For the past few decades, there have been many changes in the IT industry. These have been driven by customer expectations and the need to build competitive strategies to meet these demands. This has triggered a requirement for new talent and competencies in the workforce. E-learning is a part of the solution to fulfil this requirement.
The IT services business grows because of the people in it, who in turn keep growing by acquiring knowledge and by continuously reskilling themselves. Let’s start off by looking at the key skilling opportunities for individuals in the people-supply chain of an IT company as it grows over a period of time. We will also study how such opportunities impact the IT business. We will then trace the gradual adoption of e-learning by a typical IT company, to fill certain competency requirements over the last two decades. We will also learn about how the adoption of e-learning in such situations has helped the company meet competency challenges, thereby supporting the IT business in its need for new skills.
Programmes required for skilling new entrants
During the early flourishing years of the Indian software industry, the essential skills to get placed in the top tier IT companies were good problem-solving skills, analytical abilities, communication skills and an interest in programming (optional). This, more or less, remains true even today, with more emphasis perhaps on programming. This scenario is, however, fast changing with new technologies challenging the business models for customers as well as IT companies, through low-level job automation, cloud computing and artificial intelligence taking over mundane work, giving way to more creative problem-solving opportunities.
Last year, about 200,000 graduates (NASSCOM report at http://www.nasscom.in/research-reports) were absorbed by the IT companies during campus placements across the country. When graduates join a company, a majority get trained in a competency programme that lasts about a quarter of a year, to understand the intricacies of IT projects and thereby be able to productively contribute to them. These competency programmes are, typically, scheduled ILT (instructor-led training) sessions. Instructors with experience in projects, soft skills experts and executives from the leadership ranks take sessions in classrooms to train the future workforce on the various technological, behavioural and leadership aspects of their jobs. This has gradually become a strategic differentiator for the IT businesses, morphing into a core aspect of creating an adequate supply of talent for the IT industry. Currently, the specific challenge that the IT industry faces is the large number of graduates to be trained in project skills, technical skills and behavioural skills (like communication, teamwork, etc) in the shortest possible time.
Competency programmes for people who move from one project to another
The duration of IT projects ranges from anywhere between three to eight months. These projects have team structures that have members at distributed locations, often across two to five countries/cities. The projects start thin on team size—a few experts initiate the project and then it ramps up to peak team size during the construction phase, before scaling down to a few members towards the end of the project. The nature of software projects creates situations wherein an employee (individual) in the company may be actively involved in a project, move out of it (when it is scaled down) or be waiting to join a project (also called the bench). All these situations call for skilling of employees for the business reasons listed below.
In project: Technology changes very quickly and projects require specialised technical skills. Team members require competency before they can be productive enough to build the software that meets technical and customer needs. The project outcomes often show up in the feedback captured as part of the customer satisfaction ratings.
Moving off the project: To ensure the profitability of the business, employees moving off a project must necessarily be skilled on other project skills that are in demand to reduce or eliminate the non-billing hours associated with them. This indirectly influences the engagement levels of employees which, in turn, impacts attrition. In a people-intensive business like IT services, attrition is a parameter of high interest for stakeholders and investors.
All of the above situations are opportunities for the competency function to create initiatives and solutions to skill employees.
Providing well-defined and clearly communicated career options is a critical HR strategy in a people-intensive business. This is to ensure employees have a view of how their careers will evolve in the company and the rewards of associating with the business in the longer term, including their professional growth. Competency management is a very significant part of creating a career path for employees, and includes options like switching career streams for growth that match the employee’s strengths and interests.
Employee performance and development
At the end of a project, employees are evaluated for their performance on the project. If needed, developmental plans are created to help employees overcome certain weaknesses that hampered them from meeting business requirements. Again, this is an opportunity for the competency development function to create programmes for employees to increase their skills in areas identified in the development plans.
It goes without saying that rapid and relevant reskilling in the required and in-demand skills, through training, has a profound impact on the IT business’ performance. The need for building competence arises repeatedly during the career of an IT professional in a thriving IT business. So let’s look at whether e-learning technologies are meeting these challenges, either fully or partially.
Business triggers for e-learning adoption
In a small IT business with a few hundred employees, the competency-building function will perhaps be less organised, with employees often learning by themselves and on the job. Such a business specialises in a few skills and is often happy to hire fresh talent from the market on a need basis. The situation changes when rapid growth happens, with many projects flowing into the business and it needing to scale quickly.
When teams are small and the company is also of a modest size, the training needs are few and far between. And when there is a need, the people available to train and get trained are limited too. Training, in such situations, often happens out of regular business hours, to ensure service continuity for customers. However, when such a business grows and new IT projects flow in, the need for re-skilling existing employees arises in the system. The business trains competent and proven professionals in new technology platforms and then deploys them in new projects. Investments are made for these professionals and training gets done during the business hours. These investments are often routed through a dedicated technical competency management function, which is a part of human resources. In the early years, such technical training was predominantly led by instructors and conducted in a classroom. The classrooms were few and the number of programmes were also not many.
