Think about the last time you purchased an automobile and how many choices were available. Narrowing those choices to a specific make and model with the right options and a reasonable price can be overwhelming. Investing in employee training can be a similarly daunting prospect.

You probably feel the way many managers and high-level decision makers feel about employee training. You're tempted to spend a lot of money on expensive training, just as you might be tempted to purchase a new General Motors Cadillac or Ford Lincoln: You'll probably get great quality, but are you spending more money than you need to? However, in this economy, something less expensive and more practical—something along the lines of a Honda Civic or Ford Escort—might make more sense.

Another consideration is the amount of customization you want. Will the same training be suitable for a large group of employees, or do you need to tailor solutions to individual needs? The degree of customization generally depends on the company. One company might find that all its workers are happy driving identical Toyota Camrys to work, but another firm might find that its employees prefer to make different choices that better suit their individual personalities.

As I discuss the various training methods available, think of me as a car salesman taking you through the lot and giving you advice while you kick the tires. I'll even go a step further and unveil some training methods that might not have occurred to you. In essence, I'll show you a couple of cars on the lot that most people might not notice but that are actually among the best buys. Let's begin by checking out the bargain lot.

Economy Training
The economic conditions of the past 2 years have squeezed many IT budgets. In the late 1990s, many companies were spending vast amounts of money on training because of the explosion of the Internet and the approach of Y2K. Since then, these same companies have had to significantly scale back their training expenditures, which has led many of them to search for more cost-effective ways to train their employees.

Computer-based training (CBT) is one of the most popular ways to train workers for less money. CBT students run a computer program that teaches material related to a certain subject or software application. Often, these courses are integrated with the application, giving students hands-on experience while they learn. CBT students can work through modules at their own pace. If material is difficult to understand, the student can repeat it as many times as necessary; if the material is easy, the student can breeze through it. Also, CBT lets students train when they have no other work waiting. For example, a Help desk employee might work through a CBT course module between calls. This efficient use of time can lead to increased productivity for an organization because workers don't need to be absent for days at a time to attend training.

Although CBT's cost and flexibility are two excellent benefits, CBT courses aren't for everyone. Many people learn better from a live instructor because they can ask questions about the material, which often isn't possible with CBT courses. Students that struggle with the material are usually better suited to situations in which they can receive individualized help. Another reason that people learn better from live teaching is that they're more accustomed to it. After all, almost everyone has spent years in the classroom.

A close cousin to CBT is Web-based training. WBT frees students from having to carry around a bunch of training CD-ROMs. However, the quality of WBT courses is often contingent on the speed of the student's Internet connection. Trying to take a WBT course over a slow Internet connection can be the educational equivalent of undergoing a root canal.

Although CBT and WBT courses are significantly cheaper than a typical classroom course, they can still be expensive—from several hundred to several thousand dollars per course. If a company has 1000 employees and each employee takes two courses a year at an average cost of $1000 each, the training expenditure climbs to $2 million. Large companies often purchase licenses that let their employees take a fixed or unlimited number of courses at a reduced cost. (For a list of vendors that offer CBT and WBT, see Table 1, page 41.)

Of course, when it comes to imparting knowledge inexpensively, few things compare with good old-fashioned books. For the cost of sending one employee to a typical $2000 Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) course, a company could purchase one hundred $20 books. Provided employees actually read the books, chances are good that they will learn more from the books. In addition, books remain valuable as references long after the training is finished, whereas employees rarely return to a CBT course to look up an answer.

Purchasing books for employees (or offering to reimburse them for the expense) is often a smart move but shouldn't be considered a replacement for true training. Most individuals need to gain hands-on experience, something that books can't offer. However, if you consider books a supplement to live training, CBT, or WBT, they can provide tremendous value.

Perhaps the greatest training bargain of all is the Internet. It's a well-known yet surprisingly unappreciated fact that much of the information you find in training materials or books is information you can also find for no charge on the Internet. However, you must make sure the source is creditable and that your employees can locate the information quickly and easily. As basic as it sounds, training your workers to use search engines or get answers to questions on message boards can boost productivity tremendously. Encouraging employees to use the Internet for continuing education is something all companies should seriously consider. (See the sidebar "Learning Through Discussion" for information about technical forums.)

Luxury Training
If you've cruised past the Geo Metros and the Ford Focuses of the training world and aren't impressed, perhaps you'll want to step up to the big leagues: classroom training. Although classroom training is relatively expensive, it can provide benefits that you can't get from less-expensive training methods. Employees are many companies' most valuable assets; making sure they get the right training makes a lot of sense, even if that training costs a company more in the short run. In the long run, increases in worker productivity and job satisfaction often justify the extra cost.

Why does classroom training have such a positive impact? For starters, human beings seem to learn better when the teachers are other human beings. An elementary or high school teacher would probably tell you the same thing. Despite the increased use of computers in the classroom, students thrive in an environment where they get human interaction. Remove that interaction, and students, often become listless and bored.

Having said that, note that the quality of the instructor can play a significant role in whether classroom training succeeds. A class with a top-notch instructor can be a truly satisfying educational experience; however, a class with an incompetent instructor can be a waste of time and money. Companies must thoroughly investigate the quality of the instructors who will train their employees. Not doing so would be the equivalent of buying a car without seeing or test driving it first: You might be lucky and get something good, but you might wind up with a lemon.

