OutStart app aims to make SAP learning easy

Scott Vinkemulder's job is essentially to make sure other people know how to do their jobs.

Two years ago, that task required a staff of 20 courseware developers and a printing budget of US$30,000. Now Vinkemulder gets the job done with a staff of five, including himself, and he hasn't had to print so much as a notecard in recent memory.

Vinkemulder heads up the training group at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase Inc., where he recently had to move 2,000 of the company's employees to the latest version of SAP. It was an accomplishment he achieved in record time, he said, using SoftSim 3.0, a training package from Boston-based OutStart Inc.

Vinkemulder said the company has in the past relied on printed materials and complex training programs to bring the office furniture maker's employees up to speed on new software and software changes. But he disliked using printed materials, which can quickly become outdated.

Although the Web allows greater flexibility, its advantages hinge on the ability to make changes and updates in real time. SoftSim addresses such problems, Vinkemulder said.

The training package works by allowing a user to record every action taken while using a target software package. So a user can activate SoftSim and then enter the application for which the training materials were prepared, OutStart's Peter Clayman said during a demonstration of SoftSim at the company's offices.

SoftSim allows actions to be edited where necessary. For instance, if a user types the word frog, SoftSim initially records each letter as a separate action. When preparing the training materials for distribution, typing the word frog could be reduced to a single activity.

Audio and text can also be added to give extra instructions where needed, Clayman said. For instance, a voice-over could say something like, "At this point type, the word frog."

After the materials are completed, they can then be presented to workers in a variety of ways. Users can be walked through a "show-me" mode, where SoftSim shows them every step required to complete a specific task. The training package also offers a self-test mode that records user actions. When the user is finished, SoftSim tells the user if he made mistakes, and if so, what was done wrong. The self-test mode allows companies to set minimum proficiency requirements for workers and then have a built-in method for testing them.

Vinkemulder said Steelcase has 70 Web-based SAP courses that can be updated whenever needed.

That, said IDC analyst Michael Brennan, is one of the big selling points of SoftSim. Companies can take older training materials and update them as new versions of software are released. That way, if a program is only partially updated, old training materials don't have to be completely discarded but can be easily updated to reflect the changes.

Vinkemulder said he has some SAP materials that are in Revision 11, and he has been able to do away with all printed material, saving the company $30,000.

Vinkemulder said the SoftSim product allowed Steelcase to set up a help table for employees that can determine which of some 25,000 possible transactions a user is making and match that to a step in the training materials. So if someone in the call center is trying to help a client and gets stuck, he can call up the training materials in real time and get an answer.

"It doesn't solve world hunger ... but it saves us a lot of time and money," Vinkemulder said.

All in all, Brennan said that SoftSim is a good tool for creating reusable content and helping users learn how to use a software application themselves. He suggested that it would be a useful tool for organizations that see a lot of changes to applications, especially as a result of government regulation.

SoftSim costs $10,000 per developer. For a deeper level of customer support, there is an additional 18 percent maintenance charge.

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