Gary: Maureen, tell us about Aurion Learning.
Maureen:Aurion Learning is an elearning company made up of a team of learning specialists and application developers. We’re based in Belfast, but we do most of our work in the south of Ireland and Scotland. When we started the business back in 1999, we focused primarily on custom elearning – working with clients who wanted to deliver existing classroom materials online, or indeed had a new training or learning and development need and wanted to support staff by delivering the training online.
Since then we’ve extended our service offering, and we’re now more of a ‘one-stop shop’ in learning technology.
While elearning is still an important core of our business, we also spend a lot of our time working with our clients to advise on how learning technology can be used effectively within their organisation for productivity and skills-development.
Gary: Give us some examples of that.
elearning design probably makes up around 40% of the business. We still provide custom e-learning design for clients but we’ve had to respond to increasing customer demand for ‘off-the-shelf’ learning content. We’ve recently launched the Aurion Learning Academy which is an ‘on-demand’ e-learning service. It’s a fully hosted platform with hundreds of e-learning programmes covering business skills, health and safety, IT and mental health. Our customers just pick and choose which titles they want. The learning content is suitable for both managers and staff and the learning programmes have very short, sharp learning content. This might be anything from ½ an hour down to 5, 10 minutes. It’s very rapid, just-in-time learning.
In terms of learning technology, we design and build bespoke elearning technology solutions to help organisations manage workplace learning and development. Our products range from online learning portals, CPD, coach and mentoring management tools. We‘ve recently taken on some reseller arrangements for a range of learning management systems that can be used for competency assessments, for pre-induction, recruitment…right through to succession planning. I suppose the main advantage for our customers is that we aren’t tied in to any one product. We recommend what we think is the best product for the client – and if it doesn’t exist – we build it.
The third part of our business is learning services. Here we work with the client to help them develop an elearning strategy for their organisation and we also work with their L&D team to help them develop elearning skills. For example, we train internal trainers on the basics of instructional design, how to design elearning, how to use elearnng authoring tools and so on. In this way, we’re really helping the organisation build their elearning capabilities.
Gary: So is your ideal client somebody who might take all three of those, where you do a learning strategy for them, help them think about learning and elearning throughout their whole organisation, give them a learning management system and tools to do this, that and the other, and, oh yes, there’s a bit that Aurion Learning can do as well in terms of a specific area of training. Is that your ideal scenario?
Maureen: Yes, absolutely. For us the ideal situation is where we become not exactly an out-sourced elearning services company – but almost that, where we blend into the customer’s L&D team. And we have a number of larger customers where we do provide that sort of service.
Gary: So where do you find the real interest in elearning? Is it more public sector than private sector, or vice versa?
Maureen: When we started the business most of our work came from the public sector, but we’re now finding a lot of interest from the corporate sector too.
Public sector organisations have always had to deliver a lot of mandatory training, policies and guidelines, but increasingly now they are looking at change management and succession planning. So they are interested in how elearning works in the context of change and how to bring staff along with it.
In terms of the corporate sector, we’ve seen a lot more demand for elearning in the past few years, particaulry in developing internal training staff to recognise where and how eLearning is a viable option, and providing the internal team in developing good quality inhouse themselves.
Maureen: Well, of course you read some of the literature which says, “classroom training is dead”. But that’s terribly naive. From a learning perspective, you need to consider the right approach based on the content of material, the speed of bringing it out to the market and the learning community.
For some clients, we do actually develop a classroom-based programme, or we run facilitated workshops to help learners as they go through the online learning. So there is still a place for classroom-based learning, but for us, it’s all about how we integrate existing classroom based training with the online learning that we develop, so that the overall approach is very cohesive.
Gary: So what about virtual classroom methods of training – where you have training delivered online to remote students, but where it mimics a classroom situation, where the trainer has the ability to present visual material, where everybody can see and talk to everybody else, and so on – is this a valid component in the learning environment?
Maureen: Yes, with the rise of broadband access, a whole range of virtual classroom environments have been developed. The main advantage of virtual classroom technology is that you still have the socialization aspect, the human presence of a real classroom situation just not the physical presence.
And bear in mind we’re not just talking about webcasts here, purely didactic learning. Technologies like virtual break-out rooms, online quizzes and and polling can result in very interactive training sessions.
So whether it’s a live virtual classroom or a virtual forum, this type of technology can be very powerful, especially when combined with offline learning.
By the same token, there are good and bad teaching techniques and a virtual classroom does not stop you from having a poor tutor who manages the teaching delivery or indeed the technology badly.
For virtual classrooms to work, the trainer really needs to know the technology well. As long as you’re a good facilitator, you can manage all the rich features that are available with virtual classrooms to great effect.
Gary: So are organisations in 2012 embracing all this learning technology? Is elearning now widely regarded as less expensive, more productive, more effective and so on?
Maureen: Yes I would say elearning is now mainstream. It’s certainly much more mainstream to have a learning management system in place than when we started in 1999. Then it was the exception. And now we get enquiries from informed buyers. They have a good idea of the specification of what they want and we then work with them to refine that.
There are certainly upfront costs with elearning, and we always work with our clients to look at the return on investment model – to make sure they get the maximum benefit from elearning and evaluate the effectiveness of their learning strategy. Sometimes that’s forgotten when there’s technology involved. The technology is installed and then it’s forgotten about.
Elearning just like any other form of training needs to be carefully managed.
Gary: So tell us a bit about what you did before Aurion, Maureen.
Maureen: I completed a degree in Computing at the University of Ulster, and then went to complete my PhD around adaptive technologies for the web. I was sponsored by a US aerodynamics company to research knowledge based systems for wind tunnel design and missiles. I also studied at Stanford University for a year as a visiting scholar as part of the PhD. Once I got my PhD, I worked at UU as lecturer in database management systems, knowledge-based systems and educational multi-media.
