Three years ago, 20 percent of the 1600 engineers at Honeywell’s ACS Global Training Services were distance learners. Today, nearly 90 percent are training online. David Gillespie, manager of Digitized Learning for the Honeywell group, credits the rapid and widespread adoption to management’s growing appreciation of the unique benefits that e-learning offers compared to conventional classroom training.

“We can teach people with minimal impact to our business,” explained Gillespie. “Many of our employees need to be with customers or work virtually full-time on a project. With e-learning, instead of having to pull them away from customers or a project to train, they can learn at any hour of the day. They can dedicate short blocks of time when it’s convenient to them, which is a lot better than having to physically go to a different city and be away from work for a week.”

That flexibility is just one of several reasons online learning technologies are gaining favor in the corporate enterprise. Reduced travel expenses, quicker access to information, and enhanced knowledge sharing are all benefits.

How e-learning helps IT
While implementing a cost-effective training approach will always bring a CIO kudos from the corporate offices, e-learning can be especially helpful for the IT department for several reasons:

  • Reengineering, early retirement, and turnover are steadily eroding the industry’s stable of seasoned professionals. IT departments are now forced to bring less experienced employees up to speed quickly on a vast array of knowledge. E-learning can boost that goal.
  • The constant push to leverage the latest release of enterprise-wide tools means all employees have to simultaneously upgrade. To make sure everyone becomes competent on the most recent iteration, critical training programs must be deployed within narrow timeframes. E-learning is the perfect venue.
  • With support services becoming scarcer or outsourced altogether, it’s unlikely a VP of IS has a stable of professional trainers ready to develop and deploy training content. If you want to succeed at a training initiative, be prepared to do it yourself. E-learning provides that capability.
  • The home office is an attractive alternative to commuting for employees, and the expense reduction makes it attractive to employers as well. With commonplace Web tools, home-based employees can stay plugged into the learning process both as students and teachers—avoiding travel costs.
  • To standardize business practices within global corporations, companies need a uniform way to train employees at every location, in every region. E-learning provides a practical and effective way to meet the goals of your learning initiatives.
  • If companies need to respond aggressively to industry opportunities, they must bring new products and services to the market quickly. Preparing employees to support new products and services necessitates rapid, dependable training. E-learning offers nearly simultaneous contact with those who need to know, even with global rollouts.

Technology provides deeper audience reach
For Honeywell, e-learning delivers far more than productivity gains and cost controls, Gillespie said. The most significant advantage is a higher caliber of knowledge transfer.

“This [eLearning] puts ‘the’ worldwide expert directly in contact with the learner,” said Gillespie. “That expert’s time was always too valuable to tie him or her up in training class after training class. Now the expert can give a class one time over the Web, and we can record it and make it accessible online to anyone who couldn’t attend the live presentation,” he said, adding that it can be done without requiring the expert to learn complicated authoring software.

Honeywell is using PlaceWare technology that allows subject matter experts to blend PowerPoint presentations with audio input, notes, and interactive instruction. A plug-in option enhances PowerPoint’s capabilities to better support virtual communication.

“Basically, any instructor who can render slides in PowerPoint and use PowerPoint has acquired 95 percent of the skills required to present effectively in PlaceWare,” explained Gillespie. One nice product feature, for both the speaker and audience, is that PowerPoint slides can be preloaded to the Web server for faster display than if the slides resided on the instructor’s system.

The foundation’s usually in place
What makes e-learning technologies so appealing for many enterprises is that the needed infrastructure is likely already in place. Basically, if employees have access to the Internet or the intranet and are even minimally PC-literate, IT has the hardware, software, networks, and user skills to get the ball rolling.

Gillespie pointed out that telecom also plays a role.

“While data network performance and dependability vary among companies and regions, voice networks tend to be reliable. As much as synchronous Web-enabled learning uses high-end, browser-based features for student-teacher interaction, it turns out that the fundamental requirement for this training to succeed is quality audio.”

Through feedback from users, Gillespie has learned that while instructors and students will tolerate kinks with the visual experience, they have no patience for any lapses in audio capabilities, so phone connections must be strong.

Keep distractions down; test to ensure value
E-learning does have some cons. One is the isolation factor for the individual taking a class. In answer to critics who say being in a classroom environment provides a better experience, e-learning advocates note that seclusion can help employees focus exclusively on their coursework.

Yet there’s no getting away from the fact that the self-policing style of e-learning allows for intrusions from the day-to-day business tasks—both students and instructors can be called away in midsession to cope with emergencies. There is also little attendance oversight—individuals are usually given the responsibility to complete training. Both issues were a concern for Honeywell.

“For [e-learning] courses where we’re very concerned that the people get the content, testing is very tightly integrated with the training,” said Gillespie.

That’s exactly why Dow Chemical chose an e-learning technology that allows it to track student progress and conduct certification testing.

According to John Walker, HR IT director for Dow, the company conducts more than a million hours of regularly required training for its 60,000 users at plants around the world.

Using TopClass, a suite of eLearning tools from WBT Systems, Dow built thousands of customized courses to train employees and contractors in everything from environmental safety and health issues to policies and procedures and OSHA compliance regulations.

The capability to track and test was a specific requirement.

“This is essential for a company like Dow,” explained Walker, “where health and safety training is mandatory for employees.”

At Honeywell, managers receive reports every two weeks on which staffers have passed tests on any given eLearning course.

“If you flunk the test,” said Gillespie, “the system makes you wait a week before retaking the test.” The restriction is designed to make sure that employees spend sufficient time reviewing the material to gain the necessary mastery. Pass enough tests on a given subject, and you qualify for certification.

“Clearly, people who get that certification are going to be looked at much differently than the people who don’t get it,” added Gillespie. “As a professional, it’s part of your responsibility to stay on top of your subject. So, almost certainly, certification is going to tie into performance reviews.”

Good experience and buy-in are success factors
Gillespie said that for e-learning to succeed, organizations need to help employees through their initial experience—taking care to make sure it’s a positive one.

“You wouldn’t take grade school students and plunge them into a physics lab without showing them the rules of the road,” said Gillespie. “The same thing holds true with people not previously exposed to [eLearning] technology.”

Gillespie also advised that teachers get training in the e-learning environment to learn to make the experience engaging for the audience. Otherwise, the classes won’t be much more than flipping PowerPoint slides.

He suggests that instructors focus on asking their students questions, guiding them with notes, and constantly engaging in feedback to make sure students grasp the knowledge.

A big component of success is management buy-in. Managers need to give employees the time and space to do the training. That means allowing the workspace to become a “classroom” during the workday to avoid distractions and interruptions. Putting School In Progress signs on office doors and adjusting staff coverage to allow people to set blocks of uninterrupted time can help e-learning succeed.

“In distance learning, it’s crucial to find ways to help employees maintain the discipline to stay focused on the learning,” said Gillespie.

Management must demonstrate that it values the fact that its employees are engaged in learning. It could be a simple acknowledgement or formal recognition. Ongoing learning not only improves professional skills, but it also enhances the company’s skill set as well. Because it’s an investment in product cost and time for integration within the workday, e-learning requires buy-in and support from the top tier to succeed.