What are insurance trainers talking about today? We sent a reporter to the summer meeting of the Society of Insurance Trainers and Educators (SITE) in Baltimore to sample the sessions and talk to attendees. With more than 300 of the industry's top training and education professionals attending, the shop talk was rich with issues. Everyone, from relative newcomers to grizzled veterans, had something they wanted to discuss.

We spoke to individuals from a diverse array of training and educational specialities and from small insurance companies and large. While trainers are greatly shaped by who they work for and what they do (SITE membership is weighed heavily toward the property-casualty market), if you talk to enough trainers, it isn't long before a kind of connect-the-dots picture of today's most talked about topics begins to emerge.

Some issues--like performance consulting--are new and topical; others--like outsourcing and technology--have been conversational mainstays for several years; and still others--like concerns over job security and personal career development--seem perennial. Here are eleven that caught our attention.

Industry Consolidation The subject of industry consolidation needs little introduction. The pace of insurance company mergers has been frantic--and while the tempo may have slowed a bit, the talk at SITE is ongoing.

"What happened scared the hell out of everybody," says Ira Blatt, director of training and development for the New York, NY-based Insurance Services Offices and newly elected SITE president. "It changed a lot of perceptions and there are still a lot of people having trouble dealing with its aftermath."

In general, what is emerging as companies merge and downsize is a more pro-active training industry that insiders characterize as lean and mean, where trainers' expertise is being used in more strategic ways. And those changes are being felt even in companies in which staffing levels have remained intact and organizational tables are relatively unchanged.

One trainer put it succinctly, "Remember, you are talking to survivors here. We've all bled enough on this issue and we're moving past it to other concerns. But I will also tell you that I have been coming to SITE conferences for nine years now, and I know many past attendees who are not here today because they have been downsized out of a job."

Technology Technology is at the top of most trainers' hot topic list. Inextricably linked with other broad-based technological advances driving the industry in general, such training tools as video conferencing, CD-ROMs, computer graphics, and distance learning are most at issue for today's professional trainers and educators.

Discussions range from the technical to the philosophical. Some trainers are eager to set up multifaceted delivery systems, explore the newest applications of a given technology, and embrace new approaches such as distance learning. Others argue that technology is moving the trainer and trainee further apart, and diminishing the one-on-one relationship they feel is central to quality learning. Whether enthused by or wary of the wired world, the position of most SITE members is that continuing technological changes are inevitable--more a question of "when" than "if."

Jane Childs, property-casualty training manager at Texas Farm Bureau in Waco, TX, sums up the feelings of many regarding the emerging training technologies when she says, "It is a real want but it's not yet a real must." And SITE President Blatt suggests that insurance trainers are putting their technology options into perspective. "My hunch," he says, "is that we've reached the peak of lusting after technology as a panacea for everything."

The pace at which a company will incorporate emerging technologies in the training and educational arena is driven by three main factors: First, whether or not the dollars are available and whether associated trade-offs are excessive; second, the degree to which present programming is meeting the needs of its targeted audiences; and third, the willingness of corporate management and trainers to explore nontraditional methods--to go outside the box.

While the financial component of establishing a new training technology is often the most obvious obstacle, the last factor--willingness--may be the most critical, trainers say. New technology requires a willingness to change and often involves new forms of partnering within the company. (See item 4, Performance Consulting.) It also goes to the heart of another question: Will the industry use technology to replace trainers or as an opportunity to get more done? The consensus seems to be that trainers would be smart to expect a little of both.

Budget Cuts Call it return on investment, or, to turn a phrase, return on education. Today's trainers are learning "financialese."

While some say that their companies are pouring dollars into training and education and adding staff, by and large, trainers feel they are doing more with less. They are living in a world where downsizing has reduced staff size and where technology is getting a bigger share of the budget pie, often at the expense of dollars previously allocated to training. And no one, of course, speaks for the companies that no longer have training departments.

But while trainers grapple with cuts and wonder how they will meet the sometimes unexpected demand for training services, most view the budget cuts as a longstanding problem demanding a creative response. Many appear to relish the challenge.

"I think training departments will always be under the gun with respect to dollar allocation," says SITE's past president, Harry Fine of West Bend Mutual, West Bend, WI. "It's up to us to provide some pretty concrete evidence that we add to the bottom line."

How? Solutions are diverse, but they include 1) outsourcing the most technology-intensive training, such as videoconferencing; interactive, computer-based learning; and Internet training; 2) substituting short, focused training sessions and mini-seminars that reduce lodging and travel expenses; and 3) cutting back on prescheduled, prefocused training sessions in favor of "just in time" training sessions (see item 7). Others have turned their training departments into profit centers by charging training costs to the departments that use their services.

One claims trainer says: "The biggest issue facing me will probably always be finding enough money to satisfy the demands placed on training. But I have learned that if I pick and choose based on needs of the organization, the money is usually there when it is needed." For example, he justified the cost of a computer-based training program by looking at the savings that resulted when field offices were closed and adjustors began working out of their homes.

Performance Consulting One of the most talked about topics at the SITE conference--performance consulting--broadens the role of the trainer by applying his or her skills early in the strategic planning process. As a member of a business planning unit or a special task force or as a consultant to a senior executive, the trainer designs interventions that solve a particular problem or react to a specific situation.

