TORONTO — Some of Canada’s biggest enterprises say online training improves employee access to valuable information — as long as companies make sure to mix some humanity with the technology.

Getting maximum value out of e-learning initiatives was the focus of The Conference Board of Canada’s

Learning and Development conference, which brought together members of private and public sector organizations who shared stories on the challenges and benefits of their internal online training projects.

Rolling out a Web-based learning program for more than 60,000 employees in five time zones and two languages was a daunting task for Hudson’s Bay Company. The corporation also includes Zellers and Home Outfitters stores, and each chain

carries a large number of different items, making product knowledge information critically important for its sales associates, said Jim Campbell, HBC’s organizational management senior manager.

In the 1990s, HBC had introduced a fairly robust computer-based training (CBT) system, but it was mainframe-based, Campbell said. The system was used until 2001, when it became clear that while most of the content stored on it was still very much relevant to the stores’ operation, the delivery mode was outdated.

“”I always just had a great deal of fun watching any of the newer hires sitting down . . . and they’re sitting with a mouse and they’re trying to mouse their way through a mainframe program,”” he said.

HBC employees were also consistently asking for access to the CBT material from home, Campbell said. The stores did not have a large number of PCs, making access to training inconvenient. Taking the material onto the Web became an obvious choice.

After a vendor search process and some difficulty figuring out how to price a solution that would be accessed numerous times by anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 users, a platform was developed. The company managed to salvage about 40 of its mainframe programs and with the addition of about 140 more, it now has a training material database, accessible from any computer, said Campbell.

E-learning is not the be-all and end-all solution, Campbell added. His preferred approach is blended learning, where technology-assisted learning is integrated into more traditional training methods.

TD Bank Financial Group turned to blended learning during its 1999 merger with Canada Trust. The two financial companies had CBT resources in place for staff, but while Canada Trust largely relied on CD-ROM based programs, TD was using a mainframe solution, said Collin Field, TD’s emerging technology manager.

In a merger which saw the complete re-branding and re-organization of services offered at both organizations, it was important to come up with a system that would standardize the employee experience throughout the new company. E-learning staff learned an important lesson when 5,000 binders of material meant as support for the online courses were distributed to employees, said David Wright, TD learning and development senior manager.

“”About a year later, when we’d travel to the different branches, we’d still see people holding on to those binders.””

Wright said some employees were simply choosing to print out all of the online material and study it in paper form anyway. He says the company acknowledges that not everyone learns in the same fashion, adding e-learning is best combined with peer-assisted training and one-on-one coaching.

A blended approach to learning is not always an easy sell. Banks are conservative organizations and many TD employees had a hard time getting over a “”computer-phobia,”” Wright said. To this day, the company has to use scare tactics to get some of its employees to complete online courses, for example, when an online course is a pre-requisite for a seminar.

The debate over whether training should be mostly Web-based or not was solved with a compromise, Field said.

Lack of experience with these training systems can mean learning and development managers end up having to work hard to convince executives to invest in the technology necessary for e-learning, Wright said. The TD experience has shown that with each successful online course rolled out, it becomes a little easier to prove the value of the blended approach.

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