Chris Potter, a 10-year employee at Home Depot, can tell you a lot about caulk. She does not usually work in the paint department where caulk is sold, but Home Depot employees are encouraged to learn as much as they can about every aspect of the store.
Potter, whose main responsibility is setting work schedules for the 200-plus employees at the East Colonial Drive store in Orlando, Fla., chalks up her caulk knowledge to the outlet's new E-Learning Center.
"Eventually, I want to learn everything," says Potter, 40, of Orlando. "E-learning has expanded my knowledge."
E-learning - computer-based training delivered via the Internet or proprietary intranet sites - is expanding knowledge in workplaces nationwide. It has been used to train Home Depot associates on products and forklift safety. Darden Restaurant managers and hourly workers have used it to learn a new software system. Duke University Health System employees have used it to learn new federal requirements on patient confidentiality.
Although still in its infancy - 1999 is most often cited as the year things really started rolling - e-learning is well-established at America's largest companies.
"About 85 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies have significant e-learning initiatives under way," says Elliott Masie of the Masie Center, a learning research think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
These companies have not abandoned traditional training methods, Masie says. He estimates that e-learning accounts for 5 percent to 15 percent of the training their employees receive. Although he expects that percentage to rise in the future, he says e-learning works best when it is blended with other training techniques.
In the next few years, "we may see a mild to moderate decline in the number of traditional classes," Masie predicts, "but that doesn't mean trainers will go out of business."
Pat Galagan agrees. She is the founding editor of Learning Circuit, an electronic e-learning magazine published by the American Society of Training & Development. Companies that offer e-learning to employees always combine it with other forms of training, from classroom instruction to videotapes to paper manuals. "You don't do one or the other. It's a bit of this and that," she says.
Most training will continue to be delivered the old-fashioned way, Galagan says, with no more than about a third of training delivered via e-learning in even the most progressive companies. "The average, everyday companies will be doing about 10 percent of their training via e-learning," she predicts.
Though no one expects e-learning to supplant classroom training, it does have its advantages. "It cuts out the chitchat before class, the teacher explaining something a second time when you're ready to proceed quickly," says Margaret Driscoll, director of strategy and ventures for IBM E-Learning. With Web-based training, "those who don't get it the first time can get remedial learning that brings them up to speed."
Another advantage, Driscoll says, is that companies can easily track who has been through training and who has not.
That is a big plus at Ryder System, the Miami-based truck leasing company. "Being in a regulated industry, if there's a problem and we need to prove someone was trained, we have it documented in one place," says Jeff Wright, Ryder's e-learning manager.
E-learning is spreading into the workplace, and it's not just for the computer savvy. Orlando-based Darden, with more than 135,000 employees and 1,200 restaurants nationwide, recently introduced a PeopleSoft software system that employees can use to access benefits and other information through its intranet site.
"How do you train 135,000 people how to use PeopleSoft?" asks Randy Babitt, Darden's director of operations development. "In the old days, we'd have to print up 135,000 manuals, with different ones for different jobs. We'd have to send them out to all the restaurants. Managers would have to attend meetings out of their offices, spending a day or two learning the system with a manual and trainer, go back to their restaurants and have weekend meetings with all the employees for a couple of hours."
With e-learning computer kiosks now placed in Darden restaurants, employees individually can learn how to use the software system, with instruction tailored for their job and at a time convenient to them. If they only have a few minutes here and there, that's fine. The e-learning program will bookmark where they left off.
Even employees who have never used a computer before can be served by the system, Babitt says. Working with Get Thinking, an Orlando company that specializes in Web- and computer-based training, Darden offers an e-learning program that leads the uninitiated through a tutorial on computer use. "All an employee has to do is click once, and it walks you through it," Babitt says.
Large employers often are faced with training a lot of employees with differing schedules spread over a wide geographic area. The challenge takes on more urgency when the training is required by law.
That's the case with health care providers, who are required to follow the new federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA.
In the past few months, the Duke University Health System in North Carolina already has had more than 12,000 of its doctors, nurses and other health-care providers complete their HIPAA training via e-learning.
"Without online learning, it would definitely have taken more time and effort," says Terry Seelinger, e-learning manager for the Duke health system. Despite a few technical problems, those who have taken the training like being able to do it at their convenience. The slide-show format allows someone to go through the training in about 20 to 25 minutes. "The content is not real high-tech, but it's constructed well," Seelinger says. And the system keeps track of who has completed the training.
The East Colonial store had its two E-Learning Center touch-screen computer stations installed last July, and since then more than half the store's employees have taken at least one e-learning lesson, reports Shannon Elven, the store's human-resources manager.
By the end of this year, every employee will have taken some e-learning courses, she says.
That pattern will be repeated in more than 1,500 Home Depot stores nationwide, says Charlie Gardner, director of e-learning in Home Depot's Atlanta headquarters. He reports that 100,000 Home Depot employees already have been through the four-hour e-learning training course for forklifts, and tens of thousands more will be going through a 16-hour e-learning program for cashiers.
Home Depot's "Cashier College" used to take three days of traditional training, usually at a district facility to which employees had to travel. Now it will take two days and be done at the employee's store.
E-learning "has saved us an incredible number of training hours," Gardner says. He expects that five to 10 years from now, as much as half of all training that Home Depot employees receive will be via e-learning.
Elliott Masie, the Saratoga Springs learning researcher, says getting this kind of individualized, Web-based training is welcomed by employees because having up-to-date information on products "makes them look good to customers." But there's another advantage:
Unlike in a traditional classroom setting, employees can learn "without the embarrassment of getting something wrong," Masie says. "People don't want to look stupid in front of other people."
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