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VENTURA COUNTY BUSINESS | BUSINESS VIEW

Creative Use of the Internet Can Help Employees Keep Learning

October 24, 2000|Gary Izumo

Learn--or watch the world pass you by.

We know that we need to keep learning if we are to progress. And with the seemingly never-ending introduction of new techniques, technologies and concepts, we need to continue to learn, just to remain competitive and keep our jobs.

But how do we learn when there just doesn't seem to be the time to take care of life's professional and personal demands? How do we learn when we have conflicts that prevent us from being at a particular place or participating at a specific time? How do we learn when we are just trying to survive? Organizations must be creative in finding ways for their employees to learn.

Organizations need to recognize the complex challenges that employees face as they seek to fulfill both professional and personal demands while trying to develop their capabilities at the same time.

One way organizations can support their employees' learning is by supplementing the traditional uses of seminars and classrooms with creative use of e-mail, discussion boards and online classes. Through innovative use of available online resources, organizations can remove place and time obstacles that make learning difficult to accomplish for many employees.

Here are three ideas for better using online technologies to enable learning:

* Be open-minded and do not fear online learning. It's not traditional or conducted face to face in a brick-and-mortar classroom. It helps people learn without having them be at a particular place, if not also at a particular time. This is a strength of online learning, but for some it is viewed as a problem.

True, online learning is not for everyone or every situation. But it provides options to many people who would not be able to gain critical new skills any other way, be it a single working parent, the stressed-out employee with an endless to-do list or the person with family care or transportation challenges. For many people, the online environment almost magically frees them to share their thoughts when they would typically not say anything in a face-to-face situation. For them, online learning provides wider and deeper interactions than the face-to-face formats. Still, online learning can have the same problems as traditional methods if the teachers lack the inspiration to connect with their students through meaningful interactions.

* Use online communication tools such as e-mail, discussion boards, and chat with a learning purpose. Instead of the occasional article we e-mail in addition to those funny stories, make a conscious effort to share articles with your network of friends and colleagues. Select articles that will help resolve and prevent issues you see occurring at work, articles that help you use new techniques or technologies, or articles that will help you be a more effective as a teammate, such as how to better communicate, resolve disagreement or establish meaningful goals.

Before sharing the article, take time to summarize it, noting particularly useful ideas you have identified. Managers as well as employees might also consider creating a "virtual" learning club consisting of several colleagues. For example, a group of you might share ideas, challenges, and solutions for using a new "intelligent" software program being implemented to help get work done faster. In addition to day-to-day comments, one virtual learning club member could share an article or a particularly difficult issue and solution each month with the other members either by e-mail or posting it on a discussion board. The members would then e-mail or post comments relevant to the article, issue or member comments. Another variation to this approach would be the use of a private online chat room where the virtual learning club could "meet" each month to share their ideas.

* Integrate high touch with high tech. Online learning can be a solitary journey like reading a book. Clearly, technology can be cold and impersonal, but online learning doesn't have to be. What makes online learning meaningful is personal care and interactions. By conducting ourselves online the way we would like to be treated in a face-to-face situation, with respect and care, virtual learning becomes inviting and safe rather than sterile or anxiety-filled. By organizing to encourage interactions by e-mail, bulletin board posting, and virtual classroom chat, the learning environment becomes a warm, welcoming place where people meet, get to know each other, and where learning can flourish.

And by seeking to periodically balance technology with humanity, for example, an occasional phone call or face-to-face meeting, relationships deepen, the virtual environment becomes richer and the learning possibilities expand.

Learning is not optional. It must be a core organizational value that helps guide both manager and employee choices. It is a lifelong requirement if we, organizations and employees, are to remain relevant.

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