As new products, services and business models emerge at what seems like warp speed, successful companies need to train knowledge workers quickly. But live seminars and printed courseware don't meet today's triple requirements of fast delivery, low cost and the flexibility to make changes on the fly. These outmoded training tools are giving way to a range of choices known collectively as e-learning.
Training organizations face the challenge of turning knowledge into courseware. Dull, text-based programs tend to be ignored, according to Jon Baker, training manager at Lens Express, a provider of eye care products in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "Just like any salesperson, I have to sell the training to our employees. So it has to be packaged right; it has to be attractive," he says.
To meet this need, Baker opted for KnowDev 5.0, a courseware authoring and delivery tool from Knowlagent of Alpharetta, Ga. "I'm a point-and-clicker, not a techie," he says, "but this lets me jazz up presentations and add animation and even video without much training." To supplement Lens Express's in-house training material, Baker has bought some generic courseware programs from Knowlagent, such as one on sexual harassment.
Even with authoring software, the process of creating learning material is time-consuming. One way to reduce workload is to develop the material as separate, reusable modules. Bruce Mills, operations manager of Honeywell's industrial automation control laboratory in Ashland, Ky., makes extensive use of focused learning modules that the lab creates with Learning Objects Plus from NETg in Naperville, Ill. This approach makes it easier to develop courses and also allows learners to work on only the material they need, in some cases reducing course time from 120 to 40 hours, according to Mills.
A variation on the modular approach is just-in-time training, which focuses on solving immediate problems. For example, Mentor from VSI Communications Group in South Norwalk, Conn., is made up of 30- to 90-second multimedia training capsules and is delivered to user desktops as needed. Currently VSI sells programs offering instruction on Lotus Notes, Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Outlook 2000 and Windows 2000.
Ken Landau, director of technology-enabled learning at IBM in White Plains, N.Y., is using the product to facilitate the rollout of version 5 of Lotus Notes to thousands of employees. Many users at IBM are familiar with Lotus Notes, so they don't need to sit through a complete CD-ROM course. Instead, they begin working on the new Lotus Notes version with virtually no training. When they come to something they're unfamiliar with, they access the Mentor instruction. "Classroom instruction is not the right place to have 10-minute classes on single functions," says Landau.
He adds that by using the modular approach the company can swap units of instruction in and out to keep the material up-to-date without much additional cost.
Good content is essential for e-learning programs, but small training departments working with large numbers of geographically dispersed learners also need administrative help. Take Frank Russell Co., a financial services firm based in Tacoma, Wash. About three years ago, the firm's training organization, Russell University, had a staff of two providing training for 500 employees. The number of employees has grown to 1,200, and when including the company's distributors as well as employees, the total number of people who need training has risen to more than 30,000. However, the Russell University staff has only grown to five. Delivering the training is hard enough, "but we also have to monitor the progress and track the effectiveness of training," says Larry Gagnon, project manager at Russell University.
The organization has solved its problem using TopClass Server, an Internet-based training management system from WBT Systems in Waltham, Mass. Besides distributing training, it includes tracking and reporting features and provides self-enrollment, testing and self-scoring.
There are still times when organizations need real-time, synchronous, interactive training, and e-learning can be applied to these situations as well. InterWise in Santa Clara, Calif., develops live, two-way audio/video and application-sharing programs that run on the Internet. Its primary product, InterWise Millennium, can capture, edit and repurpose recordings of live online classes.
Organizations can also buy off-the-shelf products. For example, Pensare in Los Altos, Calif., sells material developed by LearnShare, a consortium of worldwide companies. KnowledgeNet in Scottsdale, Ariz., specializes in IT certification courses, which are delivered both live and via the Internet. It also has an authoring platform based on reusable learning objects.
Internet-based portals have become a standard way to provide access to information and can be employed to provide access to e-learning. Click2learn.com of Bellevue, Wash., recently introduced Corporate e-Learning Site, a portal that includes browser-based access to learning programs as well as authoring, publishing and learning administration tools. The portal can be customized to match the look and feel of the corporate intranet or Internet home page.
Rather than create its own e-learning portal, a company can encourage learners to access one of the public training portals. For example, Learn2.com of White Plains, N.Y., offers pay-as-you-go learning products at its site, and SmartPlanet of Foster City, Calif., has a paid-membership learning site and online community.
Companies that don't want to develop their own e-learning sites can also outsource the function. For example, KPMG Consulting recently launched an e-learning practice and will offer Web-based training and education on an outsourced basis. The company provides learning applications originally created for its own employees, custom applications and learning products from San Francisco-based DigitalThink.
For organizations that want to integrate training and other forms of knowledge management into one system, Pensare's Knowledge Community allows learners to share information, collaborate in study and project groups, and share tips and best practices.