The average retailer spends about 10% of sales turnover on direct staff costs. For a £100,000,000 a year retailer that means a £10 million wage bill. Add to this the costs associated with employee churn, and we can quickly start to make a compelling case for developing and retaining your existing employees. One of the most obvious ways of doing this is to offer career development and training as part of the package.However, retail, as an industry, has its own particular problems in this regard. Retailers tend to have a large number of employees, who are often spread over a wide geographical area.
The costs and logistical problems that are associated with traditional training courses sometimes mean that employee development does not receive the attention it deserves, especially when times are hard and belts are being tightened, as they are now.One solution to these problems is e-Learning. Over the last few years, we have seen advances in computer hardware and software that mean that delivering challenging and stimulating e-Learning has become a realistic proposition.
Early e-Learning courses were often limited to delivering written material over the web or on CD Rom. This was often perceived as being too dry and lacking in stimulation by students, with the result that early adopters are understandably wary of trying this type of resource again. Recently though, a new breed of training course has started to emerge. This new type of course strives to harness the unique benefits offered by the internet to enhance the learning experience.
Typically these types of courses will be made up of a variety of different types of resource. These might include;
- Text based information
- Multimedia animations
- Forum based discussions
- Chat sessions
- Interactive dialogue with a remote tutor
Using this new paradigm, trainees can interact with a global community of colleagues and tutors from different companies across the world. They can compare and contrast experiences in ways that are simply not possible using traditional “chalk and talk” based courses.
Class room based courses are, by definition, synchronous, which means that delegates participate at the same time (and normally in the same location). e-Learning courses can be both synchronous and asynchronous. In other words they can offer the best of both worlds. Delegates can take part when they wish to and work on the material at their own pace, but they can also come together with other participants to discuss issues in chat rooms and to watch live web-casts. The complexities created by differences in time zones can be overcome using asynchronous resources like discussion forums.
It is this wide scope for interactivity which is the key to the success of this new breed of courses. To give a simple example of why this is the case, you might read this article several times and still forget what it said tomorrow. However, if you had to explain it to somebody else, you would, in all likelihood retain a pretty good idea of its content 24 hours later. This is why people take notes in lectures, even though they may never read them again!
By making interaction central to the design of the course content and delivery methods, trainers can leverage the rich flexibility provided by the Internet to enhance the learning process for course delegates. This also explains why attempts to create e-Learning courses that merely present material will never be very effective.
e-Learning also offers a more efficient way of learning. As we have already pointed out, users are able to learn when and where they wish, at their own pace, and can repeat sections of the training as often as they require. It is not just more efficient for the trainee though. Without travel time or expenses, the retailer puts more of their training budget into the training itself. Instructor based costs are also minimised thereby increasing the cost efficiencies still further.
Finally, there are two more benefits offered by e-Learning. Firstly, the web allows “Just In Time” delivery of content. This means that information is always up to date, and can always be accessed on demand, exactly when and where it is needed. Information is available 7 days a weeks, 24 hours a day and feedback can be incorporated as soon as it is received. For example if a delegate tells the tutor that a certain concept is not clear, then the tutor can instantly remedy the situation for all current and future delegates. In other words we can work in “Internet Time”. Secondly e-Learning offers instant availability. With a traditional, classroom based, course you will have to wait for the next available scheduled course. e-Learning courses can be accessed instantly.
You might be considering the development of your own internal e-Learning courses. If so you will find that there are a large number of Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS) that will make this task easier. There are at least 50 of these at the last count, but they vary considerably in capability and cost. A good LCMS should allow non-technical users to create, organise and maintain content for the course. Do not underestimate the time it will take to create and test the course. You will quickly discover that it is not simply a question of typing in content!
A more cost-effective option may be to make use of the growing number of public courses. At the moment there are only a limited amount of e-Learning courses available to retailers and they vary considerably in cost and quality. However, a growing number of subject matter experts are providing courses that can be very cost-effective when compared to either in-house development or external class-room based courses.
Before signing up to any of these you should take advantage of the free samples that all reputable course developers make available, to ensure that the level and content of the course are appropriate to your needs.
The beauty of this new way of doing things is that you can do that, from your desk, right this minute!
(An edited version of this article appeared in Retail Week on 25th March 2005 under the title “Chalk takes a walk”)
The Planning Factory have an e-Learning course called “An Introduction to Merchandise Planning” which can be found at www.merchandiseplanning.co.uk/wbt/