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Part One: IT training

Time to sharpen your IT skills? Add to ...

In this four-part series, we'll shed light on the world of IT training and whether a social media consultant is right for your business

Joe Campeau, who lectures at the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, has been keeping an eye on Internet-training schemes for quite some time. Some offer great values. Other operations, especially on the cut-rate side, merit a bit more caution.

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"I remember there was a training firm whose selling point was 'Learn all about the Internet, but without a computer,'" he says.

Those were the early days of the Internet. But even today, the plethora of training options that confront the would-be student are enough to give pause. Google ' technology training,' and the options explode in front of you: Institutions ranging from global universities to corporations to storefront operators to single-person consultants offer everything from basic training to professional certification.

For the small business looking to boost its ability to make the most of the IT world, where to begin?

At schools: There is no shortage of institutions that would like to welcome you back to the classroom, or at least a virtual approximation of one. However, not all are created equal: Private colleges jostle for attention with established names and smaller, unknown quantities.

Most colleges offer IT training as a staple; courses either come in the form of full-time enrolment or after-hours continuing education. Larger colleges, like George Brown in Toronto and Algonquin in Ottawa, offer a great deal of specificity in their course offerings. And recognized colleges offer the security of their reputation.

Schools can also be a resource for helping to decide on a training provider, public or private. When Barb Marcolin, a business professor at Ivey, was looking to set up employee training in her years in the private sector, she would tap schools she trusted as a starting point.

"We went to our local college and universities that had the graduates we would want to hire," she says. "Sometimes, they'll have a recommendation."

There's also a significant trade in private colleges and storefront operations. In the technology training world, a grain of salt is prescribed: These schools aren't always the first to receive the best tools or trainers, so it's prudent to get a solid recommendation first.

With software makers: Since many training needs relate to specific pieces of software, it often makes sense to go to the source. Increasingly, technology training for a given hardware or software product comes from that maker themselves.

Visit Adobe.com, for instance, and you'll find both tutorials and guidance on formal certification for products like Photoshop.

On the formal side of the fence, certifications have become an important career stepping-stone for IT professionals. Microsoft, in particular, offers a broad swath of industrial-strength certifications under its Microsoft Certified Professional program. However, with so many certifications floating about - and even more training institutions offering them - be sure to check with the vendor to make sure the certificate you're looking at is legitimate, and that the training provider is authorized to deliver it. And keep in mind the fact that certification is as much about accreditation as learning.

"Despite the economy clawing back, we still have tens of thousands of people trying to go from part time to full time in IT, trying to rack up these qualifications," says Tim Richardson, a business professor at Seneca College.

On your own: In the small-business world, the simplest option might be the best. Don't be afraid of DIY tech training: Most Internet and IT fundamentals are well within reach of anyone with a bit of time to study them - and the learning materials are all free, online.

"People are starting to figure this out on their own," says Mr. Campeau.

In fact, he says, small business owners might well be better served by letting themselves or their employees explore the training materials already at their disposal, before putting down money on learning elsewhere.

Online training tools come from all sides online: Software makers offer abundant free resources, but so do all kinds of third parties. YouTube is an excellent starting point for video instruction on applications. On the web-development side, venerable sites like www.w3schools.com have served as online texts for generations of developers.

This is doubly true for social media. Some "social media experts" can do excellent work, though others - caveat emptor! - are fonder of spouting buzzwords.

Ultimately, if Facebook truly required training, it wouldn't have 500 million users. The best way to learn how to use a technology like Facebook or Twitter is simply to use it yourself, until you have a sense of what works and what doesn't.

Better still, suggests Mr. Campeau, is to give both owners and employees the latitude to experiment with new ways of doing their jobs with technology.

"Talk to your employees, find out what they're doing, and let that guide it," he says.

"Let's not be restrictive about what they can and cannot do at work. Maybe experiment a little bit. Take a chance."

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series continues with a new post every Thursday for the next week. Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

 

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