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Your Learning Technology Primer

June 1, 1996
Related Topics: Training Technology, Featured Article
Ask Claudia Davis, director of education at Hewlett Packard Co. (HP) in Palo Alto, California, why her company relies so heavily on training technology and you'll get a passionate, nearly breathless response: "Because we have to," she says. "The need for employee learning is at an all-time high, while the time available for traditional training is at an all-time low."

By way of explanation, Davis shares some startling statistics. The amount of information on the planet is doubling every five to seven years, she says. This, combined with ongoing advances in technology, means the half-life of an HP engineer—in terms of knowledge—is just 18 months. "Every year and a half, in other words, our engineers need a new set of skills just to continue developing products." Unfortunately, competition is so fierce that HP doesn't have the time to send employees to training every time it needs skills updated. Product life cycles have become so short, in fact, that 60% of the company's 1995 revenue came from products introduced within the previous two years.

"Given these factors, the only real competitor we have anymore is time," Davis says, "and any time engineers are away from the workplace for learning, they're potentially away from one whole creative cycle of new products."

To meet the challenge of training employees who don't have time to be trained, HP began to rethink its entire employee-education process five years ago. Today, the company makes extensive use of technology to give employees the information they need, when they need it and where they need it most—usually at their desktops while working on a job.

The technologies HP is using, which include CD-ROM, videoconferencing, the Internet and electronic performance support, are technologies all human resources and training professionals need to become familiar with—and fast. Why? Because technology has infiltrated the training function and it's significantly changing the trainer's role. Instead of being "deliverers of training," trainers must begin to think of themselves as "enablers of learning"—as people who boost employee performance using a wide array of tools among which classroom instruction is becoming less important. Understanding the new technologies and how they're being used will help trainers and HR professionals lead the technology revolution, rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Companies have recognized for years that classroom training is ineffective. It's expensive, retention is low and it takes workers away from their jobs, creating a drop in productivity few companies can afford. Furthermore, traditional training is passive. Not only do trainers decide what employees should learn, but they also decide when and where they should learn it. While trainers certainly can make educated guesses about the level of skills required, how can they possibly know what information each employee needs to perform better?

When you consider that 80% of critical job skills learning occurs while on the job, it makes sense to create interventions that allow employees to decide what to learn and when to learn it. The availability of cheaper, faster, user-driven technology finally makes this an achievable goal.

Because the use of technology in training is relatively new, there's little agreement about how to categorize the technologies. The terms you hear most often include multimedia training, training technology and performance support systems—all of which are inadequate. A better way to understand the technological revolution and its impact on corporate learning is to describe how the technologies are being used.

At the risk of oversimplifying the issue, there are two predominant ways in which technology is enhancing employee learning. The first uses technology to deliver on-demand, just-in-time training to employees. Let's call this technology-based training. The second approach is using technology to support workers' performance on the job through electronic performance support systems. But we'll get to the second use a little later.

The first approach uses various technologies, be it computer software, CD-ROMs, videoconferencing or computer networks, as vehicles to provide instruction. While this approach replicates traditional training (it provides education and information to people), it typically costs less than classroom training, is more interactive and thus, more effective. And, it gives learners more choices about what to learn and when. Furthermore, it helps companies provide training to more people in more places, and faster.

Technology provides many new conduits for training delivery.
There are many ways in which technology is being tapped to provide training. At AVCO Financial Services Inc. in Irvine, California, computer-based training (CBT) using specially designed software was the solution to a recent training challenge. The company, which was developing a new computer system to handle customer-service requests, was faced with training 3,000 employees in 800 branch offices on how to use the new system. According to Tony Grant, former training and development manager (now with Westcorp Inc., in Irvine), the company decided to build an electronic training program into the system hardware that was being shipped to each branch office.

The CBT program walked employees through the new customer-service software, simulating the actual screens and commands employees would use. The training program took approximately 17 hours to complete, at the end of which employees took an online certification test to determine whether or not they were capable of using the new software. The computer scored the results and indicated areas for improvement. The CBT not only spared AVCO the huge cost of sending trainers to each branch, it also was a more effective training method because workers used the actual computer system during the entire training program.

Management Recruiters International Inc. (MRI), an executive search firm based in Cleveland, uses another technology—videoconferencing—as a way of training its geographically dispersed workforce. With 626 franchise offices and more than 4,000 employees in the United States, the company created its own videoconferencing system in 1992 to provide consistent, high-level, distance learning to these employees. Known as ConferView, the system reaches more than 215 sites, making it one of the largest privately owned videoconferencing systems in the nation.

