SAN MATEO (06/05/2000) - A funny thing about the Internet is that every time you come up with a way to use it to automate a complex process, users turn around and tell you what a lousy process it is. So it goes with online training. The promise is sweet: cheaper, quicker, targeted skills training that students can access anytime and anywhere from their desktop computers. But the reality is that today's online training endeavors are falling short of the mark; sometimes material is outdated or dull, and corporate culture barriers aren't always addressed.
Because expectations for Web-based training have been high, many companies were hoping for a quick technical fix for the endemic problem of educating and training their IT workers. But it takes more than technology to solve core training issues.
"The issues of accountability, job responsibility, and training outcomes have always been critical, but corporations have been pretty good at ignoring them for 20 years," says Bob Mosher, assistant executive director of the Information Technology Training Association (ITTA), in Austin, Texas. "But these are coming to the forefront now."
Many analysts are still bullish that the Internet is the right mechanism for delivering educational materials to the workplace. International Data Corp. predicts the corporate e-learning market will top $7 billion in 2002. But today, many employees aren't showing up for classes because they don't feel they can spare the time. Corporate training managers are struggling to help their organizations understand that training through any channel is valuable and should be encouraged and integrated into the overall corporate culture.
"The technical part is easy; it's the attitudes and culture that are hard," says Tony Jeannette, corporate training specialist at American Family Insurance, in Madison, Wisconsin. "You can write a beautiful program, but it doesn't count if nobody uses it."
American Family has an IT division of 1,000 people to support 3,000 claims agents, 6,000 contract agents, and 3,000 administrative staff members. So far, the company has tried using the Internet to train its personnel; it has a huge Web-based training effort. But getting managers to cooperate has been difficult in large part because they have not bought in to the concept.
"They believe if it's not classroom, it's not kosher," Jeannette says. "They'll allot two days of time and travel money for a classroom-based course, but they won't let employees have time to work on Web-based training at their desk or let phones or mail go unanswered."
Getting buy-in from line managers is crucial, agrees Penny Gelb, IT training manager at Genuity Inc. (formerly GTE Internetworking), which has 400 IT workers at its Cambridge, Massachusetts-based headquarters and others spread across the globe. Managers have to free up workers to learn, whether it's at an off-site seminar, a college course, or an online training session. Online training requires the same consideration as traditional classroom-based training: Employees have to balance their workloads, justify their need for additional training to managers, and provide some evidence that they have learned and retained valuable information. The difference is that students are at the office, staring at their PCs and typing information just as if they were working instead of learning.
"We have Learning in Progress signs people put up on their desks, because many people don't have an office door to close," Gelb says.
Persistent technology issues and boring curriculum have dampened corporate enthusiasm for online training and exacerbated corporate buy-in challenges.
Early implementations of Web-based training failed to meet speed and ease-of-use expectations. Synchronous technologies such as real-time video and/or audio streaming are still not ready for prime time, and bandwidth and security issues remain a hassle. Often, a company's internal network can handle several dozen employees downloading large files, but when those same workers get online to participate in real-time multimedia presentations, network performance takes a big hit.
"When those issues arise, the projects can stumble," ITTA's Mosher says. "When it becomes apparent [that] you're paying all this for a streaming PowerPoint demonstration, the disillusionment sets in pretty rapidly."
Another problem is that Web-based training material is often pulled from traditional teaching tools, such as slide presentations or videos, that were meant to accompany a lecture. Taking those teaching tools out of context and sticking them on the Web does not make for engaging, interactive content.
"Training departments and vendors had all this material built around a classroom model, so the most natural thing to do was to port all that over," Mosher explains. "Take away the visual stimulus and the group dynamics, and you have people sitting in a cubicle staring at a monitor and flipping through static pages. They're bored out of their minds."
As the market develops for online training, training companies are confident that they can deliver the sorts of curriculum that corporate training departments are waiting for.
"The training industry is being run by the vendors right now, when really the training departments need to set the direction," says Jennifer Hoffman, president of InSync Training Synergy, a consultancy in Essex, Connecticut. She advises companies that are evaluating online training to do extensive needs analysis before talking to vendors and not to get sidetracked by fancy product features. "What happens is [companies] see a demo and it's slick and great to watch, and it has an interactive whiteboard, so all of a sudden they're asking what they can do with an interactive whiteboard."
What you see in a product demonstration is not necessarily what you get when you sign on for online training services, either. The market is going through a many-phase adoption curve typical of any new technology, and it can leave early adopters bitterly disappointed, one observer says.
"At first people love the concept, but then they see the products and say, 'yuck,'" says Jana Harrer, dean of the corporate university at Born Information Services Inc., an IT consultancy based in Waycata, Minnesota. "Then they enter the trough of despair. But eventually it levels off when their expectations match the experiences of users. That's where we are with e-learning: past the trough and leveling off."
The technology and the services may not be leveling off fast enough for students. Some Born IT consultants complain the course material is static and obsolete. Harrer is exploring new services that can deliver training material on hot topics such as portals and exchanges. "We want Web-based training that takes more advantage of the Web's strengths," Harrer says.
Although online training products could include mechanisms to monitor how people use them, few vendors accommodate user preferences or solicit user comments in their products. Having those metrics could help company managers gather information about the effectiveness of each course and make strategic decisions about how and when to use online training products.
