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by Brenda Paik Sunoo | March 10, 2009

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Your CEO made it perfectly clear. In two years, your small company is expected to double in size. But how are you, the HR manager, going to recruit and retain the best employees in today's competitive environment?

Mark, a recent MBA grad, is quick and Web-savvy. But he doesn't know how to lead a team. Ellen, a 15-year sales representative in Iowa, is nervous about her first global assignment to Bombay. Since neither one of them wants to sit in a classroom to improve their management and language skills, you think you've hit a brick wall. But wait: Have you considered offering distance learning as a training vehicle for your fast-track employees?

"Distance learning studies show greater return on investment than face-to-face training," says Vicky Phillips, CEO of geteducated.com-a Waterbury, Vermont-based distance learning consulting and research firm. "One of the biggest movements right now on the Internet are [distance learning] companies targeting small and medium size companies. It's an under-served market."Small businesses, she says, typically don't have large training budgets. So they tend to quickly adopt use of the Internet when looking for cost-effective training.

By definition, distance learning is the acquisition of knowledge and skills through mediated information and instruction. It encompasses all technologies and supports the pursuit of life long learning for people of all ages. Distance learning is used in all areas of education, including higher education, home school education, continuing education, corporate training, military and government training and telemedicine.

Faced with retraining 50 million American workers, corporate America is using distance learning, both internally and externally, for all aspects of training, according to the United States Distance Learning Association. Moreover, this learning model can save corporations between 10 to 50 percent of today's $60 billion plus training budgets, if provided correctly.

The delivery mechanism for this new paradigm of learning can be corporate Intranets, extranets, the global WWW and combinations of these and other network systems. Digital convergence---a key technology wave-is a combination of all media types including text, sound and video in a dynamic global environment. The ability to digitize, combine and deliver all media types anytime, anywhere signals for the first time how state of the art technology can be applied to the process of learning.

The business benefits? Consider these:

  • Reduced expenses
  • Improved efficiency of learning
  • Quantum leaps in access to knowledge
  • Ability to accurately assess the impact of learning
  • The desire to implement corporate standards for training and to conduct the process of learning on a global scale

Of course, distance learning isn't for everybody. It takes a lot of initiative, motivation and self-discipline to make it work. But most of the time, the employee will be on his/her own schedule, studying and producing work at one's own pace.

Take Teresa Wickens, a distance learner at Kansas City, Kansas-based Ottawa University. At Ottawa, all students are required to attend an intensive four-day weekend. A student attends HR classes from Thursday morning until Sunday afternoon, and gets 32 hours of credit time in before heading home. Then, the rest of the course is done online. "The only negative aspect is statistics, which is hard to learn over the Internet," says Wickens. "But I love the classes and the students. We're virtually inseparable."

So while you're hiring new recruits, don't forget to consider training alternatives for those you already have around. But first, be aware of some red flags. These helpful warnings were posted on a site written by Charlotte Thomas, a career and education editor:

  • Have you looked deeper than the Web site of various campuses?
  • Is the distance provider accredited by a recognized accreditor?
  • Will that certificate or credit be worth something?
  • Does the distance provider have a track record?
  • Are admissions policies too easy?
  • Is the class too big for the professor to adequately teach?
  • What is the course content and how is the material researched?
  • What qualified faculty members to teach a distance course?
  • What is the level of interaction between distance students and faculty members?
  • Is a full level of student services provided?
  • What is the institution's response to your specific questions?
  • What do current and graduated students say about the program?
Just remember, just because you're a smaller to mid-size company, you don't have to trail behind the big guys. A gazelle can outdistance an elephant any old day.

Brenda Paik Sunoo is the former senior editor of Workforce and currently a freelance journalist based in Southern California.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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