Credit: Philippe Beha

For Dina Urbansky, a development specialist at Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, RealPage’s OneSite property management system is crucial for her job. The system helps the company track occupancies, leases, and rent payments for the 35,000 apartments it owns or manages in 20 states, and Urbansky trains property managers to better understand the system. So when the Carrollton, Texas-based technology firm asked select clients to beta-test a new, in-depth online training module on payment processes, Urbansky was first in line. Via her Web browser, Urbansky delved into the module’s mini-lessons and narrated slide shows on check scanning, monitoring recurring payments, and accepting payments from a resident portal. “I actually completed the whole course during two lunch breaks,” Urbansky says. “But even though we’ve been on the system for over a year, there were things I picked up on that I hadn’t known about before.”

One valuable takeaway for Urbansky was learning how to quickly reconcile Forest City’s bank statement with its electronic books, through a tutorial on batch I.D. numbers. Now, she says she can easily match individual payments collected at her properties to the actual numbers that show up in Forest City’s account. And best of all? She never had to fly to Dallas.

Urbansky’s book-keeping epiphany is part of a broader trend. System providers and operators alike are increasingly using distance learning to train clients and internal staff, via on-demand, interactive Web tutorials such as the one Urbansky completed or live online call-in sessions led by a remote trainer.

From providers such as RealPage, which offers more than 90 online courses that are accessed 85,000 times annually, to owners like Denver-based REIT UDR, where all 1,305 employees receive training via the Web, distance learning is becoming de rigueur.

From a Distance

Like many technologies, distance learning tools have become easier to use. Just as higher processing speeds and broadband Internet access have allowed video to become ubiquitous on the Web, distance training modules run more smoothly—and have fewer kinks—today.

While software providers often have their own distance training content available over the Web, many multifamily firms, including UDR and Archstone, also use Web-based learning management tools in-house, filled with their own content, to train staff.

“This stuff has been evolving for more than a decade, so it’s not brand-new anymore,” says Sanjay Dholakia, senior vice president at Mountain View, Calif.-based SumTotal, one of the largest learning management providers in the country, whose tools allow companies to upload SumTotal’s pre-developed content, such as company-specific, in-house training packages or off-the-shelf modules from third-party providers. “It’s proven, mature, and advanced.”

That makes distance training a no-brainer. With travel costs constantly rising, distance learning also helps companies save money, while keeping employees at their desks. In fact, distance learning can be carried out for as little as 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of sending staff to on-site training, says Vanessa Pagan, founder of Gainesville, Fla.-based Case Whitney, a distance training consultant.

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Yardi Systems says dramatic savings can still offer comparable training experience for Web-savvy staffs. “On average, it costs $6,000 for our clients to send someone to one of our two-day, on-site classes,” says Patty Evans, training specialist at Yardi. “Taking that same class online costs $75.”

Make it Stick

To make distance learning stick, you’ve got to have fresh, expert-generated programming that is applicable and interactive for your audience.

For instance, when UDR wants to train employees on a specific aspect of the firm’s management philosophy, it identifies an in-house subject matter expert to create content for that lesson, whether via a PowerPoint presentation, a WebEx demo, or a video stream. Then, it works with Calgary-based Gemini Performance Solutions, which provides UDR’s learning management system, to program content into Gemini’s application and host it on UDR’s intranet.

How you structure content is important, too. For on-demand learning modules, it’s important to query students periodically during training by using a pop-up quiz or wizard. Also, make your lessons short and snappy, not long and drawn out. RealPage’s OneSite modules, for instance, are as short as 5 minutes, and there’s a quiz at the end of each.

For live distance training, make sure the allotted time is convenient for all time zones, and limit class sizes, just as you would in-person sessions. “We try to limit our class size to 10 people at a time,” says Todd Marshburn, director of client services at Oakland, Calif.-based multifamily software firm PropertyBridge, which provides free online training to its clients.

This doesn’t mean there are no limitations to distance training. Teaching leasing professionals how to interact with prospects is best done in a classroom setting. Some tactile operational and maintenance tasks, such as replacing a thermostat, are also often better left learned in an on-the-job setting.

Still, distance learning can help supplement the live training you already use. In fact, “blended” programs, where distance training is paired with classroom sessions, are regarded as the best practice today.

“We definitely have a blended approach to all of our learning,” attests Julie Reed, vice president of national training at Englewood, Colo.-based Archstone, which owns 70,000 units nationally. “We have live trainers in most markets, and they’re supported through online learning initiatives and performance support management tools.”

This article was first published in Multifamily Executive in December 2008.

Distance Do’s

Make distance learning work for you.

1. Go long, save big. Distance learning can cost just 10 percent to 20 percent of on-site training, says Vanessa Pagan, founder of Gainesville, Fla.-based Case Whitney, a distance training consultant.

2. Content is king. Create the best content for your staff by tapping your in-house experts. Pick your topics carefully. Tactile lessons, such as fixing a faucet, are best done in person.

3. Blend for success. Consider creating a blended program, where on-site classes are supplemented by distance modules for maximum benefit to the student.