Learning by Wire

Delivering training over the Web can be cost-effective and even profitable. But it can be hard to monitor, especially when users just dip into courses for a quick refresher.

The 36,000 employees at Unisys Corp. have long been able to learn how to run a desktop productivity application more effectively, develop sales knowledge about the company's computer system products or acquire the skills needed to handle difficult co-workers. But starting in March, they no longer had to leave an out-of-the-office message on their voice mail and trek to a classroom; now they can take training courses while sitting comfortably at their own desks.

The change is the result of last year's debut of the Blue Bell, Pa.-based company's online university. By turning to Web-based training, also called e-learning, says Steve Trehern, acting vice president of Unisys University, Unisys has made more courses accessible to more people, been able to offer third-party and internally developed classes with more up-to-date product and technical knowledge, and created consistent training opportunities in all offices worldwide. Although it's too early to talk about return on investment, Trehern says, one indication that the program will be a success is that Unisys has seen these improvements while its training budget has remained flat from 1999 to 2000; he declined to name a figure, however.

This shift to training over the Web is a major trend within the corporate education market, says Daniel Rasmus, a vice president at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc. The established players in the market - corporate training specialists and universities - are developing e-learning capabilities, he says, while a new type of vendor, the training portal, is emerging.

Training portals aggregate content from several instructional suppliers, compile a broad catalog of courses and wrap it all in a learning management tool that lets human resources departments track employees' progress. Even companies that have well-run in-house educational programs are expanding their curricula to include lessons delivered via the Web, Rasmus says. These come in the form of either internally developed courses or a contract with an outside training provider.

For the most part, these online efforts have a minimal impact on corporate information technology departments. In the case of portals and other external vendors, all that's required is a browser and audio capability on the student's computer. Adding Web-based delivery to an internal training system will require integration, Rasmus warns.

The firms Computerworld spoke with generally reported positive experiences with e-learning technology. Most are opting for outsourcing course development and server management or contracting with a portal, citing benefits similar to those Unisys reported.

But there are a few areas in which e-learning still needs to mature. Suppliers still operate under the assumption that people run through a course from start to finish, when in reality, students often just dip into a course to get specific information. Plus, learning management tools are proprietary, so it's difficult to track total usage when a company works with several different training firms or also offers traditional training. So, while corporate training managers and market analysts agree that e-learning is here to stay, they also warn that the industry is young and experiencing growing pains.

Expanded Options

E-learning comes in a variety of forms; recordings of live classes that are available for rebroadcast, self-paced courses and live, instructor-led classes are the most common. Video is usually absent because of bandwidth limitations and concerns about presentation quality, although streaming audio is a must. A good live course will enhance lectures with interactive elements that take advantage of the Web, such as instant messaging, polls, the ability to exchange information among participants, application sharing and whiteboard features.

Web-based training is a popular option among companies because it's cheaper than classroom training - there are no travel costs, and employees don't miss as many work hours. Also, it's available around-the-clock worldwide, so students can take classes anytime, anywhere. Contracts with training portals can cost from $16 to $22 per student, although when companies add in the cost of lost productivity while a student takes a class, the costs can run to several hundred dollars per day.

In addition, Web-based teaching methods offer a way to disseminate information quickly throughout an organization - the distribution of new courses is close to immediate, in contrast with burning and shipping CD-ROMs.

Leading the e-learning market are a slew of new dot-com companies that operate as application service providers. They aggregate classes from third-party vendors or design content themselves and combine the courses with a learning management tool for tracking cost and employee participation. By turning over the tasks of hosting the courses and keeping the lessons current, companies see a minimal impact on their technology infrastructures and human resources departments. Other companies have built shrink-wrapped tools for creating courses, while some of the big names in computing, such as IBM and Microsoft Corp., have e-learning initiatives flush with standards, tools and technologies.

Jim Ayube, a senior analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, estimates that the e-learning market had about $500 million in sales last year, and he's forecasting growth into the $10 billion to $12 billion range in 2002. But e-learning isn't replacing the traditional set of training tools; rather, it's supplementing them.

At Genzyme Inc., a medical research firm in Boston, Rick Bellingham, vice president of organizational learning, is aiming for a 50/50 split between classroom and online training. He chose TrainingNet Inc. in Billerica, Mass., because it offers a mix of online, book-based, self-paced and classroom courses that give his employees options, so they can choose how they want to learn.

