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Corporate class in cyberspace
Shobhana Subramanian
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May 04, 2005

Two years ago, a couple of software engineers at Patni Computers had to be urgently trained for a critical application assignment. With no skilled personnel in India, the only trainer Patni had available was in Singapore.

But with the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic raging there, there was no way he could wing his way down.

So what happened? Thanks to the e-learning systems installed by Patni, he could train the engineers in time so that they could complete the work for their client.

Patni isn't the only company that is taking recourse to e-learning. Today, e-learning encompasses all aspects of life, and is used for induction programmes, sales training or softskills, computer applications, medical courses for nurses and paramedics or to work towards a degree in law or history.

And if you thought that only IT firms were cashing in on their inherent technology strengths, think again -- manufacturing firms too are using e-learning tools for, yes, the shop floor.

At Mahindra & Mahindra, mechanics are being trained on an e-learning platform. Says Subho Ghoshal, head, knowledge management, at the Mumbai-based company: "Workers involved in assembly work, dismantling and maintenance are all being trained through the e-learning system.

"Besides, those who want to learn basic engineering processes can do so too." Adds Shovan Mukherjee, partner, business consulting, IBM: "The trend is definitely catching on, with more companies whether in the automobiles industry or in the petroleum industry installing learning systems."

Consultancy firms like Interlink use an e-learning system to train Food and Drug Administration inspectors online.

The Indian Electrical and Electronics Manufacturer's Association recently started on-line certificate and diploma courses for electrical engineering students; the examinations too are conducted online. And the Indian armed forces too could become e-learners very soon.

Says Sanjaya Sharma, chief executive, Tata Interactive Systems, one of the largest content producers for e-learning: "Trainers have accepted the use of the learning management system and have realised the savings in time and costs.

"Adds Mukherjee: "In any company, training costs are rarely well captured, but the savings than can be extracted from e-learning could be sizeable."

Mahindra BT, for instance, has developed its own software and content for its e-learning courses and is convinced that the money invested (it declines to divulge how much money it has put in) is well worth it.

Jayanti Patil, who heads the education services group, says the company is looking to spend even more to further develop the system.

A learning management system can cost anywhere between $10-15,000 and $ 5,00,000 and can be scaled up gradually. In other words, the user base can be increased as and when required.

Says Vasant Sanzgiri, senior vice president, human resources, Prudential ICICI [Get Quote] AMC: "Once the initial costs for the technology and developing courses are taken care of, the incremental costs are virtually zero. Besides, the model is scaleable so that even if the number of locations increases, it's easy to hook them up."

Initially Patni began with a 35-user network costing just Rs 15 lakh (Rs 1.5 million). Today, it spends Rs 50 lakh (Rs 5 million) for 135 users for training programmes across eight locations in India and overseas.

Ghoshal says M&M is examining packages to upgrade the e-learning platform and eventually plans to have training material for employees at all levels spanning divisions and functions.

Truly, the return on the investment can be handsome because getting sales people from all over the country in one place can be time consuming and expensive, as Sailesh Mehta, CEO, GurukulOnline Learning Solutions, explains.

Indeed, the days of organising training programmes for hundreds of employees, who have to travel to one place from across the country may be over.

Also, more than the costs, the more important benefit of e-learning is its virtually unlimited reach. And that's a boon for users. Says Patil: "The e-learning initiative has been particularly useful for engineers working overseas who always complained that they could not participate in any of the training programmes."

Moreover, not only can employees access programmes from any location, they can do so at their convenience. Says Sunil Kuwalekar, general manager, training, at Patni: "Since the engineers need to continue working on their assignments, they cannot spare more than a couple of hours a day at the most to participate in the training. In a virtual classroom, it is possible to stagger the course."

Moreover, the engineer can also access the file in which a training session that has taken place is recorded. So he can make full use of the discussions that have taken place though he cannot, of course, ask questions.

Besides, features such as a "Discussion Board"allow participants to have an online group discussion. M&M also uses the e-learning platform to some extent to teach its salespeople about the importance of IT security so that competitors do not get hold of crucial data.

What makes e-learning extremely effective is that the content and teaching style is the same across users.

Says Sanzgiri: "People join at different points in time and at different locations. We have to provide each one of them with a standardised orientation programme so that they have a good understanding of the organisation. E-learning is the best way to do this."

Life has become easier for trainers too. They can now track how the student is progressing , how much time a learner has spent on a particular subject and also conduct examinations on the system.

Says Patil: "The faculty finds the experience a challenging one. The trainers have much more time now and are able to concentrate more on the course content and technology."

Adds Kuwalekar: "With the system able to track a student's progress and his competency, appraisals have become easier."

While some companies like Mahindra BT have designed their own content, not all are able to do so and others prefer to have the content re-worked.

Tata Interactive Systems, which designs most of its content for overseas companies, has designed 160 learning modules for the University of Phoenix and has also set up the learning portal for McGraw Hill.

It believes that the approach and visual treatment are extremely important and that e-learning allows a consistent message to go through.

In other words, the teaching style remains the same for all students. "We make content highly interactive and attempt to customise the content since learners have different aptitude levels," says A. D.Lewis, head, technology, at Tata Interactive Systems.

Blended learning (which is a combination -- a teacher in a classroom complements his lecture with e-learning programmes) is also being used where necessary.

Says Mukherjee: "A combination of both static and dynamic content is being used by companies to make the training more effective." Tata Interactive Systems' modules are simulation based, game based or story based, depending on the assignment.

"A story can be a powerful way to teach," explains Lewis, adding, "The learner extracts a moral from the story and uses it to drive home the point. This method can be used for leadership courses."

It's difficult to gauge just how big the e-learning business in India is. Both companies that provide content and their clients decline to furnish any figures.

Tata Interactive Systems says that its turnover is about Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion), 90 per cent of it accounted for by overseas business. Most companies are also reluctant to provide figures on how much they save from resorting to e-learning.

With e-learning a relatively new concept in India, there is a shortage of instruction design courses in the country.

Tata Interactive Systems has sponsored a instruction design course together with the National Institute of Design at the Symbiosis Institute in Pune and has promised to hire all the toppers.

However, India with its huge pool of talented and technically qualified people is ideally poised to create content and technology for the e-learning business. "The awareness of this business is very low, but this is one of the emerging sectors," feels Sharma.

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