One of the greatest challenges for companies today is to equip their staff with the core competencies and specific skills needed to meet constantly evolving business goals and new standards in customer service.
How can you create a structure and culture that supports continuous learning, which is exactly focused on the latest corporate vision and practical strategy, while not impacting on the smooth running of the business?
TXU Europe is on course to achieve this seemingly impossible goal, having adopted a multi-faceted and measured approach to training its thousands of staff across Europe.
The company's medium to long-term aim is to ensure that the skills of all its staff evolve with the business and are ready for its next move, rather than being just able to match yesterday's needs.
"We believe that equipping staff with core competencies and specific soft and technical skills that are closely matched to our business goals is one of the last remaining differentiators between competing companies, and the key to long-term business success," says Lance Spraggons, TXU Europe's head of human resource technology.
"Staff are a corporate asset and we can make better use of that asset if we train people more appropriately and instil a culture of continuous learning. It's essential that training is closely aligned with our business needs and strategy, and that we provide many approaches to learning so that staff can do so anytime, anywhere. What e-learning gives you is the ability to support chunks of learning, so that staff can access when and where they need it, and only that part of the courseware that they need.
"Training has traditionally been seen as a cost, involving time away from work, whereas it needn't be.
That's where our decision to adopt a wide-ranging approach to learning media comes in. We want to give staff the choice on how they learn as well as what and when they learn," Spraggons explains.
Investing in re-skilling its workforce in this way will enable the European energy giant to meet its business needs more effectively. Time and money will be spent more efficiently because training content is more closely aligned with the business vision. This will highlight skills gaps before they can have an impact on the business. And providing easy ways to learn - if necessary in bite-sized chunks at the greatest time of need - will encourage more staff to seek training without disrupting their daily workload.
Most importantly, staff motivation and career prospects are being improved with the introduction of computerised, self-help, personal development plans that put staff in equal charge of their own destiny, and open up a wealth of lifelong learning opportunities.
TXU Europe's move to broaden its attitude and approach to training is a tangible commitment to improving employee performance that can only boost staff recruitment and retention in the long-term.
In practice, the company's learning strategy enables staff to mix and match traditional classroom-based courses and teaching methods with self-managed e-learning, using content from a wide range of suppliers of Web-based packages and CD-Rom courseware.
TXU Europe went live with the Saba Learning Network, the backbone infrastructure to its online learning initiative, in December 1999. Since then, the company has been growing its already established portfolio of 1,800 learning offerings provided via traditional, classroom-based training and CD-Rom e-learning, to embrace online learning.
It is essential that this three-pronged approach to training should operate smoothly as one overall service to the company's employees. Eventually, the courses will cover a whole raft of technical, business management and interpersonal skills. The technical courseware will teach basic desktop computing such as Word word-processing, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint presentations, e-mail and office administration software, including calendars and address databases. The business management and interpersonal skills courseware will cover subjects including project and time management, leadership, team working, decision-making, influencing and rigorous analysis. There will also be language training to get the company's whole European workforce to a level where they can enjoy cross-border collaborative working and knowledge transfer.
All the courses will be chosen to complement the needs of TXU's new performance management framework, which consists of 16 core competencies across four different levels. These competencies are the cornerstones of all jobs within TXU Europe whatever the discipline, and cover management and interpersonal skills that the company has identified as being key drivers for business success. Indeed, it was TXU's new performance management framework that drove the company to look for an infrastructure capable of delivering training online.
"E-learning complements the way we want our staff to develop in the future, and it offers another way for them to become skilled in our chosen core competencies," says Kevan Skelton, TXU Europe's HR technology consultant. "We wanted to tie all our training and development courses into our new performance management framework and its core competencies, and also offer another way for staff to catch up on their learning," he points out. "There's a lot more pressure on people's time these days and it's harder for staff to take half days out of the office to attend a course. E-learning enables a more flexible approach."
