Interview: Online learning for the energy sector

Posted on 27 February 2013

The internet and new media have created a world of possibilities for the energy sector.  Nic Laycock tells Monique Tsang why opening up access can help the industry boost skills and work more efficiently

 

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Nic Laycock is a member of the World Energy Council’s Knowledge Network on the Performance of Generating Plants (PGP). He consults in the industry and regularly speaks and writes about online learning.

Why is online and mobile-based learning helpful for the energy sector?

This type of learning – via the internet, social media, or other virtual platforms – is particularly important for the energy sector.

The sector is facing an ageing skills population.  The baby boomer generation is retiring and historically very few new people have come into the industry.  In our industry, information rests within the people, so as older people leave, their skills and knowledge go with them. There needs to be a new way to capture their skills.

Things are changing. People now entering the industry are young, and they learn in a way that’s very different from their baby-boomer predecessors. They don’t want to learn by sitting in classrooms.  Rather, they learn at the point of need – when they need information they turn to their smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop, to search for it.

So internet-based learning enables information to be retained in an organisation.  It also provides the means to switch on young people into the kind of industry that they’re entering and helps ensure their retention in the longer term.

 

Are people in the sector using those learning technologies enough?

The energy industry as a whole is lagging behind. Industry people used to learn just by reading papers.  That’s not the case anymore. Since the introduction of the internet, and particularly social media, there has been a massive change in how people share information.

The tools available on the internet allow people to convey to one another their work experiences – problems they’ve had, solutions they’ve found, information they need, and ideas they have for improving performance.

They make information so much more available and its transfer easier. They also wipe away a great deal of secrecy, which in the past – in my view – has inhibited the development of energy technologies.

In the past, the industry has relied on almost professional secrecy in order to protect businesses. In the new world of open information very little is secret. Information is passed rapidly and freely.  It represents a real challenge especially to original equipment manufacturers and to energy companies in competitive environments.  What is their true IP? A re-think is needed in order to protect their commercial positions.

 

But given the immediacy of information being spread, can the likes of social media and blogs actually be a hindrance, for example by compromising on accuracy?

Yes, it can. But no, it doesn’t.

The use of online media does mean that information gets into the public arena more quickly, but it gets into a peer arena where feedback will happen very quickly indeed, and that’s almost an assurance of its quality.

To give an example from the telecommunications industry – the company BT chose to disband its formal learning environment and instead empowered its workers to create podcasts about their work. These workers are unskilled in learning and in compliance issues, but in a year they produced 756 pieces of learning for their peers to use.  Not a single one of these podcasts had to be moderated because it was inaccurate or had rumours.

People do not endanger other people; the evidence is that given the responsibility, they will take it.

 

How can mobile technologies help the energy sector work better?

Fantastically. They open up access to learning resources on a global scale.

If there’s a problem with a turbine in South Africa, that’s easy – go on the net, say: “I’ve got a problem with my turbine, can anybody help?”  And they’re likely to find a response from somebody in the world. The help and information obtained needs to be verified of course – the point is that it is accessible at the time of need.

Following the Fukushima accident, there was a great deal of international support work that was done via internet and mobile technologies, with people at energy companies responding in real time to provide help.

Open access reduces the cost for everybody because information is easily accessible. To have mobile technologies at your fingertips enhances business performance straightaway as it allows you to deal with problems there and then, increasing accuracy and efficiency.

And with functionalities like conference calls, work meetings with international colleagues become so much easier and cheaper.  It makes a lot of sense.

 

–     Nic Laycock spoke with Monique Tsang

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