"It represents an evolution from the old training department," says Chris Behymer, associate vice president of human resources development and public relations for the Scottsdale Insurance Company of Scottsdale, AZ. "Traditionally, most of our efforts have been directed at general skills training, technical training, management training, and professional skills development. Performance consulting brings us in at the ground floor. It brings customers to us who say, 'We need training. You design it, we'll approve it, and then we want you to measure its effectiveness.'"

Proponents claim that performance consulting is much more proactive than traditional training. It pulls trainers into the loop much sooner, removes a certain level of tension that is built into the training process, and maximizes design input. "It is more of a partnership with a strategic business unit," says Fine. "If [a business unit] does indeed need a training program, the performance consultant may actually outsource that training as opposed to doing it himself."

And while the concept is promising, some predict that the performance consulting trend will sound a death knell for many trainer's jobs. "You can't have this huge training department just sitting out there any more," says one corporate training manager. With performance consulting, "I can pare my overhead, involve my people in key design and planning elements, and then outsource the training while maintaining quality control," he says.

Outsourcing While there are still companies that pride themselves on not having to outsource, the consensus among SITE attendees is that outsourcing is becoming more prevalent. Indeed, the case for it grows stronger. First, it offers access to specialized training whose cost cannot be justified internally. And second, it delivers a broad variety of training and educational offerings when needed and at a very competitive cost. With technology changing so rapidly, outsourcing provides a relief valve that enables cutting-edge programs to be brought online quickly and without straining departmental resources.

Many feel that the combination of in-house performance consultants and outsourcing delivers a powerful one-two punch that contains costs and produces value-added benefit. And there don't seem to be complaints about the quality of outside trainers--indeed, many are former employees contracting their services back to their former employers.

"We go outside where it makes sense," says Scottsdale Insurance's Behymer, echoing many SITE attendees. "If [outsourcing] buys us more time to deal with strategic planning issues, or change management, or conflict resolution, then that seems to me like a pretty good trade-off."

Advice from the pros: If you are going to outsource, make sure your contract builds in both quality control and performance control measures, and then follow up with a comprehensive evaluation.

Distance Learning The question that distance learning answers, says one SITE member, is "How do trainers not take a subject out of production and not put him on a plane, and not spend money to bring him into a hotel for several weeks, and still provide a quality educational opportunity?" In other words, distance learning is a way to extend training into the field without forcing the trainee or the trainer to make a trip. Content is delivered via videoconferencing, the Internet, network computer-based programming, CD-ROM, or other electronic media.

The plus side of the issue is that you can reach out to a lot of different offices and a lot of people with different skill levels and offer highly individualized programs that lend themselves to "just-in-time" training and its attendant benefits.

Critics say that the traditional learning environment is sacrificed with distance learning and, for the moment at least, there are substantive expenses, both in start-up costs and in updating the training modules and technology.

Just-in-Time Training Just-in-time training is just what it sounds like. The idea is to provide training to people as they need it, rather than setting up a regular schedule of classes and training courses.

Its premise is simple: Provide real-time training quickly, as determined by user input. Employees benefit because lessons are less likely to be forgotten when they are reinforced by immediate use in the workplace. Advocates say it ties in with performance consulting concepts, and supports employees who are assuming more personal responsibility for skills acquisition. It minimizes wasted staff time and expenses that result when attendance falls short at a scheduled training event.

While there has not been a rush to adopt this kind of programming across the board, the issue is generating a lot of discussion within the industry. Many trainers feel that eventually just-in-time training will be the most cost-effective way to conduct training.

Centralization vs. Decentralization Like a pendulum, organizations seem to be in constant motion, either moving toward centralization of their training departments or away from it. At the moment, the trend seems be toward the centralized department.

Advocates of this organizational model contend that it avoids costly duplication in staffing, lends itself to more proactive planning, and better utilizes the resources allocated to training technologies. "I think it is a somewhat logical extension of management's greater demand for accountability, measurement, and process," says Behymer.

"It doesn't make sense to put all these dollars into distance learning and then start spreading staff all over the regional map," says another training specialist.

Specialist-Generalist There is more specialization in training today--a trend made necessary by the point-specific education needed in areas such as claims and underwriting--but the advent of performance consulting and the greater involvement of trainers in strategic-planning issues require a trainer to also be a generalist, interacting successfully on all levels.

"That old specialist-generalist thing is coming back full circle," says Blatt, "You absolutely need to be an expert in something but that isn't good enough anymore." The generalist is coming back. Trainers can't just do one piece of a job and say, "That's it!"

Customer Service and Quality Control Ten--maybe even five--years ago, many trainers wouldn't bother to ask a department head if they could take employees out of production to attend a customer service class. The answer was likely to be no. But times have changed. Customer service is now a hot issue for trainers, who are vitally interested in any idea on how to encourage people to deliver world-class service.

Trainers are developing and implementing programs--from focus groups to programs geared to meeting target service levels--that not only foster enhanced customer service but also improve communications between departments.

Closely allied to customer service are the issues of quality control. "Trainers are uniquely qualified to impact both individual and collective performance," says West Bend Mutual's Harry Fine. "Now that training is being brought more in line with the whole planning process, we are making a significant impact."

In the words of another trainer, "Believe me, if I come back from this conference with one good customer-service idea that I can use, I will be happy."

Market Conduct The biggest programming trend for trainers today is in the area of compliance and market conduct, where SITE members make it clear that it has become vitally important, from a legal and ethical standpoint, to educate thoroughly agents and home-office staff about their products' attributes and the proper ways of selling them.

Companies are becoming more proactive in the areas of compliance, market conduct, and ethics and are taking the initiative themselves rather than using third-party training vendors.