acceptable training in order to reach everyone in the organization.
This is especially true in countries like France and Germany, which have been slow to adopt e-learning. Where English is widely spoken?Sweden, the Netherlands and, of course, the United Kingdom?e-learning adoption is higher. In the United Kingdom, for example, 45 percent of organizations use e-learning regularly, according to a recent survey by SkillSoft Europe.
The United Kingdom has become something of a beachhead for American e-learning vendors with aspirations towards Europe. They're establishing base camps in England and then partnering with European content specialists and instructional designers to roll out localized versions of their products and services.
For SkillSoft, this meant building local content even for the United Kingdom market. "We took the U.S. product and essentially re-engineered it," says Young. SkillSoft conducted a "linguistic review" and analyzed every graphic element to make sure it was appropriate for the United Kingdom. They even incorporated United Kingdom-centric case studies. "This is the model we're taking into mainland Europe." Young says. "We are working with locally based partners who know what the specific training issues are, then they help us determine what to localize first."
But not everyone is waiting for localized content. Some of the early adopters have taken the available content and found a way to work within its limitations. "Yes, there are barriers, but less so in terms of national culture and more so in terms of accepting this new way of learning," says Sylvain Newton, training manager for GE Capital European Finance's German affiliate. "You have to show people what e-learning is before they can learn through it."
Enter Newton's brainchild: E-days, in which people can experience e-learning for the first time in the safety of the classroom. Participants first take an exercise on learning styles. Then Newton leads a discussion on how to make e-learning work best for each individual.
Newton has a rather philosophical take on the use of e-learning. "It's as much about helping people adapt to the new learning model as it is about adapting the model to the way people learn," , regardless of location.
E-Learning Opportunities Abroad
E-learning expenditures in Europe are predicted to hit nearly $4 billion by 2004, according to the International Data Corp. (IDC). So, it should come as no surprise that many e-learning trade shows, conferences and seminar tracks are now sprouting up across the pond. In fact, several trade shows and conferences appear on the calendar for 2001 including:
o Feb. 13-14. OnLine Learning 2001 Europe Novotel London West Hammersmith, London. For information contact VNU Business Media* at 612-333-0471 or visit www.trainingmag.com. This event will also be held in Singapore, May 15-17 at the International Convention and Exhibition Center. For further information on both shows, visit www.trainingmag.com.
o Feb. 22-23. European E-Learning Expo and Conference Palais des Congres, Paris. This event will also be held in Hong Kong, August 30-31, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. For information on both events, contact ITE Group +33 450 60 04 31 or visit www.elearnexpo.com.
o June 6-7. E-Learning Conference and Exhibition the Business Design Center, London. Contact Venture Marketing Group at +44 20 8394 5100 or visit www.e-learningevent.com.
o June 26-27. European E-Learning Expo and Conference RAI Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. For information, contact ITE Group +33 450 60 04 31 or visit www.elearnexpo.com.
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.