Smart Thinking

Article excerpt

Great ideas rarely come out of thin air. Employees need ongoing training to remain focused and engaged.

According to Cisco CEO John Chambers, "the two great equalizers in life are the Internet and education." And he's been working to make sure that his company has the benefit of both.

Internally, Cisco uses e-learning - the electronic delivery of training - in a number of business areas. Those efforts have reportedly saved tens of millions of dollars. But just as important, they have helped the San Jose, Calif.-based networking company's sales force keep up in an industry in which products change with relentless frequency. Today, more than 90 percent of sales and technical material is delivered online, allowing people in the field to spend up to 40 percent less time on training - an approach that has "fired up the metabolism" of the sales force, according to one Cisco report.

In short, e-learning has quickly gone from being an interesting and sometimes overhyped concept to being a practical, powerful business tool. As Cisco's experience shows, it can help cut costs and deliver effective training. It also can help boost employee performance and foster innovation by arming people with the knowledge needed to tackle new approaches in a changing world. As Michael Brennan, a senior analyst at IDC, the Framingham, Mass.-based market research firm, points out, "The more you develop your people, the more likely they are to innovate."

It's not just Cisco's company communications that tout e-learning, however. On a recent flight, Brandon Hall, CEO of the brandon-hall.com e-learning research firm, asked a Cisco sales manager if his people really used the technology in their jobs. "He said, `That's all we do. People don't want to get out of the field to go to some class. So they just go online and access what they need,"' Hall recalls. "When you hear a manager talking about how people are really using this stuff, it's a very nice validation."

As it turns out, e-learning is getting a lot of validation these days. According to IDC, U.S. corporate spending on e-learning technologies and services is growing by some 50 percent a year, and by 2005, companies will be investing more than $18 billion a year in e-learning. At the same time, those that are already using the technologies seem to like it. "Our research shows that the longer a company has adopted it, the greater the percentage of their training that is being delivered that way," says Brennan.

Len Sherman, a partner heading strategy development for Accenture Learning, the company's learning outsourcing practice, agrees. "Technology-enabled learning is becoming the lifeblood of creating a high-performance work force," he says.

Learning - whether in the classroom or online - is intertwined with innovation because people typically build on a foundation of knowledge to come up with new approaches. That's especially true in an increasingly sophisticated business environment. "Before someone innovates, he or she has to gain mastery of the relevant subject matter. The world has become way too complex for rookies to innovate by blind luck," says Sherman.

With e-learning, training can be delivered quickly and efficiently to large numbers of people, on an anytime, anywhere basis, at a relatively low cost. Content can be updated frequently and easily. And "time to competence" for a given task is typically much shorter than it is with traditional methods - a critical benefit in an age when skills have short shelf lives and knowledge workers struggle to keep up with new information.

The e-learning curve

Whether a company is undergoing a restructuring, migrating to a new market focus or launching a new product, CEOs are acutely aware of the pressure on employees to develop competence to support rapid business change. "Effective learning can dramatically compress the time it takes for workers to become productive in the face of radical change," says Sherman. …