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E-learning eclipses other technologies in delivering bottom-line results.

E-learning eclipses other technologies in delivering bottom-line results
Forget customer relationship management and e-commerce if you're looking for the top bang-for-the-buck business applications. For all the hype they've generated, CRM and e-commerce display the lowest return on investment (ROI) among business technologies, according to Nucleus Research, Wellesley, Mass.

Surprisingly, the business technology displaying the highest ROI, according to Nucleus Research, is e-learning-also known as online learning, computer-based training, courseware, Web-based training and distance learning. Based on a year-and-a-half study, Nucleus found that companies implementing e-learning solutions enjoy reduced travel, HR, regulatory compliance and customer support costs, as wells as increased employee performance.

While the corporate training market hasn't been immune to the economic downturn, the outlook for both the IT and business skills training markets are strong. By 2006, according to International Data Corp., the worldwide IT training market will reach $28.6 billion and the U.S. corporate business skills training market will reach $18.3 billion. Corporate e-learning content in the U.S. will grow nearly 37 percent annually through 2006.

Organizations, noted IDC, will continue to replace and augment traditional forms of training with e-learning for reasons of efficiency, convenience, and "more instructionally sound use of the delivery mechanism."

With corporate travel and training budgets constrained, the value of online training remains fundamentally sound, noted Cushing Anderson, program director of learning services research at IDC. "However, vendors must focus on linking training efforts to business results, present an image of stability, and address issues of suitability."

In the banking industry, where a round of consolidation has created bigger, more far-flung organizations, the advantages of e-learning over traditional, classroom-based learning have fueled an increase in spending on Web-based solutions.

One e-learning provider, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based Worknowledge, combines learning content, a technology platform, and consulting services into customized learning solutions. Its tools enable banks to align corporate training with corporate strategy by analyzing individual, department or company-wide performance .

Its newest product, QuickBites, is a tool for developing and deploying fully-customized online learning modules in just a few days. QuickBites quickly transforms information about company-proprietary topics-new products, services, policies, procedures, etc.-into easy to deploy interactive online training sessions. When integrated with the Worknowledge solution, QuickBites enable management to save up to 70 percent on existing training costs and to more effectively track and measure employee performance.

First Niagara Bank recently concluded a pilot of the Worknowledge solution involving 50 employees from different lines of business, including insurance subsidiaries and servicing, outside sales, branches, commercial lending and loan servicing. Each person took from three to five compliance courses and two QuickBites. The courses covered both general workplace issues (e.g., sexual harassment) and banking-specific issues.

Worknowledge works with a number of third-party content providers. "We screened over 100 content vendors and developed partnerships with those deemed best-of-breed in each subject area," said Ethan Eisner, vice president of marketing at Worknowledge, adding that any change in a policy or regulation is immediately fed into the courses. "It's seamless to First Niagara."

First Niagara also has input into course content. "We send the content to Worknowledge, then they format it into a QuickBite so we can enroll people into the course," said Rebecca Boyle, training manager at First Niagara.

The platform allows First Niagara to track, manage, distribute and analyze all training, whether its Web-based or instructor-led. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of an effective e-learning system is that it links business objectives to learning activities, or "builds learning plans for job roles and links it to specific content," Eisner said.

One of First Niagara's goals was to determine if e-learning could benefit both new and seasoned employees. "We selected people who were both brand new and very experienced, who were both technophobic and tech-savvy," said Boyle. "We brought in people from different types of positions, management and line people."

The feedback was uniformly positive. "One manager said, 'Are we really coming to the end of the pilot? I'm becoming a Worknowledge junkie,'" said Boyle.

The impetus for the e-learning project came from a round of acquisitions that left Buffalo, N.Y.-based First Niagara with a greatly-expanded territory. "We've grown incredibly in the past four years, expanding into noncontiguous markets," Boyle said. "The challenge was to provide the same level of training and development in our central New York market as we were dong here."

"We were trying to run training classes with three participants," she continued. "People had to drive two hours to get to a class."

One of the advantages of the Worknowledge solution is that it's Web-based. "This is a hosted learning management system," said Boyle. "It didn't make sense to use our own IT resources.

Worknowledge provides a full learning management system that we access through the Internet."

Students access the system from home or at a location near their workstations. Study time can't conflict with job duties, however. "Managers schedule a person to do e-learning just like a classroom training session," said Boyle. "When they don't do that, they have trouble."

The courses, most of which are self-study, feature a number of learning aids, such as simulations. Courses include lists of further readings and job aids, such as how to go about planning for a sales call. Still, there's no substitute for human interaction. "This isn't a replacement for classroom training," Boyle said. "This will be a complement."

Added Eisner, "We don't believe you should go 100 percent Web-based. Our platform supports all kinds of training, including blended learning."

The key to success, noted Boyle, "is identifying your champion. One of the hardest things is marketing it and getting people started. Once they get started, they love it."

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