and employees are trading expensive air travel for
the convenience of real-time, online education. The
rewards can be great, but is this training medium
right for your company?
In the so called knowledge-economy,
it’s not surprising that education and training
are prime determinates of business success. Researchers
working with data compiled between 1997 and 2000 by
the American Society for Taining and Development (ASTD)
tracked training and education expenditures by companies
and found those spending the most performed better
and had higher share prices than the companies that
spent the least.
Most corporate education still takes
place the old-fashioned way — face-to-face.
Hired experts, perhaps traveling from location to
location, stand in front of a classroom and lecture.
This method also carries the expense of travel and
time away from the job. In the aftermath of September
11, business travel has slowed, and executives are
seeing increased value in technology that still gives
employees the training that they need, but keeps them
o nthe job and out of the airport.
Increasingly, employee education is
coming from desktop computers. Instead of traveling
to far-off locations, the training is coming to them.
It arrives in the form of wither real-time, Web-based
conferencing that links students around the country
with an instructor, or from packaged e-learning courses
that teach through text on a computer screen given
life by computer graphics and Web links.
This year, an estimated $10.3 billion
will be spent on e-learning initiatives, according
to a study by the Sunnyvale, California-based consulting
firm brandon-hall.com. Business and corporations will
account for $4.6 billion of that total.
The figure may seem small compared
to the $772 billion the National Center for Education
Statistics estimates training and education generates,
or even the $66 billion corporate share. Yet, e-education
segment is expected to rise to $83.1 billion by 2004
and then more than double to $212.9 billion in 2011.
By then, business and corporations will be spending
nearly $43 billion on e-education for their employees.
Although the possibility of learning
in a virtual environment first became evident in the
early-90s, the promise has always seemed greater than
“It’s become a better
value proposition for the customer that’s more
easily available and more readily accepted,”
says Jim Everidge, president and CEO of Rapid Learning
Deployment, a corporate learning consulting firm in
Alpharetta. “The availability of widespread
Internet access has changed the equation somewhat.
September 11 provided the catalyst to stop people
from just traveling for training.”
Companies that market online learning
say managers are becoming more accepting of their
products as they see how they can improve their bottom
“They understand the idea because
it’s been out there for a few years now, but
they still want to see their return on investment,” says Jeff Wood, CEO of Atlanta-based Web Toolset.
With most Fortune 500 companies embarking
on some kind of e-learning venture as part of their
training regimen, the shift from live trainers to
virtual classrooms will continue to accelerate at
all levels. Many are already paying for their employees
to take online courses offered by colleges, associations
and other institutions. The bigger firms are also
making the leap to building their own library of online
content. Small and mid-sized companies that can’t
afford their own learning management system can access
— and even brand as their own — libraries
of packaged courses hosted by outside development
Atlanta-based ChoicePoint, a provider
of identification and credential verification services,
is building an employee training and education program
that includes e-learning. With 5,000 employees throughout
its 70 locations in 28 states, officials decided providing
online education was essential to improving the company’s
“This is really the first time
in history that technology has caught up with the
need for training,” says Phil Stroud, director
of performance development at ChoicePoint. “We
now have access to learning technology that can document
the training, measure it and have employees put together
performance development plans so they know what’s
needed for the skills of their specific job.”
Taking the plunge toward e-learning,
however, can present difficulties. Companies that
want to get into e-learning as a form of training
must have a clear grasp pf what they want their employees
to know. The programs must fit the material being
taught and engage the interest of the students. Otherwise,
a considerable investment may be lost on developing
courses that don’t accomplish corporate training
Brian Fleming, president of Norcross-based HelpWrite,
says judging the quality and efficacy of e-learning
programs can be tough. There are a few widely accepted
standards for quality even when a company is ready
to reach deep into its corporate pockets. Perhaps
the best way to determine if you’re getting
your money’s worth is by the level of acceptance
from employees themselves.
“If, when it is presented, it’s
effective training and (employees) feel comfortable
with it, they generally accept it and begin using
it right away,” he syas. “If not, there
is a big rejection and fight against change.”
Efforts to market online learning
have not always been successful, but 3-education promoters
hope those days are gone and the corporate world is
now ready to go online.
ChoicePoint employees surveyed by
the Gallup organization said they preferred taking
employee training courses online vs. leaving their
desks for a face-to-face session. These employees — 85 percent of whom have a PC at their desk
— are becoming increaasingly comfortable with
their computers and the options for learning that
they offer, according to Stroud.
State governments, including Georgia,
are also helping to accelerate the process by offering
tax incentives to companies that can demonstrate they
are improving their employees’ skills. ChoicePoint,
for example, received a $100,00 tax credit during
2000 because its online learning programs enable the
company to test and measure what their employees had
“That’s quantifiable knowledge
gain, and we were able to take that to the State of
Georgia and demonstrate our employees are, in fact,
more valuable because of this new knowledge they have
gained,” says Stroud.
