HR Magazine, May 2001: E-Learning: Not Just for E-Normous Companies Anymore

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2001

HR Magazine, May 2001Vol. 46, No. 5

Small and medium-sized companies can save time and money by training onto desktops.

Two years ago, Walker and Associates—a Welcome, N.C., telecommunications equipment distributor with just under 300 employees—got a new president who encouraged training and development. He spearheaded a move toward online training by forming a partnership with GeoLearning Inc., a web-based training solutions and learning management system provider in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Together, they created the Walker Institute of Training and Development, an online corporate university that offered dozens of courses from GeoLearning’s library. “We wanted to make sure we were addressing the learning needs of our salespeople out in the field,” says Randy Turner, director of corporate learning and development at Walker and Associates. “We wanted to give them learning opportunities that didn’t tie them down to a classroom.”

Walker and Associates is one of the few small companies that have taken the plunge into online training, also known as “e-learning.” In 1999, corporations spent $500 million on e-learning—and are expected to spend $7 billion by 2002, according to Brandon Hall, Ph.D., lead researcher and CEO of, an e-learning information and advisory firm in Sunnyvale, Calif. But little of that money is being spent by small companies.

“Small businesses are often overlooked. Most of the services are designed for big companies,” says Hall.

However, some providers are starting to pay attention to smaller firms, which is good news because e-learning can be especially beneficial to smaller organizations.

E-Learning Benefits for Smaller Firms

The cost and convenience of e-learning recently led the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce to create an online learning center for its 2,200 members—most of whom have fewer than 100 employees. “We saw a decline in attendance at our educational programs, while there was not a decline in expressed desire for learning opportunities,” says Meridian Napoli, the Chamber’s small business manager. “E-learning meets that educational need at a more convenient time than instructor-led seminars.”

Proponents also point out that e-learning can save significant money in travel costs—which can be especially important for small companies with far-flung offices.

For example, instead of flying a dozen salespeople to a product seminar in Chicago, you can have them plug in their laptops from hotel rooms around the country and download the information at their convenience.

E-learning also cuts down on opportunity cost—a boon for companies with smaller staffs and limited staff redundancy. “Traditional training is very expensive, especially in a small company where it is difficult to take everyone away from day-to-day responsibilities,” points out Ellen Willen, director of marketing for Quelsys, an e-learning firm in Norwalk, Conn.

Smaller companies with limited budgets also will appreciate the fact that e-learning can avoid wasting precious training dollars on lost tuition and fees due to last-minute cancellations. As one HR professional put it: “With classroom training, you’re paying for 20 people whether 20 or 10 show up. With e-learning, when you’re using it, you pay for it; when you’re not, you don’t.”

Companies that don’t have the staff to serve as software experts also can use e-learning as a continuous, on-demand resource. For example, many employees at Walker and Associates use online courses as a reference tool. “If they need to learn Microsoft Word, they can access it on an as-needed basis,” says Turner, who adds that “people are using it as an online resource.”

Willen says, “In most e-learning systems you can go back and access pieces of information” or job aids for a year after completion of the course.

Perhaps most importantly, with e-learning, “a small organization that couldn’t afford to have its own training department can” still offer a variety of training courses, says Frank Russell, president and CEO of GeoLearning. “E-learning helps small organizations act like bigger ones.”

A Time for Change

So far, many small companies have missed out on one of the biggest advantages of e-learning: being able to deliver highly customized information to their workforces. That’s because, until recently, custom-designed courses have been cost-prohibitive for most small companies. E-learning providers say the cost to design customized courses ranges from $20,000 to $100,000 per course hour, or “seat hour,” as it is often called.

However, some application service providers, or ASPs (for information on ASPs, see “E-learning Basics” on page 84), recently have launched streamlined custom-design options. Instead of building courses from scratch, trainers can build online courses using templates.

For example, GeoLearning offers an e-learning solution “that can be up and running in about 30 days,” says Russell. “You can learn how to use the authoring software in less than an hour and can create online content, surveys, tests, etc.”

At Quelsys, trainers can use a “free authoring tool to build a course, and track and manage it. The only time you incur a charge is when a student actually enrolls in the course,” says Willen.

