Monday, 23 March 2009

Up, up and away: E-learning in the travel sector

Here’s a thought piece covering the use and value of e-learning in the travel sector – this one made the cover story of e.learning age magazine. Again, would welcome your comments.


Harnessing technology to build trust and improve customer care remains a priority for the travel sector.

There is no doubt that the travel industry is in a state a flux. As the recession gets worse, redundancies continue to plague the sector, with 5,000 reported since autumn 2008 from recognised names such as Hertz and Delta Air Lines. British Airways has also announced a pay freeze.

In these circumstances, trust has become a major issue for the sector, particularly in the wake of collapsing firms such as XL Leisure. ABTA has since appointed a PR consultancy to address the issue and help restore consumer confidence in booking a holiday. With the pound down, people are also staying closer to home and foregoing extras, such as car hire and flight upgrades.

To add further woes, travel firms must digest an unenviable cocktail of challenges, including changing energy prices, eco-tourism, sustainability, online booking and financial modelling, as well as a high staff turnover, which is double that of other industries.

On a brighter note, Travel Weekly recently reported that holidaymakers plan to spend the same in 2009 as 2008, with companies such as Hays Travel actively recruiting and EasyJet announcing a fourth quarter 2008 profit increase.

So, what is the likely impact on training? The challenges faced by the travel sector clearly demonstrate a need for ongoing training. And to survive the recession, travel firms must focus training on customer service skills to help rebuild trust and generate a long-lasting competitive edge. Changing needs of travel customers also bring different knowledge demands and, as learning and development professionals, we need to keep up. Sustainable destinations and offsetting carbon footprints were key desires in previous years, but these are now being replaced by cost as the priority.

Henrietta Palmer, e-learning manager at TUI UK and Ireland, confirms this trend, saying: "Aside from vital compliance and product knowledge training, other requirements can be incredibly reactive. It's all about one thing and as soon as something happens, another completely different skill need becomes the priority. As learning professionals we need to think smart and have a portfolio of learning objects, a library of modules and tools to use and repurpose as needed."

Delivering business benefits

As an industry, travel has a highly evolved learning culture, with nearly one in five more people in the sector, compared to all businesses, receiving training and ongoing development last year, according to People 1st and the ABTA Travel Industry Training and Development Benchmark Survey 2008. Crucially, the same report demonstrated clear business benefits from training, including increased customer satisfaction reported by 96% of survey participants, increased profits (88%), a rise in productivity (83%) and a gain in sales (84%).

While the economic climate brings uncertainty, it is heartening to hear that the majority in travel do not plan to reduce training budgets and half of them expect a slight increase over the next five years. This is different to other sectors, which plan to cut or freeze training budgets in 2009, according to research recently conducted by Brightwave. The research also found that, despite the overall reduction, half of those questioned expect e-learning spend to rise in 2009, qualifying the increase in demand we are seeing for effective online solutions.

As training and ongoing learning are crucial to the travel sector and with large volumes of people involved in the industry, e-learning was introduced in its infancy by some of the larger agencies, hotel chains and air operators. E-learning meets a large number of travel training needs as it is efficient, persistent, consistent, accessible and engaging. It can also help bring large numbers of new recruits up to speed through effective induction and ensure high levels of compliance are met. Further, it improves customer service, builds product knowledge, fulfils multiple language requirements and provides on the job support.

Another reason for the early popularity of e-learning in travel is that it enables new training opportunities, such as critical job simulations targeting cabin crew and virtual scenarios for customer care and sales. We expect e-learning to gain greater popularity as it delivers more cost reductions, faster delivery, higher levels of learner engagement and more opportunities to train people where and when it suits them - crucial for time-shift work.

The future is bite sized

For the travel sector to continue exploiting e-learning in future, it needs to continue viewing technology enabled learning as an investment and not a cost as the rewards and return on investment are huge. There is a great opportunity for learning innovation using new tools and models of working. Travel companies should also take a more flexible approach to e-learning dependant on their goals, learners and risk.

As we move away from traditional and often unnecessarily lengthy courseware, learning progresses towards more digestible and memorable learning bites, or knowledge chunks, which are more engaging. These can be delivered via podcasts, video on demand, social learning, computer simulations or games to help change behaviour and improve performance. Learners simply select the format that suits their need from a collaborative learning portal designed with performance support in mind.

Wendy Stubbs at British Airways supports this view: "Bite sized knowledge chunks will change the way that we do mandatory short sharp courses. If there's a new piece of compliance, let's validate first then get learners to take the course. This frees us up to spend the budget on important stuff that is business critical."

