Norway uses web to create better citizens

Norway's online initiative to train its citizens is a brave move, says Lindsay Nicolle.

Norway is the first country in the world to launch a corporate-style Internet-based learning network that will be accessible by all citizens. The move is part of a bid to get its workforce skilled for the global digital marketplace. This brave and far-sighted move makes the UK's efforts on national skills training seem bureaucratic and hindered.

The Norwegian initiative is a reaction to the country's dying industries of oil exploration, production, and fishing and also as a sign of global digital market ambitions. But that doesn't diminish its significance. By retraining its workforce using e-learning facilities through a portal, Norway hopes to save time and money on adult training and re-skilling. This is provided by government, private industry and schools. It also reduces time-to-competency in modern skills for all workers, keeping them up to speed with fast-evolving skills, enhancing productivity and staff retention and encouraging widespread expertise in digital competence.

More than 50% of Norway's working population will have access to the portal through different businesses. These are trades unions, the public and private sector. Norway is determined to compete aggressively in the global e-revolution, making its workforce the most skilled and productive in the world.

The country has ambition. Norway was an early adopter of the Internet and has remained among the "most wired" in the world. Internet access is cheap, plentiful and enjoyed.

Nevertheless, Norway is no e-paradise. The old economies relied on unskilled labour. But over the next few years, it is estimated that more than 85% of all jobs will require skilled staff. However, 500,000 Norwegians haven't achieved higher levels of education and more struggle with reading and writing.

"There has been a global change. The consequences are hard to comprehend. Norwegian trade and industry has to learn to live with it. We have to transform wealth creation," says Grete Knudsen, Norway's minister for trade and industry. "We face special challenges as oil revenues dry up and restructuring is essential. We need to be at the cutting edge to compete on quality and innovation rather than price. Every firm must concentrate on research and development. The answer lies in new competencies - for every worker and leader."

The Norwegians want to move ahead before their current economic model reaches its sell-by date. The delivery mechanism for these competencies is e-learning. As the UK's Prime Minister Tony Blair says, it is the people's reform.

The nationwide e-learning network, called the Competence Network of Norwegian Business and Industry (NKN) was established as a coalition between (and owned by) the Norwegian Federation of Trades Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Business and Industry (NHO). But Knudsen's leadership shows it has full engagement of the government. Norway's politicians love NKN because it delivers on "competence reform" for the population. It is an initiative to promote lifelong learning, aiming to create a highly skilled and educated society.

NKN serves as a portal for every citizen to access. It is an excellent example of how to reskill masses using Internet-enabled learning technologies and personalised training.

More than 50% of Norway's population can access NKN at sites throughout the country, experiencing personalised training and education from primary to university level. Delivery is multiple mechanisms, from simple Web-based documents and chat rooms to video-streamed virtual classrooms.

Up to four million Norwegian workers in government offices, trades and labour unions, colleges and universities and private companies, will train online using customised and off-the-shelf training modules. There will be 40 content providers, through password-protected PCs.

Launched in August, NKN delivers about 200 online training modules with an emphasis on IT, health and safety. However, the number of online courses is expected to reach 1,000 by December. Educational courses are also geared to those wishing to study at university. The nature of courses vary. Some are devised by a company for access by specific employees, with the NKN acting as a distribution channel. Others are industry-specific courses developed by trade bodies for use by firms in that sector.

Would-be trainees log onto and profile themselves to spot skills gaps and identify training courses. NKN is a dynamic catalogue of learning, with the portal managing an individual's progress. For example, it can issue reminders of more training needed to achieve accreditation. Managers also monitor staff access to build up a picture of skills needed or under used. From a single location, an administrator monitors the use of the network and assesses how it is delivering on the organisation's needs. Armed with this, employees, students and government workers, can take advantage of training to bring skills up to date. They can be re-educated to assume a different position within organisations.

The technology behind NKN is an e-learning management infrastructure from online education specialist Saba. It is delivered over a seamless network nationally. The Norwegian government chose Saba because it has an extensive network of partners offering online learning content covering every industry. The supplier also hosts more than 30,000 offerings for workforces for the world's largest companies. The infrastructure supplied by Saba also supports Cisco, Ford and General Electric.

As a personal university for everyone today, NKN has massive national support. They recognise a productive workforce relies on lifelong learning of technical skills and computer literacy, than traditional labour-intensive skills used to fuel the country's economy.

"We have a good level of education. But most people require several 'refills'," says Tore Egil Holte, chairman of the board of NKN. "Workers need access to learning independent of geography and time."

Hence NKN is encouraged in the workplace and at home. Norway has passed legislation encouraging learning at work. For example, employees have the right to have skills and gaps assessed. Employers are obliged to pay for this.

Finn Bergesen, the NHO's chief executive, adds, "It is unique. It re-establishes the workplace as a place of learning."

All 16,000 member companies of the NHO will shift employees' learning and training requirements to the NKN network.

"It's cost-effective as people learn more per Krone. It will help all firms keep their competitiveness," says Bergesen.

The other push comes from the LO, whose 820,000 members will use the NKN network.

Clearly, this project is an opportunity for all. But what about those who don't want to use it? What about people who hated school and have no desire to go back to an electronic version? And what about technophobes?

NKN's managing director, Sven Erik Skonberg, is relaxed. "People are interested in learning. Up until now, they may have had motivation, but not the right tools. Now they have NKN. We are moving quickly. The technology will accelerate our society's transformation."

It helps that employers and unions are putting their weight behind the initiative, adds Bergesen.

He says, "There was a time was when we educated, trained, worked and then retired. But you can't live like that now. Whether you are a brick-layer or lawyer, you have to update skills. It's an employer's responsibility too. After all, if a workforce is not updated, it will be the employer that goes out of business. There will be many workers reluctant to start schooling again, so NKN takes school to work."

The establishment of NKN, with emphasis on workplace learning, certainly begs questions of the traditional providers of learning - universities.

Kare Rommeitveit of the University of Bergen, says, "This is sensational. Lifelong learning will not only be taught on campus but in the workplace. It's not just about the blackboard, but the Web. Such a change requires new responses from universities. People will expect more."

But Boerre Pettersen of the Norwegian Workers' Educational Association is confident all parties will rise to the challenge.

He says, "This is an opportunity to provide Norwegian society with the competence to restructure. I think our society can adapt."

Norway's e-learning initiative breathes life into the notion of a knowledgeable society and supports the argument that true competitive advantage lies in people. This is about how well and quickly they learn and how it translates into value. The competitive battleground isn't about access but competency.

So for Norway, e-learning is a win-win situation, since industry and citizens are beneficiaries. No jobs are replaced by technology. Nevertheless, it's early days yet. NKN has to prove it can deliver on expectations.

Saba chief executive Bobby Yazdani is confident. "Never before has an entire country modelled itself on how corporations learn," he says. "What Norway is doing is making a percentage of all citizens a knowledge force. It will be a major boost to the economy."

If this is true, the eyes of many nations, states andprovinces will be fixed on Norway in years to come.

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