Sep 20 2005

Distance Learning Answers Training Woes

E-learning offers a way to boost training while keeping costs manageable.

Training is the poor stepchild in many organizations. Even the largest companies often resist spending money on it, and employees in turn often do almost anything to dodge it. But sooner or later, every business comes up against some training need, whether it's prepping its own staff for application upgrades or teaching customers and partners how to use technology.

But how can you train people quickly and effectively without breaking the bank?

For an increasing number of small businesses, distance learning is the answer, says Peter McStravick, senior research analyst for learning services for International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. By eliminating the need to travel, distance learning is generally much less expensive than classroom instruction, making it a natural for small businesses, he points out.

At the highest level, distance learning refers to training via electronic courseware. A close relative, e-learning refers to training courses accessible over the Web. Distance learning and e-learning may be synchronous or asynchronous.

For synchronous learning, users log into a live session led by an instructor in a virtual classroom; for asynchronous learning, they go at their own pace, accessing a training module on demand.

Cost-Effective Education

E-learning is usually less expensive than traditional training. There is no need to pay a steep fee to bring an outside instructor onsite or send employees to a training session. Although it might cost $10,000 to $20,000 to hold one live, onsite training session for 30 people, a comparable e-learning choice could run as low as $2,000 to $3,000.

"Cost is one of the big reasons companies of all sizes adopt e-learning," McStravick says. "For small- and medium-sized businesses, the cost advantage is even more pressing."

Off-the-shelf e-learning modules are available on numerous topics. If you have to develop a course or pay someone else to do so, the price can skyrocket. Custom-developed e-learning modules can run as high as $100,000 for an hour-long course.

And although many large companies invest in learning management system software to track their employees' training, the use of LMS is not necessary. Many forms of e-learning do not require any special information technology infrastructure beyond a Web browser.

Small Company, Broad Reach

E-learning also helps small businesses operate as if they were larger companies, says McStravick. Training geographically dispersed customers and partners using e-learning gives small businesses a global reach, he says.

StratX, a 50-person marketing consulting company with offices in Boston, London and Paris, fits that description. The StratX business model is to train its customers on marketing strategies and techniques to grow their business. For nearly 20 years, StratX did that training in person, jetting consultants to locations worldwide at great expense.

StratX started experimenting with e-learning five years ago, investing substantial time and money creating on-demand modules for its clients. But its customers completed only 25 percent of the coursework. "Good content alone wasn't sufficient. People bailed out before the end because they got pulled away by other professional demands," says Dana Allen, a senior consultant in StratX's Paris office.

Allen and Delphine Parmenter, StratX director of e-learning solutions, decided asynchronous was not the way to go for the company's clients. Instead, they turned to live, Web-based training modules.

That made the difference. "Classroom attendance currently stands at 84 percent," Allen says.

Having a live session, led by an instructor, mimicked the conditions of a real-world training session. This was much more compelling than on-demand modules that could always be pushed to the bottom of someone's lengthy to-do list. Now StratX trains more than 600 customers in 50 countries without racking up frequent flyer miles.