"The biggest flaw with Web-based training material is that it doesn't take into account the corporate setting in which it will be used," says Ken Estabrook, supervisor of training and development at The John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, in Laurel, Maryland. "The vendors haven't talked to training managers, so their products don't have any qualitative assessment built in that will help justify the cost."
Estabrook started looking into Web-based training in 1996 as a way to offer a wide variety of fairly complex IT courses internally. Last year the lab had 6,000 instances of personnel accessing IT training material from its intranet, but 5,000 of those were downloaded to people's hard drives, and the software had no means of tracking whether those people used the material or not.
"The vendor views a course as successful if it is 100 percent completed, yet that's not how people use it," Estabrook says. "The vast majority go in, find that little bit of information they're looking for, and get out."
Estabrook says it's difficult for him to justify spending six figures on Web-based training when he can't gather data about how it's being used. "They should just have a button that asks every time a person is about to quit: "Did you find what you were looking for?" If 98 percent of the time the answer was yes, and each access cost about $12, then it would show its value and approving it would be a no-brainer."
Few products on the market today have integrated administrative functions, and vendors aren't helping corporate training managers sell the concept internally to employees or executives. Nor does the software address resistance among line managers. "The programs are very learner-centric, but there's nothing built in that lets the manager establish objectives or that tells the manager the employee has these new skills that should be applied in the workplace," Estabrook adds.
Knowledge in a bottle
Computer-based courses appeal to workers who feel they don't have time to take classes, says Robert Vicek, program manager of the college of computing services at Lockheed-Martin's EIS University, in Denver. "This allows them to go into their cubicle three hours at a time, twice a week, and dial in to the Web and get an interactive lecture. They're quite satisfied with it."
Vicek is piloting a project to convert certain types of internal corporate meetings to synchronous distance-learning events.
"When a companywide process changes, we fly out representatives from each of our 110 sites who study [the situation] and then go back and share what they've learned. We want a way to provide better and consistent dissemination of that information," Vicek says.
Although Lockheed-Martin is a technology company, Vicek says his biggest challenge is in convincing managers that distance-learning technology is mature enough.
"Whenever you talk about some technology that's outside the bounds of what people are used to, they get that deer-in-the-headlights look," Vicek says. "I have to work to overcome that skepticism about whether it's going to work."
The right reasons
Many IT training executives see technology-based training as just another tool in their arsenal and a way to get employees the information they need when they need it. But some companies have jumped into e-learning for the wrong reasons, ITTA's Mosher says.
"If you ask IT trainers why they want to switch from instructor-led training, nine out of 10 will tell you Web-based training is cheaper. I saw a presentation by a vendor talking about the top five reasons to use their Web-based learning product, and not one of them had to do with learning," Mosher says.
For Web-based training to work, says InSync's Hoffman, it requires an internal partnership between many departments all committed to the idea that students will get more rather than less than they did from classroom training. And no one we spoke to for this article believes instructor-led training is going to go away. "This is just another delivery method, and it is not for everybody," says Genuity's Gelb. "The learner has to be very self-disciplined to make it work."
David Raths (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a free-lance writer based in Kailua, Hawaii.
The battle for network resources
As corporate training departments experiment with technology-based training products, they've started butting heads with their IT departments over who gets the IT resources to deploy projects first.
"There is a war going on between training and IT," says Jennifer Hoffman, president of InSync Training Synergy, a consulting firm in Essex, Connecticut.
"Training departments all of a sudden want to use all these new technologies even though they may not realize the implications to the IT infrastructure, and there is a lot of push-back from IT."
That's exactly what's happened at American Family Insurance, in Madison, Wisconsin, says Tony Jeannette, a corporate training specialist there. Until a few years ago, the company's training department had little contact with IT.
Now, the IT group is being asked to help design and implement a Web-based training solution, and the resources just aren't there.
"They are bombarded with 20 projects that involve more than 10,000 employees and they've got three people to help us," Jeannette says.
One of the biggest mistakes training departments make when they initiate a Web-based training project is not realizing how critical IT will be to their success, says Patti Shank, managing partner of Insight Ed, an Aurora, Colo.-based distance learning consulting group. Or they may realize it but find their IT department unable to support them due to a lack of resources.
Some organizations may succeed by having IT and training team up on IT training, Shank notes. But it's more likely that individuals in the two groups barely know each other or may have had turf wars in the past, and are not likely to work well together on this new, complex issue. So training may be tempted to go around IT and outsource the infrastructure needs to meet their objectives, Shank says.
"What this points to is the age-old problem of who training belongs to and how it will get done," Shank adds. "Unless it is a strategic and organizational imperative with adequate resources attached, it is close to worthless."
People at the executive level, Shank says, must start looking at new initiatives as part of the entire company, provide resources to support it, and create incentives for employees to work as a team.
InSync's Hoffman says that companies need to effectively create a middle position with a title such as "learning technologist" for someone who is a technologically savvy and conversant in training issues to broker agreements between human resources and IT departments.
"Training departments need these technologists, for instance, to update their Web pages," Hoffman says. "And it has to be somebody IT can trust because there are security and other network issues involved."
As American Family moves to a corporate university concept, it has added four IT staffers to a group of 30 people who have come together from different departments to develop training from a multimedia perspective. "They'll be instructional designers, but no longer a part of the IT division," Jeannette says.