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Use of Virtual Training Grows in Wake of Severe Budget Cuts

January 14, 2011
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When the U.S. economy began to weaken three years ago, Deloitte Services shifted delivery of technical training to virtual classrooms. The purpose was twofold: to deliver effective training and to do it cost effectively, says Bill Pelster, a Seattle-based managing principal for talent development.

“We still had plenty of money for training, but our budget was cut year over year. That forced us to rethink our strategy around delivery,” he says.

Before the downturn in 2008, Pelster says, Deloitte delivered about 900 sessions of virtual training each year. That number since has increased to roughly 6,000 sessions.

Pelster says the virtual format is used to update technical skills or knowledge of Deloitte’s global team of auditors, financial advisers, tax experts and risk management specialists.

Facing recessionary headwinds, other U.S. firms have followed suit, according to the Corporate Learning Factbook 2011 by Bersin & Associates in partnership with Workforce Management. In 2008, 8 percent of employee training was delivered in virtual environments; last year, it rose to 13 percent.

Virtual instruction uses “live” remote instructors who broadcast material online or by video. The format is appealing because it helps companies deliver training while avoiding the costs associated with travel and facilities, says Karen O’Leonard, the author of the factbook.

At Kelly Services, about 90 percent of training occurs in the virtual environment, says Teresa Carroll, a senior vice president of global services. The Troy, Michigan-based staffing company is adding a new wrinkle, embedding “reference guides” for employees in each online program. The guides serve as a refresher, Carroll says, putting learning at people’s disposal to access as needed. Additionally, Kelly will be embedding “activity guides” for managers, including how-to exercises and tips to help employees reinforce what they learn.

Virtual tools may be handy, but they come with a learning curve. Independent Bank Corp. in Ionia, Michigan, learned that lesson when it developed a virtual classroom for training its 1,200 employees. When employees were slow to adapt, the bank was forced to take additional steps to build engagement, says Lori Gogulski, its vice president and training director.

In the belief that smaller groups will more readily engage and interact, the bank also limited participation in certain training programs. Most important, the bank added interactive discussion, including polls and question-and-answer sessions, Gogulski says.

“For the last six months, we have seen a 49 percent increase in the amount of training taken via virtual classrooms and a 47 percent increase in the number of employees using it.”

Although rising dramatically since 2008, O’Leonard says the use of virtual formats may have peaked the last two years. Companies realize that certain types of training, such as communication and customer-service skills, often don’t translate well from the classroom to the virtual environment. Indeed, Deloitte provides just such an object lesson. When used strategically for technical training, Pelster says virtual classrooms are highly effective.

“But if you’re trying to boost soft skills or introduce brand-new concepts, it’s not the way to go.”

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