Each quarter, MRI uses ConferView to deliver more than 100 hours of courses to employees at all levels of the firm. A typical videoconference course might bring together 100 managers, account executives and project coordinators from throughout the country to train them on the use of a behavioral interviewing tool. Because the ConferView system allows complete video and audio interaction between as many as 28 sites simultaneously, participants can ask questions, get immediate feedback and communicate with colleagues.

Although quantifying MRI's return on investment is tough, training assistant Barry Rothschild offers an example of how videoconferencing has improved productivity. "Before developing the system, each site manager had to conduct a two-week training course with each new account executive," he says. "Because account executives are now trained through the videoconference courses, we estimate managers save 10 hours a week per enrolled employee." In addition, he believes the courses are more effective because of the increased interaction between colleagues. Of the company's top 30 first-year producers last year, Rothschild says 22 were "graduates" of training through ConferView.

Another technology that's helping companies provide cost-effective training to geographically dispersed employees is CD-ROMs. CD-ROMs not only provide interactive video and audio capabilities, which enhance learning and retention, they also can easily be mailed to, and be used by, employees anywhere in the world.

Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest health-maintenance organizations, was faced with the challenge of training more than 400 salespeople located in 16 states to understand a complicated new pricing structure that was difficult to explain to customers. Entering the training technology arena for the first time, the company used CD-ROMs to create an interactive computer-based training program. With the program, employees could learn through example by viewing four case studies in which customers asked difficult questions of the sales reps about the pricing structure. The CD-ROMs allowed salespeople to complete training at a convenient time in their own offices, on their own computers, at their own pace. Typically, the training took four to six hours to complete.

According to a return-on-investment study conducted by Multimedia Training Newsletter based in Sunnyvale, California, many companies have found CD-ROMs to be an extremely cost-effective way to deliver training. At Storage Technology Co., based in Broomfield, Colorado, for example, CD-ROM-based multimedia training costs approximately $1.2 million over a three-year period vs. nearly $2 million for more traditional, lecture-based instruction. Furthermore, the training takes less time—11 hours vs. 28 hours—allowing employees more time to stay productive on the job.

As cost-effective as CD-ROMs can be, however, the real breakthrough technology for training is networking, either through a company's local area network (LAN), wide area network (WAN), or "Intranet" sites on the Internet. (Intranet sites give companies access to Internet technology to connect geographically distant users in a secured networking environment.) This is because networks allow companies to send information and training materials directly to the employee's desktop without having to pay the costs associated with pressing and distributing CD-ROMs and purchasing the hardware necessary to play them. Using networks, companies immediately can update and deliver information and training resources to every networked user.

Apple Computer Inc., based in Cupertino California, is at the forefront of companies using network technology to deliver employee learning. With more than 100 new products introduced every year, the company in the past relied heavily on classroom-based instruction to bring workers up to speed on new products and technology. But, like Hewlett Packard, Apple operates in a fast-paced competitive environment, so taking employees away from their jobs to get trained is a time luxury it no longer could afford.

About five years ago, Apple began to transform its training resources into an online library known as the Apple Reference Performance Learning Experience and Presentation Library—or ARPLE, for short. According to Lucy Carter, ARPLE's developer (now vice president of Eagle River Business Communications in Palo Alto, California), ARPLE gives more than 30,000 Apple employees worldwide online and on-demand access to the company's entire database of sales, marketing and technical information, and training resources. Using the company's client/server network, ARPLE not only delivers self-paced training courses to employees' desktops, but it also allows access to virtually anything employees need to know about the company's products and key technologies.

"Employees can reference a spec sheet, view a quick-time movie, access a white paper or read about corporate strategies," says Carter. Calling ARPLE a "knowledge-based system" she adds that it was developed because the training department, like every other department in the company, was facing budget cuts and layoffs (60% of the training staff has since been laid off). "We had to figure out a way to reach people without bringing them into the classroom," she says.

Today, 85% of Apple's classroom training has been replaced by information available on ARPLE. Because only a handful of people are required to maintain the system, the database is continually being updated by employees throughout the company. Despite this, Carter estimates that the amount of employee learning has actually increased.

Taking the networking idea a step further are companies such as Silicon Graphics Inc., based in Mountain View, California, which use corporate Intranet sites to house the same kind of information as is found in ARPLE. Dubbed "Silicon Junction," the company's Intranet site puts more than two dozen corporate databases a mouse-click away from every employee. The company also regularly sends video and audio feeds to employees around the world.