After 5 years I left and started my own business. I began working on a part-time basis for the University on a project called Synergy, for a short period, working with businesses in west Belfast. But at the same time, I won a contract to set up an online distance learning centre for UU – that was back in 1997. Developing the distance learning centre was a great starting point for Aurion as not only did we get to work with academics in designing a whole range of eLearning courses for students in UU, I was also able to make a lot of links with outside organisations and institutes that UU was working with. As a follow on we were able to secure a number of other contracts, the most important of which was a contract with the health service in the south of Ireland.
Gary: At that stage, did you have other people working with you?
Maureen: Yes, I started with a placement student on a multimedia degree and then I took on an administrator who was working on the healthcare distance learning centre. So it was a small team to start with. For the first couple of years, it was just the three of us but it grew from there to where we are today – with15 full-time staff, – split into eLearning designers and educaitonalists and application developers. We also have a team of associate project managers, instructional designers, AV crews around Ireland and the UK.
Gary: So how did it feel in those early couple of years? Previous to that, you’d been in a fairly secure university environment and now, here you are, moved away from that, trying to build a small business from scratch. Did that just feel terribly exciting to you, or did you think long and hard about it…
Maureen: It was exciting. I’d really had enough of academia and I’d been pretty business-minded even during that period – I was running Masters’ programmes and European projects. So I just made the decision to go and do it. I have a very positive outlook and I just worked hard, put the head down…and maybe it was luck, being in the right place at the right time…
Gary: Well, you make your own luck.
Maureen: Absolutely. I firmly believe that. So, there was no fear and trepidation – just excitement about the future.
Gary: OK…so you moved out of the University of Ulster, you started a new business, you took on staff, and you started a family – all around 2000? And you’re still sitting here smiling?!
Maureen: Yes!! Well you just need to be organised. And my delegation skills have become much more refined over the years. Some would say they still need to be refined! Because I’m a bit of a perfectionist in my approach. But…people can worry too much at times…you just need to get out there and do it! Reflect on what you could have done better, by all means, but don’t linger on it! Move on. What I’ve found is that if you establish a good relationship with a customer, they’ll keep on coming back. To this point we still have 70% recurring business.
Gary: So what keeps the customer coming back?
Maureen: That you actually care about them. We work as part of their team. We typically go beyond what they expect – maybe it’s carrying out an evaluation study for them because they don’t have the time, but we’ll do that for them, because we know how important it is for them. And – just good quality product that fits their budget. And they’ll keep coming back.
Gary: It’s not rocket science.
Maureen: No, it’s just good business practice.
Gary: So looking back over those early years, what were the biggest challenges to building a new organisation?
Maureen: The biggest challenge has been getting staff and, looking back, we probably could have got funding to employ more experienced staff which might have helped us. Getting the right staff continues to be a challenge. Whilst we can afford market rates, we just can’t get qualified staff in the elearning field. Our universities do not produce instructional designers – which is a challenge to our growth plans.
Gary: So you really have to grow your own.
Maureen: Very much so, or rely on associate staff in England. Which has worked very well for us. But we could employ five instructional designers right now if I could find them.
Gary: Let me ask you about business strategy. When you’re growing a new business, typically you have to do everything. It’s all hands to the pump at all times so it can be a challenge to take a step back and think about the strategy, how we take things forward and so on. But presumably you’ve taken the time to do that at various points?
Maureen: Yes. Now, we have a really great team that can work with the client from concept through to delivery and support and I don’t need to get involved so closely in everything that goes on.
Gary: What about managing people in this business. What’s the key to managing people in a technology business?
Maureen: Whether it’s technology or not, having a good understanding of a person, thinking about what makes them tick, is very important. At Aurion Learning, we’re very much into team building , team development, looking at an individual’s skills and where they want to go, rather than trying to just mould them into something that they’re not. So we very much have a team atmosphere – it’s very important. People here are friends, they spend time together outside work. We also do a lot of work in the community. We’re one of the most active Business in the Community companies, even though we’re the smallest organisation. That has been fantastic, whether it’s been working with the MS Society, or working with the youth club beside us, or helping some of the older people’s centres with IT. Everybody in Aurion Learning gets involved in community work.
Gary: So what benefits do you see as a business, as a result of that?
Maureen: It helps to build the team. It builds the individual and lets them see that Aurion Learning is not just about making money. It’s about giving something back into the community. We’re part of this community, part of Northern Ireland, the world, so it’s our job to give something back. And people really enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. It’s very rewarding.
Gary: Fantastic. So what is it that you are really good at, and how did you get good at it?
Maureen: I’m good at very rapidly understanding someone’s business problem! And getting to the nub of things, getting rid of the chaff around it. Getting to the core issue.
Gary: How did that develop? Was that because of your education or something you’ve learned in business?
Maureen: I suppose I’ve honed it over the years. But I’ve always been able to do this – seeing the light through the fog. And we have such a wide experience in elearning now, in really getting to know the psyche of an organisation…this is quite core.
Gary: What about being a woman in business. Northern Ireland is very male dominated, even in the IT industry, even though it’s maybe better than some other sectors. Has this ever been a problem for you?
Maureen: Never. Maybe because I’m quite a strong personality…but I’ve never had any issues being a woman in business.
Gary: Finally, Maureen, what piece of advice would you give to someone starting a new technology business?
Maureen: Look carefully at what your competitors are doing. See what the trends are. Define your niche. That’s why we’re successful – we’re niche. Keep a focus on your niche, make that your differentiator. We play the expertise card very strongly when we’re bidding for business. We really know our market and we have solid experience which we can build on.