The early adoption of e-learning was through computer based training (CBT). This was early e-learning software, designed and delivered through CDs. The courses were quite effective in the areas of management, team building, communication and other behavioural skills. They were installed in a set of demarcated machines meant for CBT learning, or put into circulation for employees to use the software and return it to a central library. These courses were successful in engaging employees and empowering them to learn by themselves. Much of the CBT had intermediate quizzes and assessments to evaluate the lessons learnt by the users. CBTs were not a very scalable and manageable solution for a growing business. However, at the right time, the Internet came to the rescue.
With Web/Internet applications evolving in the late 90s, the CBT was replaced with e-learning material that was deployable and accessible online. Many WBT (Web based training) vendors came onto the scene offering the courses for a fee based on the licensing model for corporates. Many relevant courses were purchased and made available in a secured manner for professionals to access. These were better for scalability when compared to a CBT. Availability to users was high as they got served over the Internet and with much better ease of access. All you needed was a computer browser and the Internet to access the materials. The investments in WBT were relatively higher and it was not easy to track the usage of the material. Few vendors did provide limited reports to get some sense of the return on such investments. In spite of this shortcoming, WBT was a great step to enable professionals to learn from anywhere and anytime. The period during which they were not on projects and were unable to find an ILT (instructor-led training) programme to attend, could now be meaningfully spent to gain new skills, right from their desks.
The WBT was weak on assessments and also did not support integrated assessments, progress tracking and a certification process. The courses were also limited to the content provided or hosted by the vendors. One could not host content built in-house. The next stage on the e-learning journey for any business then was to have its own, custom LMS (learning management system).
It all started with ILT and the adoption of CBT on desktops. With the growth of Web and Internet technologies, CBT was replaced with WBT modules hosted by vendors. Successful adoption of WBT then set the stage for LMS and many learning initiatives. Future adoption trends indicate cloud based sophisticated systems that provide virtual training environments, e-learning delivered on mobiles, tele-presence and social learning.
Managed e-learning through LMS
The design and implementation of an LMS is the next step in this journey. There are open source LMSs like Moodle and COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) products like SumTotal (http://www.sumtotalsystems.com/) and SABA (https://www.saba.com/us/) available for enterprises. Customised COTS products provide a very scalable, stable and accessible e-learning delivery platform at the enterprise level. They are integrated with systems that manage the training operations, performance measurements (used by the human resources team) and many other supply chain software systems. Such an integrated platform provides a unified experience to employees of several key HR processes, like employee development plans, mandatory training and compliance training. It also cuts down the time to roll out central competency initiatives (applicable to anyone in the company) in large organisations. This is often done by HR teams in collaboration with the competency development function.
Launching mandatory new e-learning courses developed in-house becomes easier. The next logical step for any enterprise is setting up an in-house e-learning content development team managed by the competency development function. The content team takes the responsibility of creating custom content relevant to the IT business by working with SMEs (subject matter experts). Such teams in any large scale enterprise can create, on an average, 800 to 1,000 e-learning courses annually, using instructional design techniques of varying complexity that eventually get ported on the LMS for employees to learn and stay relevant in a competitive IT business. This makes the company self-reliant and its e-learning goals sustainable.
To summarise, at this stage, the following are carried out successfully in the journey of adopting e-learning.
- Transitioning from vendor based hosting of content to having in-house hardware and software (a rack of servers) to deliver e-learning courses.
- An in-house LMS infrastructure (customised to needs) to launch new courses in a manner that allows management to promote a course, measure the progress made by an employee on a given course, assign courses to a set of employees (like mandatory courses for compliance that need to be assigned to some people within the company) who need to complete them in a given period of time, take feedback from employees on the courses, provide course previews and user ratings on the courses, etc.
- The creation of a platform for launching in-house course content for users across the enterprise.
- The setting up of a team of experts developing in-house e-learning content for the enterprise.
E-learning through virtual classroom technologies
Trying to scale e-learning programmes in an IT company with a highly distributed workforce is one more significant challenge for the competency function. And if the scaling needs to be achieved with a limited increase in training staff, only a technological solution can come to the rescue. This challenge motivated the competency functions to explore the option of whether classrooms could be made virtual.
Virtual classrooms serve as the next-generation e-learning environment in many companies. The simplest of these are the video conferencing facilities used for training. This is the most basic and simplest of the solutions, transforming a set of meeting rooms in any enterprise that are connected by a video conferencing facility, into a classroom. Here, the connected participants experience learning by following the instructor located in a remote location, virtually. There are limitations to how much learning engagement can happen through this medium. This is Level-1 in virtual training wherein the learning content and audio can be synced across locations, but the collaborative aspects of learning remain very poor. The participant can often go offline from learning, get demotivated and, for the faculty, it remains a challenge to maintain contact with all the participants. Long sessions become ineffective very quickly.
