What's wrong with E-learning?

In my previous post I explored selling versus order taking and the different behaviours and skills that branch based merchant salespeople may need to have, or develop.

If the merchant sales role evolves, as I suggested, into a consultative approach that delves a little deeper into what customers need rather than simply providing what they ask for, there may be a need for some specific training in both the consulting techniques and the solutions to offer.

With a geographically spread branch based sales force with peaks and troughs of activity at different times of the day, it would appear that the builders merchanting industry is ideally suited to online learning applications.

E-learning can take many forms, but commonly within our industry, the experience might consist of modules imparting information, after which participants have to answer questions, getting a score at the end to assess how much learning has been achieved.

For small businesses, taking time out for traditional training is particularly difficult as it often means losing a member of staff for a day. Contrast that with E-learning, which offers a flexible learning approach that individuals can complete wherever they are.

With ever changing Building Regulations, it’s also easy to keep E-learning applications up to date with the latest legislation. However, I wonder, is E-learning the best solution for todays builders merchant?
Trade associations, merchants and suppliers, including H+H, have increasingly invested in E-learning since the start of the financial crisis as an alternative to, or to supplement, face to face training.

Through merchant groups and trade associations, merchant staff can now access training modules from well over one hundred manufacturers, along with more general industry-focused training on issues such as health and safety.

Wolseley is just one of the merchants involved, having recently re-launched its Online Training Academy and the Builders Merchants Federation developed a similar facility for  independent merchants. Plumbers' merchant Graham also runs an E-learning resource offering a whole suite of online learning modules: all of these schemes are designed to provide merchant staff with the product and industry knowledge they need to provide informed advice to customers.

The number of organisations involved in producing e-learning material illustrates how many see a future for E-learning within merchanting and it has undoubtedly been successful in other sectors, including retailing which has parallels with merchanting. Today, about half of all retailers have switched from face-to-face and paper-based learning to E-learning. However, our H+H experiences with E-learning have been disappointing compared with our expectations.

As a product manufacturer supplying its own E-learning facility, H+H thought it would be simple to get buy in from merchants. But take up has been much lower than expected.  Are we too early, like those dotcoms in 2000 that were ahead of the trend?

Despite the convenience factor, it also strikes me that E-learning may not appropriate for everyone. After all, some people learn best by watching someone else perform the task, others learn best by trying out the task, making mistakes and being corrected and others by reading or listening.

Many psychologists have studied these different preferences and concluded that people learn in different ways. Doing and experiencing, having opportunity to ponder and stand back from activities to listen and/or observe or understanding the underlying reasons, concepts and relationships.

Are some leaning style preferences better to suited to E-learning? Probably. Are some learning style preferences more common amongst branch staff? Probably. Are they the styles best suited to E-learning?

With on demand TV, and YouTube we are getting more used to controlling and managing the content of media in our free time and this may be extending into the workplace.  Many suppliers now provide video both on their websites and on YouTube that can be located through Google searches. Enthusiasts also post their own videos. I recently took advance of this when the starting rope on my lawnmower broke and wound back inside the casing.  There were no solutions in the manual other than take it to a service engineer. So I entered the make model and problem into Google and got a link to a YouTube that showed me know to fix it, which included fashioning a home-made tool to make it easier.

Learning in this manner is more flexible, more ‘open source’ than the “traditional” E-learning with modules, questions and scores. Perhaps we will see E-learning adapt incorporate video, multimedia content and other engaging interactive solutions, such as blogs?

H+H is launching a YouTube channel with various short, instructional videos that concisely convey how to use aircrete products and solutions.  These could be ideal for busy counter staff, or site workers, who need to find an answer to a question quickly.

The need to learn and understand products will not diminish and it’s the way this learning occurs that needs to be given fresh consideration.