A depressed business climate worldwide is shrinking training budgets and demanding more of managers - more innovation, smarter solutions for employee education and productivity gains, and more focus on the bottom line.
Coupled with growing realities like fewer staff, shorter business cycles and a lessened desire to have people out of the office on study leave, all of these factors put pressure on a company's training needs, forcing employees and managers to master a broader range of skills to stay at the cutting-edge.
But by removing the element of inconvenience, e-learning - Web-based training at the desktop or "education over the Internet" - is emerging as the vehicle for large companies to overcome the economic hurdle of more to learn and less time to do it.
HR specialists like St George Bank general manager of corporate performance Colin Pitt says more Australian companies advocate e-learning now because it offers a solution for turning knowledge into competitive advantage.
E-learning no longer sits at the fringe of the corporate training market as a quirk of professional skilling with unconventional learning methods or just HR-type components, but instills an 'anywhere, anytime' philosophy in an organisation, he says. "This sort of culture can rapidly upskill a workforce, improve individual performance and let employees take responsibility for their own learning and development.
According to recruitment firm TMP Worldwide and industry analyst IDC, companies did not take e-learning as seriously a few years ago, because they found the idea of static learning technologies intimidating. They felt also that off-the-shelf solutions were expensive, or their priorities around skills development and systems management got confused when the IT department came into the picture.
Analysts like Bryan Chapman of California-based e-learning research firm Brandon-hall.com, say that despite the hype, "unfortunately, e-learning is still not as widely used as it should be". In the US for instance, although 60 per cent of companies have active e-learning initiatives, "a lot of those people are just dabbling in it", he says.
But in corporate Australia the tide is changing. E-learning is starting to take off here - the main push being the escalating cost to enterprises of class-based training, according to Dr Don McRae, chairman of Canberra-based APTLearning.
McRae adds: "As individuals seek or have to change careers and manage their ever more complex interests, life-long learning is accelerating to meet this demand. Increasingly, the need to know exactly what is required for a specific task will rely on e-learning systems of delivery."
E-learning in the corporate training market typically covers discretionary learning areas like customer service, technical training, corporate compliance, skills gap analysis, sales and marketing, accounting and finance and e-business. According to TMP, there is also increasing uptake in soft skills training like interpersonal, people management and stress management skills.
Organisations in the region are becoming convinced "knowledge is power". IDC predicts countries that will lead the e-learning industry in the Asia-Pacific region are Australia, Korea, China and Singapore.
Analyst group Gartner regards e-learning as a "recession-proof technology" as demand rises when training budgets are tightened. Gartner is keenly optimistic about the e-learning market, predicting online training applications will grow 100 per cent this year, and that by 2005 e-learning will become one third of the $US100 billion corporate training market.
Responding to a TMP survey in Australia last June, executives at 51 companies said they saw e-learning as a key to managing training costs, improving knowledge- and risk-management strategies, and catering for immediacy. These companies crossed the banking and finance, IT&T, government, manufacturing, mining, education, transport, legal and retail sectors.
Corporate giants like Qantas devote around $100,000 a year to online training, specialising in technical and HR modules online as well as face to face. The airline plans to continue investments of this scale in the future, according Qantas IT, training and development manager Wendy Rae.
Oracle e-learning practice director Susan Slocum believes large enterprises do not have the luxury of forever weighing up the pros and cons of e-learning to their bottom line. She argues online training initiatives are simply about following world's best practice and maximising a knowledge base. "It's no longer a discussion of whether you do it or not. Organisations are realising they have to start investing in these training programs. They're really a way of transforming business and IT professionals into middle managers," she says.
Cultural values aside, the cost-saving argument holds some weight in Australia. TMP's study reported that the up-front investment costs that once excluded many companies are dropping from $500,000 to as little as $50,000. Moreover, the range of good content is rapidly expanding, with more dynamic interactive tools like real-time seminars, interactive case studies and sophisticated net-meeting technology being developed both in-house and by vendors, according to Oracle's Slocum.
Following the September 11 terror attacks, both the US and Australian markets showed a renewed interest in e-learning. According to TMP e-learning manager Anne Beirne, since the event there has been a spike in the uptake of e-learning and collaboration tools. The main driver, she says, is workers' reluctance towards business travel and a refocusing on community.
Australian companies canvassed by TMP last year regarded e-learning as mission-critical. Some 92 per cent of organisations' training initiatives were linked to strategic plans, and these initiatives were sponsored at CEO or board level, the survey showed.
Of the respondent companies, 46 per cent spend between $100,000 and $2 million annually on e-learning. Also, training budgets have increased slightly since last year and will increase marginally for most companies next year, TMP says.
However, according to researcher IDC, what will hamper the penetration of e-learning in the Asia-Pacific region are factors like conservative corporate cultures, prolonged economic downturn and delays in infrastructure improvement. "Whether the organisation views training as an expense or investment will shape the way in which e-learning is regarded," says IDC analyst Cindy Sim.
