There is an interesting though little-noticed correlation between corporate marketing and the educational programs used in many corporations. When the economy goes south, as it certainly has the past few years, many traditional companies scale back — and often scale back significantly — on their marketing and educational programs.

While this is quite common, it goes against the advice of many business experts and lessons learned from history. For instance, it is well documented that while Post Cereals, the dominant cereal company in the U.S. before the Great Depression, scaled back on its marketing efforts, its major competitor but much smaller rival, Kellogg’s, increased its marketing. Since then, Kellogg’s has always been the leading cereal manufacturer in the U.S., and Post has always been in the second position.

While the value of education in down economic times has not been studied as comprehensively as the Post/Kellogg’s example just mentioned, we do know that when companies are unsure of economic directions, they do scale back on these programs and many cut them out altogether. Yet, according to Stephen Burnett, associate dean of executive education with the Kellogg School of Management, “[When companies stop investing] in education and management training, it simply makes the situation worse.”

Kim Taylor-Thompson, a New York University professor, agrees with Burnett but takes this a step further. “These programs are needed even more in difficult times to [help staff and executives] develop new capabilities — the capabilities they will need to deal with tough economic times and create new opportunities that otherwise might not happen.”

While implementing educational programs used to mean bringing in a training crew or investing in classes off-site, today the push is more and more toward e-learning. These training programs are not new, but they are growing in acceptance among many companies and in some industries have become the standard way corporate instruction is provided.

However, as mentioned, some organizations are moving away from educational programs altogether, which could prove a big mistake. To help avoid that mistake, it’s essential to explore these e-learning programs in more detail, to understand what they are and how they can help an organization, its staff, and potentially the bottom line.

An e-learning history lesson

According to Wikipedia, electronic learning, better known as e-learning, means “the student and the teacher use online technology to interact and participate” in a learning program. When we think of e-learning today, we often think of taking classes of some sort on a computer, a tablet or similar device. However, the first e-learning courses actually date back to World War II, when there was a massive need to train troops quickly and reliably, ensuring all received the same education.

This was initially accomplished by using films. However, by the mid-1940s, this was expanded so that workbooks and other methodologies to test students accompanied the films. Testing, as we will discuss later, is a crucial part of any e-learning program because it provides a way to determine whether the student is actually learning the material.

Films, videos and testing procedures were educational mainstays well into the 1970s. These were often referred to as self-paced or self-directed learning methods because they allowed the student to use the system at his or her own discretion.

Then the personal computer was introduced, which allowed for an entirely new and expanded way to teach a variety of subjects using CD-ROMs, DVDs and software programs. This was advanced ever further, and quite dramatically, as the Internet took hold. Now teachers could both present information, often available to students at any time, and test their learning comprehension through one system.

Some computer-based e-learning programs required students to use the system at specific times, but today most are readily available whenever the student wants to use them. Further, online e-learning programs now also allow learners and instructors to interact with each other with online chats, message boards, questions and answers — all helping to replicate the classroom environment but on a computer-type device.

E-learning advantages

There are many advantages to e-learning programs and at the top of the list are flexibility and convenience. As an example, some managers have learned about Green cleaning and how to implement a Green cleaning strategy in their facilities using an e-learning program. Instead of attending a class at a specific time or location, these managers are able to access the information on their own schedule, whether that is at 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the morning, and work through it at their own pace.

Other advantages include the following:

It is cost-effective: Not only do many e-learning programs cost less than hiring trainers to come to a facility and train workers, but they also allow workers to take the courses at times that have the least impact on their work. This is especially important if those taking the courses are in sales.

Everyone is on the same page: An e-learning program ensures that everyone is receiving the same training and education; this can help improve efficiencies for an organization.

Learning and retention are increased: Many students find one of the things they like best about an e-learning program is the ability to retake the class; for instance, some programs will not allow a student to move on to the next class or level until they have passed the test for the current program. Not only does taking the class again help improve learning, but retention is typically enhanced as well.

Creating a competitive advantage: Many companies have found that e-learning programs have given their workers additional skills, such as in safety work or in sales, which often give them an advantage over their competitors.

E-learning drawbacks

While it has its plusses, e-learning also has its drawbacks. First of all, not all programs are alike. And some instructors are very effective in a classroom setting but less so in an e-learning setting. Fortunately, a number of excellent e-learning programs are available with instructors who know the medium and how to make it most effective.

However, often the big challenge when using an e-learning program is not the program or the instructor — but the student. E-learning does take a great deal of self-motivation. While its availability and convenience are welcomed, the student must still participate in order to learn the material. Some organizations deal with this challenge by designating a specific time during the business day for the student to take the course.

Another issue is resistance. Learning online can be a cultural change for all workers but even more so for older workers, who are accustomed to the traditional classroom setting, reading textbooks, and the like. Often referred to as cultural resistance, this can be overcome by how well the company “sells” the e-learning program to its staff. For instance, if it is stressed that the programs are easy to use, are available 24 hours a day, and will teach new skills, processes and practices that are both helpful to students in their own work and important to new company strategies, the resistance is often overcome.

Another way to address the issues of motivation and resistance is to make sure students are aware of the benefits an active e-learning program can offer. For instance, through our own e-learning program working with distributors of Green janitorial chemicals and related cleaning tools, we have found the following:

 Those passionately or very involved in the programs saw a 45-percent increase in sales.

 Passive participants, those taking the courses but not highly motivated, saw a 2-percent increase in sales.

 Those with no interest or little or no participation saw sales decrease by 24 percent.*

Studies indicate that the use of e-learning programs is increasing in many companies, and with good reason. The expense is low and the benefits are high. But is e-learning right for your company? That depends.

Many programs are now available that are rich in educational possibilities for managers in scores of industries. However, as discussed earlier, it matters greatly how they are introduced to workers and how seriously students will use and access the programs. The great turning point is often when students see their peers succeed as a result of e-learning. That’s often when just about everyone in a company wants to jump on the e-learning bandwagon.