Being there, but better

Small businesses that need to watch every dollar they spend are turning to Webinars – interactive Internet-based meetings – as a cost effective alternative to traditional in-person employee training session.

Previously associated with corporate organizations, online training has moved down market in recent years and now offer attractive savings to SMBs as well, according to training experts and technology professionals.

“One of the toughest hurdles for SMBs used to be price. Online training was linked to big businesses and expensive prices,” according to Allison Kohn, public relations manager of the online division for Citrix Systems Inc., based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With a GoToWebinar package offered by Citrix, SMBs can conduct unlimited Webinars for as low as US$79 a month on an annual plan, said Kohn.

A Webinar is a type of Web conference wherein a presenter interacts in a live online meeting with an audience through text and voice. Participants either download an application into their computers or access the address of a meeting site to get connected. The Web-based applications use either Flash or Java technology.

Webinar tool vendors also offer a wide array of products that provide various features and flexibility for users.

For instance, aside from GoToWebinar which is designed for large audiences and online events, Citrix also offers: GoToMeeting, an interactive tool for 25 of less participants; and GoToAssist a remote technical support tool.

While traditional classroom based learning entails both instructor and students to be present in the same location, Webinars “erase the boundaries of geography,” said Adam Cole, director of specialty technology for McKesson Canada, a healthcare product and services provider.

Cole, who is also the national director for Toronto chapter of the Canadian Information Procession Society (CIPS), said Webinar sessions can also be archived for instant reply for participants who missed the meeting.

Eliminating the need for travel can be a the Webinar tools biggest advantage, according to Massimo Galati, director of product marketing for PROPHIX Software Inc., a financial and performance management software developer in Mississauga, Ont.

Galati’s medium-scale company used GoTo Meeting, GoToWebinar and GoToAssist for in-house and client-facing functions.

He said with the help of the online collaboration tools, Prophix is able to conduct as much as 95 per cent of its sales and marketing meetings via phone or Internet.

“Cutting travel expenses for our sales force represents as much as $50,000 to $75,000 a year in savings,” Galati said.

One huge advantage of face-to-face meetings is that presenters or instructors can gauge by facial expression or body language if students are picking up on the lesson at hand or a dosing off.

Online Webinar tools use survey and response tools to measure audience contact, said Beth Gilbert, product marketing manager of Citrix Online.

“By incorporating into the course material questions about the topics discussed, presenters can pretty much judge who was listening or how much of the lesson was retained by the students,” Gilbert said.

Citrix provides the connection clients still have to produce their own instructional materials. A company like Prophix spends about $18,000 a year for Webinar services covering 15 to 20 daily 30-seat sessions.

Basic business building sessions are also provided for free by Business Owner’s Toolkit, an SMB guide publisher that offers free Webinars sponsoired by companies such as Advanta, BizFillings and Pitney Bowes.

The Webinars, which will begin on October 22, cover such topics as: how to build a business plan, finding money to start a business, small business tax workshop, accounting basics and choosing a legal structure.

“These are topics which small entrepreneurs are not usually well-versed on but hardly have the time or budget to bone-up on,” said Troy Janisch, publisher of Business Owner’s Toolkit.

He said Webinars are an ideal tool to reach the harried business owner who often has to work eight to 12 hours a day and can’t afford to leave their business or have enough money to finance training programs.

Whether it’s free or low fee, Cole said Webinar savings could be “illusory” if an organization fails to engage the intended users. He said content should be engaging to keep the user’s interest.

Because Webinars can be accessed on a user’s desktop there is the risk that participants might not log on. “Discipline in key. Make sure users log for the specified lesson at the specified time.”

Cole recalled that at one time his firm had a top-notched Webinar product but users failed to log on “because they were too busy fighting the daily fires that took their time.”

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