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Cyber School

Posted on Saturday, March 1st, 2003 by

Taking classes online (also known as e-learning) is easy, inexpensive and perfectly suited to busy entrepreneuers and their employees. What you can learn online— from the latest in marketing to industry-specific innovation—might change your mind about training and certification.

A quick click through the Web sites of the major e-learning companies is enough to give a small- business person an inferiority complex. Rife with references to corporate behemoths, these sites crow about products with tens of thousands of users. Yet there’s barely a passing nod to smaller businesses, which have just as crucial a need to train employees.

“Ninety-five percent of the market is aimed at the Fortune 1,000 and Fortune 5,000,” says Elliott Masie, president of The Masie Center (www.masie.com), a think tank focused on learning, training and technology based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. “But e-learning among small businesses is a phenomenon,” he adds. “It’s a tremendous success story.”

This disconnect is due to the fragmented nature of the e-learning market and the confusion and consolidation that followed the dot-com collapse. Also, confusion still rages regarding just what e-learning encompasses: Web-based instruction? CD-ROM/DVD? Satellite broadcasts? Still, it doesn’t matter whether the market currently stands at $4 billion or $40 billion (analysts can’t seem to agree)—smaller companies have discovered the effectiveness and cost benefits of e-learning. And as higher bandwidth becomes more accessible, that increasingly has meant taking advantage of Web-based training.

Studies have found that cost savings, primarily from reduced housing and travel costs, are the primary reason cited by users for implementing online training, followed by greater flexibility and improved speed.
What are businesses learning online? In general, the market has focused on computer-related applications and, secondarily, functional training (including compliance and certification). But courses in sales, marketing, business development and management are coming on strong—even among small businesses. A browse through any major e-learning portal will reveal that there are courses for everyone from restaurateurs to real-estate agents.

Smaller companies involved in industries such as finance and health also cite the ability to deliver consistent material to multiple users and to update content as they struggle to keep pace with ever-changing regulations. One such company is IntegraMed America Inc. (www.integramed.com) of Purchase, N.Y., which supplies business services to more than 100 fertility doctors nationwide. In the past year and a half, the company has instituted online training of its code of conduct and compliance manual for employees. “Our industry changes so fast, the ability to have online training has been a godsend,” says Claude E. White, vice president and general counsel.

IntegraMed partnered with WeComply Inc. (www.wecomply.com) of Mount Kisco, N.Y., which specializes in online compliance training for a wide range of topics and industries. “We chose WeComply because we needed a solution tailored to us—not a canned program,” White says. “We wanted our compliance program and manual to be translated online.” The result is a hosted solution on the WeComply site. IntegraMed employees access it using their company email addresses as logins. No special technology is required.

The company is so pleased with its new training setup, which includes the ability to track employees’ progress and generate reports, that it plans to add other courseware. “Now that we’ve come up to speed on online training, we’ll move beyond compliance,” White says.

The Best Fit 
How do you find the right online training partner? It’s not easy. The American Society for Training & Development (www.astd.com), or ASTD, estimates that there are more than 650,000 e-learning courses available. These range from the broadest PC applications (Word, Excel) to ultra-niches (restaurant bookkeeping, pesticide handling) to “soft” skills (such as marketing and management). And there’s no mass-market consumer guide to lead you by the hand.

A first stop for franchisees should be their parent company, Masie suggests, while others should check with their professional or industry associations. (White heard about WeComply at a convention for corporate counsels.) Many associations have allied with training suppliers to develop class content and offer discounted purchase programs. Some chambers of commerce and business districts also have arranged group buys.

Community colleges are major sources of courseware and have even started reselling vendors’ content to buttress their own (four-year colleges with online offerings tend to focus on degree programs). And Masie points to learning portals such as CyberU (www.cyberu.com), Element K (www.elementk.com), and Yahoo! Learning (http://distancelearning.education.yahoo.com), which are hubs that aggregate and sell courses (note that some portals offer free sample classes).

While CyberU’s bread-and-butter is marketing high-end learning-management systems to large businesses, it offers a stripped-down version called the Online Training Center for smaller companies. Handpicked from a variety of vendors and targeted at small businesses, the 50 courses are hosted on the CyberU site. They can be chosen à la carte.

“You pay on a per-course—almost a pay-per-click—basis,” says Charles Coy, director of corporate development at Santa Monica, Calif.–based CyberU. He adds that companies whose training needs can’t be filled by one specialized vendor can avoid having to vet and contract with multiple suppliers. In those cases where employees kick in a portion of the fees, billing options include the ability to send separate statements.

What Makes a Great Course
When evaluating off-the-shelf courseware—the least expensive way to get a significant return on investment via e-learning, particularly for new users—there are a number of considerations. These include whether the course is self-paced or facilitated, the level of interactivity it offers (and whether your Net connection can handle it), how well it tracks employee progress and ease of navigation.

