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Web-based Training Yields Maximum Results

February 1, 1999
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Training has always been one of human resources’ biggest headaches. You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to fly people to Seattle or Singapore so they can gain new skills and boost their overall job performance. They attend classes, cart course materials heavy enough to buckle a burro and promptly plow back into work. Weeks or months later, it’s still not clear whether all this instruction produced any real gain for these individuals or the organization. But in the age of information, you believe you have no choice but to keep the coursework flowing in the direction of all live bodies.

Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is deeply flawed. Yes, workers need to constantly upgrade their skills. It’s no bulletin that the most successful organizations often attract and retain employees based on their ability to provide training as well as a path for overall professional growth. And, as we all know, smarter workers create a smarter company.

However, at a time when information travels at the speed of light, too many human resources departments continue to traverse the training landscape by covered wagon. They use old and outdated methods to manage the learning process and train workers.

Instead of identifying gaps in organizational knowledge and then designing the appropriate training, HR attempts to use a one-size-fits-all approach and provides the same general training for everyone, whether or not they need it. Instead of moving toward Web-based learning on demand a process that can cut costs and boost productivity HR clings to the conventional classroom. The end result? The enterprise tosses wads of cash at the travel industry and ultimately winds up transporting people to the information rather than zapping information to the people. It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that moving people is far more complex than moving data.

Learn to traverse the training landscape.
A decade ago, nobody had a choice. But times change. Today, savvy organizations are beginning to realize it’s impossible to continue down a path of diminishing educational returns. Lights, desks, binders and buildings are expensive, and conventional training requires a lot of effort for minimal ROI. Employees miss huge chunks of work due to travel. And sometimes instructors find themselves enduring a seemingly endless journey to branch locations in New Delhi, Dubai, Buenos Aires and Kiev often exhausted and unable to provide the highest level of instruction.

What’s more, logistical logjams related to updating and distributing course materials are enough to uncork even the most patient individual. Version 1 of the binder and coursework might be used in St. Louis, while version 1.1 still sits in Duluth and some hybrid of the two is being used in Fresno.

Jonathan Schiff, a professor of accounting at Fairleigh Dickenson University and executive director of the Finance Development Training Institute in Montvale, New Jersey, puts it this way: "It’s not good enough to simply throw general training at the problem. Companies toss away millions of dollars and don’t get any real return on investment. Without linking your training and development to some kind of improvement within the department and company, you’re just spinning your wheels."

That should sound a warning bell. Today, tools exist to track competencies and skills, identify gaps in employee knowledge and then create the necessary courses (or slot employees into the right classes outside of the organization) to address specific needs. Several major HRMS, ERP and distance learning vendors now offer features that help managers understand the skill level for departments, groups of employees and individuals. By tracking such information, managers are able to better prepare their employees for organizational needs and challenges. Of course, workers also win because they can identify various career paths and prepare themselves for the future.

Combine a skills database with the appropriate learning technology and you have a powerful, competitive weapon. Although classrooms will always remain essential for certain types of instruction, and computer-based training (CBT) continues to ripple through the corporate landscape, the future clearly lies in Web-based training (WBT). It allows interaction in ways that nobody could have predicted just a few short years ago. Using a PC, modem and a Web browser, it’s possible to log on and learn without regard to geography.

Log on and learn in a virtual business environment.
It’s now possible to create a collaborative virtual work environment by using whiteboards, threaded discussions, and an assortment of course materials piped over an intranet or the Internet.

According to Brandon Hall, editor and publisher of Sunnyvale, California-based Multimedia and Internet Training Newsletter, corporate training grew into a $55 billion industry in 1998. Web-based training accounted for about $500 million of that total. However, he projects that by 2000, the market for distance learning will exceed $1.5 billion. "Distance learning is becoming a viable alternative for many organizations," explains Hall. "Despite bandwidth limitations and other technical concerns, it’s making tremendous inroads."

In fact, a growing number of software packages, including Lotus Development’s LearningSpace, UOL Publishing’s Virtual Campus and Centra Software’s Symposium, now make it possible to establish effective distance-learning programs without starting from scratch. That, combined with the right hardware PCs, an intranet, and modems for telecommuters and road warriors makes distance learning a desirable alternative.

An employee can log on and peruse a course syllabus, click to specific lessons to get an idea of what the course entails, and then sign up electronically. At that point, the student can receive lessons and coursework online, take tests and advance to the next level. Best of all, it’s possible to study at home, at work or while sitting in a hotel room in Dubuque.

World-class leaders such as Motorola, Ford Motor and MCI-WorldCom have already figured out that this method offers tremendous advantages. For example, Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola now distributes self-paced CBT materials through its intranet. Students can simply download materials as needed.

The company also is putting together classes that allow instructor-student interaction via e-mail, bulletin boards and an assortment of other tools. Recently, Motorola has begun migrating to fully interactive online learning by using Java-based applications from Centra Software. "We can create a live, virtual classroom for people all over the globe," says Aaron Agrawal, director of the College of Technology within Motorola University.

Motorola now offers nearly 100 online courses, mostly in the information technology (IT) arena. Like most distance-learning programs, employees register through the corporate intranet.

"It’s simply not feasible for a global company like Motorola to make conventional training available to a population around the world," says Agrawal. "In addition, the demands on the workforce make it difficult for people to attend classes. A lot of people simply don’t have the time to fly to a location and spend three days in a classroom. When they participate in a virtual classroom, they can do it when it’s convenient."

Distance learning is not without its challenges.
In some instances, these companies are slashing training budgets by 30 to 50 percent, while creating a more effective way to learn. At MCI-WorldCom, roughly 5,000 employees have completed their coursework online. That has slashed approximately $3 million in travel, facility and labor costs.

Last year, about 20 percent of all the classes at the telecommunications firm were conducted through the Web, and the figure is expected to top 50 percent in 1999. The corporate bean counters are happy, human resources is happy, and employees are thrilled to spend more time with their families.

Says Don Warner, senior manager for the Career Enhancement University at MCI: "If a manager calls up and needs a specific course, we can develop it and have it online within a week.

"The cost savings is phenomenal. Students no longer have to fly to the Dallas training center. They sit down at their PCs, click the URL and begin learning." So far, the telecommunications giant has realized an ROI of more than 230 percent on the project.

Yet, like any technological endeavor, distance learning can present challenges. One of the biggest is building an infrastructure that can connect an entire organization. One telecommuter might use a 4800 KBPS modem at home and another might have an ISDN line. One might use a notebook computer with a small screen and another might have a 19-inch monitor sitting on the desktop. This means creating content that can work on almost anyone’s system, and ensuring that nobody is left without access.

Creating coursework and managing a distance learning program also requires a different mindset. In many respects, it resembles a seminar more than lecture-based learning. Although an instructor is able to provide leadership, guidance and direction, students are far more autonomous. In most cases, that requires a greater emphasis on coaching and facilitation on the part of the instructor. It also means that instructors and content creators must adapt material to fit the online environment. Frequently, what works in a classroom doesn’t work online.

Nevertheless, smart companies now recognize that organizational learning in the new millennium is more than just the sum of binders and classrooms. Together, Web-based instruction and a competency management system that’s able to track skills and identify gaps in knowledge can take corporate education and training to a higher level. Ultimately, HR must learn its lesson: The shortest distance between employees and knowledge is Web-based training.

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 95-96.

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