February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Back to School

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“A class that might have run a full day before can now run half a day because you can play around with the material a little bit online before the course and do follow-up online,” he says. City Furniture, Hudson’s Bay and AMC all use some classroom training in addition to e-learning for a blended approach.

Costs for e-learning vary widely (see sidebar, this page), and the return on investment is sometimes difficult to identify, especially in the first few years when a company is incurring substantial expenses to set up a system and develop courses.

When City Furniture’s Janet Wincko was selling management on e-learning, she stayed away from squishy projections on increased sales or reduced turnover and stuck to the obvious. “Paying a dollar to an instructional designer is comparable to paying a dollar to an instructor,” she says. “But I have to pay the instructor every time he teaches a class, and I only have to pay the designer once.”

For Hudson’s Bay, direct return on its overall e-learning investment isn’t a primary concern, Hubbard says. Sales and management staff have to be trained one way or another, and his most important metric is successful course completions (defined as not only being exposed to the course, but passing the post-course test with an 80% score or better). Nonetheless, he can point to cases where introducing a course on a specific product-for example, digital cameras-has resulted in increased sales. “Associates are much more likely to sell something when they’re knowledgeable about the product.”

In general, benefits from e-learning are significant-especially when viewed enterprisewide, some experts say.

“It’s hard to measure what you get back from having sales associates who can actually assist customers,” says LakeWest Group’s Gupta. “But many corporate initiatives fail because the execution doesn’t happen at the store level.”

Elizabeth Gardner is a Riverside, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

Systems, content and costs

E-learning comprises two main elements: learning management systems and content.

A learning management system is the platform that delivers courses, keeps track of which employee has taken which course, and often interfaces with a retailer’s human resources system. A learning management system also can serve as a repository for employee manuals, FAQs and other frequently referenced items formerly found-or lost-in three-ring binders.

Companies can buy a turnkey system and install and run it in house, usually with vendor support, or have it hosted by a vendor and pay a per-seat license fee per year. Among many others, both Learn.com Inc. and GeoLearning Inc. offer the latter. City Furniture uses a learning management system from Learn.com. Hudson’s Bay Co. and AMC Theatres use the GeoLearning platform. Vendors say the cost-for either a turnkey or hosted solution-can vary from the low five figures to $1 million or more per year, depending on the number of learners, the number and complexity of courses, and how many functions a retailer wants.

With content there are three basic options: have a learning management system vendor develop courses in collaboration with a company’s in-house experts, engage a courseware developer, or handle it in house, using either the learning management system vendor’s templates or commercial courseware development software, which runs around $2,000. Some available courseware packages include Coursemaker Studio, Rapid Intake, Fantasia, Macromedia Breeze and Lectura.

Hiring a courseware developer can run up to $40,000 for an hour’s worth of material with a medium amount of interactivity, says Angela Vazquez, director of instructional design at AMC Theatres. She develops all of AMC’s courses using Lectura.

Hudson’s Bay and City Furniture also do in-house development. Hudson’s Bay supplements its self-developed material with prepackaged courses on topics such as employment law or computer programming, where the content doesn’t need to be customized to the company and may be needed by only a handful of employees.

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