Few companies would expect or even permit employees to perform sales or maintenance work during off hours if they were kept busy with other tasks. After all, if a task is worth doing, it's also worth managing. Yet in the crunch for profitability, some businesses have canceled allowances for training time, and expect employees to figure things out on their own time. How does your company meet both short-term and long-term goals?
Lost time and other costs of training require careful judgment about what kind of learning goals and methods to use. However, short-term costs are not the only factors. Performance may suffer as employees fail to acquire necessary skill sets, make costly mistakes, lose motivation, or leave the job. How can your business still reap the benefits of a better trained workforce while not idling them to do so? What if you could get an instructor who could teach your employees in short blocks of time as they were available, talking to groups large and small, all while being at any location as needed within your organization? What if you could offer quality customized training for your employees even if your operation were too small to justify a training department? One of the strongest benefits of e-learning is to give companies the flexibility to train on what they need to when they want to.
The ability to provide training in shorter segments of time as an employee's schedule allows integrates learning into an average day, causing less disruption while still imparting valuable information. E-learning is well poised to offer this kind of service, giving workers the chance to learn at their own pace and quickly resume where they left off. According to Mike Konopka, product development manager for New Standard Institute, "the advantage here is a real absence of limitations. A license can be purchased for a single user or a hundred. Those people can be anywhere, as long as they can get onto the Web. They all can be in the same room at the same time, or come in for 30-minute blocks as their schedule allows. User completion can be tracked, tested, and managed. It gives the worker and management the ability to make training work for them."
Clearing Up E-Misconceptions
E-learning has been the subject of a lot of hype, and inevitably, there's been some bursting of the bubble as promises fell short. One of the first misconceptions to be addressed is the idea that e-learning is supposed to be a replacement for previous methods of training. Even companies that have experienced great gains with deploying e-learning still might maintain traditional programs for certain purposes. Certain skill sets are best developed in other ways, and e-learning is not a cure-all. The best results often are achieved by blending training methods. In the end, workers need hands-on training with their equipment to gain true proficiency. How can they be prepared before being put in front of live machinery on the shop floor? Giving trainees the chance to safely encounter the basics before experienced workers add their training can cut expenses and reduce accidents in the training period. Ask tough questions about what skills can be taught with e-learning, and what might require a different approach. Chances are, it won’t be an all-or-nothing prospect.
A second misconception is confusion over what e-learning can do. By definition, e-learning encompasses any kind of training delivered electronically. While early adopters had to deal with technical snags and an evolving medium, e-learning has matured significantly. Companies are more likely to have reliable high-speed Internet connections required for delivering video or downloading software quickly. The graphics that can be displayed on a standard business computer have improved markedly. The market is evolving beyond repackaged materials that have been digitized to offering compelling products that live up to the possibilities of e-learning. There is a world of difference between an immersive 3-D simulation and a book that has been scanned into the computer.
Konopka explains, "We're always looking for ways to add functionality. It's not just about throwing in bells and whistles, but seeing where the format offers an opportunity to make the product easier to use and better able to convey the knowledge we want to get across. You can't get results just by adding a picture here and there. Taking advantage of e-learning means meeting the user with different ways to learn. Examples, detailed illustration, narration, and interactive exercises all can come together to provide a comprehensive opportunity to gain skills and add expertise."
Methods and Means
Plenty of research has been done on how people learn in different ways, but many corporate training programs rely on a single method. Just offering materials that need to be read cuts the percentage of employees who will retain a meaningful amount of information. E-learning can make it possible to meet varying needs for instructional approaches in a single solution.
The variety of products that might be advertised as e-learning means your company needs to think about what your needs are for a format. A seminar conducted by video conference offers more of a chance for feedback and adaptation to trainee needs, but is not easily repeatable and may be as expensive as traditional instruction. A DVD can provide high-detail video, but multiple copies might be required. Costs will vary by solution, and some solutions may shine at certain scales. A custom learning management system (LMS) could be economical for a thousand employees but might be overkill for a small company. Scheduling the entire maintenance department to attend a videoconference might be feasible for 10 employees and prohibitive for a larger operation.
Clearly, all e-learning options are not the same. It is a platform and not a standard. Uncertainty over quality is usually the result of difficulty evaluating e-learning products prior to deployment. In selecting a training program, make sure you have a chance to look at material before committing to a purchase, and if possible, ask around to see if other manufacturers have found a particular product useful. This is also a good time to think about your proprietary needs. Is your operation large enough to justify contracting for a custom LMS or developing one in-house? Can a vendor provide an existing solution that will work for you? More than ever, custom content is within reach. Off-the-shelf solutions might get your training efforts started, but tailored information relevant to specific machinery or procedures may take it to the next level.
Whatever system your company chooses, make sure that promoting and engaging that resource is part of your long-term plan. Too many organizations spend a great deal of money to institute a learning system only to have it fall by the wayside after a few years. Training is too important to be left as the province of only a few who see themselves as gatekeepers. Management needs to support education efforts and take them seriously. At the same time, your support must not be blind. Listening to employee feedback helps identify what resources your workers find effective and what is falling short. Remember that if useful information is packaged incorrectly, your workers will not be likely to get much out of training. Separate out reactions that center on content from those that have to do with the way in which information is presented.
Going Beyond E-Learning
The comment that keeps getting repeated is that online learning offers many benefits but can't do everything. This is true, but it may miss the point. All approaches have tradeoffs. Yet when applied correctly, e-learning can help bring needed instruction to more employees faster and more effectively, setting the stage for other training. Supplementing traditional approaches, Web-based courses can sharpen skill sets, preparing workers for more advanced training, and quickly distributing new strategies within an organization.
Issues encountered when implementing e-learning include:
1. They don't want e-learning.
Some employees have a preconceived belief that training is a sign of weakness or admission of a lack of knowledge. Management should explain clearly how learning is ongoing and how e-learning will help sharpen their skill set. Promotion of any training program is critical to its success.
2. They don't need e-learning.
No matter how wonderful the solution is, if the user cannot understand or does not support the new training solution, then it is doomed to fail. It is important to get first-line supervision, as well as the end user, to accept e-learning as a viable solution. Prepare users by demonstrating how to use the technology through a sample session. Make certain managers are adequately prepared to support the new training solution.
3. They can't access e-learning.
Before companies develop or purchase ambitious e-learning solutions, they should determine if employees understand how to work a computer, that employees have access to a computer, and its own software and hardware are capable of running the e-learning programs. Most of these programs require a computer that has an Internet connection, as well as a CD- or DVD-ROM drive. The chosen solution needs to be tested on computers the users will be utilizing. No training program can succeed if it can't be deployed.
Ben Wurtmann is the business management coordinator at New Standard Institute and recently completed his master's degree at Yale University (MAR). He has coauthored several articles on shutdowns and training and has developed several training programs. He can be reached at 203.783.1582 or via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.newstandardinstitute.com.
Alexandra L. Galli-Debicella was the new products director at New Standard Institute until August 2004. She is a Ph.D. candidate in business management at the University of Massachusetts, and holds a master's degree in Business, and a BA in Computer Science from Quinnipiac University.