Gone are the days of stuffy workshops and hours of travelling to get to the latest training session. E-learning offers staff a sophisticated alternative. Amanda Swinburn reports.

In this technological age, industries are constantly striving to stay abreast of the latest IT solutions to cut costs, save time and improve workplace efficiency.

The insurance sector is no exception. And in a market where staff training and development are paramount, the virtual classroom could be the perfect solution. While more insurers are looking into the plus points of e-learning, there is still a common misconception that online education simply consists of a series of downloadable textbooks.

On the contrary, argues Ian Stanley, senior account executive of IT company Digital Think. He says training programmes can be tailored to the needs of the individual company and be used as a precursor to or refresher for tutor-led courses.

There are manifold benefits of using this teaching method. Most technology providers offer online training that can be accessed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, making it adaptable to the needs of the individual.

Digital Think offers 300 off-the-shelf training aids and can customise courses to suit individual companies - for example, making them comply with the General Insurance Standards Council rules.

The company has a network of 27 servers, which provide 99.9% availability, users can move between pages in one to two seconds and the system is linked up to a number of training experts if help is required.

"There is no point in having the facility if it's not easy to use," explains Stanley. "People should be able to use it wherever they want - in the office, at home, in an internet cafe or even in a hotel room."

The new e-learning tools are extremely sophisticated. Students have a choice of e-books, CD-Roms, net meetings, virtual labs, simulation of real-life situations and online assessments.

From an insurance company's point of view, this can mean simulating a call centre and offering realistic roleplays of customer inter-action. The facility can also be applied to back-office procedures, such as claims processing.

Cisco business development director Steve Kelley says each student can be given an online mentor to provide back-up support.

Virtual classrooms offer a way of monitoring each individual student, with user profiles and learning effectiveness indexes being produced to pinpoint any gaps in the teaching process.

Employees can make significant cost savings, because meetings can be held online, perhaps after an initial face-to-face course, saving money on travel costs such as hotel bills and train fares.

"E-learning will be the great equaliser of the next century," says Kelley. "By eliminating the barriers of time, distance and socio-economic status, individuals can now take charge of their own lifelong learning."

But how easy is it for the insurer to install the technology?

"All you need is an internet browser - there are no downloads, plug-ins, new hardware, software or configurations required," says Stanley.

Most training courses can be accessed on a low-powered network, which means they can be done from home. But the more complex products, such as online meeting rooms and videos, may require some level of investment.

Kelley agrees: "For a corporate company, the standard network should be able to cope with this. If not, then there is the business question - is it worth making an initial investment for long-term payback and great cost savings?"

While online training may be accessible and save time, it is not radically different in content to existing courses, says Chris Dickman of Insurance Personnel Selection.

"Online training offers great benefits and looks impressive, but it is only valuable if what is learned is used to produce better results for the company," he says.

Dickman also maintains that e-learning needs to be used in conjunction with face-to-face tutorials to reap the full benefits.

While there are still very few insurers that have implemented online training, the industry is growing rapidly and a number of companies are laying the initial foundations.

E-learning has great potential, but it seems that it could still be a few years before the benefits of such training are recognised throughout the industry.

No bricks-and-mortar at RSA
Royal & Sunalliance has just launched its new UK Commercial Insurance College. But it's no bricks-and-mortar operation - it's a combination of on-site training, one-off events and online modules on an intranet.

Initially, the training was just offered for underwriters but has been rolled out to include claims, business development (including marketing, distribution and sales) and risk control.

Fiona Andrews, technical training and development manager for Royal & Sunalliance Commercial, says the benefit of the new scheme is that people can access information across the globe and can manage their own careers.

"When we develop a module, there is no end to who can use it," she says.

"Royal & Sunalliance is a global company, so colleagues in Australia and the US can exchange information with us."

The new college is a business entity, run by technical people with insurance expertise, as opposed to human resources trainers.

In addition to online workbooks, employees can access tests, discussion forums and company news from the intranet.

But Andrews stresses that there are no plans to do away with classroom learning.

"There will always be a need for people to get together, network and exchange information," she explains.