Also, general confusion in the marketplace around affordability, the benefits of e-learning, and the stigmatism of e-learning as being linked to the dotcom hysteria, have all driven companies in the region to make small investments in the training mode as a proportion of revenue, compared to Northern Hemisphere nations, Sim says.
Moreover, TMP's study found the main barriers making it difficult for users in the general workforce to access e-learning are computer and general illiteracy, limited access to technology and the Internet, and disability.
Defying experts' scenarios of what will hinder e-learning penetration here, St George Bank went live with a national e-learning system in October 2001 (based on a technology platform from Australian e-learning solutions maker LearnNow) for its 7500 local staff.
The learning management system is a major plank in the bank's corporate performance strategy - one aimed at driving skills acquisition and improving staff performance across the organisation, particularly for those at the coalface in call centres and branches.
The bank has an annual training budget of between $10 and $15 million, 10 per cent of which is devoted to online learning and technical training, according to Pitt. Initially the bank was unsure of the genuine benefits of online training, Pitt conceded, saying: "E-learning has had a lot of hype from people in the industry and in the US, which, I think, has been making it a real unknown from a business sense."
Teaching core competencies like service and management skills, St George's learning management system is a blended solution of face-to-face training workshops and self-paced online instruction facilitated by e-coaches. The program factors in more than 120 different learning 'events' and delivers them on an intranet, through video-conferencing and classroom teaching.
The program aims to give employees the "fundamentals" they need to manage at a mid-level, according to Pitt. Still in its early days, the system is used primarily by call centre and branch network staff (around 300 users). Once the bank ensures the system has the right data and people's usability skills are up to scratch, Pitt expects middle to senior management to start using it within a year to access more advanced management and development programs.
With a 12-month planning function, Pitt says the system has proven itself to be a smart way of ramping-up in-house skills development, and enabling the bank to build and deploy online modules quickly. The sophistication of the system does not stop there. It is an end-to-end solution that also allows the bank to measure the effectiveness of e-learning by giving managers the ability to track things like the penetration of e-learning within their unit and the organisation, and how many people are successfully completing courses, Pitt says.
Its main benefit to St George is that it overcomes the difficulty of removing key service staff from the bank's national call centre network, thus maintaining existing productivity and service levels, according to Pitt. "It's really all about making your workforce as competitive as it can possibly be. They don't have to be the smartest people in the world, but e-learning gives them more awareness of different business scenarios and prepares them for service or management challenges," he says.
One HR manager with a Sydney-based IT services consultancy believes the only upside of e-learning is its timesaving element, as most courses are short and intensive.
However, she argues that Web-based training lacks interactive qualities like social interaction and the opportunity to share ideas. "It's great for giving people technical skills, but in the long run it won't make their promotion prospects that much better."
"So many IT people need [people] skills. They need to get away from communicating through a computer screen," she adds.
TMP's Beirne agrees that users "miss out on the instant feedback and interaction" classroom learning provides, whereas e-learning only accommodates this need through chatrooms.
E-learning advocates like Brian Kelly, general manager of Smartforce Australia, differ, arguing that e-learning gives the user a personalised learning experience compared to traditional classroom methods with a lecturer who may be run off their feet. Smartforce profiles each learner, providing an individualised study path to enable them to focus on precisely what they need, Kelly says.
He adds: "E-Learning plays right into the profile of today's workforce, particularly for IT staff, who are mobile, time-pressed, self-motivated and eager to acquire new skills on their own terms. E-Learning also offers managers a flexible and cost-effective education solution for their staff."
IDC supports this view, saying that because the anytime, anywhere characteristics of e-learning tools are available from devices like desktops and notebooks, they can accelerate the productivity gains by making education more accessible. Defending the case for learning offline, GartnerG2 senior analyst for new media Guy Cranswick believes e-learning will grow eventually, but doesn't see it replacing traditional learning.
"The rising costs of continuing education combined with a government that has pledged a commitment to cutting costs, such as Labor's recent incentive Knowledge Nation and, thirdly, the fact that companies are examining the costs of training, mean it is a trend that will grow. It is a trend that is going to creep up on us until it seems everyone we know is doing some kind of cybercourse," he says.
Still, for Cranswick, nothing will replace the teacher. "What is interactive to the nth degree is being in a room with an instructor. I can't see e-learning replacing [traditional methods for a] tertiary degree for instance."
Opponents of e-learning like Brad Cuff, head of IT at Pilandri Wines, argue that online training is in essence "ineffective", and not a genuine investment in the employee. "It is a cheap way for an organisation to claim they can give employees the spoils of training," but without the benefits of a few days out of the office, he says.
- Siobhan Chapman and Steve Alexander contributed to this article.