Two years ago, Dealer.com was at a crossroads. The $50 million company, which designs and manages websites for car dealers, was adding employees so fast it couldn't keep up training them. 

The solution? UFuel, a comprehensive online employee learning system Dealer.com invested 14 months in developing and implementing. "We realized we had a lot of information employees needed to learn and we just weren't going to be able to deliver it in a timely manner with day-to-day classroom training," says Director of Digital Marketing Matt Murray. "We had to have an agile enough system to support employee growth."

UFuel offers almost 100 different elective courses, ranging from Microsoft Office training to business skills. But if you're just considering implementing an online employee training, chances are you're not ready to dive into a 14-month project like Dealer.com — yet. The good news is that online training comes in a few different flavors, depending on what you need, who you're trying to reach, and how much you're willing to invest.

Follow these tips for learning how to train your employees in cyberspace.

Starting an Online Training Program: Have a Clear Goal

Making the switch from traditional in-person instructor led training to online training is no different from any other major organizational change. You need a clear purpose and idea of what you want to achieve out of the initiative.

For example, are you trying to reduce costly travel expenses of bringing together your remote team for training? Do you want to acquire an online system for training topics you typically wouldn't be able to devote the time and resources to otherwise, such as desktop applications and office safety? Or, do you want to see greater employee participation and satisfaction with training courses?

Bill Docherty, director of product management at SumTotal, a talent solutions provider based in Mountain View, California points out that, beyond cost savings, online training can also expand your ability to train and to tailor content to individual user. "In a traditional training session, I'm going to sit through the same eight-hour course independent of the knowledge each person had when we came in through the door," he says. 'With online, you can deliver material that is most relevant to each individual."

Even if you want to accomplish all of the above, if you have specifically and clearly defined those objectives, you can track and measure if you're meeting them and thus achieving a significant ROI on the switch to online employee training. 

"Just as with any big change, you really need to think about what you want to accomplish, as opposed to the bells and whistles of the different e-learning options out there," says Paul Schneider, who has a Ph.D. in educational psychology and is a senior product manager at Geolearning, a e-learning provider based in West Des Moines, Iowa. "If you know which type of training you want to deliver to which audience, or how much cost expenditure you want to reduce, then you're prepared before you starting talking to vendors."

Dig Deeper: Learn more about UFuel

Starting an Online Training Program: Decide on a Format

Hold on — you're not ready to start shopping just yet. Before choosing a vendor, you''ll want to consider the range of online training options out there, as well as how to implement them.

  • E-learning typically refers to a self-paced, computer-based learning suite in which the user usually interacts only with the computer. This might be a good place to start for training areas that simply require a basic awareness, or topics not specific to your company or industry, such as workplace safety. Many vendors sell off-the-shelf libraries with these types of courses. 
  • Virtual meetings and seminars are another way to train employees online and are particularly well-suited to situations that require interactivity with an expert leading the seminar, especially if you have many remote employees. (This feature can also be built into an e-learning system.) Applications like WebEx, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, and Live Meeting are also often cost effective methods to build in interactivity. One word of caution: figuring out audio (a conference call connection or VoIP, typically) can be a challenge, says Nick Ingeri, VP of Learning Technologies at the American Management Association, who uses the program for the AMA's live online seminars series on management training topics.  

  • Social learning or informal learning through collaboration amongst employees themselves, is another tool some companies are choosing to add to their online training systems. Kari Rairdon and Katie Craun, managers of learning development and education services at Fairfax, Virginia-based Datatel, a provider of technology and business services to higher education institutions, say their company uses "knowledge cafés," informal discussion boards where employees can input issues and questions and where subject matter experts can chime in.

  • A healthy mix of different formats — including old-fashioned human interaction — may be the best solution over time, even if you are starting small. 'Not everything is conducive to online training,' Docherty says. For a seminar that requires real world practice, you could easily and cost-efficiently extend the virtual course over a number of weeks, giving employees time between sessions to apply what they have learned and even receive feedback from a live instructor. One more word to the wise: "It's funny because not everything can be virtual – not everything suits itself to that, but there are a lot of ways to make things become virtual," Rairdon says. "You just have to put a lot of thought into it."


Starting an Online Training Program: Put Systems in Place

Once you've decided upon a format, the next step is to implement it and begin delivering content through it.

There are several ways to do that. Follow the example of Dealer.com, who licensed the software backbone from a third party vendor, but really developed most of the content in-house. Doing it that way you could save money on the software, but the significant investment will come in the form of man hours.

If you're not quite as tech-savvy or resourceful, you could instead leave the customization work up to the third party vendor, which could cost more. Of course, you can also simply purchase off-the-shelf, pre-built e-learning courses if you're not ready to fully commit to the online employee training platform.

When you are implementing a system, don't forget to check that the infrastructure at your company is prepared to handle it. At a retail location, Schneider points out, you may be less likely to have the bandwidth or internet access in the store, where you need to be training employees.

Perhaps the most crucial detail of the online learning system is ensuring that you have some sort of learning management system to monitor and track results. "You need to be able to know who did what course," Schneider says. "In most cases, you want to know if someone completed a specific course or what specific score they got."

One last often-overlooked detail is how you will tailor the online learning system to your unique company culture. For Dealer.com, the online system was a natural fit, says CEO Mark Bonfigli, because the average age of their workforce is about 30 years old, and they spend most of their time connected to the internet anyway. "You really need to spend a lot of time evaluating each module to make sure the system aligns with your company culture," Murray says. "If you're a casual, cool environment, then a training module with men in suits and ties probably isn't going to work. 

And although Dealer.com started out with a specific purpose in mind, the investment in UFuel has brought about somewhat unexpected benefits. "Most people think of training as a stodgy corporate term," Bonfigli says. "But we wanted to relate it to our employees as, 'Let's increase confidence, reduce your stress and provide increased health and wellness.' It's allowed us to focus on training people to approach work in an entirely different way that what they are accustomed to."

Dig Deeper: One Inc. 500 CEO on how to Take Advantage of Online Education for Employees