Ask the Expert: Training Portals

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This week our experts look at how to create a useful and useable, in-house training portal.

Question: Over the last few months, I have been involved in the creation of a number of user manuals and job-aids for this company that I am currently sub-contracted to. I suggested that it would be a good idea to place this in an easily searchable form online, through their intranet, extending the ease of keeping things up to date and ensuring that each site has access to the same materials.

The company intranet is sorely lacking in content and over the last year or so it has been around, fewer and fewer users have accessed it. From this, I suggested that I create a 'training portal', a place users can come to to gain information and knowledge on how to use the system effectively. I saw this also as a way of distancing the learning from the failing intranet. The company think it is an excellent idea and have let me run with it.

The trouble I have (!) is that I am working with a blank canvas. I am going to visit each site and ask the users for their input into what features they would like to see on the portal and what they would actually use (two separate issues methinks!), however, I was wondering what features the community consider are essential to include, and what you think I should put to the user base to see if they would find benefit from the functionality.

I would like to incorporate a greater feeling of unity between each site - they are remote clusters of a few people all performing the same role, but there is little contact between sites. I think that if done correctly, the training portal can help to address this and encourage a greater interaction and knowledge sharing between them.

Currently, I am considering putting in place:

* A personal space for each member, which could include a skills matrix, a blog possibly.
* A discussion forum where members can share ideas and discuss issues they encounter
* Quick answers to common problems - maybe through a wiki or easily edited format so that experts can share their knowledge.
* An easily searchable knowledge bank for the use of the system.
* A series of simulations to walk the users from the start to the end of the process.
* Guidelines, upcoming updates to the system and any other news related to the system.

Is there any other functionality you would recommend I put in? As I said, I am going to go to the people that matter and ask for their opinion on what to include, but I think that if I have as many different options as possible at the start, it means that something useful will not be overlooked.

Adrian Snook responds:
Thank you for your interesting question. It sounds like you have made a great start with your ideas for the portal. I agree with you that the key is to steer away from the diminishing hits on the intranet and market this as a learning or possibly a performance support portal.

Try to think of a brand name or theme as this can work well. For example our community portal is called Flow- You are welcome to have a look around our community portal: www.taptrainer.com and log in as a guest to see the Flow community.

You need some links to 'killer applications' to pull colleagues to the learning portal in the first place. The current share price shown in real time works well in a business with an active employee share scheme. You could also consider a world-clock or currency converter in an international business. Also don't forget the power of competitions and incentives e.g. small prize for the 100th person that votes in a poll or completes a treasure hunt gathering information from around the portal.

With regards to functionality you’ve already listed some key elements. An alternative option you could consider might be short interview podcasts with key organisational personalities. You could either structure these as extended features, shorter news items or break them down to a very granular level as responses to Frequently Asked Questions on key topics. All of the examples of functionality you mentioned in your list so far are asynchronous and I would also consider adding synchronous events and activities if this is possible. What about webcasts or virtual classroom sessions? What about offering instant Messenger support to site visitors?

Don't underestimate the skills and scale of resources that will need to attached to any synchronous offerings. You will only get one chance to make a first impression and no-one will return if their input is ignored or the response lags too much.

If you can't dedicate people for synchronous events then you could consider adding a Virtual Agent technology to allow interaction and bring the site to life.

The Lingubot is a virtual interactive assistant capable of holding conversations with digital users in real time, 24/7. The underlying technology is based on a sophisticated word and phrase pattern recognition system that matches pre-programmed responses in the Lingubot's knowledge base with questions typed in by users. For users it means the sensation of communicating with a 'real' person able not only to answer their questions, but also to understand the context of those questions and even hold entire conversations.

Try flirting with Ask Anna ( top right) on the IKEA website:

http://www.ikea.com/ms/en_GB/local_home/bristol.html

Or try the One Railway Virtual Assistant:

http://www.onerailway.com/

My final tip would be to design the interface so that it is quick and easy to use so that it plays a part in their daily roles of perhaps looking something up. Your guides and quick tips should only be a few mouse clicks away.
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Graham O'Connel responds:
This is a very sensible proposition. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. I think you are right to consult widely on this. In fact I would adopt a two-stage approach: firstly ask for needs, views and ideas, then when you have something more concrete use staff as a sounding board to test out whether what you are planning will fit the bill and will work in practice.