Just like all businesses today, TXU Europe is in a constant state of evolution and it must find ways of adapting its staff to the changing needs of the business. One way it's achieving this goal is to transform employees' careers by empowering them with computerised personal development plans that they maintain themselves. Crucially, this is also exposing skills gaps so that they can be acted upon before they can have a detrimental impact on the business.
TXU Europe will soon have a company-wide picture of its current and possible skills needs in real-time, enabling management to be proactive in mapping training onto business goals - however quickly they evolve.
"We're at the stage where we can take our business plans and cascade them down to staff to input into their training, which helps us keep ahead of skills gaps that otherwise might constrain the business," says Spraggons.
The company is already exploring how to introduce online learning in "soft" skills, and include, where it is appropriate, some form of e-learning in its training packages to effect more efficiencies in time, money and delivery.
"Using e-learning for some pre-course work and post-course assessment could shorten the length of time taken to complete courses, and also make them more focused," says Skelton.
In the past, open learning opportunities were detailed in physical catalogues held in personal development centres scattered around the UK. Staff had to visit a centre to research and access open learning, and these were not cross-referenced with the company's skills needs in any way.
Today, the catalogue is held online and is accessible from everyone's desktop machine. Most crucially, the catalogue is tied into TXU's performance management framework, so anyone can request a skills gap analysis that can be matched against assessments of training needs carried out by line managers, staff themselves, or through 360 degree feedback, and see immediately if they are meeting the needs of the performance management framework.
Staff work with their line managers to agree annual objectives that match the company's business plans, thus identifying learning needs. Progress meetings every six months ensure that training is kept on track and that no new skills gaps go unnoticed.
"The personal development plans have certainly been a training motivator for staff," says Skelton. "The amount of open-learning being undertaken has quadrupled since December and it's better targeted learning, helping to save money and make the company more effective. Also, more people new to training are trying it out, which is encouraging. Staff are also assessing themselves against the skills needs of jobs they aspire to, so they can plot a training path towards their goal. It's an incentive for them to stay with the company."
Recruitment of staff has also benefited from the application of technology.
"Interviews are conducted using questions stored online which are geared towards identifying candidates that have the core competencies we've identified as key to our success as a business," says Skelton. "This makes for more structured interviews and also enables us to provide good feedback to all candidates."
Skelton is confident that e-learning will continue to deliver business benefits in the future.
"The business is in a constant state of evolution and it's a challenge to keep ahead of deregulation in mainland Europe, but e-learning can only help us meet the skills needs of our business in the future," he says.
TXU Europe's training strategy will, over time, help to change traditional cultural attitudes towards training held by everyone in the company - from top management down to the frontline workers, according to Spraggons.
"There is a tendency to see training as a cost, as there is in other companies, and to see it as somehow an exercise that's separate to the business," he says. "But with e-learning, in particular, we can show how training staff in the right skills can bring knowledge and cost benefits to the business, and how it can be integrated into everyday jobs. We're making it easier for managers to manage their workforces through their training programmes, and we can show them how individuals are developing as a result," he points out.
The impact of e-learning is such that Skelton is already beginning to evaluate the possibility of establishing a "corporate university" within TXU Europe, along US lines. These type of entities are largely built around e-learning and have proved hugely successful elsewhere, re-energising whole workforces and cutting staff recruitment and retention costs in half.
"We have great hopes for our new approach to training in the future and the way in which we can harness the opportunities that technology can bring to training. Of course, there are still challenges to overcome in terms of acceptance by everyone, and it's early days yet. But there is a shift in attitudes towards training which can only benefit the business. I think it will make a big difference when take-up is 100% because we'll be improving people's performance and we'll have a better trained workforce - and that has to have a positive effect on our bottom line," Spraggons concludes.
A strategy for learning
TXU Europe is the European arm of Texas Utilities (TXU), one of the world's top 10 energy service companies, with assets of $40bn and over nine million customers. The subsidiary is one of the leading integrated energy companies in continental Europe, owning Eastern Electricity and Eastern Natural Gas in the UK, which between them serve over 3.75 million customers.