As the economy falters and travel costs rise, organizations must rethink centralized learning programs and consider alternative solutions that tap into regional expertise and deliver development where employees are.
If you’ve read any newspaper, magazine or Web site in the past few months, you know the economy’s not looking good. The government is bailing out banks left and right, organizations are trimming workforces and debt is rising. On top of it all, business travel is becoming pricier as airlines reduce the number of flights available and fuel costs remain high.
Learning organizations have long been asked to do more with less, but that phrase has extra meaning today. As budgets shrink and business travel becomes less and less feasible, many companies have been forced to rethink their centralized learning and training programs.
“The last couple weeks and months, not just the travel costs but uncertainties about the economy are making people very reluctant to invest heavily in new course development or set up future events that require expensive travel,” said A.G. Lambert, vice president of marketing for Saba, a strategic human capital services provider.
In its latest “Global Business Travel Forecast and Trends” report, American Express estimated that the average domestic business trip will increase 2.8 percent in 2009, while the average international trip is expected to jump 4.3 percent. Understandably, companies are looking to scale back — or at least modify — their travel plans, and the learning industry has seen increased interest in alternatives such as e-learning, regional learning initiatives and knowledge sharing.
“Whereas in the past we’ve been able to go do the next thing, now’s the time to look back on what we may be able to just polish up and make more useful,” said Marcia Conner, managing director of Ageless Learner, a consultancy focused on multigenerational communications, and coach to two Fortune 50 chief learning officers. “I believe that there has never been a better time to have a limited budget and limited travel opportunities.”
The Growth of E-Learning
Learning remotely through technology has been used by organizations for more than a decade, but never before has it been easier, more efficient or more cost-effective. Not only can classes be held online, but with videoconferencing, meetings can go virtual and even global teams can communicate regularly.
Riyaz Adamjee, manager of communications services at CCC Information Services, said CCC began using e-learning technology many years ago but only recently began to take full advantage of its capabilities.
“[We are now] more conscious of, ‘Do we really need to travel for a one-hour meeting or one-hour training?’” Adamjee said. “I think [technology has] made a huge difference.”
Typically, continued professional training such as product or application rollouts or sales-effectiveness courses translate best to the virtual format. CCC used to bring its entire field staff to the Chicago office for a two- to three-day training session on new products. Using e-learning and virtual meeting technology, the company cut this training down to one day.
“It reduces hotel costs for us, but it also allows us to give them training on a more regular basis,” Adamjee said. “Initially, we were restricted to training them once a year — and as you know, products don’t come out once a year. What this does is allow us to give them up-to-date training.”
This year alone, CCC estimates that it has saved approximately 25 percent on travel costs thanks to technology.
Similar benefits were seen by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which began investing in e-learning initiatives in 1999, when the budget for employee education was “drastically cut,” according to Patricia A. Ramos, supervisory information technology specialist and manager of the Web support section for the Web Integration,
Collaboration and Development branch of the IRS.
“There was an executive order that required that all government agencies begin to explore the use of e-learning and a requirement that by the year 2007 all agencies would have converted their primarily classroom-based training model to a 70 percent e-learning model,” she said.
One of the major areas of savings was in the large and midsize business (LMSB) branch that traditionally conducted at least 12 hours of continued professional education for all the revenue agents across the country, Ramos said.
“They alone within the LMSB had approximately 1,800 agents, and for them to travel for 12 hours of training was very expensive,” she said. “A lot of them weren’t available at the same time, so they had to run the same module continuously, probably three or four times a year.”
Self-directed e-learning was an effective way to deliver the training, and the IRS estimates that it saved $130 million in travel costs in 2008.
Another alternative to centralized learning is the use of localized, regional sessions. Lambert said he’s seen several of Saba’s customers roll out such programs. Contact North/Contact Nord, a Canadian nonprofit, created the Contact North Network to connect learners with academic institutions in underserved areas of northern Ontario.
“They’re setting up local learning centers — in many cases just a community hall that might have limited bandwidth, limited access — but they’re setting that up as a virtual classroom so that the people can participate locally in training sessions,” Lambert said.
Conner said it’s easier to find local experts for soft skills training, such as management or leadership classes, or for instruction on products that have been around for a longer period of time. In these cases, companies can turn to community colleges or universities, other organizations or even independent consultants.
But when it comes to industry-specific skills, Conner said the ability to find local experts varies. In the software industry, for example, when a new product comes out, everybody’s a novice.
However, organizations can work to create their own regional specialists. Conner noted that during her time as a senior manager of training at Microsoft, the company was working to do just that.
“The people who went [through training] first had a very compressed schedule and set of experiences that they could then teach the people after them,” she said. “We trained a tremendous number of people locally very, very quickly by having rolling experts.”
