HR Magazine, April 2001: E-Learning: New Twist On CBT

By Bill Roberts Apr 1, 2001

HR Magazine, April 2001Vol. 46, No. 4

The Internet is helping employers take computer-based training initatives to the next level.

Another employer has joined the ranks of those using Internet-based technology to enhance their computer-based training (CBT) initiatives: the U.S. Army. Within the next year, the U.S. Army Recruiting Command (USAREC), based in Fort Knox, Ky., plans to launch a web-based USAREC University that will handle much of the training for its 15,000-member staff.

USAREC University will offer online courses for entry-level recruiters, mid-career recruitment leaders and faculty who train recruiting specialists. A consultant involved with USAREC estimates the system could cut by at least 30 percent the time recruiters spend in school at Fort Jackson, S.C., potentially saving the Army millions of dollars.

“Most of the training now is done by instructors,” says David Dawson, a retired master sergeant and training consultant to USAREC. When USAREC University launches, Dawson says, it will offer thousands of hours of training, focusing primarily on the sales techniques used by recruiters. The program also will allow students to schedule classroom training at Fort Jackson and will provide a database to track recruiter competency, certification and career progression.

Last year, the recruiting command made its first foray into CBT. It put onto CD-ROM 18 hours of instruction to train staff in a new recruitment information system. Learners completed the CD at their own pace before receiving an additional 16 hours of instructor-led training. Dawson, who was still in service and the ranking non-commissioned officer for the project, says the content is designed to be moved to the web when the infrastructure is ready.

Web-based training—also known as online training or e-learning—is the latest evolution in CBT. Instead of putting a CD-ROM on every desktop, e-learning allows organizations to post training courses on a web site, which then can be visited by workers and easily revised by instructors. Gone are the days when CDs had to be updated, reissued and distributed each time curriculum changed.

“As Internet band.width increases, companies can distribute material around the country and the world on the web,” says Paul Jeffries, CEO of Logic Bay Corp. in Minneapolis. Logic Bay served as the contractor for the Army’s CBT project and is vying for the USAREC University contract. Two years ago Logic Bay put 80 percent of its clients’ content on CD-ROMs and 20 percent on the web. Today, he says, the ratios are reversed.

Latest Wrinkle in CBT

However, experts say e-learning initiatives face significant challenges—many of which are not tech..nology-related. Proponents of web-based teaching programs must prove they can meet business objectives, be cost-effective and effectively train learners.

That may be why the number of corporate training programs delivered through technology, including the web and CD-ROM, remains relatively small, says Mark Van Buren, director of research at the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) in Alexandria, Va.

ASTD’s most recent survey of CBT, conducted in 1999, found that only 8.5 percent of all training was delivered via some kind of technology. Van Buren estimates that today, only about 10 percent of training programs are computer-based. “People continue to tell us that in two to three years as much as 20 percent of learning will be delivered through technology,” he says.

Brandon Hall, CEO of, an e-learning consulting firm in Sunnyvale, Calif., predicts an even higher percentage. “It might not be that big right now, maybe 8 to 10 percent. But I think it will become half of all training in the next few years.”

What has been holding back the technology? Van Buren says, “There are various reasons why more progress hasn’t been made.”

Among the reasons: Some companies didn’t put enough resources into their web-based e-learning pilot projects, hence the results were less than satisfactory. Some earlier (pre-web) CBT programs were not positive experiences for learners because the programs were not well thought out; it is not easy to woo these learners to try the newer e-learning programs. Also, implementation of e-learning programs requires high levels of executive buy-in and change management, never simple propositions. And, the jury is still out on the effectiveness and cost-savings of CBT.

In addition, says Van Buren, “There isn’t strong evidence that it is superior to instructor-led learning. But, there’s no evidence that it is inferior either.”

Maybe that’s why some companies take the attributes of e-learning and combine them with instructor-led training, not to replace it, but to enhance it.

For instance, IBM’s online training focuses on management development. Hall estimates IBM has moved about 80 percent of this instruction online. But, he says, IBM still brings managers into the classroom for role playing, team building and other group experiences. “The implication is that training specialists will have to figure out what you do online and what you do in the classroom,” Hall says.

At Logic Bay, Jeffries agrees that some types of training dictate more traditional teaching methods. “Some skills are best taught in a human environment,” he says. “At some point the learner must pick up the wrench and change the tire. Any training aimed at building culture or leadership skills is best done in the classroom.”

