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Report on E-business

Employers, employees embrace e-learning

Training over Net saves time,
money, and gives firms a competitive edge

Friday, May 25, 2001
Special to The Globe and Mail

Calvin Martin has plenty of time these days for two of his favourite pursuits -- mountain-climbing and boning up on the new technology that's a big part of his job as an Internet-marketing consultant.

That's because his employer, Steeves and Associates, a Burnaby, B.C.-based network and systems integrator, recently introduced its employees to e-learning -- education and training delivered over the Net.

Rather than spending long hours holed up in conference rooms, as was the case less than a year ago, when it's time for Mr. Martin and his colleagues to take a course or brush up on product information, they turn on their laptops, connect to the Internet and train on-line. They can keep pace with rapid advances in their company's Internet and Web-site products from home, at the office or in hotels anywhere they can connect.

As a growing number of employers and employees embrace e-learning, it has emerged as one of the few thriving sectors of the struggling dot-com world, says Julie Kaufman, research manager at IDC Canada Ltd., which predicts that Canada's corporate e-learning market will grow to $885-million in 2004 from $145-million in 2000. In the United States, IDC says the market will exceed $11-billion (U.S.) by 2003, up from $2.2-billion in 2000.

E-learning offers workers in a range of industries -- from hotels to autos -- on-line access to most of the education they need, whether to stay on top of issues that affect everyday work or to upgrade their skills on their way up the corporate ladder.

E-training is delivered in a variety of formats, including on-line text, live presentations, slide shows, taped lectures and video on demand. Trainees can interact with instructors, write tests and keep track of their learning paths, and employers can track their progress.

Initially, e-learning was viewed as a tool to save time and cut training costs by allowing employees to train at their own pace, away from classrooms, Ms. Kaufman says.

More recently, e-learning has been hailed for giving companies a competitive edge. Because courses can be developed fast and offered at all hours, employees can quickly get up to speed on new products, enabling companies to get their wares to market faster. And customer service is improved because employees can spend more time with clients and less time on training.

"Many companies are recognizing that cost is not the biggest benefit. They see e-learning as a tool which can be used to improve productivity and their competitive position," says Ms. Kaufman, whose research shows that 80 per cent of 100 Canadian companies that IDC recently surveyed listed e-learning among their top-10 priorities. "Thirty-five per cent said it addresses productivity improvement and 30 per cent found it improves their competitiveness."

The change in priorities has been accompanied by major technological advances. Although various forms of computer-based training have been around for years, better technology has improved the content, delivery and management of training, Ms. Kaufman says.

On the content side, on-line systems now allow material to be presented in manageable chunks that can be tailored to individual learning, says Omid Hodaie, president and chief executive officer of Isopia Inc. in Toronto, a maker of learning-systems software that delivers and manages on-line courses.

Content-development companies such as Calian Ltd. of Kanata, Ont., can customize course materials to suit different skill levels and learning styles, says Justin Ferrabee, senior vice-president of e-learning services. Calian's products help managers to determine who needs training and identify missing skills before linking an employee to an on-line course that can get the person into training almost immediately, he says.

Delivery of material has advanced from the use of CDs in the classroom five years ago to full-blown, self-paced, on-line learning using top-quality sound and video, says Andrew Sage, Toronto-based director of marketing at Cisco Systems Canada Co., which uses e-learning to train its own employees and those who work for its business partners, including Steeves and Associates.

He says 80 per cent of Cisco's sales staff training is now done on-line. Only two years ago, 90 per cent was done in class.

Another recent development is the wireless delivery of e-learning. At Bell Nexxia, a unit of Bell Canada, for instance, employees access e-training using cellphones and handheld devices, says Jonathan Menon, director of the Bell Nexxia Learning Network.

Advances on the management side of e-learning in the past two years enable managers to track the progress of each learner "up to the minute," Mr. Hodaie says.

Companies that use e-learning are delighted with the way these advances have reduced training costs and improved employee productivity.

When Cisco's parent, Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., decided 2˝ years ago that 24,000 employees in 20 countries, including Canada, would need to update their knowledge of international quality standards, it originally planned to train them in a traditional classroom setting over four months, at a cost of $1.4-million. Instead, e-learning was used. The training took one month and cost only $16,000, Mr. Sage says.

At Bell Nexxia, the system known as the Bell Nexxia Learning Network went into operation in 1999, training about 350 sales personnel on-line. It has since been rolled out to include about 600 people in the company's business office.

E-learning has helped to cut Bell Nexxia's annual $3-million (Canadian) training expenses by about $1.8-million, largely because of savings in the cost of developing courses and paying for travel and accommodations, says Josie Scioli, vice-president of sales operations.

Over the same period, Ms. Scioli estimates that productivity among staff who e-learn has risen by 20 per cent, mainly because time once spent in classrooms is now dedicated to customer support. Courses that once consumed eight hours of class time for Bell Nexxia staffers can be taught on-line in 90 minutes, she says.

Steeves and Associates is saving up to $15,000 on each employee for every week of training, says company president and chief executive officer Dave Steeves, whose staff previously did much of their learning in classroom settings in Seattle, San Jose and Washington.

Mr. Steeves says e-learning, which now accounts for about 70 per cent of training at his company, has been embraced by his employees, who e-train at home, during slow times at conferences and in hotel rooms while travelling on business.

For instance, employees log on to Cisco's Web site to get up to speed on new Cisco networking products and to learn how to install Cisco products. Because e-courses are up and running faster than traditional classroom instruction, his staff can learn about new products in one week, compared with three months under the classroom-training system.

Mr. Steeves says on-line learning reduces training time by 40 per cent, freeing his staff to earn revenue for the company and deal with customers.

"It has long been said that we need to . . . help companies get competitive. This is one way of doing it," he says.

Despite e-learning's increasing popularity, few experts expect it to replace traditional classroom training altogether. "There will always be a place for face-to-face contact between employees and their instructors," Ms. Kaufman says. "On-line learning will be used as a blended solution."

In recent weeks, Mr. Martin has e-trained while sitting on the roof deck at his condominium. Later this year, when he takes a two-month leave of absence to go mountaineering in Thailand and California, he plans to e-learn between climbs by connecting to the Web at libraries and Internet cafés.

"The industry is moving quickly and I need to keep up with the technology so I can keep my knowledge current," he says. "Without e-learning, it wouldn't be possible."

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