With its potential to cut costs and streamline staff training, e-learning has obvious attractions for cost-conscious companies. According to research company IDC, 25% of European businesses have plans to introduce e-learning, and technology training is one of the most widely implemented forms of e-learning.
Enthusiasm from the UK government has encouraged public sector involvement. The Ministry of Defence, which spends £2.2bn a year on training, aims to deliver 30% of training materials electronically within two years, said Keith Scott, director of training at LogicaCMG, one of the companies bidding for the contract.
The main selling point of e-learning is the potential for greater efficiency. According to analyst firm Meta Group, e-learning can provide 30% more learning content in 40% less time at a cost 30% below traditional classroom-based learning.
However, e-learning still has a long way to go before it replaces classroom-based training. According to an IDC report, only 6% of corporate training budgets are currently being spent on e-learning, compared to 70% on classroom-based learning.
Business has modified its expectations of e-learning since the boom of the late 1990s. The naive conviction that every skill for every employee could be delivered more cheaply and efficiently by switching from the classroom to the PC meant many companies took a big-bang approach.
Today, however, fewer businesses are investing huge sums to implement in-house training platforms. Projects tend to be smaller and focused on a particular training requirement.
E-learning encompasses many forms of technology-based training. Content delivered through a dedicated software system for delivering learning content and tracking employee progress is known as a learning management system. Companies that write their own training material use a learning content management system.
E-learning can also be done through a combination of conference media such as instant messaging, company intranet sites and face-to-face meetings.
Some of the bigger suppliers in the e-learning market include Teknical, Saba and Docent and experts predict that leading enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management suppliers will offer their own e-learning products.
There are also plenty of companies bidding for the expanding outsourcing business, about 50% of e-learning programmes are outsourced to companies such as LogicaCMG and Thomson NETg.
Insurance firm Royal & SunAlliance is currently rolling out an enterprise learning management system from Saba to 50,000 employees worldwide. The benefits include cost savings and compliance with regulations that stipulate a minimum level of training for each employee.
"Our cost/benefit analysis shows clear gains where e-learning has replaced the classroom in terms of opportunity cost, less need for travel, accommodation and facilities and savings in course development costs and materials," said Andy Wooler, manager of learning management systems at Royal & SunAlliance.
When the systems are in place, the insurance giant plans to gradually introduce other e-learning projects, ranging from industry-specific skills such as underwriting and claims through to broader skills such as desktop applications. With time the system may be extended to deliver training to key brokers outside the company.
More sophisticated e-learning content comprises video, sound or games and is available on PCs, laptops, personal digital assistants and 3G phones.
This will ring warning bells with the IT director, given the capacity for extra devices placing unwanted strain on the network, but upgrades may not be necessary and projects can be matched to capacity, said Vaughan Waller, chairman at the eLearning Network, an association for users of technology-based training.
Some subjects lend themselves better to e-learning and one subject all experts put top is technology. Experts stress that online learning works well where training is closely tied to the job. This could mean guiding a call centre employee through the procedure for taking a call while they are on the phone.
There is also the potential for more timely e-learning. Scott gives the example of a bomb disposal expert using "just-in-time" information from a PDA.
In order to be successful, e-learning schemes should also involve the human factor. The key to successful online learning is that the student wants to learn in a new way. It will not work if employees suspect that "anytime anyplace" learning is a management plot to get them to work in their spare time.
However, for some organisations, the classroom is still the preferred option, particularly for communication-based skills such as commercial negotiation.
But most experts are not convinced that either the classroom or e-learning is better. They advise combining the two in "blended learning". And nobody suggests that e-learning is easy. "E-learning works best where customers do not expect miracles and where there has been a lot of planning," said Waller.
Tips for e-learning success
An e-learning project is more likely to succeed if:
- Corporate management is committed
- Goals and timescales are practical
- There is careful planning of what will be provided and how it should be delivered
- IT and the network infrastructure is up to the job - users accessing course materials remotely will put additional strain on systems
- The right technology is used from a supplier with a secure future - many training providers have gone out of business in recent times
- The content is well structured and targeted to your needs
- The cultural change from classroom-based training to self-managed e-learning is carefully managed
- Students are keen to advance and ready to learn anytime, anywhere
- E-learning is blended with traditional learning
- Training is built into the usual working day.
This was first published in June 2003