The path to developing an effective
e-learning program begins with a clear vision of what
you want to accomplish within your business. E-education,
in other words, has to be tied to the bottom line.
“You have to have the right
business case for it and the right student motivation
to make it happen,” cautions Everidge.
In order to build a successful e-learning
program, companies must consider not only their goals,
but their budget as well. They must determine whether
the material they want to teach can be successfully
presented in an e-learning format or if it needs to
be complemented by other forms of education and training
such as face-to-face instructor.
Everidge adds the most successful
e-learning its directed toward tackling a specific
need. In the early stages, it becomes easier to gain
acceptance and acquire funding when you can demonstrate
the initiative is tied to a particular business driver,
“In most cases, the best kind
of training is balanced learning programs that have
some (elements) of instructor-led, some e-learning
and some conventional classroom,” advises Fleming.
“Usually the more types (of learning) and the
more methodologies used, the better the retention
of the students.”
A new hire can be orientated to his
job and his company at a much faster pace if he doesn’t
have to attend classes and listen to information he
may already know, says ChoicePoint’s Stroud.
“If you can create a culture
where people become proficient at their jobs in one-fourth
or one-fifth the time, that’s a dramatic impact,” observes Everidge.
Through e-learning, companies can
also apply the principle of “just in time” to training, says Alok Srivastava, associate professor
of management at Georgia State University.
He believes “online learning
allows a person to choose the information they need
the most at the most critical time.” Knowledge
is at your desktop when you want it. Because the course
or training program can be accessed through a computer
— and at a convenient time — employees
are not tied to a fixed schedule.
Harold Wyatt, a senior associate with
the commercial real estate firm Carter & Associates,
recently completed a 60-hour course for broker licensure
using a computer-based program offered by the Georgia
Institute of Real Esatate.
“My (real estate) clients are
people who need things done when they need them done,”
says Wyatt. “Therefore, I couldn’t be
chained to a classroom. I had to do this on my own
time. I chose when I could budget time to deal with
clients in my business, and to budget time after hours
or early in the morning to spend time on the material.”
Through computer-based learning, he
was able to control his own schedule. In fact, without
access to e-learning, fulfilling these educational
requirements would’ve been nearly impossible.
“Online learning has advanced
so much compared to where it was three years ago,”
say Kris Turnbull, director of corporate and technology
training at Kennesaw State University, which offers
dozens of online and technology courses each year.
“It’s a much better product. Before, (e-learning
courses) were very much like a Power Point slide show.
Now they’re becoming more interactive, forcing
you to think through things and complete projects
or homework assignments. It gives you feedback to
where you’re doing well and where you’re
not doing so well.”
While the look and content of courses
can vary tremendously, they generally fall into two
categories: synchronistic and asynchronistic. Synchronistic
courses take place in real-time and allow students
to directly interact with their teacher and classmates.
These are truly virtual classrooms that require you
to be at your computer during class.
Most courses, however, are asynchronistic.
The interaction is with a computer program that may
require you to read text, watch video images or perhaps
perform exercises or answer questions. Contact with
other humans — if there is any — comes
through email, posting comments to a bulletin board
or entering a chat room.
Companies can also choose between
buying an “off-the-shelf” course on a
particular subject, or retaining a company to develop
content geared to its individual needs.
A large number of private firms, along with traditional
colleges and universities, offer a vast catalog of
pre-packaged courses on everything from customer service
methods and sexual harassment to OSHA requirements.
While it might seem the academic world would be a
prime source for online training for business, that
has generally not been the case.
“In an ideal world, colleges
and universities should be helping their corporate
clients,” says GSU’s Scrivastava. “The
reality is universities and colleges are resource
deficient. A more meaningful delivery of business
education will require extensive partnerships between
universities and businesses.”
Although a number of universities
have launched Web-based MBA programs, he contends
online higher education requires a very different
mindset. The market is not ripe for this form of learning.
Programs can be greatly enhanced with a combination
of face-to-face meetings and online delivery of resources.
Universities can easily deliver custom programs in
a classroom setting and make the content available
online to corporate clients for just-in-time training,
Atlanta based EpicLearning not only
develops computer-based courses for companies, it
also hosts both proprietary and packaged material
on its server for companies such as Randstad.
“We built (Randstad’s)
learning management systems,” says Burr J. Warne,
CEO of EpicLearning.
An internal staff member or temporary
employee of Randstad, for example, can log onto a
Website called “Randstad University” from
any computer. There, they can chose from a catalog
of more than two dozen courses within each employee’s
own “personal learning center.”