I guess you will be using sharepoint or something similar. This will allow you to do all you suggest technologically. However, the trickiest bit is engaging the staff. Wikis and blogs are controversial – HR may want them monitored, which can be counterproductive in the long run. The BBC use them internally very successfully but they have 15,000 switched on people and they are used for all sorts of things, pretty much with boundaries. I wonder whether you will have the critical mass of contributions to make this worthwhile. If you think you have, go for it; this has to be the future.
The search facility will be key. It should be able to search within documents not just for document titles. The concept of having an internal google facility is growing. However, the structure of your site will still be important. The more you can build the taxonomy as a folksonomy – reflecting how staff think and the words they use – the better.

I like the idea of each person having their own space. With the addition of a skills matrix you could turn this into a ‘yellow pages’ facility so that anyone can search for a colleague with certain knowledge and skills. This does have to be crafted quite carefully so that people feel they can be honest about their skills, experience and interests. Team photos as well as individual photos may help build that community feel you are after.

I wouldn’t go overboard on different functionalities from the outset, you probably have enough to get started and can then add more later if required. But there maybe one further item that will hook people in: a newsletter or announcement facility. If you have regular changes or additions this can be very useful and I know we get a real surge in hits every time our news digest goes out.

Functionality is an important part of the equation, but probably more important is content. You imply that your manuals and job aids will be the primary content. But if you are to call it a training portal I would have thought it might be helpful to populate the site with all sorts of learning materials, links to other sites, details of training programmes, coaching arrangements, access to books, further education funding criteria, sources of advice and so on.

Full marks for taking this on. I wish you the very best of luck.
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Mike Ditchburn responds:
There will clearly be some areas of the training portal that are corporate requirements e.g. access to learning materials but, outside of these, the rest should be what the users want and what the organisation thinks will optimise the learning resources.

Essentially you are marketing a new product and it is therefore appropriate that you are doing some market research. However, in implementing blogs, wikis, forum etc. you are also potentially helping to change people’s behaviours towards learning/learning communities and this inevitably takes time.

I would agree that much of the new portal should be driven by user feedback. This might not be the optimum content from your perspective but a major challenge right now is to drive traffic to the portal and get people used to using it. Content can then be refined over time once the ‘critical mass’ have gained some benefit from it. However, consider putting in some content that is topical (reference sources) or fun (competitions etc.) – this will help to ‘pull’ users to the site.

Of more importance than the initial functionality is the need to see the portal as an emerging tool that requires ongoing update, review and change. Therefore continual user feedback, as well as an ongoing investment in marketing and administration, are critical to ensure initial momentum is maintained.

The experts
Adrian Snook is Deputy CEO & Director of Learning & Development Programmes for the Training Foundation. Having set up corporate training video production business Dragonfly Communication in 1992, he moved into e-learning in 1996 and joined The Training Foundation as Director of Corporate Development in 2001. Since that date he has been the public face of the organisation, responsible for alliances, business development, marketing and major project initiatives. In the spring of 2006 Adrian was appointed as Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Director of Learning & Development Programmes. Adrian has a passion for learning in all its forms and especially for the development of learning facilitation and coaching skills in those responsible for training or developing others.

Graham O'Connell MA Chartered FCIPD FITOL FInstCPD ACIM: Graham is head of organisational learning and standards at the National School for Government. He has particular responsibility for developing and promoting best practices in learning and development. A regular feature writer for professional magazines, he has had numerous articles published on topics such as organisational learning, training strategy, coaching and facilitation. You have probably seen Graham presenting at conferences too.

As a consultant Graham has 25 years experience in technical, management, trainer training and as an adviser to organisations on the strategic aspects of L&D. He has extensive overseas experience including working in countries as diverse as Russia and Bermuda, China and Kosovo. Graham still does some occasional tutoring on CIPD and University of Cambridge qualification programmes and runs occasional Masterclasses. He also runs a number of networks including the Strategic L&D Network (for Heads of L&D in the Civil Service), the Henley Public Sector Knowledge Management Forum and the Leadership Alliance Exchange.

Mike Ditchburn, MD of Bourne Training: Mike has worked for Bourne Training (part of the Redtray Group) since 1998, He has worked as a training and development professional for 15 years and held senior training management positions in the financial services sector and pharmaceutical industry. Mike is highly experienced in the delivery of learning to support change initiatives, and has been fundamental in developing strategy and implementing solutions to support e-Learning projects across a range of industry sectors.

Mike is an associate of the Chartered Institute of Bankers and has a Diploma in Management Studies. He is currently a member of the British Learning Association Quality Forum whose purpose is to direct the operation of the BLAÕs Quality Mark Scheme. He has extensive experience of speaking about e-learning development and implementation, including speaking at the On-line Educa Berlin and World of Learning conferences. He has also had editorial articles published in E-Learning Age, The Grocer, IT Training and Training Journal.

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