“Share, learn and grow” is the motto that drives her forward, says Laura Overton, Managing Director at Towards Maturity and our latest member of the ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN Steering Committee. In her work, Overton applies her motto daily: The main task of her London-based not-for-profit organisation is to share successful implementations of e-learning at work. And in doing so, it helps companies grow “into maturity”.
One cornerstone of Laura Overton’s work is to identify and share good practice. She is the author of “Linking Learning to Business” and co-author of other extensive studies on effective (or “mature”) e-learning practices. In the past five years, she and her team have assessed more than 700 organisations and published the results, which can be accessed free-of-charge, on their website (www.towardsmaturity.org). Their Community of Excellence also contribute to the site, which supports 2000 public and private sector companies who want to know how to improve the impact of e-learning in the workplace. Overton originally established this service as a result of working with the UK’s Learning and Skills Council.
The organisations at which Laura Overton and her colleagues have looked use a broad range of learning applications. The Japanese car manufacturer Toyota, for example, works with e-learning to enhance their European distributors’ product knowledge. British Telecom has started to move into social learning (peer-to-peer). Pfizer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, has brought in blended learning to enable their highly professional staff – people who do not have much time – to pursue an online Master’s degree in pharmaceutical medicine. And Liverpool’s taxi drivers literally learn on the road, using mobile phone technologies on their PDAs.
So what is it that makes e-learning a success in these diverse environments? “The secret of using e-learning well is not technology-related. It depends on how effectively the organisation aligns its use of learning technology to its business strategy”, says Overton, who can draw on nearly two decades of experience in the e-learning industry. For ten years, she worked as a senior manager at “SmartForce”.
“First and foremost, learning and development staff have to find out what their organisation actually needs”, Laura Overton adds. But she has experienced that employers tend to concentrate on making the technology work and “throw their common sense out of the window”. Consequently, Overton’s task as MD of Towards Maturity, an independent consultant, as well as a fellow at the British Institute of Learning and Development and the Institute of IT Training, is to bring common sense back in. She also applies her pragmatic approach when working with learning providers, trade organisations, or the British government, where she is the founding ambassador of Next Generation Learning @ Work, part of a national initiative that helps to promote better use of learning technologies in universities, colleges and schools.
“Those who do link learning to their business benefit immensely”, Overton says. Through e-learning, they improve factors like customer satisfaction or the quality of their products or their work. She has distilled six “strands of activities” that help to deliver business impact. One of them is “learner context”: E-Learning works well if the learner’s motivation and career aspirations are considered.
Laura Overton becomes passionate when talking about the barriers that prevent organisations from achieving their potential. Her research shows how the reasons for failing to use technology-based training have changed: “Five years ago, the employers told us that their main barrier to success was the lack of IT infrastructure. Two years ago, they quoted cost challenges. In the current recession, cost still plays a role, but the main obstacles the employers see this year, are resistance of staff to change and a lack of knowledge and skills.” (2009 Towards Maturity Benchmark Review)
But while the workforce does not seem to be ready to develop, employers are nonetheless expecting learning technologies to deliver more for the investment. “This gap is a strong motivator for me to constantly raise awareness and share the stories of learning success”, Overton says.
In her opinion, ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2009 will be an excellent opportunity to bridge this gap. In the fifteen years OEB has been running, she has been involved in various ways. But this year, as a member of the Steering Committee, Overton sees an even greater chance to address the skills issue. She further appreciates the conference because it brings education and corporate learning together, “… two fields which have not forged strong links”, she regrets. “But making available what works well in each field will drive innovation.”
And where does her passion for learning, sharing her knowledge and linking it to business come from? After all, she holds degrees in Mathematics and Psychology, not in Business Administration; and she is not a teacher. “I was driven to training early on in my career”, she says. Her first job after graduation included managing distance-learning programmes for IT professionals. At the time, it was the use of interactive video that fascinated her. “It worked so well that I asked myself why don’t we share this experience?” Since then, sharing the secrets of success has become her profession.