posted 10 Oct 2001 in Volume 5 Issue 3
Back to school
Establishing a 21st century corporate learning model
As the only major oil and gas corporation to launch an open university Shell is paving the way for its competitors to follow. Pascal Kruysifix explains the impetus behind the project and describes the pitfalls and successes Shell has experienced in bring the Shell Open University to fruition.
Operating in more than 130 countries and with more than 70 000 staff Shell companies have developed and adjusted to changing times over the course of the past 100 years. They are committed to contributing to sustainable development and to delivering energy in a cleaner and more socially responsible way and are only too aware that this involves attracting retaining and investing in their human capital global staff pool – one of the largest challenges in the energy industry.
Ask any professional nowadays what makes working for a company worthwhile and the chances are that salary will not be at the top of their list. It is certainly an important factor but rarely the sole reason why people choose to stay in any job or seek pastures new. In a fast moving and permanently changing workplace people want to feel confident that they are developing their professional skill-set managing their career effectively and maintaining their ‘employability’ at all times.
Some years ago Shell International Exploration and Production began to shape a new model for learning; one that took account of the need to enhance its attractiveness to new and existing employees that utilised the options offered by developing knowledge management technologies and that fully exploited Shell’s education and training infrastructure as a major strategic advantage in acquiring new business for Shell.
The impetus for change
Until the company’s learning re-evaluation the location of learning projects among exploration and production (EP) professionals throughout the Shell world had mainly been at the Shell Learning Centre (SLC) at Noordwijkerhout in the Netherlands. While external benchmarking had revealed time and again that Shell’s professional and technical learning capability and commitment was highly regarded throughout the ‘oil patch’ and industry at large the group wanted to respond to the demands of its customer groups.
Extensive consultation with Shell’s many operating units (OUs) around the globe in 1999 and 2000 revealed the differing expectations of every producer consumer or purchaser of learning in Shell. OUs wanted training to be devolved readily accessible more affordable and less associated with ancillary costs especially in the ongoing climate of fluctuating oil prices. Learning and development specialists wanted to take the fullest advantage of new media and technology-based training in the development and delivery of educational materials. Human resource professionals wanted to decrease the ‘time to competence’ and deliver a global staff pool uniformly competent competitive and to the highest industry standards in every business discipline.
Shell staff wanted to link the training they received to externally accredited degree programmes and take more control of their personal development with the company’s blessing. Management teams wanted to make good on the employee value proposition to enhance the attractiveness of Shell as a long-term employer and minimise staff turnover.
In essence learning demands liberation from the physical locations traditional structures and management mindsets of Shell’s past. A new relationship between staff management teams and learning itself was needed one which allowed people more personal responsibility for their own ‘lifelong learning’ and easier access to the means of becoming and remaining industry-best professionals.
The team was also anxious to align an educational development of this magnitude with ongoing work being undertaken globally by Shell HR professionals in the field of competence development.
How did Shell address these needs?
A framework for identifying skills suitable for the current and future roles Shell requires has now been developed factoring in the standards that are recognised and accredited worldwide. The SOU model was conceived to comply throughout its planning phase with the business critical remit of this framework linking closely to specific required competences and identified skills gaps.
Many critical steps were taken in the development of the Shell Open University by the Shell Learning group including:
- A re-alignment of the group’s role in learning provision;
- The commissioning of regional learning ‘hubs’ to move learning closer to student populations;
- Alignment with the PC desktop environment for the assured future of online learning;
- Extensive market research into both learning management systems (LMS) and collaborative learning tools prior to final selection;
- The establishment of a network of learning relationships among third party educational institutions;
- An associated framework of assessment and accreditation schemes for prescribed courses;
- The specification and development of the web-based learning portal;
- The development of a communications strategy to launch and promote the SOU.
After three years of preparation research technical evaluation and negotiation with education partners in December 2000 the Shell Open University was formally opened in the Netherlands at a launch event at the Shell Learning Centre.
The SOU model
The Shell Open University model is best defined as a set of learning processes locations and online delivery systems that help staff become better professionals and improved contributors to the company’s EP business. It blends the best aspects of physically co-located education with state-of-the-art online content in a best in class LMS linked to assessment and external accreditation. The strategic intent is the evolution of learning and devolution of opportunity allied to a revolution of personal responsibility.
