In tough times companies invariably scale back funding for internal education, and 2009 will likely be no exception: companies spent 11% less per "learner" last year, according to one study. But, in a rare bright spot, fewer dollars spent does not necessarily translate into less training taking place. Companies are making greater use of a variety of "e-learning" technologies to cut travel costs, make in-house expertise more widely available, and customize training to suit individual needs.
A March survey of more than 500 companies by The Masie Center, a workforce-learning research firm, found that while 62% have cut their training budgets, more than half have increased the number of e-learning modules, Webinars, and other forms of virtual education. The use of less-formal online collaborative systems, like social networks and wikis, doubled between 2007 and 2008, according to Josh Bersin, CEO and president of Bersin & Associates, a corporate-learning consulting firm.
Companies are motivated by costs, of course, but have also learned how to make better use of available technologies. Instead of simply transferring classroom courses to the Web, companies now offer employees "a much more sophisticated learning environment with many interactive features," Bersin says.
And for far less money. A one-hour course that would have cost $75,000 to develop just a few years ago now runs about $10,000 to $15,000, Bersin says. Even greater savings come from knowledge-sharing communities, which enable in-house experts to educate their fellow employees essentially for free. British Telecom's Dare2Share system, for example, allows employees to offer technical assistance, management briefings, and other peer-to-peer assistance in a YouTube-like environment.
Not that the human element is disappearing altogether. "Blended learning" combines classic instructor-led training with an online component, often managed by a moderator who acts as coach and ombudsman. One advantage, says Peter McAteer, vice president and managing director of corporate learning at Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), is that blended learning "facilitates critical thinking because it allows students to reflect on what they're learning and follow up with questions as the course continues over time."
Blended learning also allows instructors to offer their expertise across the miles — sometimes many miles. India-based HCL Technologies, for example, is currently putting hundreds of promising leaders through an HBP development program without anyone needing to travel to campus. Much of the content has been co-developed by HCL so that students focus not on hypothetical business problems but on current challenges the company faces.
As for the cost of the program, HCL isn't too concerned: employees in the company's "Top Gun" development program pay for the courses themselves.