By linking with the Internet, companies like Silicon Graphics are finding they can use the computers and applications they already have to distribute information and learning tools to employees worldwide. Ivy Millman, president of WHIZDOM in Menlo Park, California, an organization that helps companies take advantage of the Internet, explains that with industry-standard browsers there's minimal end-user support required. "It's easy for organizations to distribute information and training resources because they don't have to develop CD-ROMs or train employees to use new software applications," she says. With the Internet, you don't have to worry about what kind of computer your trainees are using, how much RAM they have installed, whether or not they have a CD-ROM drive or what version of operating system they have. Most companies already have all the necessary infrastructure: desktop computers, modems and memberships with online service providers such as CompuServe.

Hewlett Packard is another company that uses the Internet extensively for training purposes. The company uses secured sites on the World Wide Web to make self-paced instructional courses available to employees worldwide, to house a database of information on training courses for employees to access, to provide information on relevant classes sponsored by nearby community colleges, and to store information on products, services, company policies and customer issues. You name it, they do it.

In February, HP also became one of the first companies to use the Web as the venue for an in-house conference. The conference, designed to educate company training professionals about alternative learning technologies, was held completely online allowing employees worldwide to attend without ever leaving their offices.

According to Davis, the online conference had all the benefits of a traditional conference, including separate workshop tracks, instructor feedback and interaction with other participants. Workshops were repeated at different times to accommodate employees in different time zones, she says. Employees who couldn't attend a particular session could download transcripts of the course. Participants could talk with instructors using e-mail, and they could interact with each other by entering specially designed online chat rooms. Despite these hefty advantages, the costs were minimal. "Only the cost of Internet access and a local phone call," she says.

Activities like these are the reason Dr. Eric Parks, president of ASK International, a training technology consulting company in Long Beach, California, calls cyberspace the new frontier in learning technology. "Cyber-technology is going to replace all the other technologies that exist," he says. "I firmly [believe] that."

Electronic performance support systems boost employee ability.
So far, we've been discussing the first way that companies are using technology to provide training and information to employees. In other words, how technology is being used in place of the classroom and other traditional means of communication.

The second way technology is enhancing corporate learning is through the development of electronic performance support systems (EPSS). These are electronic tools that become available when employees need support, coaching or information to do their jobs better. With EPSS, employees don't receive training per se, they receive technical assistance that boosts their performance.

An insurance agent filling out a new client application on a computer screen, for example, may be able to click on a hypertext reference to get more information about a company policy. The agent isn't trained ahead of time to remember the policy, he or she simply accesses the policy when knowing it becomes relevant. By integrating performance support into the task, there's no line between work and learning. Employees don't go off and "learn" and then come back and "do." Learning and working occur at the same time.

As Parks explains, "A well-designed performance support system provides just the right support at just the right time. It's a souped-up electronic job aid that can function variously as a reference librarian, an expert advisor, a patient tutor and an administrative assistant." When employees need to understand a certain business process, the computer acts as a coach. When employees need information, the computer becomes an instant reference. When a calculation is necessary, the computer does the figuring.

The majority of performance support systems in use today are built into a company's proprietary software. Take Basking Ridge, New Jersey-based AT&T Corp., for example. It used to be that when customers called AT&T to inquire about the options and prices available for long-distance service, the customer-service rep had to take down customer information, search through product and pricing manuals and then get back to the customer. With the advent of electronic performance support, these employees now have all the product and pricing information available at their computers. The performance support system not only coaches them about the right questions to ask, it also makes product recommendations based on the customer's answers.

According to Marc Rosenberg, district manager for learning strategy, AT&T's electronic performance support system is absolutely necessary for customer-service reps. "We have hundreds of products and prices changing all the time," he says. "There's no way to teach employees all that information. Instead, we teach them how to use this highly intelligent system that gives them the information they need based on the diagnostics they [perform for] the customer. We still train employees on how to be customer-service oriented, but we trust the system to configure products, services and pricing accurately and fairly for the customer."

While electronic performance support systems typically reside within a company's proprietary software, separate performance support tools can also be developed and distributed via CD-ROMs, computer disks or company networks. At Aetna Life & Casualty Co., in Hartford, Connecticut, a performance support tool called the AMP Facilitator was distributed on floppy disks to help employees analyze problems and make decisions using the company's internal management process, Aetna Management Process (AMP). According to Stanley E. Malcolm, who helped develop the performance tool as head of Aetna's learning technology, the AMP Facilitator is a software program that provides performance support to managers or teams who need to apply the AMP to a business plan or project.