The role of Shell Learning at Noordwijkerhout as a focus for Shell’s competitively advantageous core learning and the delivery of the unique EP oilfield foundation courses would continue with all the physical advantages of co-locating trainees for an immersive and collaborative style of learning.
This unique and highly valued approach in mixing the diverse staff communities within Shell at one location will be extended through the regional learning hubs such as the newly established centre at Miri in Sarwak. Other learning hubs have recently been opened in Muscat Oman Houston USA and Warri Nigeria to help reduce the logistical costs of training while maintaining the highest quality standards.
Learning alliances have been established with international centres of technical excellence (such as Imperial College Oxford and Scottish Knowledge) to provide better access to the quality learning materials the SOU model demands.
E-learning is an important component of the SOU reflecting technological advances available to every PC user through Shell’s global desktop interface (GDI). Computer-based training delivered just in time has already taken hold within the IT culture with people turning to the Shell Wide Web (SWW) as a major access point for learning in major technical managerial and information technology subjects. Yet Shell takes care not to give the impression that all learning will be electronically delivered in the future.
Linking with knowledge management best practice implementation initiatives already in place around Shell the SOU has incorporated access to existing discipline-based global networks and centres of excellence to promote their use as on-the-job learning zones in support of day-to-day operations. In addition to formal learning opportunities SOU students have unlimited access to structures and web communities concerned with managing Shell’s vast and growing body of knowledge and expertise.
The SOU is helping stimulate and coach behaviours assisting in the identification of skills gaps and providing virtual just-in-time training interventions that complement our ‘realising the limit’ technology implementations. Such initiatives are designed to keep Shell on the leading edge of technological development and application; the SOU is completely aligned with these key business drivers.
The opportunity for assessment and accreditation is perhaps the most powerful motivation for an individual to engage with the SOU. This has been achieved by matching skills requirements to key roles as defined by the recent skills portfolio initiative performed throughout the OU network validating learning offerings and partnering with universities to secure part or full academic accreditation for courses.
The provision of learning services
The Shell Learning team had to understand first hand how the many dimensions in its learning formula (space time cultures languages diverse subject matter evolving technology changing business demands and competitive standards) would fair in relation to the new knowledge transfer model. Since the SOU’s launch unexpected challenges have inevitably sprung up. In particular questions arose with regards to how everyone would find the time to devote to learning which styles of teaching and circumstances of learning would suit which media best and how widespread misconceptions about the volume of distance learning could be overcome.
Previously staff members typically expected to be advised that they would need to attend a course and so book time off to do so. Now with the onus on each individual to manage their own learning progress achieving that new attitudinal and behavioural shift was and still is a challenge.
Webcasting as a means of remote communication has disadvantages as well as advantages as Shell Learning found out. Users and tutors need to develop techniques for getting the best out of the technology as well as having the right hardware to support it. Early versions of this technology can deliver annoyingly fuzzy pictures with variable sound synchronisation. But webcasting does have its place and Shell Learning is working on the implementation of better hardware integrations.
In addition there existed a general impression that the Open University was more focused on ‘self service’ distance learning than was the reality despite the continuing demand for the traditional lecture-style sessions from many parts of the world that the new regional hubs were able to address.
While a new feature did involve technology-enabled learning the team knew that integrating any remote learning with the frequent interaction of a course leader in a blended learning style was key.
The role of blended learning
E-learning usually encompasses a set of interactive steps through digital materials that are accessible over the web. Blend this with an online instructor and you can make use of activities related to your own business environment one-to-one feedback by e-mail and through discussion forums ongoing assessment and direct access to expert resources. Blended learning is a mix of e-learning with interaction between participants and an instructor inside a physical classroom or a virtual learning space. The blended learning format of the Gas Lift course has earned it a role model status pointing the way for conversion of other topics to this new style.
Obaid Al-Harthy is a production technologist with Norske Shell on the Draugen Field and in May became the first graduate from the new Gas Lift blended learning course. He says: “It was very easy to go through everything. The introduction gave me all the instructions I needed to know – what I was expected to do whom I was expected to talk to and where I was expected to post my input. You get all the help you need directly from the instructor and from within your own company. There’s so much flexibility that I intend to do more courses this way.”