However, some courses are just better in a classroom, Bellingham says. For example, an in-house course on leadership skills for individual team members needs face-to-face interaction in order to work. But technology and regulatory or compliance classes, such as those about sexual harassment or equal opportunity employment laws, work well over the Web.

What's not working for Bellingham are the learning management modules he wants to use to determine his return on investment. So far, he hasn't put such a system into place because he hasn't found one that meets all his requirements, he says.

Bellingham says he would like to have a universal registration tool for all training vendors that includes usage tracking, report generation, skills assessment and a way to analyze his company's investment. Plus, Genzyme has a special need for Food and Drug Administration validation to prove that its employees are meeting certain government standards.

Genzyme budgets about $6 million per year on employee training, and it's important for the company to know whether it's getting value out of that investment. "The problem with most organizations is that they spend a lot of money and they don't know where they're spending it, how much they're spending or what they get in return," Bellingham says.

Ken Estabrook, supervisor of training and development at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, says he shares Bellingham's frustration about the management piece of the puzzle. In his view, management tools not only need to be flexible enough to handle multiple training suppliers; they need to reflect the way people use the products.

Estabrook deals with three training vendors: SmartForce Inc. in Redwood City, Calif.; KnowledgeNet Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and KnowledgePlanet.com Inc. in Reston, Va. Because their learning management systems don't communicate, he's dealing with multiple systems, which makes gathering information about a student's progress difficult, Estabrook says.

In addition, the management systems reside on the vendors' servers; he says he would like to put a learning management tool on his own desktop, where the management tools could better serve students as well. Estabrook says he wants students to have a registration utility that can handle input from multiple vendors, so they can go to one source to find a class, instead of having to search three different course catalogs. "I want it to be seamless," he explains.

In addition, during the past three years, Estabrook has learned a lot about how his 3,000 employees - technical staff, managers and administrative support staff - use online training. They dip into a course for information when they need it, he says. For example, a person might run through an Excel training module once but thereafter access it for specific lessons, such as a refresher on pivot tables.

So Estabrook says he also wants the vendors to build management tools that measure access, not just completed courses. Of the 6,000 times employees accessed courses during the first year of operation, many were to retrieve specific information. Those instances showed up as uncompleted courses, Estabrook explains, because the employees didn't run through entire lessons and take the final tests. Because there weren't a lot of completed courses, even though employees spent a lot of time using the training system, there wasn't a lot to show for it, according to the tool's canned analysis. The result was a skewed cost per course, Estabrook says.

Estabrook ended up looking at the time spent in the system and the number of accesses and then asking his employees about the system's effectiveness. That survey found that they were happy; they got the information they needed and got on with their jobs. So using a rough measure of price divided by the number of accesses, Estabrook estimates that it cost about $12 to get someone that just-in-time piece of information he or she was searching for. "The value is getting people back on the job with the right information," he says.

Next Semester

Rasmus says vendors are starting to address the problems with e-learning software - and with the management modules in particular. They're under pressure from corporations that are bringing in Web-based training and demanding a high level of maturity from the products. Those efforts will be helped by the natural consolidation that's occurring among the vendors, he says. Consolidation will lead to integration among the product offerings, and high-level initiatives - such as IBM's Mindspan Solutions e-learning business unit - with the ability to impose de facto standards on the marketplace will further those compatibility efforts.

Clark Aldrich, a research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc., predicts that companies will find new ways to use e-learning tools. One big area is customer education (see story at left). It can also be used to quickly disseminate information throughout an organization. Transferring knowledge, processes and culture is a job that can't be outsourced, Aldrich says - you have to do it yourself, and you have to do it quickly. E-learning can be a good tool because you can develop content quickly and present it to everyone in a short period of time, he explains.

Aldrich says he also expects new teaching methods, such as role-playing simulations, and more user-friendly features, such as the just-in-time access that Estabrook wants, to transform e-learning.

"Right now, we're replicating the classroom experience online," he says. "Eventually, e-learning will be integrated into the everyday knowledge acquisition process during the workday."

Johnson is a Computerworld contributing writer in Seattle. She can be reached at amyhelen@pobox.com.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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