Taking The E-train

May 20, 2005
Online training programs continue to flourish on the plant floor and in the office.

No one is giving up on the traditional classroom, but manufacturers are finding that e-learning 101 is one class they just can't afford to cut.

"Definitely the direction we are going is to e-learning and technology-enabled learning," says Rick Sturtevant, senior learning consultant at Caterpillar Inc., where the number of online learning lessons taken by employees soared from 30,000 in 2001 to 200,000 last year.

"It's not an easy journey, and it is a big change for learners, but we've turned the corner here," Sturtevant says.

A big reason behind the shift manufacturers are making to online training programs is cost savings. "The cost to deliver online training is less," says Paul Walliker, Caterpillar Inc.'s collaboration and online training manager. "To create an e-learning module is three times less expensive than it is to create an instructor-led class."

Adds Patrick Hogenbirk, e-learning and compliance training manager at Ashland Inc., a chemicals and petroleum firm, "We've saved millions of dollars. There's definitely a savings in providing online training."

An added benefit is that Internet-based courses allow employees to learn at their own speed, instead of forcing them to keep up with an instructor-led class that must move at a defined pace. That may be an even bigger benefit than the cost savings, says Lois Webster, CEO of Learnshare, a consortium of companies that share training materials online. "Employees have control over their own schedules," Webster says. Thus, plant workers and office employees are able to log on to a course and work at it when their shifts or assignments allow.

Another advantage to e-learning is that the typical learning management system (LMS), as they are commonly called, automatically tracks and records each employee's progress. "Online training enables managers and supervisors to pull reports and see who has received the necessary training and who hasn't," Webster says.

Saving By Sharing

Training managers say having an LMS to unify and keep track of all corporate learning programs also is a help from a management standpoint. "It's given us the opportunity to become more process-centered, focusing on one tool for training versus multiple systems," explains Ashland's Hogenbirk. The Covington, Ky.-based firm used e-mail to roll out an ethics course to 7,000 employees, so that they could become certified as having responded to a series of questions on ethics in the workplace.

Manufacturers are using a variety of technologies to take existing training programs to the Web as well as to develop new online courses. Employees at Ashland, for instance, log on to Learnshare, a 9-year-old organization whose member companies, mostly large manufacturing firms, use the Internet to share their own courses and leverage their size as a group to get discounts from e-learning suppliers. "Learnshare has been an excellent way to benchmark with other companies to learn what they are doing with their training efforts," Hogenbirk says . Among the consortium members are General Motors Corp., Motorola Inc., Owens-Corning, Deere & Co. and 3M Corp.

"These consortium members are interested in collaborating, reducing costs and increasing productivity," Webster says. "They are able to leverage their collective strength and work with suppliers of training materials as a group." Learnshare member companies also can take advantage of the consortium's online LMS. At Ashland, Hogenbirk says, "We have re-purposed courseware of theirs. As a result, we haven't had to create courses from scratch."

Tie Training To Strategy

If there is one thing most training managers agree on, it's that online training shouldn't be used in a vacuum. "It's not a panacea," Webster points out. "It works best with a plan to blend it with the company's strategy, and when used in combination with classroom training."

In fact, when it comes to shop-floor workers, many manufacturers find their training programs are most effective when they combine online, classroom and on-the-job training. That's the case at Caterpillar, where the company's Caterpillar University course for new employees typically combines e-learning, classroom sessions and hands-on training on the assembly line.

While most younger plant workers have grown up with computers, manufacturers often find some resistance on the part of older employees who are asked to go online for retraining as well as for new courseware required by the company.

"We had some learners who were afraid to touch a computer when they started," says Walliker. "But once they got going, they thought it was the greatest learning experience they'd ever had because they could go through it at their own pace. People can bookmark their place in a class, and then return to it, say, when they have 20 minutes before lunch," he says. "With an instructor-led class, it's not as easy to get that time to work on it."

In Caterpillar's case, the company purchases or leases almost 90% of its course material. "We try to modify no more than 15% of the content," Walliker says. "We see what's available, and we use material off the shelf, if we can."

Some of Caterpillar's content comes from Tooling University, Cleveland, which specializes in shop-floor training courses of all kinds.

"Our primary focus is to address the training gap on the factory floor," says Jack Schron, CEO and founder of Tooling U. "We saw that not a lot of people were investing in training for the factory environment." Tooling U.'s online courses cover all the basic skills and knowledge typically required of workers across a wide range of metals-based manufacturing industries. These include computerized machine tools, welding, stamping, die handling, metal cutting, etc. "The students that take our courses are all the folks that want to use their brains and hands to make a living," Schron adds.

Training is especially important for plant floor workers, believes Schron, who also is CEO at Cleveland-based Jergens Inc., which manufactures industrial fixtures for manufacturers. Jergens spun off Tooling U. as a separate entity once it got rolling. "We found that people were doing their jobs on a rote basis, but if you asked them why they did a certain activity, they couldn't tell you," he says. "Training and development are critical components to whether a product is successfully manufactured."

Teaching Standards, Software

Another manufacturer actively using online learning is Dana Corp. Although the automotive supplier currently is re-evaluating its Dana University program as part of a company-wide restructuring, Dana has had several training program successes using the company's corporate intranet site. The Toledo-based company has engaged custom learning creator Root Learning of Maumee, Ohio, to develop online courses in finance for non-financial staff, supervisory management, and standards of business conduct. As a member of Learnshare, Dana also provides training to employees through the company's LMS.

Dana office managers, plant managers and supervisors were encouraged to take the online self-learning class on financial data for non-financial staff. "They learned how to read a balance sheet and an income statement, and to understand cash flow and other key data," says Jean Rakich, former head of Dana University who has since been promoted to director of change management and communications.

Some companies are harnessing online training to teach employees to use new software programs such as an enterprise resource planning (ERP) package. At Australian Pharmaceutical Industries, a national warehouse and distribution firm based in Parramatta, New South Wales, the rollout of a new ERP system to 5,000 workers was made easier by using, in turn, online training software from Centra Software of Lexington, Mass.

"Our warehouse workers and customer service staff have been using a mainframe, and many of them have had no experience using a Windows environment, a mouse or the Internet," explains Jenny O'Farrell, national learning and development manager. "We calculated that our trainers would have to be away from home for at least six months, and workers would be taken from the warehouse floor for weeks at a time if face-to-face training were to take place."

By training workers online using Centra's training package, the Australian distribution firm was able to keep its trainers in Sydney. Once employees became proficient with a mouse and how to use the training program, O'Farrell says, "Then we taught them Movex, our new ERP system." The company used a combination of face-to-face training, Centra, simulation training, self-paced exercises and other training methods. "The blended learning solution worked extremely well," she adds.

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