E-learning: keep it simple, stupid

by 04 Mar 2010

E-learning solutions need not be expensive or sophisticated to be effective. HR Leader looks at how The Laminex Group took a thrifty but successful approach to e-learning

The Laminex Group is a leading manufacturer and distributor in the decorative surfaces and wood panels industry. With six production facilities in Australia and three in New Zealand, the group has about 60 sales branches and employs a total of 2300 people across the two countries.

To assist in meeting business needs and com pliance requirements, The Laminex Group designed and developed an engaging e-learning program called SkillsPlus, which consists of more than 100 specific learning programs. While some courses are mandatory, most are voluntary and more than 400 courses per month are completed on average, according to the company’s national human resources manager, Mark Walter.

Courses include a number of workplace projects as well as opportunities to gain exposure to other parts of the business, and he says employees can also achieve nationally recognised qualifications through a number of courses. “They have to com plete a number of online units as well as five work- based projects such as working safely, managing their own time or working as part of a team – all very practical projects. So employees can get a Cer tificate 3 or Certificate 4, depending upon what job they work in and which state,” he explains.

Walter and his HR team have focused strongly on using internal expertise and customising the program, which is based on Lectora’s e-learning platform, to meet the needs of the business. “A lot of businesses use flashy hi-tech expensive online learning, but we don’t. We use our own videos and our own photos, we keep the language really sim ple, take out all the educational jargon and really focus on trying to connect and engage with people. Off the shelf, you simply can’t find that and it does n’t matter what a consultant tells you – they just don’t know your people and business,” he asserts.

E-learning in action

The most popular e-learning module within The Laminex Group is the manual handling program, and Walter says this is a good example of the com pany’s unorthodox but highly effective approach to e-learning. “We use pictures and videos to engage people and their emotions,” he explains.

“One of the videos is called ‘child’s play’, which shows a couple of little kids in a foundry, dressed in all the right gear. They’re perfectly safe, and they look like they’re working here, lifting and bending and twisting – all the key things people should be doing correctly when it comes to safe manual han dling. Everybody loves this video and it makes the point very firmly that if kids can do things right, why don’t we?”

Walter and his HR team work closely with other parts of the business to help inform and engage employees with the business and its initiatives through the SkillsPlus program. In addition to the safety manager, Walter often works with market ing in using the e-learning solution to communicate internally with staff. “They might give us a Pow erPoint presentation with 10 points of informa tion; we’ll take eight of those out and boil it down to the basics,” he says.

“We simplify the language, use lots of photos and include a simple 30-second video of the prod uct manager saying: ‘This is me, this is what I do, would you please do this, and this is why it’s important for the business’ and end with ‘thanks very much, any questions give me a call’. So we focus on simplicity, understanding and connecting with employees.”

Measuring success

More than half of the company’s employees have achieved a nationally recognised qualification in the past five years as a result of the SkillsPlus pro gram, according to Walter. Given that the large majority of courses are voluntary, Walter says the “most important thing for me is that the anecdotal feedback is very, very strong”.

In terms of the return on investment, he says it is worth millions to the business: “We’ve done the costings, so if you send 100 people to a three-hour face-to-face course, taking into account travel, course costs and time out, and compare that with the same 100 people doing a 20-minute online course, there’s a massive difference. We’ve saved something like $4 million over the past 12 to 18 months,” he affirms.

The Laminex Group’s parent company, Fletcher Building, is also looking at taking up the Skill sPlus program. “We’re talking with our HR coun terparts across the business, and they’re certainly very interested in the possibility of adopting it. We’ve refined the program, they get access to nationally recognised qualifications and there’s no charge, so there’s a lot of positives in it for them,” Walter says.

Lessons in e-learning

Walter says the main learning lesson for him in developing and refining SkillsPlus is that it takes time. “I would have thought we’d have many more units up by now and I thought it was much easier to get good content,” he says.

“But it takes time to put things in simple terms. It’s very different when you’ve got a whole-day course where you can take time to pace yourself, expand and explain the concepts and get your audi ence to understand the content and get them involved in it.

“When it comes to e-learning you’ve got to be very, very disciplined and really ask your self about every page: ‘Do I really need that?’ That’s probably been the key learning for us. Online learning is not about text on screen, it is about getting emotion as a result of what’s on the screen.”

Walter’s advice for HR professionals consider ing an e-learning solution is to avoid the bells and whistles, and go for simple and effective. Getting close to the audience and understanding what they want is also important, because he says they will voluntarily take the learning up if the content and presentation are of interest to them.

“Put yourself in the audience’s shoes. There is nothing worse than having to do compliance training that is dead dull boring,” he says.

Top ten tips for e-learning success

1. Have a formal project kick-off

2. Start with the end in mind

3. Keep it simple

4. Take an "it's either done or it's not done" approach

5. Manage risks

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

7. Manage the subject matter experts

8. Don't forget prototypes and pilots

9. Don't be shackled by the plan

10. Watch your optimism