About six years ago, the Appointments Commission asked chairs and non-executive directors if they would like more communication online. The answer was a resounding 'no'.

How times have changed! Almost all communication is now via email and the commission is on the point of introducing a system of e-learning as part of its induction programme.

This is not a step we have taken lightly. My personal view is that new chairs and non-executives benefit immensely from meeting their peers from across the country. But when we launched our new induction process this April, we decided that in place of a one-off event for new chairs and non-executives, we would introduce a 12-month programme to support new appointees.

The challenge has been how to make a year's training programme worthwhile, interesting and, above all, manageable for busy people.

Face to face

The residential events the commission runs provide an especially good opportunity for delegates to learn from each other and develop informal networks, although occasionally some of this important networking takes place outside the traditional learning environment (usually in the bar).

We believe these two-day events are valuable and manageable in terms of time and they will continue to be an essential part of our induction programme. Clearly, however, the time pressures on non-executives, many of whom have full-time jobs, would make it difficult to hold such events regularly throughout the year.

Doing your own reading is always useful, and we provide two reference books in our induction pack, but some form of interaction makes for a better and more effective learning experience. Apart from anything else, it is more enjoyable. We have therefore reached an agreement with the Healthcare Financial Management Association for new appointees to have access to their learning modules on finance issues and an introduction to NHS governance.

Convenience

These take the form of interactive reading, with an accredited set of questions at the end of each module. Although some of the content is quite basic, the modules allow appointees to choose their learning topics and to work at their own pace - wherever and whenever is most convenient for them.

Occasionally, hot topics arise, such as world class commissioning or patient safety, when it would be useful to hear an expert view. We will therefore be introducing webinars for those on the induction programme. Speakers give their presentations online at a pre-arranged time. Anyone can view and listen to the presentation from their own PC and ask questions of the experts by using their keyboard or microphone. Those who cannot take part in the webinar can review the presentation online at a later time.

We are continuing to research other e-learning options to help newly appointed chairs and NEDs cope with the steep learning curve of their first year in post. But sometimes there is no substitute for the old-fashioned habit of talking to people face to face, discussing issues of common concern, and sharing a meal or a drink together. Which is why, for the foreseeable future at least, the commission will be encouraging new appointees to attend residential events. See you in the bar!

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