At the beginning of the course students are presented with an assignment schedule based on their learning needs. Normally one module consisting of three or four activities is due each week. These activities will take up to four hours to complete. Once the student logs in to the website and starts a module he can access a ‘lecture’ with audio and accompanying text so he is able to simultaneously hear an explanation and read the important points. Complex concepts are presented in the lectures as animations which are much easier to understand than a verbal explanation or a two-dimensional paper-based diagram. The participants complete their assignments and post their work to the course discussion forum. Access to the contents of the course manual online quizzes simulation and design software and resource documents are also included on the course website.
But it’s not all about blended learning...
As the new Geosciences course shows Shell Learning takes different approaches to fit each learning opportunity. Take the Turbidites and Carbonate courses for example. These now comprise two one-week modules instead of the previous three-week Noordwijkerhout classroom-based course which included an excursion because until recently seismic interpretation was dependent on the support and memory of mainframe computers. Today’s super-laptops can carry that capability to any location.
The objectives of the course are clear: to be interactive to provide real solutions to actual commercial challenges faced by the students and to be cost and time effective. There are five components to the week starting with team-building and commercial awareness exercises on day one. Field work takes up the bulk of the time from the second day onwards together with hotel-based seismic interpretation and sub-surface analogue work using real data sets to link the work back to a commercial application. Each day also incorporates problem solving on real scenarios brought in by the students. Day six rounds up with participant presentations before heading back to the airport on the seventh.
Course director Arie Speksnijder describes this kind of experiential learning as ‘action learning’ with a number of knock-on benefits from having portable courseware: “We found it was very powerful to have the combination of the five elements of the course in one spot without the separation of time and distance. By selecting and combining all the work into an on-site module it not only allows the immediate application of what’s being learned but is more interactive and enjoyable – all factors of the course promoting a higher level of learning to take back to the workplace. The course is really top-class due to this style of delivery and the availability of local geological experts.”
And the location? Southern Spain and Mallorca. But it’s no holiday as Jes Willem one of the first course attendees found out: “The course was short with a highly efficient learning strategy. The novel idea of working on world-class turbidite outcrops during the day and applying learning directly to sub-surface interpretation on a high quality dataset in the evenings was incredibly effective; it really brought the sub-surface alive. Arie was instrumental in making a great idea work well. With excellent IT logistic support it ran surprisingly smoothly. I strongly recommend this course for geoscientists involved in deepwater exploration or production projects.”
Marketing the learning opportunities
As a multi-site international enterprise with many change initiatives competing for the attention of a worldwide audience at any one time Shell’s marketing strategy for the SOU needed a strong brand and an innovative approach. The nature of Shell’s multi-culturally diverse global business dictated specific sensitivities while its desire to act and promote itself as an employer committed to equal access and opportunities for all also conditioned strategy development.
The team opted for a classic logo identity based on group branding policy keeping the easily recognised Shell ‘Pecten’ at some distance from the text-based graphic. The team went for a business-like responsible and non-contentious logo identity. The Shell name was regarded as a strong asset in oil and gas education – many of the company’s foundation courses are regarded as industry standards – and the words ‘open’ and ‘university’ accurately and unambiguously described both the aspiration and actuality of the team’s objectives.
An additional communications device was commissioned to complement the serious tone set by the basic identity logo. Dubbed the SOU ‘mascot’ this popular face of the SOU was designed to have a mass global appeal particularly aiming at a younger student demographic. The non-gender non-race diverse characterisation was deemed necessary for widespread use in Shell’s multi-ethnic staff community and desirable for the company’s equal opportunities policy commitment.
While it was not deemed necessary to link a specific strapline with any part of the SOU identity the team devised several key themes and resonant phrases to inform the marketing copywriting and advertising campaigns commencing in the last quarter of 2000:
- ‘Register learn succeed’;
- ‘Learning at the speed of business’;
- ‘Invest in yourself’;
- ‘Time to know’.
Several branded items were commissioned to give away at events exhibitions and conferences. In addition two productions were commissioned as part of the global communications strategy for multi-purpose use. The CD-ROM Credit Card held 30Mb of video pictures taped interviews imagery and interactive information screens to be distributed to Shell middle managers learning and development professionals and opinion formers. A video was commissioned for broadcast on Shell’s global EPTV channel and was also distributed on both PAL and NSTC formats.
