August 14, 2007
A few years ago, David Dam, head of sales development for Golden Harvest Seeds Inc., was frustrated with his company's sales-training program for 250 employees and 2,000 independent crop-seed dealers. Mr. Dam would rent meeting rooms for 30 people, and only 15 would show up. He had trouble finding great trainers. Fuel prices were making travel more expensive, and the sessions took valuable time out of workers' days.
But in the spring of 2004, Mr. Dam's company tried planting some seeds in a new field -- online training.
Golden Harvest hired EJ4 LLC, a video-based online trainer in St. Louis, to produce and post online videos for teaching sales reps how to sell Golden Harvest seeds. Mr. Dam tracked the results and found that employees were watching the videos, mostly on Saturdays or Monday mornings. Sales increased, as did demand for more courses, and training costs fell to less than $100 per person from between $175 and $200.
"This would have been next to impossible if we had just standard [face-to-face] training," Mr. Dam says. Now, Golden Harvest, of Waterloo, Neb., offers about 120 training courses on its internal Web site, with 2,000 page views a month. "We're getting more done with less money," he says.
For small businesses looking to cut costs and increase efficiency, online training classes and videos are becoming more available -- and more attractive. Some businesses are turning to specialists in training, such as EJ4. Meanwhile, inexpensive or free management and training courses also are available on Web sites of some big companies, such as Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., and Small Business Development Centers, which are funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration in Washington.
On-demand e-learning, delivered over the Web or by audio or videodisc, has become the second most popular approach to learning and training for small businesses, after print-based materials, says Steven S. Wexler, director of research and emerging technologies for the eLearning Guild, a Santa Rosa, Calif., trade group. About a third of its 17,000 U.S.-based members are small businesses that use some form of online training. In comparing the learning approaches of large and small businesses, people in smaller organizations are engaging more in "cutting-edge" training with online games, private Wikipedia-type sites, blogs and podcasts, he says.
Ken Cooper, a partner at EJ4, says companies typically can obtain unlimited online training from his firm for $100 for each employee per year. The typical online course, he says, averages 10 minutes and includes as many as 70 slides with text, animation and video making it visually appealing. Classes can be downloaded for use in video iPods or hand-held sales devices.
Some online-training providers also customize classes. EJ4, for example, can film a company's own managers or other staff teaching a specific course.
Such training galvanized Golden Harvest workers, Mr. Dam says. The company set records in new customer acquisitions and new dealer recruitments. In 2005, the first full year of the online training, the company's revenue jumped 14%, or about $30 million. (Mr. Dam declined to disclose total annual sales.) The firm was recently acquired by Swiss agribusiness Syngenta AG.
Microsoft offers officeliveseminars.com, a small-business resource with free, downloadable online seminars on topics like time management, guerrilla marketing, franchising and sales. The site is separate from Microsoft's officelive.com, where the company markets and sells Microsoft products and business services.
In March, H-P expanded its online offerings for small businesses with free online classes, how-to guides, business templates and success-story videos. H-P's Learning Center for Small and Medium Business is available to anyone. (Go to http://www.hp.com/sbso/ and click on "online classes" at the bottom of the page.)
The classes aren't limited to H-P products; they also teach how to use other companies' software tools, including Microsoft Access and Publisher, Adobe Acrobat and CorelDraw. Other topics include networking and data management, marketing materials and computer skills. A "Business Toolbox," containing how-to guides on computing, networking and other technology, can also be found at H-P's Small Business Connection Web site, www.hp.com/go/sbc.
'To the Point'
Bob Perry, who owns a cemetery-mapping business called topoGraphix in Hudson, N.H., has been taking the H-P online classes periodically for nearly three years, and says it has been a huge help for him.
Mr. Perry, who is dyslexic, has been downloading classes on the CorelDraw software program to help him learn to develop more mapping techniques for his clients. His business is converting paper-based cemetery maps into digital versions and conducting on-site surveys using a Global Positioning System, satellite imaging and ground-penetrating radar to find unmarked graves.
"The programs are very simplified, direct and to the point," says Mr. Perry, who used to take some courses like Excel at a local college but found it too time-consuming.
Write to Raymund Flandez at firstname.lastname@example.org