Online Training at Wall Data: Content-driven and Interactive A couple of years ago, management at Wall Data was faced with a dilemma: how to quickly and effectively dispense training and information on a new product line to the company's employees, sales force, business partners, and end-users.

Given the size of this business software firm (nearly 800 employees) and its many far-flung locations (67 offices worldwide), the answer was no longer the traditional instructor-led classroom format it had used in the past. "We simply didn't have enough arms and legs to deliver the volume of training we needed to deliver," says Lee Klepinger, vice president of consulting and learning services for the Kirkland, Wash.-based company.

Wall Data instead chose a product called Symposium, developed by Lexington, Mass.-based Centra Software, which lets instructors go online directly to the desktops of the trainees, through what Klepinger refers to as a "virtual online classroom. We provide the content, and Centra provides the engine for delivering it to the trainee," he says.

Employees can choose to take a variety of courses, ranging from the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer program to basic skills upgrading. For Wall Data, course content is the top priority. "There are studies showing that self-paced training, like you have with the online variety, is as effective or more effective than the traditional instructor-led method," comments Klepinger. "But you have to be certain that the content stands on its own and achieves the objectives you want it to achieve." On the downside, he adds, "One of the pluses of classroom training is that an outstanding instructor can take a mediocre curriculum and deliver it effectively. With online training, you don't have that luxury."

Another potential downside to online training, ironically, is that the same technology that delivers the courses so quickly, effectively, and cost-efficiently can also intimidate those employees who are apprehensive about computers. "It's a definite culture change," Klepinger says. "There are some people who are still resistant to using the computer as a tool for learning. While our tech people are great advocates of it, for example, our sales population is less prone to sit down and work at a computer screen."

On the upside, notes Klepinger, online training has given the company's bottom line a boost. First, there's no more need to send people off-site for training. "We can have people back at their desks without a lot of lost time or money," he says.

Then there's a lower cost for implementing the training. "There are significant developmental costs that are comparable to the expense of classroom training when you begin this kind of program," Klepinger explains. "But the first time you deliver online training, you begin to realize immediate return on investment. If you measure total cost, you see ROI numbers that jump right off the page."

Wall Data's online training effort is getting positive reviews throughout the company. "Our employees like the convenience of it and they say they like the model we use that goes deeper in content," reports Klepinger. "John Wall, our CEO, and Kevin Vitale, our COO, are also very enthusiastic about it."

Perhaps the biggest bonus is that what started as a training module for reaching the company's worldwide outposts appears to have the potential to fill another need. "What's exciting is that we're taking this training system and evolving it into a communications system for the sales population," Klepinger says. "That presents the next tremendous opportunity for cost savings."

A Training Tip from Wall Data's Lee Klepinger: "Don't fall into the trap of sacrificing lesson content to colorful graphics. One criticism of online training is that there can be too much media designed into the presentation--it can get too 'Hollywoodish.'"

It can also get expensive. "The meter runs fast on that stuff. That's one reason our program is heavy on content and light on media."

Online Training at Unisys: Computer-based Career Management George Dunn, vice president of Unisys University, contends that his online corporate university is among the most comprehensive in the course work it delivers. "My experience is that other corporate universities are more tied to their service line. Unisys University, on the other hand, has a rich and varied curriculum. We offer a sales school, leadership training, project management, consulting, human resources, basic business, and technology. How many companies have done this?"

The key component at Unisys University is the Career Fitness Center, a computer-based career-management program so named because, Dunn says, "we want to make sure our employees fit in their job and are fit for their job." Carrying through the theme, the Career Fitness Center features training modules such as a "Personal Trainer," "Job Gym," "Skill Shaper," and "Coaching Corner."

Employees at the Blue Bell, Pa.-based information-systems giant can access the center in three ways: by ordering a CD-ROM for their personal computers at home or at work, by downloading the courses, or by taking them on the Unisys corporate Intranet. Employees have found downloading the course to be the most convenient method ("The pick-and-choose capability of downloading makes it most attractive," says Dunn), while Intranet-accessed courses often load sluggishly, limited as they are by how fast--or slow--phone lines happen to be at the time of usage.

