Big Blue's Distributed Learning Program Yields Big Payoff

Big Blue's Distributed Learning Program Yields Big Payoff

By John Makulowich

Boasting the largest number of registered users (100,000) and the greatest number of courses (10,000) for an intranet application dedicated to employee training, IBM Corp. is stacking up impressive numbers in the enterprise battle against rising education costs.

IBM has 280,000 employees and claims the number of registered users is growing at 20,000 per month. The firm feels it has the best technology-enabled learning environment of any corporation in the world.

According to company figures, the Armonk, N.Y.-based computer giant is saving anywhere from $100 million to $125 million by training its employees with distributed learning tools, such as the World Wide Web, satellite and computer-based training.

More importantly for its bottom line and customer relationships, IBM is showing other companies how to duplicate its innovative distributed learning program.

For Rick Horton, general manager of learning services at IBM, Somers, N.Y., the firm is breaking new ground in hiring and training its employees and making distance learning part of an overall effort to practice what it preaches for e-business.

For example, IBM is finding its employees more quickly. It used to take 10 days to locate and hire a temporary engineer or consultant. Now it takes just three days, thanks to an automated intranet that handles most of the employee processing. Hiring quickly is no trivial task, considering the IT labor shortage, potential lost revenue and the fact that IBM hires about 45,000 temporary employees each year.

"We were challenged by [IBM Chief Executive] Lou Gerstner to train people more effectively and efficiently, and given 18 to 24 months to show results," Horton said. "Many people don't realize that IBM spends over $1 billion dollars annually on training and instruction."

That figure is not just the expense of educating staff. It also covers the associated expenses of travel and lodging, as well as the opportunity cost of staff being out-of-pocket during training time.

The savings that IBM is racking up come in part from designing courses in a format more compatible with the learning style of individuals. It amounts to an approach that takes into account anytime, anywhere, just-in-time training. Not only is there more effective individual learning, but there are improvements in productivity, according to Horton.

IBM estimates that for every 1,000 classroom days it converts to distance learning, it can save $350,000 to $500,000, depending on the amount of travel involved.

And company research indicates that self-paced distributed learning is 25 percent more efficient, is retained better than eight-hour classroom sessions and is preferred by employees.


"Just one year ago, only 15 percent of IBM training was done via computer," Horton said. "Our target is 30 percent by the end of this year. We are near the target right now."

He said the initial cost of preparing a course for distributed learning is significantly higher than a traditional class, but over time, as the course is given, costs decline dramatically.

While the goal is to develop a learning environment that is 100 percent distributed, Horton pointed out distributed learning never will completely replace the classroom environment, with its face-to-face interaction and group learning.

Also, there are cases in which a blended approach can work well, for example, with certain types of information that are easily delivered online, yet where the cost of preparing a distributed learning course would be significantly higher than classroom instruction.

"The classroom is still best in a very high-technology environment which requires hands-on laboratories and teaming or a situation where it is important for the group to be together to take advantage of the equipment," said Horton.

The classroom also is preferred where a new skill is being learned vs. incremental learning. A case in point is learning to program for the first time vs. learning the programming language, C, when the student already knows C. There also is the issue of technology improvements, which may decrease reliance on the classroom. An example would be virtual environments where simulations become more lifelike.

One of the more critical issues in the distributed learning vs. classroom debate is cultural, which amounts to teaching people how to work together, to adapt to new learning styles and to incorporate new skills into their work routine.

Yet another issue is ensuring employees get the time they need to pursue self-directed study through distributed learning.

Asked what metrics are in place to measure the effectiveness of distributed learning, Horton said IBM is now in the process of putting them in place.

"We have to make sure the measurements are correct," he said. "We are making an exhaustive study on the best ways to measure and to design and develop standardized tests."

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