In both cases, your task is complicated by the fact that the people who require training are dispersed around the country, or even around the globe. You have neither the time nor the resources to set up a seminar at each regional office, and the affected personnel complain that they can't afford to be away from their jobs to travel to a central location. What are your options?
In situations like these, many medium- to large-sized companies are turning to videoconferencing. No longer on the bleeding edge of technology, videoconferencing has entered the mainstream as an important two-way, live communications tool for business. It combines video cameras, phone lines and desktop computers to bring people together in a real-time, interactive environment. Although the primary function of videoconferencing at most companies is for general meetings, remote training—called distance learning by the folks in the industry—is an increasingly valuable application of the technology.
With distance learning, an economist at Yale can lecture marketing personnel in Dallas on how their industry might change over the next few years. Your HR staff could update the entire company on policy changes within a day or two. "Everyone hears the same message at the same time," says Lisa Craig, senior manager of applications marketing and distance learning at Danvers, Massachusetts-based PictureTel. Distance learning won't replace conventional training, but "works on enhancing the whole learning package," she says.
Distance learning delivers training benefits.
The two most commonly mentioned paybacks that distance learning delivers are increased productivity and the ability to train more people. The cost of an airplane ticket to a videoconference site is nothing when compared to the cost of, say, taking a key salesperson off the job for a couple of days. Branch office employees no longer get the short end of the stick on skill-enhancement training. "Videoconferencing allows you to reach people you couldn't otherwise reach," says Craig.
Providing branch-office employees the same training that people receive at corporate headquarters increases morale. At St. Paul, Minneapolis-based 3M Corporation, distance learning is a key tool for achieving "just-in-time learning," says John Humphrey, senior technical development manager at 3M. Essentially, this means that employees receive timely training on pertinent topics wherever they are—in the United States or overseas. "It's not a punishment to be located outside of St. Paul," says Humphrey. "[Distance learning] helps us become a more truly global company."
But cost savings are nothing to sneeze at. The R&D group at 3M recently conducted an eight-week class on imaging technology [digitization of images for storage, retrieval and analysis] that involved instructors from England, Italy and the United States. Without videoconferencing, the class would have cost $100,000, making it "unthinkable to do," says Humphrey. With videoconferencing, the cost was $13,000. Even more remarkable, the bill for three courses that Charlotte, North Carolina-based Royal Insurance conducts for its employees dropped by 98% from $1 million to $17,000.
Videoconferencing doesn't replace other forms of training. Both 3M and Royal Insurance carefully evaluate each training objective before determining which delivery method to use. In some cases, videoconferencing supplements other forms of training. For instance, when the allotted time ran out for a class taught by a live instructor for 3M in Europe, a follow-up videoconference wrapped up loose ends.
Videoconferencing comes in several flavors.
At the high end of the technology is satellite transmission, useful for addressing large audiences at many locations. However, the satellite link limits the amount of interaction possible between speaker and audience, often requiring the use of a special terminal or a separate telephone call. The facilitator or teacher cannot see his or her remote audiences.
At the low end is desktop videoconferencing, where employees' computers are equipped with video cameras and can transmit audio and video over the company network. Desktop videoconferencing's main drawback is lack of bandwidth. That is, only so many audio and video signals can travel across the network before dragging performance down to unacceptable levels. For this reason, desktop videoconferencing is best suited for one-to-one or one-to-few sessions, although you can use it for the one-way broadcast of lectures.
The cost of adding videoconferencing capability to a PC or Mac is dropping rapidly—perhaps to as low as a few hundred dollars by next year. Network bandwidth is increasing, too. It's conceivable that desktop computers in most large companies will be videoconference-ready by the end of the century. At that point, employees can get remote training at their own desks.
In a distance-learning setting, you want to be able to address one or more groups of employees from one location. The lecturer should be able to see each of his or her audiences, and individuals in each audience should be able to ask questions of the lecturer. The experience should be as similar to a live classroom as possible. Today, group videoconferencing comes closest to providing just that. Group videoconferencing consists of a single system at each location. That system is usually built around a standard desktop PC, either DOS/Windows or Macintosh-based. The unit likely resides on a mobile stand, so you can move it from room to room as needed, and is equipped with a camera, speakers, one or two large monitors [35 inches or more] and the videoconferencing software. The video and audio signals typically travel over inexpensive, high-speed "switched 56" telephone lines available almost everywhere in the United States. Higher speed lines such as ISDN are preferable, however, because they deliver better quality video and audio. "You can't do any type of overhead or PC transmission, nor any type of videotape, at the lower speeds," says Alice Sadler, manager of systems training at Royal Insurance. [Consequently, her company has opted for the more expensive ISDN connections.] For each site, you need one line going out to the facilitator's location and one line coming in.