Though you may not have quite as much flexibility with templates, they are empowering. You do not rely on an outside consultant to update the course because the system is self-serve. Moreover, says Russell, “It’s great for remote development of content.

You can have the writer in one office, the subject matter expert in another and the graphic artist in another, and they are all working on the same course at the same time.”

(For more tips on creating your own training content, see Custom Design Tips.)

How to Select a Provider

E-learning providers are as numerous as tulips in the spring. Moreover, there is a vast range of quality among them. How can you choose which is right for you?

One way to winnow the field is to find ASPs that deal with small companies. Many, if not most, e-learning providers cater to large corporations. “Partner with an organization that has experience working with your size organization,” advises Russell.

Tim Kidder agrees. Kidder, who is vice president of marketing for eMind, an e-learning firm specializing in financial services headquartered in Los Angeles, suggests asking providers for “a case study of how they handled a customer similar in size with similar needs to yours. Ask them for a reference.”

The next challenge is to find a provider that meets your training needs. “Who’s got the library of content and different vendors that you need?” asks Kidder. “You want a company that has an authoring capability so that you can take your company’s specialized product information or new-employee orientation online. You want an authoring tool that is easy-to-use and has a quick publishing turnaround.”

Once you have shortened the list of vendors, test drive each. “A significant mistake is not demoing a course from that vendor,” says Kidder. “See something they’ve already developed. Experience that course and the site’s functionality. And don’t assume because you click on a couple of screens you’ve seen the whole thing. Simulate the experience your learners will have.”

Napoli agrees. She and five committee members thoroughly tested dozens of courses from several providers for Seattle’s Chamber of Commerce. “I spent time in every course they set me up with. I looked at how easy it was to navigate, how fast it loaded, if it had quality take-home information,” says Napoli. “I also looked at their own web site. How was it integrated? Did it look like it was an afterthought?”

Finally, test out the technical support, which should be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An online course won’t be of much use if your employees can’t access it or can’t get help with it anytime they want. “If you don’t have a support function, you are going to have frustrated learners,” says Kidder.

Potential Obstacles

You want to ensure that employees will have the hardware and software they need to take full advantage of the courses. For instance, Walker and Associates offered employees a computer-purchase program: an interest-free loan of $1,250 toward the purchase of a home computer. “In addition, I maintain several laptops that are available for checkout purposes if they are traveling or don’t have a PC at home,” says Turner.

FedEx Custom Critical Inc. of Akron, Ohio—a recently acquired division of Fed Ex that has approximately 650 employees—discovered an additional need. “Because of the noise associated with the courses, we have purchased headphones that allow team members to take courses at their desks,” says Erika Barch, the company’s performance coordinator.

The biggest challenge, though, is “transitioning from a traditional classroom to an e-learning environment,” says Russell. “It’s a mistake to build an online university and hope they’ll come. We recommend a staged implementation, even with a packaged product. Start with a pilot group and test it. Get feedback from the naysayers so they will buy into the change.”

Kidder recommends putting mandatory courses online first to encourage employees to try e-learning.

“A lot of people don’t understand online learning enough to give it a try,” says Napoli. “I spend a lot of time explaining what it is, how it works and trying to get them to try the demo.”

Walker and Associates has experienced that apprehension first-hand. “Some people haven’t been comfortable using the Internet for fear of misusing it. Other people were printing the whole module rather than reading on the screen,” says Turner. “It took us a while to figure out how to entice people to use e-learning.”

What was their solution? “Managers have been putting it down as goals in performance reviews. We’re promoting it through our orientation program,” says Turner.

Get Your Feet Wet

If your company has limited funds, a good way to try out e-learning is to look for providers that offer free trials. “Ask to use their system to train 30 people for free before you invest further,” recommends Willen. “You want to make sure it has all the capabilities you need.”

Whatever you do, don’t sit on the sidelines, cautions Hall. “Take some small steps, but take those steps,” he says. “Because, even if you stumble, those will be important learning experiences along the way.”

Kathryn Tyler is a Wixom, Mich. based freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer.

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