A company of online adventurers

With 550 locations and 70,000 employees spread all across Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) found that financial realities – and the immutable laws of physics – were making the timely delivery of traditional job training to tens of thousands of employees virtually impossible.

Enter Bell Nexxia’s e-Learning Centre – a network-based professional services and solution provider that in June 2001 launched a complete training environment created for HBC employees, including online delivery of self-service, live and classroom courses.

The Bay actually recognized the possibilities of computer-based training to deliver safety and product knowledge courses through its “HBC University” as early as 1990, when it implemented a mainframe-based training program, said David Crisp, the company’s Toronto-based senior vice-president of human resources.

“[The first system] worked really well for a number of years, but you still accessed it with those terminals with the green print on a black screen – if you can even find one these days. So it needed to be updated to Web-based technology with the capability to do audio, video and the other things that we now take for granted,” Crisp said.

Nexxia, a division of Bell Canada, also provided IP broadband LAN extension service for dedicated network access, and acts as HBC’s application service provider, said Grant Farmer, Nexxia’s senior director for e-business.

“Our solution is a fee-for-service approach so a lot of the complexity has been taken out of it. [The customer] doesn’t need to go out and buy the hardware, software, host that software, and fuss with the network components because we’re prepared to bundle all that into a user-based service approach,” Farmer said.

For students, Crisp cited the ability to take courses form home, and at any time of day as advantages over both a classroom approach, and HBC’s previous system. For employees who are not online at home, Crisp added, the virtual classrooms are complimented by a number of real ones.

“For instance, when we roll out a new course that we want a lot of people to take we advise all our human resource managers to schedule people an hour at a time. With 550 locations, most of which have several (computers) available. You can pretty well get through 10,000 people in a couple of days,” Crisp said.

Web-based courses can be an important part of a company’s training strategy, but very rarely should they be the only response, said Robert Fabian, a Toronto-based IT management and systems consultant.

“As a way of extending and enriching the learning experience to cover more situations, more people and more times, it makes excellent sense. But most of us, when confronted with a new subject have trivial questions which, if they can be cleared up early on, greatly simplify the learning process, and if I’m just sitting at my computer screen engaging in various exercises it’s difficult to provide a rich interaction,” he said.

E-learning also depends on solid administrative and technical infrastructure. Outsourcing that infrastructure, as HBC has done, is going to become increasingly common, Fabian said.

According to Chris Mokedanz, a Nexxia system specialist in Toronto, the main challenges of implementing the Bay’s very large system were networking with HBC’s intranet, firewall issues and enabling the remote access of the applications for residential users.

“The are also obvious questions around how much intellectual property – like employee records – may or may not be out on the Web. We addressed security with SSL (secure sockets layer) and 120 bit encryption, with is standard for most transactive networks,” he explained.

Crisp agreed that “other than the usual debugging” implementation went very smoothly – “the paperwork was more challenging,” he joked. And with 1,200 users logging in during the first week alone, HBC employees seem sold on the system, he said.

And what would the original band of merchant-adventurers that founded the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670 might think of these cyberspace initiatives? Crisp thinks “they’d say we’re still on the adventure – we’re still out there trying to be leaders and get there first.”