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Why training needs the intranet
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by Clive Shepherd

Despite their role as catalysts of change within organisations, training departments are not always so keen on changing themselves. It’s so often a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. Although there are many notable exceptions, so many training departments run much the same as they have done for the past twenty years, which is about as long as the author has been either running one or working with them. But some developments in working practices just can’t be ignored and, according to the author, the intranet is one of those. Clive Shepherd explains why training departments should be amongst the first to exploit this new technology.

Contents

Why intranets work
Why the training department should take note
Using the intranet to analyse needs
Using the intranet as a design tool
Using the intranet to spread the word
Using the intranet to deliver training
Using the intranet to establish learning communities
Using the intranet to manage training records
Using the intranet for evaluation
How to build the training intranet

Why intranets work

Only someone shipwrecked for years on a desert island would be unaware of the Internet and that’s assuming that the natives were not already communicating with their relatives on other islands using e-mail or busy building their own e-commerce site to sell holidays on-line. Everyone knows that the Internet is the mother of all networks, a way of inexpensively linking computers at home and at work with millions of others around the world; in fact something like 100 million of them.

Most people say they also know what an intranet is, mainly because it’s one of the trendy buzzwords of the moment and it’s not cool to show ignorance. But the concept is simple enough. It is, of course, a mini-Internet, dedicated to a single organisation and providing employees with all the benefits of the web in their workplace.

The intranet sits alongside the myriad of other communication tools within an organisation, but has its own distinct profile. An intranet is:

  • on-line, which means there is a minimal delay in messages reaching their target and communication can take place over large distances. Compared with off-line media such as paper documents and CD-ROMs, content can be updated centrally and immediately made available to all users.
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  • interactive, which means you have the opportunity of receiving feedback; you have a better chance of the message being understood; you can tailor messages to meet individual users’ needs; and the user can control the pace of the communication process.
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  • a ‘pull’ technology, which means that access is at the user’s discretion. Information on an intranet sits there waiting to be ‘pulled’. This is ideal where you have large quantities of information to make available, but not where you need to be certain that a message has reached its target within a given timeframe. For that you need that other on-line, interactive medium, e-mail - a ‘push’ technology for targeted messaging. An organisation’s e-mail system and the intranet are natural partners, in the same way that Internet e-mail works alongside the World Wide Web for home users.

As intranets run over companies’ networks, rather than through a dial-up connection, they should be able to provide smoother and faster access to information than a home user would expect from the Internet. In practice, many local area networks are of inadequate bandwidth to take all of their existing traffic plus the burden of the intranet and so response times can be surprisingly sluggish. Of course, this is changing and most organisations are busy upgrading their networks, but I have not heard of one yet that’s brave enough to encourage the use of audio or video on their intranet. It’s safe to assume for the next two or three years at least that what an intranet gives you, in media terms, is text, graphics and a little animation. In time we will be able to use intranets as audio-visual tools as well, replacing multimedia CD-ROMs, in-company television networks and stand-alone videoconferencing facilities.

The single interface for an intranet is a web browser like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. This seemingly simple software application will in time provide employees with access to a significant proportion of their working tools: news, reference materials, documents, workflow applications, company databases and bespoke systems, discussion forums and … training.

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Why the training department should take note

The training department has as much to gain from the intranet as any service department, probably more. Not only does the intranet provide them with the perfect mechanism for communicating with their customers, it also provides a means for delivering the service itself.

But even for those die-hards out there who have no time for computer-based training delivery, you will ignore the intranet at your peril. As I hope will be clear from this article, the work of the training department could not only be made more efficient with an intranet, but significantly more effective.

Here’s an overview of what an intranet could do to lead training into the 21st Century:

  • supply every one of your customers with information about the training provided within the organisation, including dates and the availability of places
  • allow much training administration to be performed automatically
  • allow you to survey your customers on-line, including needs analysis and evaluation
  • provide a means to deliver computer-based training to the desktop
  • allow users to form learning communities to provide each other with support
  • provide managers with on-line access to your training records

In the following sections, we’ll take each one of these possibilities further, starting with the first point in the training process, needs analysis.

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Using the intranet to analyse needs

There are many different approaches to needs analysis and not all of them will be greatly aided by an intranet. However, to the extent that you can gather the information you need through surveys and assessments, then you will find the intranet a useful tool.

It is relatively easy to generate web forms, using all of the familiar Windows input methods – text boxes, push buttons, drop-down menus, check boxes and radio buttons. If you are using an authoring tool like Microsoft FrontPage, then it is also easy to have the data saved into a file format that you can read into a database, spreadsheet, browser or word processing package. If not, you’ll need a little programming help from the IT department.