Steve McMillen, director of executive leadership development at Hillenbrand Industries Inc., a funeral and health care services company based in Batesville, Ind., agrees. McMillen has seen too many executives awestruck and led astray by technology. “The allure, cachet and sexiness wags the dog a lot of times,” he says. “It gets people focused on the technology instead of looking at what they’re trying to accomplish.”

McMillen keeps that in mind as he leads a pilot program to develop a leadership program for Hillenbrand’s top 200 executives. He believes executives learn best by doing. So the company has a number of opportunities for managers to work in temporary assignments to learn the competencies they don’t have. The company also offers appropriate content to these executives on the web.

Jeffries and others agree that the future is likely to see this kind of blending of traditional and high-tech teaching methods. The use of chat rooms and other Internet-based collaboration tools can bring to e-learning a level of human interaction that was absent from early CBT efforts. Van Buren believes that as more companies operate with virtual teams of geographically dispersed, Internet-linked workers, e-learning will emerge as a natural way to teach teamwork.

Linking Global Learners

Finding the right mix of e-learning and classroom training may depend on other factors, such as company size and your staff’s training preferences.

For many organizations, CBT programs, enhanced by web-based technology, represent the only feasible means of implementing companywide training initiatives. Cisco Systems Inc., based in San Jose, Calif., is in the middle of an enterprisewide e-learning rollout. Continuous learning is an integral part of Cisco’s corporate culture, says Bill Souders, Cisco’s information technology (IT) director of global e-learning technologies. But with the size of its staff increasing tenfold over the past five years, Cisco found that traditional classroom training methods quickly were becoming impractical. “It became clear that a lot of the formal training we provide wouldn’t scale,” says Souders.

Cisco also discovered that e-learning works well for its employee population. The fast-growing technology company, which has 35,000 employees in 160 countries, began its e-learning initiative with a small experiment. It offered training to 200 field salespeople, using two different methods: One group of 100 received classroom-based training, while the other group did the coursework via e-learning. The e-learners retained slightly more material than the others, and they reported a much higher level of satisfaction with the training. Souders says that’s because the e-learning students could go through the training on their own time, at their own pace.

Even before the experiment, individual business units at Cisco had launched their own e-learning initiatives. Initially, each unit set up its own learning management system (LMS) to handle the administration of training events. Experts agree that a robust LMS is essential for an enterprisewide web-based e-learning program. It registers users, tracks their performance and provides links to courses as well as appropriate reports to management.

The enterprisewide initiative led by Souders was primarily aimed at adopting e-learning standards for Cisco, including a standard LMS platform. With the support of CEO John Chambers and key executives, the company formed a unit specializing in e-learning. That unit chose an LMS from Saba Software Inc., of Redwood City, Calif.

Souders says it is too early to tell what the savings from adopting an e-learning-based program will be, but he expects they will be substantial.

Elusive ROI

ASTD’s Van Buren is skeptical of big claims of cost savings from e-learning programs. Not only are the results of a successful training program often hard to quantify, many organizations fail to accurately tally the costs of e-learning implementation. Van Buren says he has seen very few reliable return-on-investment (ROI) analyses. Although he believes e-learning programs will catch on, he cautions, “People should go in with their eyes open.”

For one thing, it can be expensive, costing an average of $500 million for 8,000 students. Hall believes that, although it is costly to set up, e-learning can save companies money on training in the long run. Hall recently conducted a best-practices study of a dozen companies with e-learning programs. While half of the firms in the report said it was too early to judge whether e-learning had resulted in significant savings, one—IBM—estimated that online training programs had saved the company $200 million in one year.

One way to get a better ROI may be to outsource. An LMS either can be installed on company servers, or outsourced to a third-party provider—often a less expensive option. For example, Saba and Logic Bay, in addition to selling the software, also offer hosting services for clients.

Sell It

A key ingredient for a successful CBT initiative is effective internal marketing. The experiences of the companies in Hall’s best practices study attest to this fact. “If you don’t have a serious marketing program, you’ll find the inverse of ‘If you build it they will come,’” Hall says.

David Dawson says that is what the USAREC experienced when it initially launched its CD-ROM-based training program. Even in the military, where training can be mandated, Dawson says they spent too little time promoting the new training method.

“It takes a lot of effort to get the old guys who are now in leadership roles to support these efforts,” he says.

Bill Roberts, a freelance writer based in Los Altos, Calif., writes about business, technology and management issues.

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