Old School Industry and Leading-Edge Learning: e-Learning at Canadian Pacific

Greg Holsworth
Posted: 10/30/2008

Let Me Tell You a Story about e-Learning

This is the story of e-learning at Canadian Pacific (CP). When I first was introduced to e-learning at CP, I was working in our Operations group, and I was part of a pilot program that tested the first version of e-learning at CP. I was not impressed. It was frustrating, not very intuitive and most of all (or least of all) I really didn’t learn anything. Yet the folks who were promoting it promised it would get better.

Two years later, I ended up with a job in our corporate Learning and Development team. And one of my main responsibilities was to manage the e-learning account. True Karma.

So, there I was, managing a product that I was not a huge fan of, and wanting to replace it with something else. There had to be other, better, more engaging types of e-learning out there. My mission was: Find them.

Old Dog, New tricks

CP is an old school company in an old school industry but wanted to embrace the emerging trends in Learning and Development by means of embracing e-learning. e-Learning was initially recognized as having potential in CP for two distinct training purposes: soft skills/managerial training and technical training (e.g. conductor, mechanical or engineering). Whereas Technical Training purchased the capability to develop and track their own e-learning modules, the soft skills and managerial content was vetted out to a vendor.

e-Learning Reinvents Itself

In its first iterations, e-learning was about pure knowledge transfer and achieved this mainly by providing content that a learner would read and then go to the next page of content. This is what I refer to as the "read and click" style of e-learning delivery.

Since 2005, technology has evolved to the point where new possibilities in e-learning are now emerging. One of the hottest trends is a virtual classroom, commonly called a "webinar." There are many types of webinar vendors in the marketplace. The technology is proven, both technically and as a means of engaging participants in a live event. Another added benefit of webinars is that the live event (both audio and video) can be recorded for playback later.

An additional development in the world of e-learning is the advancement in video streaming technology (i.e., YouTube) and the amount of computer mainframe server space (called "bandwidth") needed to deliver audio and video on demand.

e-Learning 2.0–What’s New at the Zoo

Our first e-learning vendor offered a type of e-learning that I refer to as "read and click," meaning that the user mus read through the text on the screen, coupled with some skill-testing questions, to complete a course. The mechanism in which our vendor provided its content relied on each user to be engaged and wanting to learn by reading.

We assessed two new vendors in our search for "e-learning 2.0":

  1. A video-streaming vendor
  2. A vendor who used to deliver classroom-based workshopsand was now entering the webinar world

Video-Streaming Vendor–What differentiated this vendor is that it offered its off-the-shelf content in the form of video streaming. Essentially, the vendor has recorded a wide variety of U.S. university and college professors delivering lectures and presents that content in streaming video. The vendor offers over 2,000 off-the-shelf courses that include skill testing and knowledge transfer questions, and it also offered job aids that could be printed off by a user for later reference.

Webinar Vendor–This vendor had an established relationship with CP. Its specialty is delivering workshop content in 90 minute "workshoplets." CP’s Learning and Development department used this vendor frequently since it offered a flexible product with great breadth of content. A huge benefit of using webinar technology with this vendor is being able to deliver content that can reach employees everywhere, not only in the head office. And it can be recorded and made available for playback at any time.

Taking the New Kids Out for a Test Drive

The assessment period was one month and focused on how each vendor, including a vendor we had previously used, was able to capture and hold the attention of each learner and user; how interactive each vendor was; ease of new knowledge retention and application; if an appropriate level of detail was provided, or if too high, or too granular; course length; and navigability.

Existing Vendor–Though the most familiar to the participants, this was not the stand-out vendor. The most common feedback was that the participants did not like the "read and click" method of e-learning that this vendor offers. Not surprising. In an environment where distractions are constant, it's easy to lose focus and motivation to read the content and develop skills. There are some aspects of e-learning in which this vendor does excel: the Microsoft Office application courses (how to use Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc).

Video-Streaming Vendor–Pilot participants found this vendor to offer a very engaging e-learning product. One aspect that the pilot group liked best was the ability to simply listen to the course and take notes–much like being in an actual university or college classroom.

Webinar Vendor–One advantage of this type of e-learning is that it offers a more social atmosphere where participants can interact with each other and network informally. Additionally, CP has the ability to record each webinar for playback. This is ideal for the general population that would like to participate but cannot make the live or scheduled event. Participants can interact with the facilitator, either by asking questions over the phone lines, or by typing in questions using the webinar tool. Polls can be taken of the live event participants and open discussion can be encouraged. This offers a great networking opportunity for CP employees, and they do not even need to be in the same physical location.

Then Our Technology Infrastructure Got the Better of Us

Part of our due diligence in fully exploring how we could incorporate the video-streaming vendor into our learning and development library was to assess the technical compatibilities. What we found was disheartening. As a company, we had not invested in our technological infrastructure as we have in our physical infrastructure, resulting in limited IT capabilities–chief among them was limited bandwidth. If we were to have more than a very small number of concurrent viewers accessing the video-streaming content, we could bring the IT network to a standstill, rendering our mission-critical systems inoperable. The solution was a multi-million dollar investment in our IT infrastructure. And that was not going to happen. Back to square one.

A White Knight Came to Our Rescue

Thankfully, our technological infrastructure could support webinar technology. That’s when we fully partnered with our webinar vendor and decided on a slate of topics that we would deliver at two week intervals throughout our first year. Our vendor reworked its materials to fit a webinar structure, and throughout the year, our webinars took on a life of their own as word of mouth, in conjunction with a targeted awareness campaign, spread. And we were popular. We were averaging well over 50 participants per live session by the end of our first year.

The one message I would like to impart on readers is 1) to be aware that not all e-learning is the same and 2) to be open to ideas of what e-learning can be. The changes that I instigated in CP’s e-learning offered not only enhanced e-learning as a tool for learning and development and created a more engaging means of distance learning, it also saved us money. Sometimes, less is more.

First published on Human Resources IQ.

Greg Holsworth
Posted: 10/30/2008

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