Learning Curves

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted October 04, 2001
By David Haskin

You've just invested in new software that promises to increase your company's productivity and profitability. You install it and let your employees know it's available, but months later, you've yet to see the benefit.

'When people come to work for us, we need them to get up and running quickly,' says Jon Rice, director of information technology for Quality Systems International Inc., a 50-employee Lexington, Mass. firm that develops software applications that enable companies to achieve quality assurance standards. His company requires employees to be proficient at a number of applications, particularly R5, which is the client software for Lotus Notes. Previously, the company spent about $3,000 per employee for offsite classroom training. Now, he says, the company uses an online e-training company, SmartForce, which offers more training for less money.

Technology can make your company more efficient and more profitable, but only if employees know how to use it effectively. That's why employees need training whenever you implement new mission-critical technology. Traditionally, that meant sending employees off to a classroom for days at a time. Increasingly, however, a better answer is Web-based training, or e-training. Big businesses were first on the bandwagon, but more and more small ones are finding it to be a viable and affordable alternative.

'Small businesses often can't spare people for days at a time for classroom training,' says Elliott Masie, president of the Masie Center, a learning and technology think tank. That means e-training is often more efficient, particularly for small businesses, Masie says. What's the Payoff?

Prices for e-learning vary widely. Masie notes that online courses about how to use spreadsheets can range from $19 to $800 and that, typically, you'll get what you pay for. Rice's company pays about $76 per person per year and gets access to technology training for end users for a variety of applications, including R5 and Microsoft Office applications. Overall, the company now spends as much for training almost all of its employees on many applications as it used to spend on training for a single person, Rice says. 'The contract commits us to them (SmartForce) for three years, but if you do the math, it's easy to see the value,' he says. (See 'What's It Worth' sidebar.)

The actual cash outlay is only one issue to consider. Nancy Stevenson, author of Distance Learning Online for Dummies and a distance learning coursework designer, says that e-training also offers additional value. 'Often, small businesses look for people to do this type of training in the evenings instead of during the day,' Stevenson says. 'So e-learning can save work time, as well as travel time.'

Rice's company, for example, has instituted a 'Learn and Lunch' program, in which employees group together on their lunch hour and participate in e-training together.

'I try to push our users to spend a half hour three times a week to use particular (online) courseware,' Rice says. 'In our small company where we're busy all the time, it's hard to find the time for training. This gives us the ability to take the course for half an hour at a time.'

Masie says flexibility that allows employees to fit learning into their work schedules is a key benefit to e-training. 'Classroom learning is a big deal,' he says. 'It means the person isn't in the office and sometimes it even means you have to get that person on an airplane. That means the actual work being done is reduced.'

On the other hand, Masie and Stevenson agree that sometimes classroom learning is more appropriate. 'It's familiar, it's dedicated time, and it's interactive,' Masie says. 'And it [allows] time away from work, which is a reward factor.' E-training, on the other hand, is best used when you can't spare employees for a long period of time.

Pick and choose

Stevenson says that the quality of the coursework, while it varies widely among vendors, compares equally with classroom learning. 'If you have good quality courses, the studies have found there's no difference in learning,' she says.

There's no shortage of technical online training, but it's imperative that you select the right courses. 'The offerings range from simply putting books on line to courses necessary for IT people to get certified,' Stevenson notes.'It has to be more than just electronic page-turning,' Masie says, referring to some providers who simply post books on line. 'If that's all it is, buy the book. There's nothing about that to make it a learning event.'

Masie says the quality of the instructional material is important. The course you choose should be developed by educators. 'You should know where the instructional material comes from. Is it from a book or a course? And if they use multimedia well, that indicates they are focused on online learning.'

And, of course, 'like buying anything, look at the company and see how long they've been in business,' Stevenson says.A good course includes several elements, Masie says. First, it must provide a structured opportunity to practice new skills. That means an opportunity to first learn, then practice, and finally get feedback. Second, learners should be able to get their questions answered. At the very least, that should include a Frequently Asked Questions section and, preferably, access to a live help desk or teacher. The ability to exchange questions and comments with other students, (perhaps through a chat area) is also valuable.

A good e-training course provides ways for managers to judge how students are progressing. 'There has to be a gauge as to whether the student is getting it,' Stevenson says. She notes that gauge can be a test, an instructor evaluation, or a self-evaluation by the student.

Making It Work

Simply offering e-training doesn't necessarily mean that employees will take advantage of it, says Quality Systems International's Rice. He suggests you develop a rollout plan that makes e-training attractive to employees. 'I decided to have a series of introductory programs, which I led, for everybody in the company,' he says. 'You have to generate some excitement and do some selling because sometimes this type of thing is suspect.'

In some companies, the problem is cultural. 'If you're doing something on the Internet, people will think you're just surfing the Web instead of receiving training,' Rice says. 'You have to convince both managers and individuals that there's a benefit to both themselves and to the company.' The best time to do that, he says, is in advance.

In addition, some people may be naturally suspicious, he says. 'A bit of re-education may be necessary,' Rice says. 'A lot of people think that, to learn something, you have to go into a classroom.'

Once the e-training starts, you can encourage people to use it with ideas such as Rice's 'learn and lunch' strategy. That will embolden people to take advantage of the e-learning opportunities, he says. E-training is a relatively new tool, and it isn't right for everybody, but it has tremendous potential to help small businesses implement new technologies cost-effectively.

David Haskin covered office ergonomics in the March issue.

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