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E-learning: a bitter pill or miracle cure?

Published on 14/10/03 at 12:56pm

E-learning was initially seen as attractive because of benefits such as reduced cost and increased staff performance. Sectors with a large workforce base and high staff turnovers were also drawn to e-learning as it was seen as the learning panacea for rapid induction and orientation training. The influx of e-business systems demonstrated a need for screen-based learning and tutorials and e-learning offered many alternatives in the form of simulations and animations.

As a heavily regulated sector with a vast salesforce base often remotely located, the pharma industry presents the right characteristics to get significant benefits from e-learning, but what do pharma companies think of it? As an e-learning consultancy company focusing on the pharma sector, Hispec undertook a survey to identify the perception, direction and issues surrounding e-learning in the pharma sector.

The educational process of communicating and instilling in staff an understanding of e-learning is as important as undertaking the implementation. It is imperative to ensure that a common understanding of terminology around e-learning exists and clear coherence as to what it really means to the individual and the organisation as a whole.

In our survey, 41% of respondents said e-learning had "something to do with a learning management system" and a further third suggested it was "doing courses over the Internet." None of the respondents elaborated further. This result could be understood if e-learning was new to the respondents, but 28% of those who gave vague responses agreed that they already had e-learning in their organisation, suggesting that organisations had applied e-learning using a step-change approach with little evidence of educating individuals.


Good e-learning is embedded into the overall training curriculum and should not be seen by the trainees as a bolt-on or afterthought. Step-change approaches rarely achieve their assigned objectives. In contrast, an incremental approach that educates and builds upon familiar technology and focusing on problem areas delivers positive reinforcement.

When questioned on the stage that e-learning was in their organisations, 47% of respondents stated that they had not even started reviewing e-learning properly. A quarter said they were "tentatively investigating e-learning" with a view to future implementation and only 28% e-learning was in place. However, the disposition towards e-learning was positive, as all the respondents without it believed it would be introduced in their organisation in the near future and that this would be a good development.

Although salesforce effectiveness is an area employing e-learning in pharma companies, there exists a major technological hurdle. Medium-sized companies run into barriers of connectivity requiring their sales teams to have access to dedicated broadband networks to enable multimedia content and allow courses to be tracked through a learning management system. Larger companies with rigid cultures and long established sales teams have shown that they are daunted by technology, however simple, and still prefer to visit their training centres for 'face-to-face', real training.

Group learning is a most effective approach that incorporates drivers such as competition and peer assessment, which act as a learning catalyst and help to power the learning process. In our survey, 83% of respondents stated that learning was more effective when undertaken in a group, indicating that group interaction should play a pivotal role in e-learning delivery.

Different training requires different combinations of learning styles and these need to be incorporated into course content. Some people learn, remember and recall with visual or auditory stimulation, whereas others need a kinaesthetic or doing element to achieve assimilation of learning.

Changing working practices

A change in working practice is paramount to successful e-learning. Much like any other type of training, e-learning needs to be allotted time within the working day and management needs to appreciate that e-learning is not an extension of the working week. Managers need to avoid the increasingly prevalent attitude of 'e-learning in your own time'.

E-learning needs to be sold to staff and management for it to work. Internal communication initiatives should be built to focus on the benefits of learning using technology and not on the technology and systems themselves. Experience has shown that focusing on just how wonderful the technology is will create a force field against e-learning and popular opinion will gravitate towards fear and anxiety about e-learning's introduction.

E-learning should commence with a pilot to test the take-up and attractiveness and build the business case for the board and staff. A technical audit should be included at the outset to ascertain whether the hardware and access devices are capable of meeting the demands of e-learning. A review should be made of company policies around Internet access and restricted browser functionality. Any e-learning development needs to accommodate for the strict IT policies that operate in most pharma companies. Development of open access centres that offer connectivity to the web could provide the solution for IT-controlled environments.

Gaining e-learning buy-in from technophobic individuals requires adopting technology that people already use and like, such as DVDs and CDs. Almost 70% of the respondents to our survey stated that they preferred off-line delivery method, with assessment in their own time. They especially cited a preference for CDs to overcome Internet connection problems. Respondents were further questioned on delivery and were asked to rate a variety of learning components that make up an e-learning course.

Over a third of respondents thought animation was a very effective learning component, 83% thought simulation was effective, while text, audio and multiple choice were all tied at 67% as quite effective.

Development of simulation and animation-rich media has traditionally been expensive, time-consuming and difficult to augment. To support changes in business dynamics, e-learning materials need to be context-based and be able to be altered 'on the fly' but still be stimulating and overcome bandwidth issues. Such a requirement was a real challenge until recently. The emergence of new technologies such as ViewletBuilder, a multimedia authoring tool for creating animated IT training courses, and iCreate, a PowerPoint to Flash conversion and assessment tool, are changing how content development is handled in training departments. They are enabling contextual, company specific learning to take place, but require virtually no training and course output is created for CD as well as the web. Both these programmes compress file size so even a 56K dial-up connection is adequate.

Tracking performance

Learning management systems (LMSs) need to be installed in order to track a learner's performance. Acquiring an LMS is seen as a principle purchase in e-learning and is often the most expensive. The majority of LMSs are now AICC (Aviation Industry CBT (Computer-Based Training) Committee) and SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) compliant, which mean that courses can send assessment scores back to the LMS to enable managers to produce performance reports. When asked about the importance of tracking performance, over two-thirds of the respondents confirmed that it was important and would influence their LMS decision.

Due to the cost of most LMSs, with some in excess of £250,000, the subject of return on investment is quickly highlighted. Some companies claimed to have achieved a 400% ROI in their first year of installing a system costing millions of pounds. In our experience, a saving of up to 75% on training costs can be made if e-learning is implemented in a phased approach. The 28% of respondents who had e-learning did not know the ROI, claiming it was too early to tell. However, they also claimed that savings had been made on travel and accommodation.

Buying an expensive and complex LMS is not always the best approach, as the system needs to be suited to an organisations learning demands. The key to a good LMS is the ability to integrate with and transfer data to existing enterprise resources and HR systems that can produce reports on organisation-wide performance. Systems such as LearnTrack offer simple, cost-effective solutions to introducing an LMS that is scalable and customisable. Experience has shown that departmentally-driven, rather than organisation-wide, e-learning initiatives work better as ROI at this level is more measurable.

Further e-learning benefits

In addition to cost savings, what benefits could be brought by e-learning? According to 67% of respondents in the survey, staff retention would be a key benefit, indicating that e-learning could improve staff loyalty, increase motivation and job satisfaction. The Davos Conference of 2000 on HR highlighted the emergence of the 'employment brand' as a way of retaining talent and suggested that e-learning plays a vital role. The cost of sourcing and selection of new personnel and the loss of intellectual capital every time a staff member leaves can be countered by introducing e-learning and improving ways of internal knowledge capture and transfer.

Speed to market in new product development was a strong benefit of e-learning for 23% of respondents. It is interesting to see that this response contradicted the viewpoint of where e-learning would most be effective in the organisation, with both clinical trials and marketing receiving 0%. Likewise, speed to competency  an area synonymous with product sales training  attracted 10%, while product sales training received a 42% response.

Such contradictions exist to underline the confusion still surrounding e-learning and suggest that more education needs to be undertaken before e-learning becomes a ubiquitous part of everyday learning.

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