In another time Dave Lehman would be in another place — and spending a lot more of his employer’s money. Eager to master the subtleties of Microsoft Office, the popular suite of word processing and business applications, Lehman enrolled in a continuing education class. Until recently, Lehman’s going back to class would have meant trekking to a college or hotel conference center. Either way, he’d forfeit time on the job and likely saddle his employer with travel and lodging expenses — to say nothing of a hefty tuition bill.
But Lehman is taking this training course over the Internet. He attends class when and where it’s convenient for him — usually at his desk during his lunch break — and works through the material at his own pace. “This fits my schedule,” says Lehman, an end-user specialist for York, Pennsylvania-based USA Direct Inc., a privately held direct mail operator. Lehman runs the help desk at USA Direct, trains his fellow employees in how to use software, and oversees the company’s computer network.
Although he doesn’t think of it in such grandiose terms, Dave Lehman is part of a revolution in worker training. According to technology research firm IDC, online schooling accounts for about $2.2 billion of the $19.5 billion spent on corporate education and training in 2000 (that excludes training that companies deliver in-house to their own employees). IDC estimates that by 2003, E-learning or Web-based training will account for $11.4 billion of the nearly $30 billion business education market. And in a recent survey of 40 of the world’s largest corporations, Forrester Research found that all but one had online training initiatives already in place.
The big corporate switch to virtual instructors makes sense. Handled properly, distance learning cuts training costs substantially. “The cost-of-delivery savings are enormous, as are the cost-of-attending savings,” notes Wayne Hodgins, strategic futurist and director of worldwide learning strategies at Autodesk Inc., a maker of computer-aided design software in San Rafael, California. “On the delivery side, you get out of having to do everything from paper-based reproduction of content to shifting instructors and equipment all over the world. We used to spend it, now we don’t.”
Online training also offers anonymity — often a plus for senior executives. “If you’re the CFO, no one needs to know you’re taking a course in derivatives to sharpen your skill set,” says Laura Friedman, vice president of the distance learning group at the New York Institute of Finance (NYIF). “For whatever reason, a senior executive may not want to sit in a classroom with someone who’s 27 years old — especially a 27-year-old who works for him or her.”
For human resource heads and training directors, delivering lessons electronically makes it simpler to track the progress of students. Likewise, Web-enabled training programs allow corporate tutors to customize content, fine-tuning programs for the specific needs of workers. “For example, a new salesperson needs different types and amounts of training than somebody making a lateral move from another company,” explains Cushing Anderson, IDC program manager for learning services research. “E-learning allows you to make training relevant.”