Three months in advance of the formal launch window in December 2000 a series of articles began appearing in the Shell International Exploration and Production internal news magazines (EP Newsletter and EP Spectrum) which were directly mailed to named EP professionals in the target population together with a flyer insert. This was complemented by a poster campaign intranet homepage hotlinks a brochure with registration inserts targeted e-mails to OU managers middle managers and opinion-formers PowerPoint presentation templates and an informative video and CD Rom.
The Shell Open University was launched on Wednesday 13 December 2000 at the Shell Learning Centre in Noordwijkherhout in front of the professional learning development and web design staff the people who had was conceived and implemented the SOU. On the 14 December Shell’s first learning webcast presented by an in-house staff expert to a 120-strong audience of drilling discipline engineers was delivered using the Centra collaborative tool chosen during the SOU’s early research phase. Further formal launches followed at different sites around the world.
The metrics of success
Three measures of success in particular were selected for the first launch phase:
- The number of people communicated with from the target population of 11 000 EP professionals;
- The number of early SOU registrations;
- The number of hits (as opposed to sessions) recorded on the SOU Shell Wide Web portal;
together with one for the medium term:
- The number of people attending educational ‘events’.
This latter figure was recorded at 3 000 students passing through the SLC in Noordwijkerhout in 2000 prior to the SOU launch.
Referring back to the original metrics every member of the 11 000-strong targeted audience had been directly communicated with through direct mail on three occasions and by e-mail at least once by the end of the first three months. During this same period over 3 000 Shell professionals had been engaged with personally at the various stands exhibitions and presentations carried out by team members in several countries. Web hits on the SOU portal had exceeded 300 000 by the end of February.
- Registrants – 5 500 people from 150 companies worldwide (from the target 12 000 learning audience) registered to the Shell Open University within four months of it opening for business;
- Course material – by September the Shell Open University contained 110 e-learning modules in a number of disciplines;
- University partnerships – there are currently 30 different programmes (264 modules) from 15 different universities. Over 120 people have shown an interest and 55 students are awaiting approval.
Shell Open University was recently credited with one of four honourable mentions at the Corporate University Xchange/Financial Times Awards 2001. The presentation took place in Los Angeles on 8 May. Shell was the only oil and gas industry to get close. Cor Zegelaar manager of learning and development at SIEP attributed this recognition to the dedication and commitment of staff at Shell Learning and the willingness of those who have participated in the Shell Open University project so far.
In 2000 the company was recognised as implementing one of the top ten company-wide e-learning initiatives according to a worldwide benchmarking study of best practices from e-learning research leader Brandon-Hall.com. Shell was chosen based on an intensive four-month study rating quality quantity and business impact of e-learning across the organisation.
As Regy Loknes Shell Learning business and leadership team leader says: “If we get feedback from our customers we will do everything we can to accommodate it because in a sense this whole learning opportunity is what we all make it. So far the take up has been staggering – it’s tremendously exciting and it’s ground-breaking stuff.”
Pascal Kruysifix is marketing co-ordinator at the Business and Leadership Team Shell Learning. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The SOU Learning Management System
Individuals are encouraged to register and effectively manage their own ‘personal learning account’ using the Shell Wide Web as an omnipresent ‘portal’. The Shell Open University therefore has technology at its core providing a continuous system for ‘track-and-trace’ self-management of lifelong learning and enabling a worldwide learning delivery environment that is compliant with industry-standard desktop PC technology and computer-based training standards.
Developing external alliances
In developing the Shell Open University it was clear that inclusion of external relationships was essential to enhance the credibility of the proposed model among staff. The vision guiding the development of a learning alliance network was “to be able to capture new ideas developments and products from internationally known thought-leaders in industry the learning world and technology developers in order to build on the latest developments and trends to make the SOU a state-of-the-art corporate university”.
Shell’s strategy was to target external partners through existing technology partnerships linked to the company’s many supporting functions provided by its Learning and Development Technology Research and Development Human Resource Management and New Ways of Working divisions. The SOU sought to develop appropriate business relationships and tap into their knowledge bases sharing experience to benefit both the business and prospective students.