Insurance tutors are delivering training programmes in virtual classrooms across the globe. Ellen Bennett reports on how technology is transforming the workplace.

Imagine hundreds of underwriters across the globe, from Swindon to Singapore, sitting in a virtual classroom, hearing the same voice, seeing the same things and able to ask questions, all in real time. That’s exactly what’s happening today, when CII group sales and marketing director Lee Gladwell delivers a masterclass on the future of underwriting to RSA staff from several countries.

Gladwell is the RSA underwriting excellence’s academy’s second global speaker, the first, from Munich Re, having been a smash hit success. The academy, which won Insurance Times Training Initiative of the Year Award in 2007, is one of a growing number of programmes capitalising on the potential of the online space to provide quality training that can be accessed any time and in any place. But how do such programmes actually work – and can they ever match up to the real thing?

First, the science bit. RSA uses a programme from Genysys Software that allows users to watch a presentation in real time. They hear the speaker through their computer or on a phone line, and see the slides he or she is presenting just as a live audience would. The presenter controls the slides, so the internet audience will not be able to flick back or forward. On the left of the students’ screen is a panel in which they can type questions, which will appear in front of the presenter, who can choose to answer them either during, or at the end of the presentation.

When the masterclass is finished, the audio and video is transferred to a central database, accessible through the RSA intranet, and can be used by people who missed the class, as an induction tool, or as part of continuing professional development (CPD). The academy programme has won CII accreditation, meaning that users will gain valuable CPD points.

By the end of December 2007, RSA had delivered 60 masterclasses, attended by 6,000 underwriters in real time, and a further 8,000 after the event.

Martin Alderman, RSA’s underwriting capability director, says: “The key to this technology is that it enables people throughout the country to interact in real time with presenters, who are both internal staff and from a range of our partners. It also means that the masterclass is available continually – it can be accessed time and time again.”

RSA is not alone in the realisation that the internet has more to offer its staff than email and social networking sites. A growing numbers of insurance firms are using technology to deliver training to their staff across the country – which is particularly useful in a geographically diverse and time poor market.

The CII, which itself offers a large amount of online training tools including the popular Broker Assess, is an enthusiastic supporter of such developments.

“Technology enables people throughout the country to interact
in real time with presenters.

Martin Alderman, RSA

“We are seeing an increasing interest in training delivered online,” says Gladwell. “We now have over 20,000 brokers using our online broker training and over 50,000 using CII online training. We are increasingly working with companies to provide training online, and seeing a huge growth in interest.”

The surging popularity of online training is particularly timely given the skills shortage in the insurance market. The CII is currently running the Talent Initiative, a programme designed to attract and retain the brightest young minds in the market. It recently highlighted surveys showing that 22% of UK employers struggle to attract properly qualified staff, and 16% could not find UK workers with the right skills. These figures, from the Association of Graduate Recruiters, highlight the importance of companies being willing and able to train their own staff in a quick and cost effective way.

One such company is Towergate, which uses a tailored version of the CII’s Broker Assess to train staff of all levels in its many businesses across the country. As well as teaching the basics about all classes of business, Broker Assess provides FSA-compliant teaching on regulation and other essentials. And the tailored version the CII has developed with Towergate means that the broker’s staff are also trained in elements specific to their firm. According to Gladwell, an increasing number of insurance firms are opting to develop such programmes in partnership with the CII.

Towergate’s head of people development, Fiona Andrews, says the programme has benefits both for the organisation as a whole, and for individuals. “From an organisational perspective, one of the benefits is that we are able to track activity and keep records of competency tests that have been taken, showing that people have displayed the necessary knowledge and capability,” she says.

She adds that online training saves valuable time, particularly for junior staff who require a lot of training alongside their busy day jobs: “When we are delivering core modules to people at their desktops to complete in a way that suits their diary, we are reducing down-time because we are not taking people out of the office,” she says. “It’s much easier to fit in than taking them out of the business, with all the preparation and travelling that entails.”

But can online training ever come close to the experience provided by face-to-face learning? All the people interviewed for this article agreed that human interaction was ‘ ‘ still necessary for the teaching of soft skills, as well as the opportunity for debate and interaction with peers that a classroom environment provides. But the technical skills demanded by a career in insurance can be easily and effectively taught online, they claim, just as such skills are now taught in schools and through distance learning modules for organisations such as the Open University. Indeed, junior staff in need of intensive training tend to be younger and, therefore, quite used to technology.

Andrews acknowledges that online training has more limited benefits for senior staff. But she argues that even the top brass benefit enormously from the ongoing access to information which online tools provide. The company uses software to complement their out-of-office training and to monitor how it filters down to staff. “It’s horses for courses, really,” she says, “but at every level of the business, it has its place.”

So next time your colleague seems suspiciously absorbed in their desktop, don’t assume they’re surfing Facebook. They might just be furthering their career.

Delivering a masterclass

Colin Bradbury, underwriting director at Towergate, has delivered several masterclasses that have been beamed to underwriters across the country. In the past, the traditional way to train people was to have them in the room, so at first I was not sure how it was going to work, he recalls. I always make sure I have a live audience, otherwise I’d just be standing there looking at a blank wall. When there are some people there, you can tell whether they are falling asleep or finding it interesting.
With his audience ready, Bradbury delivers his masterclasses in the usual way, knowing that each time he changes a Powerpoint slide, the screens on computers hundreds of miles away are changing too. He says it is important to keep that remote audience engaged, which he does by using the interactive tools that come with the software. We have to be mindful of the whole audience, he says, so we use poll questions to make the experience interactive. You have to give people a bit of time to respond, so you pause more than you would with a live audience. It takes a lot of discipline to have pauses, but it’s important to remember.
Bradbury uses poll questions as a way of making important points in the presentation memorable. For example, he will ask a tricky question, such as, what is the most common cause of loss in a particular type of business. When the answer is not what the audience expects, the response figures highlight the misconception. We use it to really get the message home, he says. Giving the audience a choice is a more powerful way of making them remember.
Bradbury saw the effectiveness of the medium in action soon after he started delivering online masterclasses: Quite a few people were absent from the first one I did, on the North American legal system. So the next week, they booked out a meeting room one lunchtime and watched it together, he says. That way, if someone there knows more than the others, they can answer any supplementary questions. You can use it in ways you would not have initially have thought of. It works so well, we wonder why we never thought of it before.