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CBT and WBT: less expensive than classroom training, but do they work?

The cost-effectiveness of computer-based training (CBT) and Web-based training (WBT) vs. traditional classroom training is well documented and convincing. Less money is spent on travel, training time is generally shorter, and the expense of a trainer is either eliminated or greatly reduced. But are those fast-growing forms of training as effective as classroom training? Few systematic studies have been done. Moreover, evaluations often just measure learner reactions to training or whether the content of the training was mastered. Measures of job performance changes are rare, and measures of whether business objectives were met through training are virtually non-existent.

One of the few cases in which classroom and Web-based instruction were compared and related to job performance was in a training program developed by GTE Learning Systems (www.gte.com) for new sales representatives at GTE Internetworking. Job-related performance measures were established and obtained for both groups. The measures were the average time it took for a new hire to make the first sale, and the average dollar value of that sale. An 18-week program, consisting entirely of classroom training, delivered to new hires in 1998 was revamped and modified into an eight-week program consisting primarily of Web-based training augmented by classroom training and a mentor. In the revised program, presented to 1999 new hires, a significant portion of the content, including sales skills, knowledge of products and service, and role playing in various customer scenarios, was delivered via a Web-based Virtual University. Classroom instruction was used for writing, presentation, sales skills and additional role playing. A mentor guided the learners through the program, providing orientation, contacts with experts and help with learning to use the Knowledge Bank.

When compared with the previous instructional program for 1998 new hires, the 1999 program showed a 25% reduction in time to obtain the first sale, and a more than doubling of the first sale's value. Those are impressive figures, but is there a clear connection to the training?

Carol Sabia, director of GTE Learning Systems, said, "We had discussions with the sales managers, and confirmation from them of qualitative changes in the sales force convinced us that the quantitative changes were directly linked to the training." As always, a causal relationship is difficult to prove, but careful follow-up can raise the confidence level of making such a connection.

"Tying training to performance improvement can be difficult, particularly for the soft skills such as management skills, but it's important to do," said Dr. Alice Waagen, president of Workforce Learning (www.workforcelearning.com). "Even for those areas, there are ways of evaluating training effectiveness." Differences in learning styles also should be considered, she said. A self-paced CBT that works well for one individual might bore another.

Certainly some training content is better suited to a particular delivery mode. For behavioral change, the human interaction provided in the classroom is likely to be essential. Although information about team building can be delivered online, one can practice that skill only in person. For delivery of knowledge, self-paced CBT or WBT can be more effective than classroom training, particularly when the learner benefits from self-paced practice exercises.

The prevailing wisdom now is that the best training is actually hybrid--a mix of delivery modes. Online pre-tests are an efficient way to assess current skills, and online pre-work (background and preparation for training) can easily include a test that verifies completion, according to Dr. Brandon Hall, publisher of the "Multimedia & Internet Training" newsletter (www.brandon-hall.com). Classroom instruction remains the most popular form of training, although it is gradually losing ground to electronic options. Some training, such as instructor-led distance learning, can mix electronic learning with human interaction. For example, self-paced WBT can be augmented by online instructional sessions and discussion groups that make good use of the interactive capabilities of the Web.

The decision to include a particular delivery mode should incorporate information about the content, the audience, the learning environment and, of course, the learning objectives. But even before that choice is made, a careful evaluation should be undertaken to decide whether training will solve the business problem at hand. Perhaps recruiting practices should be changed, or product documentation improved. A greater focus on performance deficiencies rather than knowledge levels would help concentrate training resources where they are needed most.

A product from BNH Expert Software (www.bnhexpertsoft.com), Advisor PI, analyzes business problems and then explores whether training is a potential solution.

"Training may not be the answer," said BNH President Jay Bahlis. "This decision support tool considers a variety of interventions once the performance gap is measured." Those include process/job/organizational redesign, new incentive systems and policies, tools, job aids and communication, along with training.

If training is identified as the solution, a companion product, Advisor 3.0, assists in recommending training approaches. Advisor 3.0 evaluates the effectiveness of alternate delivery options and calculates costs and ROI, with what-if scenarios to measure the impact of such changes as an increased number of trainees.

More companies are now recognizing the close relationship between knowledge management and training. Until recently, the two have been in different realms, with KM coming from the IT side and training being an HR function. As companies make a conscious decision to become learning organizations, the learning function will become more integrated with jobs. Formal training will not vanish, but there will be a trend toward leveraging the corporate knowledgebase. Sun Microsystems (www.sun.com), for example, presents new hires with an online self-assessment that identifies areas in which they need training. But rather than head for the classroom, users are provided with a set of corporate learning sources designed to meet their training needs.

Corporate culture will have to change from a model of individual achievement to one of collective achievement in order to develop and make full use of the corporate knowledgebase. Some companies have already changed their incentive structure to promote a more collaborative style, but there's still a long way to go. And it's not always a case of unwillingness to share. Knowledgeable experts tend to be busy, and may have to decide between contributing to a knowledgebase and serving a customer. It's not necessarily an easy choice.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp. (Alexandria, VA), e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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