Social networking

E-learning is helping to generate more effective informal learning as it blends formal online training with social networking and knowledge transfer. With generation Y so well represented in the travel sector, informal or social learning is likely to take hold much faster than in other industries. Companies have a lot to gain by connecting people so that valuable knowledge and best practice can spread faster.

At Brightwave, we are seeing travel firms exploring the potential of social learning ahead of other sectors and expect this to grow as technology costs come down and new models are created. A wiki devoted to destinations or the handling of difficult customer scenarios could help share knowledge and best practice live. Imagine this, supported by a portfolio of learning bites and communication pieces, and you have a powerful learning resource. As part of this mix, mobile learning, intuitively aligned to a dispersed travel workforce is poised to give true access to location-based services and bite sized learning.

British Airways is piloting, a professional networking tool that enables employees to learn from each other. It is popular with staff and has already identified what works best. For example, first screens and tags are vital to early engagement.

Travel companies that increase their commitment to training during the recession will be in a good position to prosper once the economy picks up. With customer service so fundamental to success, a 96% increase in customer satisfaction from ongoing learning and development can be ignored only at companies' commercial peril.

Looking ahead, Palmer at TUI, says: "We will all be looking to maximise budgets, repurpose resources, maximise informal opportunities, reduce business travel and exploit technologies to work across distances. Alongside cost reduction and customer care, sustainability is high on the agenda. E-learning is a way we can make an impact."

There is no doubt that technology will increasingly move centre stage to deliver business critical training with increased efficiency. But the shift also catalyses a move to more engaging and timely learning experiences for a sector that, while hit first by the recession, will also lead the recovery into a new economic landscape.

Friday, 20 March 2009


Here's an article I've written for publication covering the benefits learning technology offers in bringing new employees up to speed. Your comments are welcome, especially on the ideas around making use of the pre-joining period.


E-induction: Save time, reduce costs and improve quality with e-learning

While the headlines are dominated by job losses and uncertainty, it's easy to forget that for the vast majority of organisations, there is still business to be won, customers to serve and employees to manage. Indeed some sectors are doing well in the downturn - examples include Sky the satellite TV broadcaster, Aldi the discount supermarket chain and Admiral Insurance - all announcing growth plans.

For large segments of the economy there remains an ongoing requirement to attract, recruit and retain staff. However, there is increased pressure to make this process more efficient and effective. It is more important than ever to ensure that new and existing staff are up to speed and fully productive in as short a time as possible. So how do you save time, reduce costs and improve quality of inductions all at the same time?

Too little, too late

The far too common experience for a new joiner is to be thrown into the deep end, relying on colleagues around them for immediate support. Then, if they are lucky they'll attend an induction training course three to six weeks after their start date. The training at this stage is largely a waste of time and the productivity of those initial weeks will be unnecessarily low, not just for the new starter, but for those colleagues around them.

This approach may not only lead to potential regulatory risks, but there is also a high chance that poor customer service or mistakes on the job could lead to lost business and sales - something no business can afford in the current climate.

Where induction training is provided, it is often delivered in highly compressed classroom formats with little opportunity for staff to fully remember and practice new knowledge and skills in preparation for use in their job role. Not only that, with even more pressure on existing staff, finding the time to provide adequate support to new employees becomes increasingly difficult.

It should come as no surprise then to learn that 90 per cent of employees decide whether to leave their new employer within the first six months (recently voiced by Gretchen Alarcon at Oracle). When staff leave early, all investment made is lost.

The overall costs of induction are therefore unnecessarily high. Measuring time to full productivity of new staff reveals it can take anything between six and twelve months for them to reach the required levels of competence and confidence to deliver at expected performance levels.

In areas where there are naturally high levels of staff turnover, such as contact centres and retail, this can amount to very large sums of money spent on training and re-training without ever truly improving overall performance. The Call Centre Association (CCA) claims a failure to retain employees is costing firms up to £1 billion per year, with employee turnover rates as high as 30 per cent.

E-induction is the answer

Using technology to support the timely delivery of core induction training answers many of the traditional problems described above. A well designed e-learning experience that covers key topic areas - company values, organisational structure, core product knowledge, health and safety for example - can engage and inform employees. And engage them at a time that suits them, all presented in a consistent and persistent manner.

Staff can also review and refer back to the e-learning as required, thus providing immediate remedial support and improving long term recall. New joiners are more self-reliant and do not need to interrupt colleagues for help on the basics. Managers and colleagues are liberated to provide essential coaching and localised support.

Faster completion times and more flexible delivery can also be achieved by introducing e-learning into an existing planned induction programme. For example, we recently worked with Bupa Healthcare on re-designing a five week induction programme to include e-learning on company policy, regulation, IT systems training, and simulated customer service calls.