Some group videoconferencing systems, such as Socrates from PictureTel, provide a special podium for the lecturer. This podium is designed to give the speaker more control over the creation and delivery of his or her material. Socrates, for example, lets the lecturer easily switch between a slide projector, VCR, or his or her own image. He or she can also queue material during the presentation and switch views of audiences. Sadler says that Socrates is what sold Royal Insurance on PictureTel. "It really makes the multi-point training a lot easier," she says.
Videoconferencing hardware prices are dropping. A group system starts at about $5,000, with top-of-the-line models costing $40,000 or more. Of course, to implement videoconferencing companywide you need to buy a system for each facility. You also need a switching network, but that's often already available at many companies.
User base is expanding rapidly.
The key players in group videoconferencing systems are PictureTel, Compression Labs, Inc. in San Jose, California, GPT/BT in Maidenhead, England, and VTEL in Austin, Texas. Market research firm Personal Technology Research in Waltham, Massachusetts, estimates that more than 12,500 group videoconferencing systems were shipped in 1994 alone, and that the total installed base is over 36,500. That base is growing at a rate of about 25% a year. Those numbers suggest that quite a few companies have the capability to develop distance-learning programs.
Many universities, consulting firms and other educational sources see videoconferencing as a great way to expand their business, and are actively peddling their distance-learning services to the corporate world. Big name institutions of higher learning such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton and Tulane all offer distance-learning courses. Boston University attributes a 40% gain in enrollment to videoconferencing.
Your options on which of these services you can use, however, are limited to those with compatible videoconferencing systems. That's the bad news. The good news is that the videoconferencing industry is working toward a common standard, referred to as H.320, which many systems currently support. With a common standard, "You don't have to worry about the hardware at the other end," says Craig. "You can reach anyone with a standard-compliant videoconferencing system and bring in experts wherever they reside."
Let's assume that you have a videoconferencing system in place at your company. How do you make the most of its distance learning potential? Training facilitators is an obvious place to start. Most of the videoconferencing vendors offer training for distance-learning facilitators at a nominal charge, focusing on both how to use the equipment and how to present material from a remote location.
VTEL practices what it preaches by using its videoconferencing systems extensively for in-house quality-control training, often involving multiple divisions. "The cross-functional view is very important to us," says John Mertz, VTEL's corporate quality manager. "We get it without the productivity loss of people traveling." Mertz claims that little is lost by not having a "live" facilitator, but acknowledges some subtle differences. "The biggest challenge a facilitator has to make is weaning himself away from flipcharts," which don't work well in a distance-learning format, he says.
PictureTel's Craig offers another distance-learning tip. "[Facilitators] have to build in personal time," she says. In any classroom, much learning occurs among students as they share their thoughts with each other. Remote teachers, especially those broadcasting with no audience at their location, sometimes forget to provide opportunities for students to interact. Active, flamboyant speakers don't play well over a videoconferencing system. Someone who's very physical and moves about will likely have a hard time staying in range of the camera. Humphrey recalls a 3M course called "No Bad Meetings," which had a "live wire" instructor. "It was quite a stretch for him to adapt to the video environment."
If your company doesn't yet have videoconferencing capability, you can make the pitch for it from the HR perspective. "Focus on the company's strategic objectives and see if training will help obtain them," says PictureTel's Craig. "Link learning to some of the bigger objectives, then pilot it with a specific course with an instructor who wants to do it," he says. Emphasize, too, that videoconferencing has many uses, such as facilitating meetings among branch managers, ad hoc problem solving, customer support or training.
VTEL, for instance, uses videoconferencing to screen job candidates at remote locations. Of the 150 candidates the company interviewed by video in 1993, 60 were cut. Without videoconferencing, VTEL would have flown those candidates to its Austin, Texas, headquarters for interviews at an estimated cost of $36,000.
Videoconferencing is an inevitable technology. It's affordable, reliable and cost-effective. More and more, companies will implement videoconferencing as word of its benefits spread. If you've got it now, make the most of it. If you don't, evaluate your training programs to see where distance learning might work. For example, encourage managers to consider using videoconferencing to interview remote candidates. And make sure that they are aware of its potential payback, not just in terms of HR, but also in terms of overall employee productivity.
Personnel Journal, May 1995, Vol. 74, No. 5, pp. 120-124.