“In it (the learning center)
are the courses (the company) wants the employees
to have,” says Warne. “That employee has
‘X’ amount of time to take the course,
and the company can get reports on the employee’s
progress in their training plan.”
Although courses may teach general
skills, they are not specifically tailored to an individual
organization’s workforce needs. To make these
products more appealing, vendors are making it possible
to customize courses by adding a certain amount of
company-specific information. While it may not be
a tailored made suit just for you, it fits better
than an of the rack-model.
The other — and more costly
— alternative is to develop your own, and there
are many companies in the market eager to help you
do so. The benefits of using custom programs are immense.
HelpWrite, for example, developed a program to instruct
users of a sophisticated firing range simulator developed
by Suwanee-based Firearms Training Systems.
“Instead of shooting bullets,
the simulator fires a laser beam at a projected image,” explains Fleming. The program was developed to teach
operators, including U.S. Marine Corp. Firearm instructors,
how to operate simulators.
A number of companies that create
custom courses end up hiring a company such as Web
Toolset to convert an existing training course into
a computer-based program.
“We focus on a course (where
companies) are already using stand-up trainers to
present,” says Wood. “We can go in and
convert that material in a pretty cost-effective way
to go online learning. That way, we take out some
of the cost instructional design and script writing.”
His company may videotape the instructor
and then use the tape to produce a course with some
mix of audio, video, text, graphics and Flash animations,
depending on the material itself and any bandwidth
requirements. Often, the company will also add questions
and testing throughout a course.
The more sophisticated programs allow
the company to track how each employee is learning
through a learning management system that becomes
part of the human resources computer system. Usage,
amount of time spent on particular pages and progress
can all become part of the database. While this technology
offersthe promise of tailoring material to learner’s
individual needs, it also raises the specter of the
corporation as big brother.
Through control of courses for all
employees, the company can manage for all employees,
the company can manage how culture is shaped, leaving
little room for deviation from established policy.
This approach can be particularly
useful when a company is going through a merger and
acquisition phase. E-learning then becomes a tool
for creating one culture and one set of business processes
at a much more rapid rate.
The economy or e-education also gives
companies the ability to create courses for customers
as well as employees. Commercial e-learning programs
can educate buyers on how to use products, reducing
the cost of follow-up customer service and avoiding
Creating e-learning, particularly the custom variety,
is not cheap, and not every company can justify the
costs of developing its own courses. A firm with 2,000
knowledge workers or a retailer with 30,000 sales
associates selling the same products might be ideal
candidates for a course geared to a single topic.
On the other hand, a large manufacturing firm with
employees divided into 30 different specialties might
not be. Cost is also determined by how sophisticated
the program needs to be. Factors associated with costs
include: the amount of hosting and interaction that
will be necessary; whether it will contain links to
experts who can answer a student’s questions;
and whether it will use Hollywood-style video production.
A good example of this advanced —
and expensive — technology can be found in a
course developed for doctors and nurses at Tenet Healthcare.
The program included sophisticated, life-like, 3-D
animation to demonstrate scar tissue on an arm. The
software enabled the user to look completely around
the limb and see it from different angles.
While the promises are great, the
cost of creating e-courses can be prohibitive for
small and mid-sized firms. Most e-learning companies
break down prices according to student hours — how long it takes to complete the course. While prices
can vary widely, a company can expect to spend as
a much as $30,000 to $50,000 per hour for a course
complete with streaming video, interactive simulations
and built-in testing.
Fewer than 20 percent of e-learning
content being produced fits into this custom model,
according to Warne.
Getting an ASP such as EpicLearning
to host e-learning material is also a cost-effective
way of providing training. Off-the-shelf, pre-packaged
courses can be purchased for as little as $5 to $10
per employee depending on the type of course purchased
and the number of employees. The simple so-called “page-turning” courses — little
more than pages of text on the screen — sometimes
go for as little as $1 to $2 per employee when purchased
The hosting companies also frequently
allow companies to purchase courses as they go with
no upfront fees. That can save the expense of creating
an in-house learning management system.
While the opportunities are many,
pitfalls still remain. Purchasing inexpensive productions
that don’t engage the employee can be a total
waste of money. “The quality of content is all
over the map,” says Warne. “Price is usually
what helps determine the quality of the course.”
Experts caution that attempting to
merely transfer the classroom to the Web is also unlikely
to produce good results.
“We have to understand this
is a self-driven, learner-orientated environment,
and not try to duplicate what we do in the classroom,” cautions Srivastava.
If e-learning can move beyond being
merely a substitute for the classroom, it may very
well become knowledge management that truly supports
performance. In this brave new world, programs that
facilitate learning are a part of workplace software
and the job truly becomes the classroom.
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2002, by The Leader Publishing Group, Inc., publishers
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