This programme with Bupa led to an immediate saving of over two days in training time. And even more importantly, new inductees completed the learning experience more confidently and competently leading to a full two weeks saved in coaching and observation prior to being released into their job role. Time to full productivity can be greatly reduced with effective e-learning, all of which saves time and money, as well as improving the quality of the learning experience.

The rise of pre-induction

Some organisations are going further by using learning technology to support the recruitment and pre-joining phases of new starters. Not only can e-learning be used to test and assess applicants, providing a highly efficient filtering mechanism, it can also capitalise on the early enthusiasm and motivation of new starters from the moment they receive their Welcome Letter.

In the weeks running up to their first day, staff can access a secure induction portal via the internet to complete aspects of their induction in their own time ensuring they hit the ground running. By integrating the processes of attraction, selection, pre-joining and induction an organisation can make significant cost savings while also presenting their brand more consistently.

Looking ahead

As working practices become ever more fluid with increasing numbers of contract workers, deep restructuring of established industries (banking and automotive sectors for example) and the increased availability of broadband internet access, it is clear that e-induction should be at the heart of the learning and development experience.

This is the future of real employee engagement as a next generation reared on the internet and digital communication comes into the workforce. Traditional trainers will need to move to a more consultative coach/mentor role rather than delivering standard knowledge heavy classroom sessions. That can only be a good thing for all concerned.

By harnessing technology in this way, very significant cost savings can be made. An increasingly effective and speedy path to full productivity for each new employee means an organisation can be more agile, responsive and deliver better customer service. This is crucial to survival going forward.

Implementing e-induction - top tips to get new recruits up-to-speed faster

To get started, try looking at your current induction practices and explore how you can implement the following:

- Measure the time it takes for a new joiner to be recruited, start and then reach full productivity in their role. Then measure the associated costs, including salary, training costs, potential lost sales etc

- Develop an Introduction/Welcome e-learning module for your organisation. Representing your brand and culture, this can cover your mission, values, organisational structure, products and services. Your employees will have something of quality to engage with immediately they start

- Identify regulatory training and deliver this using e-learning that also tracks and records completion - this will save time and provide a compliance tool for all employees going forward

- Launch a pre-induction portal to support the selection process and also to enable new joiners to complete elements of their induction before Day One.

With these facilities in place, measure the time it now takes for new joiners to reach full productivity. Expect to see significant improvements.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Stress and memory

Stress can be both negative and positive in affecting our performance. Interestingly, many training experiences lack any element of stress and as such can be unstimulating and unrepresentative of the real environment.

This study however focuses on the negative impact stress has on forming context dependent memories.

We exposed healthy adults to stress or a control procedure before they learned an object-location task in a room scented with vanilla. Memory was tested 24 h later, either in the same or in a different context (unfamiliar room without the odor). Stress administered prior to encoding abolished the context-dependent memory enhancement found in the control group.

This feels like another example of cognitive load being overwhelmed by an overstimulating (stressful) environment. By overwhelming our short term memory faculties, we cannot embed meaningful memories as effectively.

In my previous post, I wrote about how doodling is a positive response to an unstimulating (boring) environment which can enhance memory recall. It seems to me that a successful learning experience balances a realistic representation of the actual environment where new skills and knowledge need to be applied, alongside time for creative reflection. How often does that happen?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Does e-learning have a future?

Donald Taylor's opinion piece on trainingzone prompted me to reflect that we are really just at the end of the beginning for e-learning - in its broadest sense - to transform the way we educate and train in the future. Here is my comment in full:

E-learning is mission critical

It has always been the case that new technology goes through similar cycles of early low adoption before crossing a chasm to be used by the mainstream, often in different ways to those originally anticipated. It takes generations of innovators to drive these transitions. This goes way back - from photography to film, from radio to TV, from standalone interactivity to ubiquitous networks. We really are only at the end of the beginning for e-learning - and this is from someone who has designed interactive learning solutions since 1990.

Interestingly I've seen more interactivity and immersive design in some interactive video solutions developed back then using 1st generation PCs and optical video discs than much of what passes as e-learning in current times. So it's not technology that matters - it is how you harness it. That takes skill, creativity and tenacity to integrate a solution into an environment that is usually quite resistant to change.

However, we are clearly at a tipping point. The economic situation is driving it. The cheap availability of online access at the desktop and on our mobiles is too. These are just enablers for a much more fundamental change in the way we design learning experiences. This shakes the foundations of traditional models of education and training to the core. In a recent article on Mission Critical E-learning I talk about how transformational technology can be when put at the heart of a learning and development solution, rather than as a novelty on the periphery.

