Intranet Your Newest Training Tool

July 1, 1996
Consider this scenario: Your company has a new training manual it wants to distribute to a department of 200 people. But only 10 of them really need to read and keep the entire document. What do you do? In the past, companies such as Mountain View, California-based Silicon Graphics Inc. (SGI) would send a thick hard copy to all 200 employees. Those who didn't need it day-to-day would probably file or dump it. Think of the waste of time and money to reproduce these unnecessary copies.

With the advance of technology, Silicon Graphics was able to transfer many training materials onto CD-ROM. But there was still a problem—not every desktop computer is equipped with a CD-ROM player. So, Silicon Graphics—a super hi-tech workstation-maker—has begun to replace the CD-ROM distribution method with distribution of training materials via an internal Internet or Intranet. Now employees can access the programs whenever they want. Distribution costs are zero, and if the company wants to make a change to the program, it can do so at a central location. "It eliminates most of the problems associated with the traditional means of supplying training and documentation material. Its reach is global, we can manage it from a central location and [the Intranet] is very flexible" says Marc Trimuschat, WebFORCE Server manager at SGI. That means all kinds of training documents can be converted to electronic forms and accessed internally. For example: product directions, sales tips, company history, new hire orientation materials, diversity information and software program tutorials.

SGI's Intranet, which the company dubbed Silicon Junction, still is relatively new. And because Intranet, or Internet technology in general, has some major deficiencies when compared to CD-ROM's audio and video attributes, the company hasn't been able to completely replace other methods of training. But, SGI sees future advantages of grabbing ahold of this technology for training purposes.

SGI isn't alone. According to Redwood City, California-based Zona Research Inc., of the 99,400 Web servers shipped in 1995, 43,100 are intended primarily for internal use. Of those, Zona reports that currently approximately 12% are related to training, and that percentage is expected to increase to about 20% within a year.

Brian Croft, communications consultant for Towers Perrin, in Toronto, also believes Intranet sites, such as Silicon Junction, increasingly are replacing or complementing more traditional corporate networks. "For all the benefits it gives you, Intranet [connections] are surprisingly affordable," he says.

Indeed, the benefit of the Intranet for HR and training departments is increasing the Intranet's popularity. It can be an extremely cost-effective and efficient way to distribute training material as well as documentation. And although the Net's current technological limitations still prevent it from replacing CD-ROM, it's important for HR to know what the Intranet can and can't do. This information will place the department in a better position to take advantage of the technology when it's deemed right for its particular needs.

What is the Intranet?
When discussing the idea of Intranet, it's helpful to accept a working definition. Basically, it's the use of Internet and Web technologies inside a company to enhance employees' ability to find, manage, create and distribute information. In effect, it's a private Internet behind the company firewall. A firewall blocks outside Internet users from accessing information on internal Webs, thereby ensuring company security of documents. People inside, however, can circumvent the firewalls to reach outside Internet sites and gather unlimited information.

The process of creating an Intranet site is about the same as creating one on the, with two possible exceptions. Companies that want to provide users with high-speed connections can create direct-wired connections to the firm's Internet server. (A cheaper alternative is to have users dial into the Web site using a telephone and modem just as external users would. Although this is less expensive, the resulting connection is much slower). If you want to set up an internal direct-wired connection, all you need are desktop machines (called clients in network parlance) and a server that supports the TCP/IP networking protocol, which most do.

Another difference between an Intranet and Internet site is the firewall software that prevents unauthorized external users from accessing the site. Not all training programs, however, need that level of security. Such decisions are usually reserved for systems that tie into the corporate database.

What are the benefits?
The feature that both the Intranet and Internet share—providing just-in-time information—is their greatest benefit when used as training vehicles.

Lida Henderson, program manager at Xerox Management Institute at Xerox Corp. in Leesburg, Virginia, says that compared to CD-ROM, VCR or instructor-led courses, Internet technology is more convenient because workers can access it during work hours from their desks, after hours from home or from anywhere else, even while traveling. This helps employees integrate what they've learned into their work at Xerox, Henderson says. "Classes and training rooms seem to be separate from the day-to-day work. With Internet technology, workers may spend an hour on training, then work for a couple of hours, and then log on for training another hour at the end of the day. It becomes an integral part of their day," she says.

Although Xerox doesn't have an Intranet site yet, its students log on to a site controlled by International School of Information Management (ISIM), based in Denver, which developed the course material and manages the program. However, since Xerox employees have a separate section at the ISIM site, which only they can access, one can consider it a virtual Intranet.

The capability to have employees learn what they need when they need it is what attracted Tim Ramos to the Intranet for training. As president of San Ramon, California-based Ramos & Associates Inc., a workflow automation systems integrator, he was looking for a better way to allow his employees to access training material whether they're at home or in a hotel room. He has good reason. Of the 170 employees in his company, only 10 don't travel regularly, and at any one time there are usually fewer than 20 people at the corporate offices.

Currently, most training material at Ramos & Associates is transmitted via a remote network using Lotus Notes™. But downloading mounds of data to the user's laptop burdens even the largest hard drive. And there's no good way to send audio or video clips. Accordingly, Ramos is about to develop an Intranet site. Users will read information online rather than download it.