For classroom training, you have several options. Perhaps the most popular option is to take vendor-created courses at a vendor-approved training facility. An example of this type of course is Microsoft Course 2152: Implementing Microsoft Windows 2000 Professional and Server. Such a class typically lasts 5 full days and costs from $1500 to $3000 per student. Upon course completion (and perhaps some additional study), students will be prepared to take a certification exam that relates to the course material.

An alternative to traditional classroom training is an accelerated training class, known more commonly as a boot camp. Boot camps usually attempt to cover a large amount of material in a short amount of time. They accomplish this primarily through two methods. First, they assume a certain amount of familiarity with the material and don't spend much time on the basics. Second, they often don't teach the material in as much depth as a traditional course.

Boot camps are appealing because they cost less and take less time than traditional courses, but they're not for everyone. Boot camps often emphasize the material you need to know to pass the related certification exams (i.e., they concentrate on helping you pass exams rather than on true education). Also, because of the frenetic pace, students who aren't familiar with the material might feel lost or overwhelmed. If you have a sufficient amount of experience and are looking for help achieving a certification, boot camps might be the way to go. For other people, a traditional full-length course might be better.

Hidden Training Values
Most IT managers are familiar with the types of training I've outlined. However, several other types of training—not as widely known—are worth considering also. Two of these are custom training and mentor training.

Custom training. Custom training uses a student assessment approach, carefully assessing students' skills and gearing classes toward students' specific needs. For example, let's say a company wants to send 10 employees to a network administration training class. Instead of signing up the employees for a standard class, an employer can contract a training center to develop a customized class for those individuals. The training center assesses the students' skills and tailors the class to meet their needs.

Custom training can provide the quickest, most affordable way of imparting the skills that a group of employees lacks. With a custom class, you can eliminate materials that aren't relevant to your organization. Let's say that you want your employees to take a MOC course that contains a module about Novell NetWare integration. If your company doesn't use NetWare and has no plans to do so, you can omit that module and the instructor can use that time to delve deeper into subjects of particular interest to your employees. For example, if your IT personnel are struggling with controlling the desktop environment within the company, instructors might spend additional time on Microsoft Group Policy.

A custom class also lets your employees network with one another in a context that promotes improvement to your IT infrastructure. One employee might ask a question about a task that he or she is struggling with only to discover that someone else in the class has already developed a better method for performing that task. Incidents such as this are common in custom training classes. Because everyone works at the same organization, students are more likely to ask questions and talk openly about their working environment, which can have a positive impact on the training experience.

Although custom classes offer many advantages over traditional classroom training, they do have disadvantages. For example, setting up a custom class might be more of a hassle than simply sending workers to a public class. However, this need not be the case. In the past few years, a couple of changes have made arranging custom classes much easier. First, Microsoft and other major vendors have made their courseware more suitable for use in custom training. Omitting modules or adding different material to a standard class has never been easier. Second, most training providers have a lot more experience in setting up custom training classes than they did several years ago. A good training provider should make the process of customizing a training class virtually painless.

Custom training is certainly an option you'll want to consider, especially if you have many employees who need training in a given area. However, if the number of employees you need to train is small—say, three or four—custom training might not work as well because the cost of the class for so few students might be too great. In this situation, an alternative is mentor training.

Mentor training. With mentor training, an organization taps the knowledge of individuals within the company to provide the training. The benefits you can reap from this type of training can be huge. First, people outside your organization will probably never understand your company or your IT infrastructure as well as your employees do. Therefore, by having a coworker train your employees, you no longer need to set aside time for an outsider to become familiar with what happens within your company.

Second, by using an internal employee to perform the training, you can often save a significant amount of money. Contracting a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT) might cost from $1000 to $3000 per day, depending on the circumstances. If you replace that outside trainer with an internal one for a typical 5-day class, you can save $10,000 or more. However, don't forget to tally the cost of tying up the employee who will teach the class.

Third, the instructor usually benefits by teaching the class, so using an internal employee lets you maximize the benefits that training can bring. Instructors gain a better grasp of the material and often expand their knowledge through the questions students ask during class. Over time, this internal training benefit can prove substantial.

Although mentor training might appeal to some organizations, it won't work in all environments. Small companies often don't have employees with the expertise or knowledge that's necessary for this approach to be feasible. Individuals who are knowledgeable enough to teach might not have the skills to present the information effectively. Companies must screen teaching candidates to be certain that they possess adequate training and communication skills.

Choosing the Best Training Method for Your Organization
Choosing the best training method for your company can be time-consuming, but it's time well spent. For example, a company with 500 employees who receive an average of 80 hours of training a year must pay for a total of 40,000 hours of training annually. Devoting at least 100 hours to the process of choosing appropriate, cost-effective training for these individuals makes sense, yet most companies spend only a fraction of that time investigating training options. If you make choosing high-quality, relevant training a top priority for your organization, you're likely to see the benefits from that training increase dramatically. Don't be surprised to see productivity and job satisfaction soar as a direct result of more effective training.