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Illustration by Emilio Rivera III
Companies are churning out smarter workers faster with Web-based training courses on everything from shop-floor procedures to time management

Training Transformed
The week-long seminar junket could become a thing of the past. Corporate education is going online in Asia

Wired Executive:
Lisa Gokongwei Publisher, Summit Media.

It is lunchtime and Cathay Pacific management trainee Gary Chan is in front of his computer, eating a sandwich. He clicks an icon marked "Change Management," opening one of a dozen courses the company has put on its internal network. Today's lesson: Communi-cation. The first page lays out a scenario in which an employee has to explain to his colleagues why he missed a deadline. Chan's mission: to help them talk through the situation without throttling each other.

He reads the text that follows, answering multiple-choice questions along the way and has the virtual conflict diffused by the time he's finished his sandwich. Another coffee break or two and he will have completed the whole course. "It's not as much fun as being in a real class, but for right now it's better because of my time constraints," says Chan. Many of his 8,000 colleagues may join him at cyber-school soon. Cathay is planning to move much of its training online — everything from ticketing procedures to safety standards to time management.

Other Asian companies are not far behind. E-learning is already booming in the U.S., where Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers predicts it will "make e-mail usage look like a rounding error." The trend is catching on here as well. The Asian market for online technology training alone will reach $235 million by 2004, according to International Data Corporation. And that's not including Japan. Non-technical training is forecast to grow even more quickly. Suppliers are now lining up, with local startups jostling Western multinationals for a piece of the action.

Traditional job trainers are naturally among them, nudged in some cases by their clients. Cathay has for a long time used a firm called Aviation Training Inter-national to provide industry-specific training. But those courses involve flying workers to Hong Kong and taking them away from their jobs for several days. The airline wants a cheaper solution. So it's talked ATI into designing its online courses — free of charge. "At the end of the process they'll have an electronic course which they can turn around and sell to whomever they want," says Graham Higgins, manager of the Cathay's learning and development group.

Besides courseware, companies also need software infrastructure to deliver online training. "The value is in having feedback loops and high interactivity and allowing students to share information," says Jay Shaw, managing director of Hong Kong software developer Net Dimensions. "And then you can measure their progress to determine your return on investment."

There are basically two types of online courses. One is a virtual classroom, where all the students log in at a designated time and an instructor leads them through the lesson. If designed properly, it can be highly interactive. Hewlett- Packard's virtual classroom allows students to raise their hands electronically with questions, pass notes discreetly to other students, or throw a virtual tomato at the electronic whiteboard — feedback of the bluntest kind. They can also ask the teacher a question in private if they're embarrassed to do it in front of the whole class.

The other type of course is self-paced. It's less spontaneous than a virtual classroom, but students can log in whenever they have time and learn at their own speed.

Getting an online training program off the ground isn't cheap. Hewlett-Packard estimates the minimum set-up cost is $250,000. But that can easily go up to $1 million depending on the project size.

Companies with more than 1,000 employees and multiple geographic locations, however, will see real savings in travel expenses — which eat up as much as 40% of training budgets — and in the cost of lost productivity created by taking workers off-site for training. IBM, which sells e-learning services under its Mindspan Solutions unit, estimates clients will recoup their initial investments in one to two years. The company's own electronic training system saves it more than $178 million a year.

Speed is also a major factor. "We talk to our clients and there have been some cases where a new product is announced at headquarters, a customer reads about it on the Web and calls up their local rep, but the sales person doesn't know how to handle the inquiry," says Lye Chan Loy, director of Asian sales and marketing for IBM Mindspan Solutions. An online briefing using 3D models or video demonstrations can get the information out quickly.

The drawback is, a lot of people like leaving work for a few days to fly off to a seminar. They might not be so keen on using their own time to take an online course. "You have to present it carefully," says Andrew Lupton, a director at financial courseware producer Intuition. "They have to see it as valuable training that's being given to them to help develop their careers."

E-learning will also only work if the students already know how to use a PC. "Someone who's afraid to touch the mouse would be the wrong person to teach using the computer," says Thomas Klaas, a director at Malaysia's Tactics Asia. His firm created a course for a Singapore hospital that bombed because employees were not comfortable with computers.

But even with a computer-literate staff, technology can't completely replace face-to-face interaction. Online training experts themselves advise combining e-learning with classroom sessions. Cathay, for instance, will arrange a workshop in which Chan and other students who have passed the Change Management course will meet to talk about their online lessons.

"Web learning can bring people to a certain level and it can give them a very good background," says Intuition's Lupton. "But for problem-solving and real-time practical examples, I still think it's important for junior staff to have the face-to-face contact with senior staff. It'll be very sad if we all get stuck at our computers and we don't speak to anybody."

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