Ok, class, here’s today’s pop quiz. Imagine you are interviewing yourself for the position of head of a business. Would you hire you? This is an essay question. You may begin.
I think I’d have aced the first part of the interview. I knew my trade when I quit my day job and went into business for myself as a writer and Web site developer. I had almost a decade of experience in the business, a Rolodex full of contacts, and a lot of regular work lined up. But the tough-cop questions that interviewers use to sort out the sheep from the goats would have consigned me to the goat pile in minutes. How much did I know about bookkeeping? Marketing? Growing a business? Human resources?
As a corporate hireling, I had always thrown these tasks into the “not my department” out-box. Especially the bit about human resources — as I proved by offering myself the positions of CEO, human resources director, president, janitor, and only employee of my fledgling company. An HR professional would have known better than to give that many duties to one person. I had two choices: I’d have to learn the skills of running a business myself, or I could hire people to do these jobs for me. My single inherited business skill — watching the cash flow like a hawk — decided the issue. Fifteen years after graduating with my liberal arts degree, I’d have to hit the books again to develop more business know-how.
But I was too busy running my start-up to schlepp to school. So I decided to leverage my investment in a computer and an Internet service provider by conducting my studies via e-mail and the Web.
As a starting point, I checked out Yahoo’s business courses links (www.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/ Courses/). Distance learning via modem seems to be catching on. At Yahoo, I located plenty of starting points, including major universities such as the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and at Lowell, as well as the University of California at Berkeley’s Extension program.
Bright College Daze I found that the Dartmouth and Lowell campus’s CyberEd courses translate the typical roster of assignments, tutorials, and lectures into Internet equivalents. For instance, class discussions take place via mailing lists, message forums, and online chat sessions. Both schools offered me a number of subjects that are typical business weak spots, including accounting, business information systems, finance, human resources management, and entire MBA programs. The prices were right too: Three-credit graduate-level courses were $483. Noncredit courses cost $135 each. But timing is everything when you’re signing up for a course, and I had missed the boat for this session by a few days. So I put my name down for e-mail notification during the sign-up period for the courses that I was interested in and moved on.
Berkeley Extension conducts courses in marketing, business administration, and international business via e-mail, fax, and interactive chat on America Online. Again, many of the courses are accredited, and a student can earn up to three units per semester (at a cost hovering between $300 and $400, depending on the duration of the course). The textbooks for the course can add about $100 to each. Once again, however, I managed to miss the registration period.
Learn From the Chamber If your business doesn’t afford you time to fit in with university semester schedules, what can you do? Turn to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for one thin The U.S. Chamber’s Small Business Institute has teamed up with the University of Wisconsin-Extension to provide a certified self-study program in small-business management. The flexible schedule was appealing, as were the series of seven $20 books that covered such handy topics as creating legal structures for a business, setting up financial goals, customer service, and marketing strategies.
The SBI also broadcasts pricier two-hour seminars via satellite TV, featuring such famous speakers as Dr. Ken Blanchard (the author of The One-Minute Manager). His lecture, Mission Possible: Becoming a World-Class Organization While There’s Still Time, had been running for a week before I found the site; apparently, time had run out for my world-class aspirations.
By now, I was wondering whether formal training online would ever fit my schedule. So I hopped over to a site called @Brint. This site is full of intelligent links to useful articles elsewhere on the Web — all smartly categorized. Best of all, the site is littered with caveat emptor warnings, letting you know that some of the articles are grounded in theories that aren’t necessarily respected. Why should you be cautious, for example, of Williamson’s Transaction Cost Economics? (I didn’t know either, but Old Brint quotes a couple of articles undermining the theory and practicality of the approach — the kind of context that most of the Web sorely lacks.)
But while it’s hard to fault the massive resources that @Brint collects, they are, academically speaking, recommended reading and not an education by themselves. They are wide-ranging and handy, but they are more like a visit to a library than a stint in the classroom.
The Virtual University
The Altos Education Network is a different case altogether. An entirely Web-based teaching facility, Altos provides self-paced courses in subjects as diverse as raising capital, avoiding sexual harassment claims, the basics of finance, starting a business, and franchising. Moderately priced (between $50 and $300) compared to formal university courses, Altos’s offerings have one thing I hadn’t found anywhere else on the Web — a completely free course on entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship A-to-Z consists mainly of a lecture notes-style outline, but it also provides links to well-rounded articles on key topics and interactive questionnaires designed to see how your personality matches entrepreneurial styles. (Was I nervous about learning about myself through HTML? Sure… but I discovered, through taking the questionnaire, that I’m a risk-taker.)
To dig into the subject further, Altos’s Entrepreneur Support Group meets in a posting forum every Tuesday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Pacific time. After registering at the site, I brought my questions, answers, and other issues to the forum. Like any public forum, I found it to be a mixed bag of interesting and irrelevant information — but that’s no different from any classroom (except for the online class’s higher proportion of interesting material, that is).
The best news of all, Entrepreneurship A-to-Z had no homework assignments. Naturally, the fee-based courses have a homework component, but I hadn’t committed to one of them yet.
One thing I’ve discovered by being in business for myself (and from Altos’s entrepreneurship course) is the importance of personal contact. So maybe, I argued, it would be better to find a training course or seminar that I could attend in person. As expected, there’s a Web site dedicated to finding just such courses — the Training and Seminar Locators, or TASL.
I picked keywords from my areas of ignorance and pumped them into TASL’s search form. Among the videotapes and stand-up lectures in hotel conference rooms were several references to computer-based training. These included a reference to Altos Education Network. Ever get the impression the Internet is trying to tell you something?