(Cisco Press, 2004).
In the course of writing The Business Case for E-learning, we reviewed approaches to e-learning that had been adopted by a number of companies. We were especially intrigued with the use of simulations and assessment at Toyota for the development of soft skills among its employees. In addition to making it just-in-time, Toyota has made e-learning hands-on and cost-effective. Boosting productivity among Toyota employees appears to be based on a philosophy of delivering content that is relevant, timely, and learner-driven. What Toyota has done works in large, mid-sized, and small businesses seeking an advantage from e-learning.
Based in Los Angeles, California, Toyota’s learning organization meets the needs of thousands of Toyota employee, associates, and resellers in the United States. The organization follows a university metaphor with such titles as dean and associate dean to represent senior and middle management tiers within the university. The programs offered under the university can be broadly categorized as those for the dealer or reseller network and those for employees or associates. Because the principal roles of Toyota’s U.S. associates include sales, marketing, customer service, and administration, the content aimed at development of associates primarily deals with soft skills.
For those at the University of Toyota, learning is a tool for solving business problems. When they hit an impasse, learners have the option to access an electronic learning tool that allows them to perform a specific task, ranging from creating project plans to preparing a presentation through self-driven modules. To complement the learning tool, associates can access an on-demand tutor to assist with solving the problem on-hand.
Toyota uses simulation-based skills development and assessment modules for customer service, finance, negotiation skills, business writing, and management training. By leveraging an existing library from a vendor, Toyota has been able to adopt unique simulation tools without needing to bear the cost of development. The simulation courses offer a Toyota look-and-feel through customization of course templates and simulation items that align with the company’s business vocabulary, environment, and culture.
Even "know-it-alls" can’t escape
By allowing individuals to acquire and demonstrate skills through hands-on simulations that are based on real-life scenarios, the university has been able to increase the performance impact of e-learning at Toyota.
Before setting out to acquire new skills in areas of customer service, for example, a learner can choose to go through a simulation-based assessment item. The assessment might offer a case of an irate customer with a complaint. The questions posed by the assessment will vary based on the previous responses of the learner. Eventually, the tool culminates the scenario with an outcome desirable or undesirable to inform the learner of his or her customer service prowess. Through the outcome, the learner receives an appropriate hint about areas of improvement and skills development.
The hands-on nature of simulation skills tools makes it a useful option for blended learning as well. Even in classroom settings, learners can assess and develop their skills by using simulation skills. Through a combination of personal assessment and personal development, simulations offer a low-risk means of increasing employee competence in an environment that approximates a real life scenario.
An outsourced model for cost-effectiveness
Toyota’s outsourced content library has also strengthened the just-in-time proposition that is critical to the university’s offerings. Through an outsourced approach to content creation, University of Toyota keeps its content library current and relevant at a fraction of what it might have cost for the company itself to create and maintain it.
Implementing simulations with a combination of e-assessment and e-training, University of Toyota has demonstrated success imparting soft skills at low cost with anytime, anywhere access to its diverse workforce across the United States. In addition to being a viable business strategy, the constant demand for just-in-time learning and learner driven content at Toyota has made outsourcing an imperative. By allowing other organizations to develop the customized content, the University of Toyota has been able to deploy the latest and the most relevant e-learning delivery and deployment tools for its associates.