You can use web forms in a number of ways:

  • to have an employee rate themselves against job competencies
  • to have a manager rate their staff against job competencies
  • to assess the degree of interest in possible training subjects
  • to assess learning style preferences (using something like the Honey and Mumford model)
  • to assess knowledge or understanding of a particular subject

Of course, you may require a system that integrates information on needs with other aspects of your HR system – succession plans, competency frameworks, performance appraisals, business goals, individual learning plans and so on. In this case, you’ll either need to create a system from scratch or purchase an off-the-shelf system that utilises the intranet as a front-end. An example is HR Pulse from Nardoni Associates, Inc., which captures information about jobs, competencies and appraisals in an integrated database that can then be used to produce reports as an aid to decision making.

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Using the intranet as a design tool

The intranet is unlikely to play a major role in the process of training design, but there are certainly a few ways in which it can help:

  • the intranet provides a means for design documents to be reviewed and commented upon, even when the parties are geographically spread
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  • tools are in development to aid in analysing cost-benefits for training (in the meantime, a more general Intranet Cost-Benefit Calculator has already been created – it can be found at www.intranet-cafe.co.uk)
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  • I am personally piloting an on-line Training Methods Selector.

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Using the intranet to spread the word

Training departments operate within an internal market. Even if training courses are not directly paid for within an organisation, trainees are still customers and without bums on seats, no training department is going to survive long.

In the past, if you wanted to parade your training services to the organisation, you would produce a training catalogue, typically a once-a-year glossy, distributed to a select few. Like anything else that’s produced once a year, within no time at all it is out-of-date – new needs have arrived and assumptions about demand have been misjudged.

Using an intranet, every member of the organisation can have access to the very latest course details and schedules, possibly as a direct output from your training administration system. Your on-line catalogue can include a lot more than classroom courses – open and distance learning materials, videos, books and journals. In fact, many library management systems now come with an intranet front end, and it would be short-sighted to purchase a system that did not have this feature. Add to this the latest training news, feature articles, training policies and procedures and reviews by delegates of internal and external events and you have a pretty comprehensive way of marketing your services.

British Airways has produced an on-line training catalogue that brings together all of the 1000+ courses run by their many training departments, searchable according to a wide range of criteria and soon to be integrated with their training administration system, Registrar, to allow on-line registration. Never before has this information been available to all employees in one place. As a result, BA anticipates less duplication of effort on the supply side, a less confused audience and a closer match of needs with resources. Users voted it the best site on their intranet – 94% would recommend it to others and 100% would use it again.

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Using the intranet to deliver training

The primary activity of many training departments is, not surprisingly, the delivery of training. Any method which is capable of producing better results for the same price or the same results at a cost saving is likely, therefore, to be of interest. Not surprising, then, that in a recent survey by the MASIE Centre, 82% of large corporations stated that they were in the process of developing an on-line learning strategy or pilot – with an initial focus on IT training.

With only text, graphics and simple animation at its disposal, but with a full range of interactive capabilities, an intranet is capable of delivering a reasonable standard of CBT (computer-based training) and therefore inherits the benefits of that medium:

  • self-pacing
  • flexible timing
  • reduced time to train
  • no travel time or costs
  • greater retention

On top of these, there are some extra benefits to be obtained by delivering CBT over an intranet:

  • with the intranet available on the desktop, the training can be delivered just-in-time
  • the training materials can be easily updated centrally
  • the training can be fitted around normal work tasks

However, some will argue that the desktop is not well suited to learning. After all, it is hard to prevent interruptions and there is not always a great deal of privacy. Some trainees may also feel that because they are not engaged in ‘real work’, they will be seen to be playing. These issues are real and not necessarily easy to resolve, however, the degree of resistance to the idea drops dramatically if the training is presented as really short, just-in-time modules. Whereas many employees would find it difficult going through a lengthy multimedia CD-ROM programme at their desk, most people can fit in a fifteen minute module that delivers the key points, in a practical and no-nonsense manner, where it is clearly of benefit and relevance to their immediate work problems. Chairing a meeting this afternoon? Never had this responsibility? Check out the ‘chairing meetings’ module and find out how it’s done.

Of the three main learning domains – cognitive, psychomotor and affective – probably only the former is likely to be well supported by an intranet. However, in our modern knowledge-intensive organisations, cognitive learning – the learning of facts, concepts, principles and procedures – is a major objective for any training department. Intranet training modules can provide cognitive learning in a number of situations:

  • as pre-work before a classroom course (thus allowing the course to concentrate on skill development and attitudes)
  • as a refresher to a classroom course (or when there has been a change in procedures)
  • to provide new learning on a just-in-time basis
  • as part of a comprehensive distance learning course

Intranet training modules can be developed or acquired piecemeal and use a wide variety of interfaces and techniques. It is also possible to integrate a large number of modules within a complete training delivery system, that manages curricula and maintains trainee records. Examples of systems like this are British Telecom’s CampusProfessional (www.bt.com) and Epic Group’s 20/20 Training (www.epic.co.uk). The latter also uses intelligent screen savers to reinforce key learning points. DDI’s OPAL system (www.ddiworld.com) presents everything from quick tips to detailed explanations for all sorts of interpersonal skills situations, backed up by assessment and competency management tools.

