With a need to reduce costs, and with the promise of substantial return on investment, insurance companies seem increasingly eager to use new technologies to communicate with and train their agents in the field. This has not always been the case. “The insurance industry is not known for jumping on the technology band-wagon,” says Chad Hersh, a chief analyst with Celent Communications, a Boston-based research and consulting firm that provides technology and business strategy advice to the financial services industry.
Evidence that the insurance industry's aversion to technology has done a turnaround was supported by a survey of more than 900 independent agents taken by Celent last August, which found that 78 percent now use some kind of carrier-provided online training. Celent also estimates that corporate adoption of online training and communication tools has passed 50 percent and could hit 90 percent by 2006 to 2007. “We're actually seeing an unusually brisk adoption of these technologies,” Hersh says.
What's driving the change? Clearly there's an interest in reducing costs. “These [online training tools] are very, very high-, low-cost types of projects,” Hersh says. “The kinds of projects that very much appeal to insurance carriers. Reducing costs is a significant driver.”
At the same time, insurance companies are rolling out more products and have new regulations and compliance issues to worry about. All of which means the companies need to train their agents more thoroughly and with increasing frequency.
UnumProvident Corp., headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn., has for the past three years been moving from paper-based training to online training, says Leonard “Doc” Anderson, assistant vice president of sales training. In March, the company purchased a learning management system (LMS) designed by Pathlore Software Corp. of Columbus, Ohio, to deliver and measure training for its 4,000 underwriters, sales executives, IT staff, and field and support workers. UnumProvident hasn't completely cut out face-to-face training, but Anderson says that using online training tools prior to classroom learning helps to “shorten the learning curve” and reduce classroom time.
Like most insurance companies, UnumProvident finds that it must provide an increasing number of complex education programs. The value of an LMS, says Pathlore spokesman Bill Perry, is that “as companies roll out more products, acquire other companies, and merge, it becomes exponentially more difficult to stay on top of what everybody has to know.” The LMS not only allows the company to create and deliver a wide variety of training programs to its employees, but also to instantaneously and accurately measure and evaluate the results of that training. “We recently had a sales school for new employees,” Anderson notes. “They took the test online, and we had results instantly. We have the ability to do things we couldn't do before from a measurement perspective.”
A few years ago, The Cincinnati Insurance Co. implemented an LMS that has helped it to lower costs and reduce the training burden on claims adjusters, sales representatives, and other associates, says Mark Desjardins, vice president and director of education and training. For example, the company recently was able to save more than $100,000 when it rolled out an online training course on commercial general liability for its employees. Offering a wider variety of training and education online, Desjardins adds, results not only in bringing down travel and other training-related expenses, but it also allows the company to maintain its competitive edge. “Our claims reps have quite a bit of authority out in the field,” Desjardins says. “As our business becomes more complex, they have to have a better grasp of, and better access to, the information they need to do their jobs. Ultimately that relates to competitiveness. If they are not handling claims or underwriting properly, it will have a negative impact on the business.”
The availability of high-speed Internet access has been critical in allowing Cincinnati Insurance to successfully implement its LMS, Desjardins says, although “it took us a while. We have quite a few associates living at that last telephone pole in rural areas. Delivering online training to them has been quite a challenge — we're still struggling with a few folks.”
Celent's Hersh believes that new technology is not necessarily driving the move toward online learning in the insurance industry, at least as far as independent agents are concerned. “Technology is not as critical as you might think,” he says. “The types of things that are happening today are actually programs designed to run on 56K modems and older PCs. But there is a much greater comfort level now among agents in accepting these technologies. I think that's the really big difference.”
Over time, he believes, there will be a move toward innovations such as instructor-led video training. As for old-fashioned, face-to-face training meetings, they will never be completely replaced, “unless you can do multipoint video conferencing with reasonable costs and reasonable quality.”
In the meantime, Hersh predicts that ever-growing numbers of agents will be using online learning tools. “The main driver will be agents asking [for online learning programs] as they become aware of them,” he says. “These agents will see how the technology can help them spend more time selling.”
Many experts believe that the most effective use of technology for training comes from blended learning — a form of training that combines traditional classroom sessions with e-learning and self-study. According to Training magazine's “2003 Industry Report,” blended learning was used in 27 percent of training courses in the finance/banking/insurance industries in 2003. Delivered correctly, blended learning is efficient and cost-effective, experts say, and they expect the number of users to continue to rise. Its popularity is due in part to technological advancements that have made e-learning easier to apply, and in part to tight meeting budgets that have caused companies to look for ways to save on function space and travel.
The key to developing an effective blended-learning program lies in the mix of media used to deliver the training. Josh Bersin, an Oakland, Calif.-based training consultant who wrote The Blended Learning Book, recently published by Wylie/Pfeiffer, identifies 16 methods, including classroom instruction, webinars, conference calls, CD-ROM courseware, study manuals, Web pages, online simulations, on-site labs, Web-based chat or discussion groups, mentoring programs, and videos. Two or three of these techniques should suffice for an effective blended-learning program, experts say.
Typically, a blended-learning application has several steps. The first might be an introductory conference call that lays out the program and introduces students to the trainer and subject. Next is the self-directed portion of the process, in which students are asked to study in preparation for the next step, the live session. The self-directed portion of the training is best delivered through asynchronous means, such as webcasts, computer-based course work, study guides, or some kind of simulated, virtual exercises. Experts suggest follow-up testing on the pre-work to make sure that students are adequately prepared before moving on to the live session.
In a blended-learning approach, valuable classroom time is not wasted on introductory material. However, certain content — for example, content in which trainees have to demonstrate competency — will always be delivered more effectively in the classroom, says Carrie Picardi, senior research analyst, human capital management at META Group, Stamford, Conn. Likewise, conflict resolution classes,seminars, or sales training are all areas in which human interaction is critical to success. “It's really hard to gauge body language and nonverbal communications skills through e-learning,” says Picardi.
Virtual classrooms, or sessions led by an instructor from a remote location via the Web, can also be effective teaching tools, but experts warn against using recorded video instruction in a classroom setting because it lacks the interactivity necessary for learning.
The final component of a blended-learning program typically involves coaching modules, online tutorials, tests, or simulations to reinforce what was learned in the classroom.
Training Online Trainers
While there are long-term cost benefits to incorporating e-learning into training, establishing a blended program that effectively combines classroom and online training may require a sizable upfront investment in technology. It also requires an investment in training personnel so that instructors are comfortable and proficient with the online delivery methods, says Jennifer Hofmann, president of InSync Training LLC. She is in the pilot testing stage of a synchronous training certificate program, which would be the first of its kind in the industry. The program would certify trainers in how to deliver and design live e-learning programs, and blend e-learning with other training solutions. For more information, go to www.learningtimes.net/synccertified.shtml.