Teaching new tricks

More and more retailers are being won over by the benefits of e-learning solutions, as they look to satisfy regulatory and legislative requirements in an ever-growing number of areas and make training more interesting and relevant to their staff. David Adams reports

Teaching is a time-consuming and expensive business, even if students are paying attention, which you’d hope would always be the case with workplace training, but sometimes is not. Little wonder that those seeking to train others have long been attracted to the idea of getting machines to do some of the work. Recent examples of “robot teachers” developed by technology companies and academic institutions around the world are merely the most impressive expressions of an old idea. Anyone under the age of 40 will remember, for instance, educational electronic toys from their youth, like Texas Instruments’ Speak and Spell.

Today’s e-learning solutions, used by retailers of all kinds (although still usually the larger companies), for a variety of purposes, offer some important advantages that can’t be provided by either a human trainer or the old paper workbook-based training methods. They can be delivered remotely and cost-effectively to stores, offices and other workplaces across the country and can be customised cheaply and easily to suit specific training needs.

That’s good news for all retailers, with regulatory and legislative requirements compelling them to train staff in an ever-growing number of areas, such as selling age-restricted products, or complying with health and safety regulations. It’s particularly good news for those with more specific requirements, such as detailed product knowledge for staff selling goods like consumer electronics, where there is rapid product turnover.

According to Tony Wright, director at retail training and change management specialist First Friday, more and more retailers have come to appreciate the potential benefits of e-learning over the past 10 years. “There was scepticism, but increasingly it’s become the norm,” he says. Not that even he would claim it is always the answer. “For head office roles in buying and merchandising it doesn’t tend to be the right solution,” he notes. “They’ve got a more face to face role and they respond better to that type of training.”

According to James O’Gorman, solutions specialist manager, EMEA at e-learning provider SumTotal Systems, the types of retailer most likely to be investing in e-learning at present are the larger players, including the big supermarkets. The time and cost savings it can offer may have made the concept look even more attractive against the background of the recession, as many companies have been forced to stretch resources more thinly. “At a couple of big retail groups we’ve been in contact with recently they are giving store managers new guidelines in terms of how many staff are needed on the shopfloor,” says Robin Hoyle, head of learning at Infinity Learning Solutions. “Clearly there’s pressure on time and numbers, so there has to be a way of utilising technology to deliver training.”

The ability to train staff without taking them away from the store for long periods of time is one of the reasons that Marks and Spencer has been making more use of e-learning in recent years, using technology supplied by various companies including Virtual Pictures, Kineo and First Friday. “We have found the benefits are powerful and positive,” says Brid Nunn, learning and development manager at the retailer. “We’re not taking people away from the store to do a workshop, they can usually do it all elsewhere in the building in about half an hour. So you have the benefits of them getting it done and then heading back onto the shopfloor.”

“It is more effective than classroom learning for us, because of the consistency of message it can offer,” she continues. “If you’re trying to get your message consistent over northern, southern and central England, say, e-learning will drive consistency you can never replicate in a classroom. So for us it’s a medium we’re starting to use a lot more of.” Other areas where M&S is using it include EPoS training, in recruitment processes when ensuring all the correct eligibility checks are made when taking on new employees; and more specific tasks on the shopfloor where exemplary customer service is crucial, such as bra fitting.
The way training materials are designed and structured is critical. “One issue a lot of companies seem to have had is that they’ve tried it and it hasn’t worked because of the design of the content,” says First Friday’s Wright. “We develop content around the jobs that real people are doing, to try to make it feel like the training is just another part of their job.”

“While the duration of lessons and exercises is something people used to want more of, we often develop modules at the moment that last between three and five minutes. That works well, delivering sharp, to the point information and allowing people to fit training into a busy retail environment.”

First Friday has worked with retailers including M&S, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, New Look, John Lewis, Paperchase and the Arcadia Group and projects have included work with a multi-brand retailer training staff on new EPoS solutions using training materials designed to cope with different shift patterns in different stores, training for staff at different levels within the company, including some with literacy issues or who speak English as a second language. The project trained more than 2,000 members of staff in five months.

Another project supported a DIY retailer going through a rapid store expansion programme that at one stage entailed opening five new stores each week. E-learning was used as part of a blended training programme (alongside some face to face sessions), with simulations of the EPoS and stock management systems available on the company intranet and on CD Roms to be used by staff at home while the new stores were still under construction.

Solutions that can be deployed in quick bite-size chunks are also useful because they provide flexibility over when and how the material can be consumed. “Creating some kind of online system which is easily accessible and which means you can find stuff out very quickly is very useful,” says Infinity Learning Solutions’ Hoyle. “A sort of skills pool of very short programmes that may be made available on small devices. And specialists in-store might make their own videos to be part of the system.”

“We’re working with a couple of clients on that. Can we equip star performers with a £75 video camera, so they can share some of their experience and expertise about how you interact with a customer and how you keep up-to-date with product information?”

At M&S the addition of video has added a new dimension to e-learning. At the time of writing, the company was due to launch a new customer service training e-learning solution for the 24,000 new staff it will be taking on in preparation for Christmas. “So we have video material that shows what good service looks like and also the effects that poor service can have,” says Nunn. “It’s very visual, it’s not like a normal piece of e-learning that’s about getting the right answers at the end. It really brings everything to life.”

The efficacy of e-learning is also helped by the fact that the average member of staff is much more used to using computers than was the case just a few years ago. “It used to be that some people didn’t use computers, but increasingly that’s far less of an issue,” says Wright.

And in a world where practically everyone now carries a small computer around with them disguised as a phone, there may also be more use of mobile devices as a delivery mechanism in future. Among recent enhancements to its e-learning content management and publishing solution, Luminosity (part of the CM Group) has developed an iPhone app for delivery of content. Infinity’s Hoyle says that he is working with other technology providers on the
development of mobile e-learning.

The final step

But even if the content is good and the staff are happy in theory to view it, the final step in ensuring the effectiveness of e-learning is to make sure that the content actually gets watched. “There has to be a culture where people will use it,” says Hoyle. “And you have to make sure it’s going to be used by everyone who works in the store, including the people who only work there in the evenings, or just on Saturdays and so on.”

“The main thing is you’ve got to get people to engage with it. You may have created the greatest programme in the world, but if no-one clicks on it you’ve wasted your time and money.”

Apart from meeting other training needs across the business, if used effectively, Hoyle claims, e-learning really can play a crucial role in arming staff with product knowledge and customer service skills that will give their company a vital commercial advantage.

“Increasingly in the retail sector companies are becoming more undifferentiated in terms of product range or store layout,” he says. “What’s different? What makes a retailer stand out? The people and the service you get.” Even in an ever-more technology filled retail environment, machines that can help staff to be a little more human on the shopfloor will surely prove a worthwhile investment.

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