The B School On Your Desk

How online management courses can accelerate a career climb

You need some training in corporate finance to get you ready for your next move up the ladder. But rather than travel to a business school's executive program for several weeks, you sit down at your computer and log on to, an online management education center.

In a trice, you're transported to a role-playing game: Asset Valuation. You're a new employee at Panhandle Energy, and your boss has asked you to figure out which of four different oil fields the company should invest in. He thinks you should use the net present value method to estimate profit potential. The chief financial officer prefers you to use the internal rate of return. Which is better? To find out, UNext takes you to learning modules with such names as "future value" and "perpetuities."

Welcome to the virtual classroom. Asset Valuation is the first in a series of five online courses that make up the corporate finance curriculum at's Cardean University. UNext is one of scores of companies trying to move executive education out of the classroom and on to the Net. It's difficult to comparison-shop these courses--most are only marketed to companies for in-house training sessions, at $500 per person and up. But if you are a corporate employee and have yet to take a course online, you're bound to do so sometime soon.

"ENGAGING." Companies, which pay for most of the management education in the U.S., spend more than half their training budgets on travel and housing just to get instructors and students in the same room. Then there's time off the job. In this whirlwind economy, enterprises are reluctant to give up an employee for a two- or three-week course. "It's time, not money, that's the precious commodity in business these days," says Jeff Oberlin, vice-president for course development and sourcing at Motorola University.

The best online courses are better than classroom teaching. You'll find them rich in multimedia and full of role-playing and real-life simulations. Look at a course in situational leadership offered by Ninth House Network, for example. You're running a mine during the California Gold Rush and need to fire your foreman. Much of the six-hour course is a movie with endings that differ depending on your decisions. If you make the wrong choice, your electronic mentor explains why and returns you to the appropriate decision point.

You can customize e-courses to your own learning style, calling up video clips of noted professors or industry pundits, if that's your wish, or dig out the details on your own if you're the quantitative type. You can skip parts you already know. Many courses require collaboration among students, which you can handle by phone or e-mail, for some assignments. If you get stumped, there's usually a live instructor to field your queries by e-mail.

If you have a choice, don't sell the online courses short. First Union offers both live and online versions of the situational leadership course, and sees a significantly higher retention level for the online version. "It's engaging," says John W. Parker, dean of the New Leadership college at the 32,000-employee financial-services company in Charlotte, N.C. "We have people months later talking about the characters as if they're characters from Seinfeld." The teaching is more consistent, too, he says. "There's no such thing as an instructor having a bad day." Ironically, corporate educators say, some of the worst online courses are from the top-ranked B-schools, which offer little more than text-on-screen versions of books and manuals, and live video streams of their classroom talking heads. The B-schools don't get it yet.

Online education is not for everyone. Some hands-on skills, such as presentation or communications proficiency, require attention to eye contact and body language, talents better mastered in face-to-face encounters. And tech-based learning has been slow to move up the corporate ladder, in part because older managers are less comfortable with computers and the Net than younger ones. But for execs who are comfortable with PCs and the Web, the virtual classroom offers learning, entertainment, and cost savings. That's one powerful combination.

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