If you’re contracting for multiple users, find out whether you can reassign the e-learning “seat” if an employee transfers or leaves. License only the content that you’ll use, and make the contract scalable in case you decide you need more, or different, courses. In general, per-use pricing is better for smaller firms than a fixed rate.

Small businesses should check whether they’ll have ongoing access to course materials, Massie says: “The worst thing is to log in, learn and then have the course evaporate.” Such access also allows for just-in-time training, or the ability to reference course material when it’s needed. Most vendors, however, set time limits on course availability (typically three to six months). It’s up to the student to take written or online notes, make printouts or otherwise document the content. Also, consider the course’s duration when deciding how it will fit into a particular learner’s schedule.

True Believer
For commercial real-estate broker Deane Pfeil, squeezing in an online course meant doing it on her own time during evenings and weekends. Pfeil, co-owner of J.W. Pfeil & Co. Inc, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., initially was skeptical of online training. But her profession demands that she complete continuing education credits every two years and “I had exhausted all the commercial real-estate courses in the area,” she says. “I was forced to look online. Time was running out.” Pfeil found the Web site for Cape Education Inc. (www.capeschool.com), which specializes in continuing ed for the real-estate, insurance and legal industries, and signed up for three courses.

“The flexibility was fantastic,” Pfeil says. “I had to spend more than 22 hours to get credit, but I could do it when I wanted to. The courses also were well done and didn’t waste my time with bells and whistles.” She says the cost was reasonable (about $200). One snafu was that Pfeil has a Mac, so she had to use a colleague’s PC to access the course. And although she missed “networking with other brokers in class, I would still recommend online training to colleagues.”

The benefits of networking, however, aren’t always easily relinquished—nor is face time with human instructors. Online training hasn’t made instructor-led training obsolete. In fact, for most small businesses, a blended approach—a mix of training delivered in the classroom and training delivered via technology—is most practical. Indeed, in areas such as safety regulations, in-person training is required, according to Greg Younger, manager of product development for TrainingOnline (www.trainingonline.com) of Chicago, which focuses on the environmental, health, safety and human resources markets.

Some e-learning courses offer interaction with a human facilitator, either intermittently during the course or in a mentoring session at the end, but these are not common. Researcher Masie thinks that, in particular, there should be some human interaction at the end of a course, even if only with colleagues. “Ideally, after taking an online training course, the student would have the opportunity to talk to peers about what he or she has learned. You want to recreate that effect of gathering around the water cooler,” he says.

Soft Skills—The Payoff
Experts and suppliers of online training see a growing demand among small businesses for soft-skills courseware. For example, a popular online course available from the Society of American Florists (SAF) (www.saf now.org) is “The Perfect Sale,” which offers techniques on how to improve retail flower sales.

The SAF’s Online Learning Center is hosted and administered by vendor TrainNow.net, with which theorganization developed the courses. “The association wants to add value for its members, whereas the members have a comfort level with content that has been cleared through their association,” says Larry Fischer, CEO of Billings, Mont.–based TrainNow.net. Costs range from around $30 for single-use courses to $300 for online or CD-ROM packages.

“The Perfect Sale” was actually the creation of a successful florist, Gainan’s Flowers and Garden Center (www.gainans.com), also located in Billings. The 1996 winner of the Montana Family Business of the Year Award, the company is in the Top 100 out of some 26,000 FTD Florists in the United States and Canada. Gainan’s developed “The Perfect Sale” as an internal CD-ROM sales-training course for its 100 employees (salespeople are required to review it twice a year). Then Gainan’s worked with TrainNow to launch an online version, which it made available to the SAF.

Gainan’s was happy to share its expertise. “The combination of having the SAF’s backing and the fact that these courses are inexpensive makes online training a no-brainer” for florists, says Todd Gainan, one of many family members involved in this growing business.

Similarly, accounting courses are a staple of community-college business programs but most are not categorized by industry. Since online general-accounting courses don’t address the specific needs of restaurateurs, CPA and consultant Kathleen La Belle founded Bookkeeping in the Restaurant Industry Inc. (www.bribri.com). The site grew out of a detailed classroom course she taught two years ago. Transposed online, it takes up more than 600 Web pages.

“Restaurant people have absolutely no time to spend in seminars,” La Belle says. “They’re lucky to get one day off a week.” Which means that going online appeals to many in the business. The course has attracted more than 200 students ranging from chefs and proprietors to accountants with restaurant clients. Its affordability also is a plus. The basic version is $109.95, while the advanced version is $159.95 (there are additional fees for hardback textbooks).

Taking such a course online also allows a measure of privacy. “A lot of people in the restaurant industry are a little intimidated to admit they don’t know the business end so well,” La Belle explains. “An online course gives them a chance to quietly overcome that.”
So now many of these students can get A’s in the kitchen and in the ever-changing classroom known as small business.

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