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March 17, 2008 12:23 pm

Companies go online

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Some recent feedback gathered by the Financial Times from senior employees of 700 companies all over the world, and in a wide variety of sectors, uncovered an interesting fact. It was that companies prefer online, or distance, learning not just because it is cheaper than sending employees on training courses – although this is a popular argument – but in equal measure because it is convenient and flexible.

A large company in the UK leisure industry sums up these main recurring themes: “One [reason for using distance learning more in the future] is cost-effectiveness, and secondly it allows more people to study at a time convenient to them and that suits their work pattern.”

The information was collected as part of the FT 2007 annual executive education survey.

The companies in question have all used business schools to develop and deliver customised education programmes for employees.

Companies rate their experiences and express their opinions on subjects such as online and distance education and training.

In the most recent survey (May 2007), 67 per cent of respondents felt that their company would use more e-learning in the next three years.

Also, 32 per cent chose the “about the same” option and 1 per cent said they would use it less.

The fact that a third of those surveyed do not intend to increase their provision in this area is surprising because of the growth in online learning. Moreover, the split has not changed for five years.

Each year one third of companies who expressed a view on the subject said that, for the time being, they are going to maintain their current level.

This chimes with views expressed by Mónica Sacristán, dean of executive education at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México and chairwoman of Unicon – the International University Consortium for Executive Education – which has 85 members around the world including Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

She says that, as far as Unicon is concerned, online education is no longer such a hot topic.

“Ten years ago we were wondering whether it was going to replace face-to-face [teaching] but it hasn’t.”

According to Ms Sacristán, business schools found online teaching is less effective than face-to-face interaction at teaching advanced managerial, leadership and strategic skills to the most senior employees.

But Colin Carnall, associate dean of executive programmes at the UK’s Warwick Business School, disagrees with the idea that some things cannot be taught using online tools.

He says dismissing online teaching methods is a bit like turning the clock back to 15th century Germany and proclaiming that the printing press is all very well, but it will only ever be good for certain printed ideas.

He believes “any learning task is amenable” to the virtual environment.

However, he does qualify this by saying it would be hard to study subjects such as leadership without some sort of face-to-face contact.

In fact, he says the courses Warwick designs for companies are rarely exclusively virtual but that online methodologies play an increasingly pivotal part.

Whereas 10 years ago they were the icing on the cake, now they are “the fruit in the cake”, he says.

He adds that one of the most important attributes of e-learning tools is their ability to help people apply to the workplace lessons they learn in the classroom, for example through the practical use of electronic course materials.

In other words, they facilitate the integration of new skills and their application.

Enrique Dans, professor of information technologies and systems at IE Business School in Madrid, says companies he works with generally ask for “blended” rather than purely online courses.

He says technology companies are earlier and more effective adopters of e-learning than companies in other sectors and remarks that companies such as IBM and BT get more out of online training as their employees are already “digital savvy”.

Mr Carnall says online education is being used for a wider variety of tasks.

There are certainly some very exciting developments going on at what Steve Mahaley, director of learning technology at Duke Corporate Education, calls the “wild frontier” of this arena, such as three-dimensional worlds where new hires can get to know the company in multi-player game scenarios.

However, Unicon’s Ms Sacristán thinks many companies still use online training only for basic or lower-level tasks: from distributing instruction and policy manuals to providing computer-based functional training courses.

She notes these worlds are undoubtedly a “big business” but that they are not necessarily the type of education that business schools would be fighting to supply.

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