Facilitated Knowledge Sharing and Communities of Practice
Some organizations are creating communities of practice among employees to facilitate knowledge sharing, which can keep employees up to speed between formalized training sessions.
“[Companies can have] once-a-month phone calls where people can call in and talk with one another, talk about what’s working, what’s not working, what people have learned,” Conner said. “There are online communities that are very easy to set up now, where the same sorts of resources can be shared. It’s very simple technology that allows us to be able to capture learning moments, teaching moments and be able to share them widely very quickly.”
Benefits and Challenges
In addition to the monetary benefits, there are many intangible benefits to implementing alternative learning solutions. Conner said some technology options may even surpass centralized learning in efficiency and should be greeted as an opportunity — not a last resort.
“Face-to-face classroom-based or workshop-based education has always been appealing and useful to a very small subset of the population. People in our industry don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to be reminded of that — but it is the fact,” she said.
“So when we have, in the past, provided that as the primary option, there were still many more people who were not being served. It didn’t meet their learning style; it couldn’t meet their time commitments. What the desktop offers — being able to have a two-way interactive experience with an expert — is just so far beyond anything we’ve had available in the past.”
By facilitating remote or local learning, companies also save in productivity costs, as employees spend less time en route and more time at their desks. Meanwhile, the use of technology allows organizations to reuse relevant material, Lambert said.
“It doesn’t matter if you made it into a lecture with an instructor or if you come back later and complete the course as Web training. You still see the interaction with the employees, and you still have the interaction with whatever polling or evaluations or interactive features were built into that course,” he said.
Ramos said knowledge capture was a huge issue at the IRS.
“In all the [IRS] industries, there are some very specialized auditing techniques, lessons learned, best practices from some of the best revenue agents who have now since retired,” she said. “They have been able to capture that information from them and utilize and continue to use that information [through technology].”
Other advantages are industry-specific. At CCC Information Services, a reduced travel budget has led to improved — and less expensive — customer service. That’s because the company is making its Web site more useful, meaning more customers can get answers online rather than calling in or requiring a visit from employees, Adamjee said.
“If we didn’t have this technology and we did have to go out and visit customers, we would have to hire a whole lot more people,” Adamjee explained. “There are three [benefits], and they’re all related: money, time and resources.”
However, that’s not to say there aren’t challenges associated with these travel-savvy solutions, especially if they come at the cost of centralized learning. After all, there are some kinds of training that should remain centralized.
“There are times where that interaction is valuable, and that’s primarily in trust building and relationship creation,” Conner said. “When we’re in close proximity with one another, we can get a sense of that person. And we believe we can really get a feel for if they know what they’re talking about, if they may be able to provide us connections to people we need to be able to do our job better.”
However, by tying in social networking tools such as Facebook, Xing or LinkedIn to the remote e-learning experience, companies can help employees build and maintain such relationships, Conner said.
“Just seeing people’s family pictures, seeing a little bit about their background, getting a sense as to what they’re looking at, what they’re doing, is helping [employees] create that trust that would’ve taken them months to do even in person,” she said.
Another challenge is to overcome potential resistance from employees. Whenever travel budgets get cut or new initiatives surface, workers can get fearful or resentful. When CCC began emphasizing its e-learning platform, “there was a little bit of resistance from trainers and from the field staff — everyone was worried about their jobs,” Adamjee said.
The same was true for the IRS, according to Mitch Chazan, chief of the Web Integration, Collaboration and Development branch at the IRS. There were two principal reasons for the resistance, Chazan said.
“One, because it’s a change from the way we always did things. And also, some people love to travel,” he said. “I think they finally realized that this was going to be forced upon them, [but] that doesn’t mean they were easy to bring along.”
To ease the transition, Ramos and her team developed a “virtual environment” cadre: regular employees in each business unit who knew how to use all the technology tools down to every last bell and whistle.
“If someone had a problem, they knew how to fix it. These leaders could handle and manage the classroom even if they weren’t the instructor or the presenter,” Chazan said. “The creation of this cadre was just a magnificent idea: It bought us a lot more buy-in because they were championing the product in all the business units.”
According to some experts, the current financial and travel situation actually represents a golden opportunity.
“This is the time to be creative,” Conner said. “The hard times were the ones that we were able to really create programs that were able to last a long time. When we had more resources, we weren’t nearly as crafty.”
If learning organizations get pushback from other departments, they shouldn’t be afraid to pilot programs on their own, Conner added.
“Find easy, casual ways of doing this, and then build your program from there, as opposed to them being top-down, highly sanctioned activities,” she said. “Get that buy-in to get people to see that it works. Then, all of a sudden, they feel that this is an opportunity that they’ve never had before. I think that changes the conversation. [We can] harness the excitement and the power of people at all levels of the organization to be able to make change and, in many cases, very inexpensively.”Filed under: Learning Delivery, Technology