Any Unisys employee is eligible to take the courses the company makes available, although Dunn says there have been recent adjustments to the curriculum and to who determines which employees take which courses. "After taking an inventory of courses, we found that there was a lot of duplication in what was being offered because we previously were divided into three divisions. But now the company is in the process of pulling together into a single unit, and doing the same with the training we offer. We've pared the number of courses down from 3,000 to 1,500.

"We also decided to have senior management become more involved in deciding which courses will benefit employees most in terms of their career paths," Dunn adds. "The more focused training is what we're aiming for."

One of the pitfalls of online training is that employees traditionally pursue online training in the office during working hours. "But that's not necessarily the optimum times to take these courses," Dunn says. "There's the hustle and bustle of the office around you, and the phone is always ringing. Even after work or at home, you're very often tired and it's hard to concentrate." To address that, the company has created "learning centers" where employees can pursue their training in an atmosphere more conducive to learning than a busy office or a hectic home.

Another potential downside, says Dunn: the tendency to fall into the trap of using technology merely for the sake of using technology, or only because it can be more cost efficient than the traditional instructor-led classroom format. "We're past saying, 'Let's use the technology because it saves money.' We think that's dangerous. Instead, we're saying, 'Let's match the technology to the courses that are best delivered technologically.'"

A Training Tip from Unisys University's George Dunn Don't assume that every course delivered live can be delivered online, too. "There's a term for hands-on learning--'stick work.' That's a process of coming to a class, rolling up your sleeves, using the product, breaking it, and fixing it again. It's more like a laboratory, and a live classroom is really the only way to take this kind of course."

Online Training at buckman Laboratories: An Emphasis on Education Buckman Laboratories, a specialty chemical manufacturer with 1,300 employees in 22 countries, has brewed up just the right training formula. The Memphis, Tenn.-based company's computer-based training system covers a wide variety of job training, as well as academic courses.

"We do sales training--either on the Web or downloadable--on how to make a sales call, how to prepare for a cold call, and so forth," says Sheldon Ellis, manager of learning systems. "We also do basic business courses, like how to calculate return on investment. We even deliver our orientation programs online."

Buckman's online training curriculum is also affiliated with a number of universities around the world. "Associates" (the company's term for employees) can work toward degrees in business or engineering, for example, by taking courses accredited by U.S. institutions such as Michigan State University, or overseas institutions such as Charles Stuart University in Australia.

"The educational systems for many of our international associates are often very different, or they just don't have access to these kinds of programs in their locations," Ellis says. "This [online training] makes it easier for them to work toward a degree." A big employee benefit: The company prepays tuition for those who take online college-level courses.

Online training is usually open to any associate who has been with the company for a year. "Obviously, the executive development courses aren't going to be open to everybody, but generally speaking, most are," notes Ellis. "There are also courses that are company-mandated." Some collaborative courses are designed for groups, but 90 percent are one-on-one self-paced programs, monitored by supervisors.

Employees are expected to pursue their training at home. "Eighty percent of our associates use laptops on the job, so they can easily take them home or on the road," Ellis says, adding that associates working on their online MBAs can make arrangements with their supervisors to train during work hours.

The cost of delivering such a high volume and wide variety of training to so many locations was a major reason Buckman decided to log on to a computer-based curriculum. "When you look at travel expenses, it's all very expensive," Ellis says. "When we used instructor-based classroom methods to train our associates on the use of e-mail and other communications, it cost the company a total of $2.4 million. That same training online cost the company $400,000." He adds that online training is most expensive in the development stage. "It costs about $60,000 to develop a course, but only about $2 per person to deliver it once it's developed."

Even with the dramatic cost savings, Ellis says traditional classroom training methods are still the most viable for certain kinds of courses. "The online format is not meant to replace traditional training methods, but to complement them. There are just some courses that are best taught by instructors."