"Employees need to know very little about the AMP before using the software," he says. They bring a problem, the AMP Facilitator helps them structure the analytical tasks for solving the problem, coaches them, provides examples and self-checks, and allows them to print out results in standard work-plan format. "When they're done," Malcolm explains, "they have a real work product—their business plan—and have learned a lot about the AMP along the way."

EPSS, regardless of whether they're a separate tool or part of a specially designed computer system, are where the biggest gains in productivity, performance and employee learning are being realized. Unfortunately, many trainers view these systems as outside their domain. Why? One, because EPSS don't replicate traditional training. Instead, they're designed to give employees the information they need when they need it, therefore making traditional training less critical. Second, they're typically developed and orchestrated by the information systems (IS) function.

Despite this, trainers have a key role to play in the development of electronic performance technology. In fact, they have a role to play in the development of all technologies used to enhance employee learning, but it requires some major rethinking about how companies approach training.

The changing role of trainers.
"There's a bias among trainers that employees need human interaction—the trainer in the classroom model—for them to learn effectively," says Brandon Hall, editor and publisher of Multimedia Training Newsletter. "That's just not true and we have to begin to challenge that assumption."

Hall, and many other professionals at the forefront of learning technology, believe trainers have to take a much wider view of their role in organizations if they're to survive the inevitable shift from the classroom to the computer. And the shift is inevitable, according to a 1996 study, "Technology in the Training Department" by Lakewood Publications based in Minneapolis. The study reveals that although currently most corporate training still takes place in the classroom, a majority of organizations of every size and industry type plan to greatly expand their use of technology-based training methods.

Given this shift toward technology, there are two questions trainers must ask themselves. The first is whether to use the classroom or the computer as the means for delivering training. "This is usually an economic decision," Rosenberg says, "based on how fast the training needs to reach employees, where employees are located and how much money the company wants to spend. If you have enough people, computer-based training is usually cheaper."

The second question trainers need to ask is whether a performance problem calls for training or performance support. Do employees need to be taught how to do something, or do they simply need periodical assistance? While there are no rules about which approach will work better, just asking questions provides insight into what employees really need to perform well.

If your workforce consists of salespeople who need to develop interpersonal skills, then a traditional instructor-led or computer-based training course might be the answer. But if you have a group of experienced salespeople who need information about product configurations and price schedules, then an online performance support tool might be a more logical approach. In today's workplace, trainers can no longer limit themselves to classroom training as the primary vehicle for improving performance.

To make this shift, trainers need to dump words like "course," "instructor" and "content" from their vocabularies. "These all suggest traditional definitions of how and where training, not learning, takes place," says Malcolm, now president of Performance Vision, a learning technology consulting firm based in Marlborough, Connecticut.

Trainers also need to become connected to the business strategy. What are the goals the company is trying to achieve? Where are the performance gains needed? Trainers can't possibly begin to determine the best method of boosting performance unless they understand how and where performance needs to improve.


HR's role is also changing.
HR professionals are in a unique position to help trainers transition from classroom trainer to performance enabler. How? First, by understanding the costs associated with training technologies and taking a long-term approach to budget development. Although overall, multimedia training tends to be less costly than traditional training, most of the costs are in the development stage. "Don't compare costs only on a one-year basis," suggests Hall. "Take the long view."

The way trainers are evaluated must also change if they're going to make this paradigm shift. Training professionals have traditionally been rewarded for creating courses as solutions to every business problem, says Rosenberg. That's why a lot of training organizations are still measured on how many people they trained and whether trainees liked the course. "There's nothing wrong with measuring those things," he says, "but those measures aren't enough. They don't measure improvements in [worker] performance."

Since trainers generally tend to shy away from technology, HR also should make an effort to hire more technically competent people into the training department. "You need to spike the organization with new blood," Malcolm says. Recruit university students who have formal training in learning technology.

Last, but not least, HR and training professionals must begin to approach employee learning from a collaborative mindset. "Don't expect to create large-scale technological interventions on your own," Malcolm explains. "You'll find yourself in competition with traditional systems development professionals—an uncomfortable and unnecessary place to be." To be successful, design training technologies in partnership with IS professionals, interface designers, documentation specialists, subject-matter experts, traditional trainers and learning technologists.

To be recognized as a strategic business partner, there's no better way to impact the bottom line than by finding a way to boost employee performance. In this manic, ever-changing era in which learning is critical but time is at a premium, the best way to boost performance is by embracing technology, not standing in its way.

Personnel Journal, June 1996, Vol. 75, No. 6, pp. 119-137.

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