Either way you look at it, it is high time we reflected deeply on fundamental change rather than on doing the same thing faster and cheaper:

"When change is discontinuous, the success stories of yesterday have little relevance to the problems of tomorrow; they might even be damaging. The world at every level has to be reinvented to some extent" Charles Handy, Beyond Certainty, 1996

Monday, 16 March 2009

A British musical learning experience


Just this past weekend I took my family up to London and the O2 Centre (the rebranded Millenium Dome) to see an interactive installation called the British Music Experience.

It was great to see a modern attempt to create an environment designed to engage an audience of all ages. It had some real lessons in how to provide an effective learning experience in the 21st Century. First of all, technology was at its heart. Each area used clever interactive displays to explore the development of British music from the 1920s to the modern day. Huge screens enabled you to collaborate and comment with others on facts and figures. Memorabilia could be chosen and short audio clips brought them to life. You could twist a dial and move backwards and forwards in visual time to see how the political changes of the Thatcher era influenced musical innovation, fashion and mood. You could explore a large digital map of Britain and discover where bands originated from and where key events in rock and pop history occurred.

You could then get your dancing shoes on and be instructed in various dance styles from the ages, and then watch back your performance to the hilarity of all. Best of all you could use the Interactive Music Studio and sit down and play a guitar, bass, keyboards, drums all while being instructed by a famous musician on video. These were stimulating interactive learning experiences and great fun.

A neat twist is that by wiping your ticket over sensors on each exhibit, you could choose to "clip" that information for reference back at the main web site. You can also save your performances to view/listen back to when you got back at home.

You can see more photos here.

If only school were more like this.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Doodling, multitasking and memory

A nice little Doodle by Lee. This behaviour is undoubtedly not limited to toddlers - just watch an episode of The Apprentice or spend some time in any large organisation. Interestingly, the act of doodling (like the example above, but of course they come in all shapes and sizes and colours), often perceived as a sign of boredom and disengagement, is actually a highly effective means of enhancing memory recall in situations which happen to be less than fully stimulating in their own right.

According to Jackie Andrade, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth, the brain is designed to constantly process information and when deprived of anything stimulating will go into overdrive creating its own fantasy worlds and daydreams. The act of doodling provides just enough cognitive stimulation to prevent the brain from opting out completely from the immediate reality a person finds themselves in.

Andrade tested this theory by playing a lengthy and boring tape of a telephone message to a collection of people, only half of whom had been given a doodling task. After the tape ended she quizzed them on what they had retained and found that the doodlers remembered much more than the nondoodlers.

"They remembered about 29 percent more information from the tape than the people who were just listening to the tape," Andrade says.

So doodling doesn't detract from concentration. On the contrary, a slightly distracting secondary task may actually improve concentration during the performance of dull tasks that would otherwise cause a mind to wander.

"The exciting thing is that people actually got better while doing two things at once," said Andrade.

This is interesting given other research that claims we cannot multitask effectively, despite our more fragmented, multithreaded life styles.

"What does doodling do?" By Jackie Andrade. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 3, Feb. 26, 2009.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Research merry-go-round up

I've been sitting on a number of research/news snippets which are all interesting but demonstrate how fluid the respective fields of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and educational study are. Sometimes it's hard to draw immediately practical inferences. Things are moving so fast that you can move from positions of contradiction, congruence and back to contradiction in a matter of days. This can be confusing, especially when you throw in the usual journalist demand for a sensationalist angle.

These recent headlines are a case in point:

Brain training claims dismissed

A Which? report states the obvious around some popular brain training software such as those from Nintendo, Lumosity and Mindweavers. It's still too early for anyone to claim categorically that their tools can, in isolation, lead to improved cognitive function. Other environmental factors always play a key role, which makes conclusive studies difficult.

Knitting can delay memory loss

A US study supports engaging in a hobby prevents memory problems later in life (by 40%). Keeping physically and mentally active is the key message - again stating the obvious perhaps?

Texting improves language skills

A positive report that "textisms" could be having a beneficial effect on reading development. Also the University of Toronto found instant messaging had a positive effect on teenagers' command of language.

Social websites: bad for kids' brains?

A number of reports alleging that online networking and gaming have health risks. Susan Greenfield weighs in on the debate stating that young brains may be fundamentally altered by internet activity - which is again fairly obvious. Why just young brains? Old brains are (almost) just as plastic. For more on this, Donald Clark does a great job of putting her expert opinion under critical review.

Digging deeper

With all this potential for confusion I find it's important to trace things back to their sources where-ever possible as there are usually more solid nuggets of information to be found. I'll leave you with one interesting piece on a subject I've posted on before - memory and sleep. In this study, it has been found that stages of sleep have distinct influence on the process of learning and memory. Communication between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex appears to change when moving between SWS and REM sleep. When disconnected (as it is during REM sleep) you are more likely to forget newly formed memories, explaining perhaps why most dreams are forgotten.