Profile of a learning architect: Darren Owen

Throughout my book The New Learning Architect I take time out to look at real-life examples of learning architects in action. In this profile, we look at how on-demand learning can be integrated with formal training to provide the basis for a highly-successful software launch.

Hewden Stuart plc is the number one plant hire and equipment rental company in the UK and Europe. The company has approximately 1600 employees geographically dispersed over the UK in 100 branches and one head office in Manchester. Darren Owen started work with the company in 2005 and became involved with Project Horizon, a major enterprise resource planning (ERP) project. He ultimately became the training lead for the launch of the system.

The problem was how to get 1600 employees trained in eight weeks. The audience ranged from those who hadn’t been in a classroom for 30 years to some who couldn’t wait to get started. A proportion was worried that the new system might mean a cut in jobs. Some were relatively tech-savvy but many did not even know how to turn a PC on. Under the new system, everyone was going to be using a computer and in a very different way to the old DOS-based systems which the company had used previously. As Darren explained, “They needed bringing into the 21st century.”

Gently, gently catchy monkey

Darren did consider using e-learning for the formal element of the training, but quickly realised that this was inappropriate for the audience at this point in time. He explains: “Hewden excelled at technical training, in other words pulling a CAT digger apart and repairing it, but getting employees to learn a new computer system – certainly on this scale – was something new. The face-to-face aspect was really important.”

Darren also looked at using assessments as part of the course, but the senior leadership in the company felt that this may damage morale. Instead the plan was to give the authority to the trainers to keep an eye on the learners and highlight individuals that may need extra support or training. Most employees attended classroom events, but in some cases the anxiety level at attending a course was so high that they provided 1-2-1 tuition in a small number of cases.

In an effort to make the training as friendly as possible, the classroom sessions were run by the trainees’ colleagues rather than by outsiders. These were trained first and went on to become ‘super-users’ who could provide support when the project went live.

No more door stops

Another important aspect of the project was the support that was provided to employees in terms of on-going reference material. Darren explains: “We could visit any branch and see old training manuals wedging doors open and I just didn’t want our manuals ending up being used the same way. ERP implementations are notorious for the volume of change and most of it at the last minute. We also couldn’t justify the huge printing and distribution costs for paper based manuals, particularly when they would inevitably change very quickly.”

Hewden took what was for them a big leap into the unknown by using LearningGuide as a platform for reference materials to support the roll-out. Employees were introduced to LearningGuide in the classroom, where it was used as the basis for exercises that simulated the real-world environment. It was also here that expectations were clearly set that there were to be no printed guides.

The performance support strategy was to use LearningGuide as the first line of support, followed by support from the trainer and, if all else failed, a call to the help desk. At first the habit was to follow the old familiar route and to ignore the online resource, but that habit has since been reversed. When people rang the help desk, they would send them a link to the LearningGuide. It also helped that Hirewire, a new intranet, was set up around the same time by the corporate communications team, and this got employees used to going online for important information. In addition, support material covering the Microsoft Office applications was added to the LearningGuide system, further reinforcing the trend.

The LearningGuide materials used to support the ERP system were developed mainly in-house but with help from a supplier. Darren admits this was a big job, but is sure the effort was worthwhile: “The performance improvements were very visible. We knew whether or not they could follow the new process and work with the new system. In that respect it was pretty black and white compared to some other training programmes.”

Darren was born in 1975, obtained a BSc in Computation at UMIST and has since obtained 11 years’ consulting experience in the field of technology education, covering government, private and public sectors. Having worked in over 30 countries, Darren has learnt to adapt the style of his training programmes to suit learning styles, personality and cultures. He is now working in Canada on a major global ERP project.

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