One of the great properties of the Internet is that as an open network, it teaches people how to use itself.
If you're looking to upgrade the technology at a small business, you can find all the material you need online, often for a steal. But if you're looking for technology training, the question is whether you're best assembling the bits and pieces on your own, or finding a more organic way to learn.
The web is ripe with freely available courseware: At the university level, initiatives such as the Open University and Harvard Open Courses provide free training on a variety of subjects. Harvard and MIT have launched a new joint venture called EdX,which should deliver more tech-specific offerings, while Harvard's current roster leans more toward "abstract algebra" than helpful web-service tips.
A more practical source of training material comes from a less-lofty but no less-qualified source: software vendors. Big online companies such as Google, which offers online advertising training, and many of its smaller competitors are starting a slightly euphemistic "university" sector of their own.
There's a degree of vested interest here, since most of them promote the use of one proprietary tool or another, but the principles they teach are often broadly sound. For instance, HootSuite, a tool for managing social media platforms, offers HootSuite University, a collection of affordable webinars and educational videos to train people in social-media basics that are ultimately platform independent. And HubSpot, creators of an online marketing-analytics suite, promotes Inbound Marketing University, a collection of 18 webinars on online marketing.
(Other firms, such as Microsoft and Oracle, also offer expensive, full-bore certification programs in specialist topics including networking and database technology.)
"All that content is out there; it's just a question of putting it together," says Raymond Pirouz, who teaches new media marketing at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business. "It's a bit of a tall order, but it's possible."
Mr. Pirouz notes that managers may or may not have the time and inclination to cobble together a curriculum – and that senior managers might not be the best place to look for cutting-edge technology wisdom in the first place.
This being the case, there are two different kinds of training to consider: First, executive development (the kind offered, for instance, at business schools) can help get leaders on the right track before making decisions on technology development. Second, skills training, which Canadian colleges and universities have become increasingly adept at offering for full-time employees, can turn a training program into reality.
At colleges such as Toronto's Humber College, check for business-friendly formats like week-long intensives, webinars, eight-hour "boot camps," and part-time studies. Some colleges license webinar content from others at the moment, however, there's no single portal to check through, so would-be students must still search for offerings on a school-by-school basis.
But instead of sending employees out for training, a more progressive option might be to bring someone new in. Colleges often send students on paid internships as they are completing their studies. What students lack in experience, they can make up for in exposure to the latest technological practices. Training, then, becomes less of a formal, top-down certification process, and more of a knowledge-transfer process within an organization, from the bottom up.
(We'll be taking a look at ways to successfully learn from within a firm in the next installment of this series.)
From a practical perspective, internships offer businesses some welcome flexibility: If it works out, the student can be hired full-time. If not, the internship expires and the firm and student both move on.
Education, after all, takes many forms.