One of my clients is a medical society that recently teamed with a company called The Virtual Operating Room (www.thevirtualor.com) to provide real-time and archived online educational events suitable for continuing education credits. Although VOR works only for medical groups in webcasting surgical operations, the concept applies to technology groups as well. Both surgical professionals and technology professionals face the need for continuing education in a fast-changing environment.

Of course, webcasting isn't particularly new to anyone who has been on the Web recently, but VOR does a solid job of executing its programs, which should come as no surprise given that it is run by practicing heart surgeons who can't afford shoddy execution. So it's worth taking a closer look at how the VOR process works and how it can be used to generate income while minimizing the risk of cannibalizing current revenue sources.

Find an Issue and an Expert First, to spur viewer interest, VOR chooses an educational subject that's a bit controversial. In IT circles, this could be a challenge, but given the pace of technological change and the nearly religious tones used by many high-tech professionals when discussing their brands, perhaps it isn't too much of a stretch.

Next, VOR chooses several potential sponsoring companies that deliver products that address the issue being covered. In VOR's case, it may be a manufacturer that makes tools used in a certain type of surgical operation. In the case of technology vendors, it could be a software tools vendor specializing in certain types of e-commerce applications.

VOR's online educational event then presents a recognized professional performing a certain procedure using the vendor's product. In the case of high-tech organizations, the procedure might be a demon- stration of using certain tools to create a given type of application or routine, or to solve a vexing problem.

This kind of vendor-organization cooperation brings benefits to both parties. The vendor gains by reaching a self-selected audience with a real interest in its product or service. The organization benefits by bringing in-depth technical education to its employees, resellers, users, or partners and by generating sponsorship revenue from the event.

It's Got Legs But the value doesn't end with the live webcast. After the real-time event, the webcast should be archived for future reference and linked, at the very least, with the e-mail addresses of the presenters. Your agreement with the sponsoring vendor and the presenters should address their availability to your audience for some period of time before and after the webcast, the length of which will vary depending on how quickly the information presented becomes stale.

Some ethical issues lurk in the bushes here, but with careful planning, they can be minimized. First, few organizations want to be too tightly identified with a given vendor. But if the webcast is clearly characterized on your Web site as a vendor-sponsored event, and all professional affiliations, associations, or other connections of the participants with the vendor and your organization are clearly revealed, then your audience should accept it as a legitimate commercial/educational event. And as long as any vendor can qualify as a webcast sponsor, your industry participants should also accept it without fearing favoritism.

Virtual educational events of this type present opportunities for everyone involved. When properly developed and marketed, they can bring new revenue to your organization, meaningful educational content to participants, and valuable PR to your partners.