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Using the intranet to establish learning communities

The presentation of training modules is only one of the possible elements of an on-line learning system. We are, of course, social animals and receive a great deal of benefit through interaction with other learners, subject matter experts and facilitators. Although it may seem an impersonal tool, an intranet can do much more than deliver information from a centralised source – it can provide a means for learners to collaborate with one another and get support from the experts.

Imagine a web site on your intranet dedicated to the needs of those people in your organisation going through a major training programme. The web site brings together a ‘learning community’ providing a wealth of facilities:

  • information about the course
  • a directory containing details of who’s on the course
  • news – dates, completions, changes, etc.
  • on-line training modules
  • papers submitted by subject matter experts or trainees for review
  • discussion forums where topics from the course can be debated
  • e-mail links to subject matter experts
  • links to related World Wide Web sites
  • book lists
  • feedback surveys
  • assessments

A good example of the use of web communities can be found on the intranet at J Sainsbury plc. Community sites can be established within minutes with the completion of a simple on-line form, providing news, document sharing, discussion forums and links to the Internet.

For those of you whose intranet is based on Lotus Notes Domino – and that’s quite likely if you’re already heavy users of IBM and Lotus products – then Lotus LearningSpace (www.lotus.com) may be of interest in that it provides a ready-built structure for creating learning communities.

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Using the intranet to manage training records

Training records systems, like most corporate database packages, are increasingly being modified to include an intranet interface. The advantage of this approach is that anyone with a browser can be provided with access to the database, without the need for special client software. So, for example, managers could access the system to review the training records of their staff or to check availability of course places. Security is clearly an issue, but it is not particularly difficult to restrict areas of an intranet to authorised users, accessible with a user name and password.

An example of an off-the-shelf solution of this type is Personal Registrar from Silton-Bookman Systems (www.sbsinc.com), an adaptation of Registrar, one of the most popular training administration systems.

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Using the intranet for evaluation

Evaluation is one of those tasks that we all believe is terribly important but not always so terribly urgent. One of the reasons we may not devote as much time to evaluation as we should is the enormous amount of work that can be involved and here the interactive capabilities of an intranet can again be useful:

  • Use on-line forms to replace your paper-based reaction questionnaires; that way the results can automatically be compiled into a database for further analysis. To remind trainees of the need to complete the questionnaire, use an e-mail address list to send out a reminder – include the web address of the questionnaire in the e-mail and with one click they’ll have it up and running in their browser.
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  • Create on-line assessments of knowledge and understanding for completion before and after a course. Build a spreadsheet model to analyse the results and measure the Impact,Arial Black,Helvetica of the training.
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  • Use an on-line survey to obtain 360 feedback about a trainee’s on-job behaviour. Again this information could be gathered before and after a training event to enable a comparison to be made, perhaps with a control group as well.

If they don’t already exist, training evaluation toolkits for use on intranets will undoubtedly become available in years to come, reducing the amount of technical support that you will require from your IT people.

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How to build the training intranet

An intranet is a communication tool, like print, the phone, e-mail and fax. It is not a software application. For this reason, it is a bad mistake to allow your intranet to be dominated by your IT department. They will have a very valuable role to play in providing the technical infrastructure and ensuring the smooth running of the system, but they are not the best people to determine the design architecture and certainly not the content.

To be fair, most intranets are set up by IT and then handed over to HR, Internal Communications or Marketing to manage. Hopefully a steering group will be set up to represent the interests of the various content providers and training must be represented here.

In the early stages, there will be a lot of work to do in planning the training contribution to the intranet, designing the training site and populating it with content. The great danger is to believe that the work is now done. An intranet is not a one-off exercise – if it is not continuously maintained, evaluated and enhanced, users will lose interest and it will certainly die.

The labour necessary to keep the intranet going should be no more than is needed for current systems – in practice, there should be savings. But for this to be the case, the intranet must replace what you have now, not supplement it and this requires some important decisions to be made. This is where the training department’s expertise in change management should prove invaluable – the intranet can not just be imposed upon people, it must belong to everyone.

We are already seeing second-generation intranets and these are characterised by the degree of automation applied to the process of providing content. The traditional approach to building web sites by hand-crafting pages in the web’s own HTML format is unnecessarily labour-intensive. New tools are available to allow HTML pages to be automatically generated by databases, which in themselves are simply maintained using on-line forms. This is where your IT department can really earn its crust. If you are being asked to train up half your department in web design, then this is the time to ask IT some serious questions.

Unless you’ve been brought up with on-line information systems, an intranet will take some getting used to. You can not simply apply the techniques used to produce paper documents to the screen. The good news is that an intranet is technically really quite simple – certainly to the extent that you need to be involved with it – and that means that you should soon be able to take the initiative in managing its future. The trainer’s analytical, design and presentational skills will undoubtedly prove invaluable to the organisation in ensuring that the intranet works for you and your customers.

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