Training people at all levels of an organisation is desirable for increasing the quality of service across the board. Amanda Swinburn looks at which training courses are available.

Training academies in the UK insurance industry are nothing new. Royal & Sunalliance has been operating its highly regarded college for decades, and other large insurers such as Allianz Cornhill, Groupama and Axa offer renowned internal training courses. Yet, several insurers are now moving towards outsourcing training to specialist agencies or implementing their own elearning facilities.

As each company offers a different range and type of training, it can be difficult for insurance employees to ascertain which skills they need to acquire in order to progress up the career ladder.

Insurance professionals need to be choosy about the company they join if they are to gain the best training, according to Sharon Houghton, branch manager at Kelly Insurance recruitment consultants. She believes all companies should provide desk training and the better ones will offer out-of-office training courses.

One way companies can incorporate training into their workload is by sending employees to work in another relevant department, for example sending a motor underwriter to learn about motorcycle renewals.

Other firms do exchanges with brokers, so younger employees can learn more about the people they deal with on a day-to-day basis.

"It is very important to pick a company that does provide suitable training," says Houghton. "Ask a prospective employer about training at the interview stage, as it shows that you want to develop a career."

Recently, rafts of online training courses have been springing up in the market, such as the Institute of Insurance Brokers' (IIB's) new online training portal, to be launched at the end of next month.

However, Houghton stresses that it is important to use these in conjunction with more practical courses: "Online courses serve their purpose for courses on subjects such as motor or household insurance, but not for more in-depth subjects such as commercial risk."

Nor, she adds, do these courses teach subjects such as people management or interpersonal skills.

Learning at a distance
Digital Think is one technology company that is helping companies to implement elearning into their training agendas.

Senior executive Ian Stanley says online training courses and research material do not have to be used as stand-alone products, but can be used in conjunction with instructor-led courses.

"Elearning can be used as a memory aid, to reinforce what has been learnt on courses, or as a precursor to a course, to get employees up to a certain level," he explains.

Digital Think is currently drawing up a number of elearning programmes to help insurers to comply with the General Insurance Standards Council (GISC) rules. According to Stanley, the demand is growing year by year.

Steve Kelley, of technology supplier CISCO, supports this view. He says that the insurance industry is streets ahead of other financial services industries in its demand for online training technology.

But he adds that many insurance companies are still trying to deduce how to "personalise" elearning and then make it work for them.

"The automation side of this technology can put people off," he comments. "But when it is installed, it offers a vehicle for measuring the person doing the training and seeing how this knowledge has been passed on to colleagues."

Acquiring extra skills does not just apply at lower levels, but is also necessary at management level, says Pat Walpole, executive consultant at Mansion House, a specialist search company.

She says that many of the larger insurance companies invest in expensive management trainee programmes to develop staff for fast-track promotion and to ensure successors are in place for the future.

"But this is not happening across the whole of the industry, as many companies seek new blood in order to help drive the company forward," she says.

However, she adds that there is evidence of structured training within most insurance firms and staff are encouraged to gain industry qualifications, with many senior managers having the opportunity to undertake MBAs.

A joint approach
At the more junior end of the spectrum, technical and product training are most popular, leading on to more personal development and management training as appropriate.

While new training techniques such as elearning have the potential to offer enormous time and money-saving benefits to employers, they must be used alongside tutor-led courses for staff to reap the benefits.

Whether these are done internally or outsourced is a matter for the individual company, but the best will offer quality, identify personal needs and offer follow-up assessments to ensure the knowledge is successfully implemented.

Training to manage call centres
Royal & Sunalliance has recently launched the award-winning Fusion, one of the first call centre management courses in the UK.

Developed in partnership with the University of Sunderland, the course gives new managers, or those identified as having the potential to become managers, the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective in their role.

Delegates have access to the university's facilities and can download material and order books via the internet.

Successful candidates receive a Certificate in Call Centre Management (equivalent to the first year of an HNC) at a university graduation ceremony.

Royal & Sunalliance training and development officer Fiona Andrews points out that team managers, line managers and trainers all receive an accreditation, which has had a positive impact on leadership in the call centre and on customer service. "The benefit of doing this training in-house is that practically everyone is involved and in some way gains from the programme," she says.

Churchill is another insurer that does almost all of its training in-house, covering everything from induction, to call centres, general insurance and management training. Kay Gorman of Churchill says: "We aim to retain staff and by training internally, we ensure that standards and quality are maintained."

One example of internal training is the call centre course, where employees receive one-to-one phone training with an experienced "buddy" after doing a group course.

"This would not happen if it were done externally," adds Gorman.

Outsourcing can be useful
More insurers are choosing to outsource all or part of their employee training to specialist agencies.

Director of Performance Coaching International (PCI), Kevin McAlpin, says there are several benefits to be gained.

"The employee gets a more objective view, which is separate from company politics, and a different set of skills to those offered internally," he says. "Staff are also likely to be more open if not being assessed by someone in their own organisation."

He adds that it can also be cost-effective for the company, because it does not have to pay someone full-time to do the training.

Travel insurance giant Club Direct is currently looking to outsource more training to keep up with the fast growth of the company.

While the company sees internal training as being an essential permanent measure for areas such as product knowledge, it is planning to bring in specialists to deal with other aspects of teaching.

Club Direct is now seeking to improve its customer service, as part of a re-launch of its annual travel insurance products.

"We have a fairly complex internal training system," says Trevor Gardiner of Club Direct.

"But our prime aim is to deliver what the customer wants, and we find that using an outside consultancy helps to bring a balance of perspective."

A major part of the course entails getting the customer service officer to look at a situation from a consumer's point of view.

"People can be protective about their own company, so it can be helpful to bring in a degree of separation when it comes to training," adds Gardiner.

Norwich Union provides instruction where possible, but sometimes finds the need to call in outside help.

This would happen when a large number of people have to be trained in a short time, or when the resources, such as complex IT skills, are not available internally.

Insurance brokers tend to do most of their courses externally, through CII courses, and by sending employers out to be trained by insurers. Major brokers Aon and Marsh have both adopted this method.