As an added benefit, Ramos will be able to change the nature of material from dry documentation to multimedia. "We can send audio interviews with top consultants and show video clips of new products and procedures. This is how training should be," he says.

Save time and expense.
Intranet-based training also allows companies to distribute training material early on. Because VCR tapes or CD-ROM disks often are comparatively more expensive to create and distribute, companies are more likely to spend extra time and resources in developing and testing before sending the material out to workers. In contrast, because HR departments can make changes to Web-based programs so easily, they can distribute a program sooner knowing that if a change has to be made, it can be done in seconds.

In addition, program development time is shortened. Training content developers can carve many individualized classes out of one overall program. "With traditional classroom training, it's difficult to customize classes. With Web-based training, we can meet the needs of audiences with diverse levels of expertise by creating different paths for each student or group," says Marian Bremer, project manager for developing Web-based training at BBN Corp., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based networking products company.

Intranet-based training also ensures that all users are working on the most current version of posted training material. BBN, for example, developed a network for a department of the military and also created a computer-based training (CBT) program on CD-ROM. But during one inspection, BBN trainers were surprised to discover that many users were working on older versions of the material. "People in the military get so much mail, they can't keep up with it. An envelope with a CD-ROM disk may end up in the bottom of some drawer," Bremer says. To solve that problem, BBN is in the process of moving the CD-ROM training to an Intranet site.

Another advantage of the Web is that it allows for two-way communication. For example, students at Xerox don't merely receive training material over the Web. They also submit completed assignments, work on projects with other students and query instructors.

While the Intranet classes controlled by BBN aren't as interactive as Xerox's, BBN employees can still take advantage of the two-way communications ability of the Web. "If someone has a problem either with the training program itself or in understanding a concept, they always have a place to post a message to the trainer," Bremer says.

At SGI, two-way conversation means even more: employees actually can supply content. SGI has made virtually every workstation at SGI headquarters—about 1,200—its own Internet server. Anyone with information to distribute can place the file in his or her Internet Outbox and it's immediately published on Silicon Junction. To make distribution even easier, the company employs a Web Jumper attachment to its e-mail system. This feature allows users to send e-mail notices of newly available material to anyone who possibly may be interested. The recipient only has to click on an area of the e-mail note to automatically jump to the appropriate Web page.

Still room to grow.
Despite all of these advantages of the Intranet, the technology hasn't matured to the point at which the Web can be a fully satisfactory alternative to other means of distributing training material and documentation. One primary problem is that downloading audio and video can be very time-consuming.

For example, when Integrated Communications & Entertainment Inc. (ICE), a Toronto-based multimedia and Internet developer, created an Intranet training program for a financial institution, it was forced to combine CD-ROM and Intranet technology. The video and studio component of the training was mailed on a CD-ROM disk to end users. The text and still graphics are viewed via an Intranet site. ICE made sure the multimedia component was general enough to allow the company to alter the Intranet-based text and graphics without necessarily having to change the CD-ROM component. "It's not the best of both worlds, but it's the best we have now given the current state of the technology," says Michael Keefe, director of new media at ICE.

SGI has found the same limitations. Although the company is speeding ahead with Intranet projects that aid in the distribution of documentation, its use of the medium for distributing multimedia training is still nascent.

SGI's first and, so far, only multimedia training program distributed via the Intranet is a sort of slide-show with an audio component developed to introduce new products to sales people. Currently, users have to download the entire program to their hard disks, a somewhat time-consuming process and certainly not as convenient as viewing the program directly in real time on the Intranet. And those who work in remote sites and have to dial in on slow telephone lines still receive their programs on CD-ROM. So the company still has to cut the disks.

Kevin Kruse, president of Green Brook, New Jersey-based Advanced Consulting Inc., an Internet training development company, agrees that before the Intranet can achieve full acceptance, it has to be able to provide multimedia in a way that's comparable to CD-ROM. "The holy grail for Intranet programs is full-color, full-motion, video and CD-quality audio."

Intranet won't lag CD-ROM for long.
Fortunately, many experts believe the quest for this grail may be close to completion. "This is just a moment in the history of the Internet," says Bremer. "It's a brief time when the technology hasn't yet caught up with the application." Within the next two years, she expects cable modems and ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network, which are special connections that use ordinary phone lines to transmit digital instead of analog signals) to allow data to speed along at rates needed to transmit multimedia.

There are, however, other problems to contend with. Take Web browsers, such as Microsoft Explorer and Netscape Navigator. There's a lot to like about them. They have a comfortable graphical interface, so most new Web surfers don't require complicated training on them. But Kruse says they can present developers with some serious problems.

For example, Kruse recently developed an Intranet program for a pharmaceutical company to train its sales force. Part of the program included on-screen exams, which students would complete and then transmit back to the company for scoring. But neither Netscape Navigator nor Microsoft Explorer provide a good way to prevent users from going back and changing their responses.

Still, while the kinks are being worked out of the technology, Intranets may be the right option for human resources and training departments to consider as a new means of distributing training and documentation. So far, HR managers still have to weigh the pros and cons to determine whether the Intranet is right for their companies. But virtually everyone believes the Web's technological problems will be solved soon. At that time, it's entirely possible that Web-based training will be a virtual no-brainer.

Personnel Journal, July 1996, Vol. 75, No. 7, pp. 27-32.