With the rapid advancement of Web related technologies, the software’s capability to virtualise the learning environment has only become better. Two technologies that are ideal at this stage of the evolution of e-learning are:
- CISCO WebEx
- Microsoft Lync
Do keep in mind that there are many other similar related technologies and software solutions.
The authors have experienced these two technologies that enable virtual learning and can help scale a classroom session reasonably well.
The WebEx training centre has a rich UI that helps the instructor to explain concepts and interact with participants. There is the white board, chat centre, pointer, polling, voice management centre, etc. Lync is a lean solution which has much higher scalability in an enterprise that has Windows serving as the backbone operating system for the enterprise computing environment. There are other virtual classroom environments that are highly scalable, such as Monarch (http://www.monarchinnovative.com/) which converts the faculty seat into a studio with a wide screen in it. The remote classrooms are projected on the wide screen in front of the faculty, all at the same time. The faculty can view all the participants and interact with them to improve the learning environment. This solution, however, can only scale an ILT classroom by eight to ten times, not more.
Regarding business benefits, a virtual e-learning architecture for classrooms enables the following:
- Reduces or eliminates the need for faculty to travel to multiple locations, resulting in cost savings.
- Increased programme reach — for example, the same sessions are available to many employees at the same time.
- Less time is needed to schedule a programme and the session is available to meet demands coming from multiple locations.
It is to be noted that the programme’s effectiveness, like any training, is always dependent on the training content design, duration of the training period and instructors’ skills.
The future of e-learning: Enabling engagement, empowerment and evaluation (3-E)
With the success of CBT, WBT, LMS and virtual classrooms at the enterprise level, the next development in e-learning is point solutions that are specific to a segment of employees or enterprise. This can be done by using the increased computing power of devices, state-of-art technologies combined with application of Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning and new learning methodologies first popularised by the Khan Academy and then followed by Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, Edx, etc.
Mobile and social technologies are two game changers for any enterprise with a mission to engage, empower and evaluate (the 3-E principle of learning) the new generation of learners. If one looks at the emerging trend in competency building, it is to reduce or eliminate the delay in:
- Providing training in what employees aspire to learn
- Discovering what the new/emerging technical skill demands are
- Finding out how employees learn by themselves
All of this is being done predominantly by transferring the responsibility for learning to employees, instead of the business/employer driving or owning the learning process — a turnaround of what has been in practice for the past two decades. The current and future adoption of e-learning tools and technologies is enabling this new mindset of the corporations as well as the new breed of learners, who are more than willing to learn by themselves in a well facilitated environment provided by the corporates.
The seeds for empowering learners were sown a decade ago, and have taken different forms as e-learning technologies have evolved.
1) The first seeds of empowerment were sowed when the e-learning material and books on programming were couriered to students placed in the IT company, but were in the final year of coursework in their colleges. This method gradually evolved to an online e-learning paradigm wherein students were auto registered to an e-learning course, post a job offer by the company that was accepted by the student.
2) The training environments are getting increasingly virtual with the advancement in software and hardware capacities and capabilities. The future is likely to see more innovation in the paradigm with added investment by IT corporations in campuses to enable e-learning through virtual environments that integrate campuses (hardware and software) with the infrastructure of companies. One example could be e-learning courses blended with tele-presence technology.
3) To practice hands-on learning and for assessments, the training has been gradually moving to the cloud. This is a significant departure from the conventional process of learning and assessments, as not only the course material, classroom and operations but even the physical assets required for training are virtualised or digitised.
The increased engagement levels of learners caused by creating learning experiences through digital technologies is promising for the IT companies.
4) Social technologies are at the centre stage of everything we do today. Purchase decisions are easily made using social ratings on products/services, and feedback on editorials and articles through social media, blogs, wikis, etc, is being used to collaboratively work on a project through crowd sourcing.
5) The devices that support virtual reality and augmented reality environments are getting affordable, as days pass. Adoption of these into learning models will aid in learning paradigms like DIY (do it yourself). It will also aid in the simplification of complex concepts through the creation of specialised e-learning content to be used in these environments, thus creating the next level of learning experiences that increase engagement, empowerment and evaluation.
6) New technologies like machine and deep learning will aid the implementation of more robust, adaptive e-learning materials.
Adaptive learning is unlike the conventional personalised learning, which is mostly based on preferences and the profile of learners. Adaptive learning changes the learning content in real-time as the machine learns the performance levels of the learner. This changes the course or lesson plans, further strengthening the 3-E principle of learning mentioned earlier.
The author is associated with the Open source technology Lab, International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru. He can be reached at email@example.com