British Airways' huge new business centre near Heathrow feels like a user-friendly building. Thoroughly modern, it still harks back to community and small towns, with a High Street of shops, banks, a doctor's surgery and throngs of people. Way above is a glass roof. And down the middle of this cobbled thoroughfare runs a stream, with cafes and restaurants on its banks.
Recently, as a group of students from Cranford Community College in the London Borough of Hounslow, walked down this street, they may have reflected that, apart from being a lesson in architecture, the centre is also a vivid illustration of the power of information and communications technology (ICT).
At the entrance is a screen where visitors key in the name of the person they want to see and are shown where he or she is. Nearby is a machine which enables staff to book and receive airline tickets on tap, and down the street there is a library where they can access courses on CD-Rom and other media. Staff can also shop on the internal Internet and have their goods delivered to their desk or car.
Using the flexibility which IT offers, employees can organise their day in terms of hours and where they work: hot desking, for example, is a system which encourages staff to plug in their laptops, not at specific desks, but at any workplace - or home or cafe - where they can also key in their telephone number.
The 11 Cranford students - aged between 16 and 17 - were visiting the centre, known as Waterside, as part of a day-long session to support their GNVQ studies in advanced business and IT. Most of the session was spent at BA's Community Learning Centre with computers linked to many of its application packages - booking, e-commerce and baggage control systems among them. A systems "block" prevented them placing fictitious baggage on a real plane or getting a bill for a flight to the Bahamas.
"The sessions have been worked out in consultation with schools to give students work-related experiences and support teachers, says Mary Barry, BA's education co-ordinator.
In his introductory talk Mark Haggan, BA's learning systems consultant, discussed the qualities which BA seeks in its staff. They include languages and cultural awareness. Others are acceptance of flexible working practices, IT literacy, and people skills.
One exercise was to book seats to a chosen destination using BA's own Internet booking system - many of the students were doing a module on booking systems, requiring an assessment of their user- friendliness. The importance of the Internet was emphasised. At present "80 per cent of the airline's tickets are bought in travel agents and 0.1 per cent through the Internet", a BA executive told the group. But that situation is expected to change dramatically. Students also explored BA's Intranet system, where information for staff is posted, and worked their way through a "safety in the workplace" training programme.
Finally they went on a virtual tour of the business centre, using the programme sent to BA by the architect, before the actual visit.
"Brilliant", "great", was the students' verdict on the day. But undoubtedly the highlight was the visit to Waterside. Haggan asked what they learned on the day during the evaluation session. "That I want to get a job there," was one quick reply. One of the benefits of the session, said teacher Nikki Kettlewell, was that it confirmed to them that this might indeed be more than possible: "They can aspire to work here after this."
* The centre mainly caters to schools in and around Heathrow but will also sometimes accept bookings from further afield. Apart from programmes on IT and Communications Technology other sessions support languages, environmental education, marketing and brands and GNVQ Leisure and Tourism. At present it caters for secondary schools, but is keen to get involved with younger children. Programmes are free (schools pay for transport and pupils bring their own lunch).
The Centre co-ordinator The British Airways Community Learning Centre Waterside, Australasia House, PO 365 (HBBG) Harmondsworth, Middlesex UB7OGB.
Tel: 0181 738 9596