Dogged by shoddy rep performance? Multimedia technologies offer meaty rewards

It wasn’t so long ago that you could rely on an academic course or a stint of practical training to fill any gaps in the skills required to perform your job. But the demands of today’s workplace are far too complex for such solutions to be effective. New teaching methods are essential to address challenges such as getting products and services to market faster, dealing with rapid changes in information technology, and communicating with work groups widely separated by time and distance. As Don Tapscott points out in his book The Digital Economy, the learning process itself is changing, as education shifts away from formal schools and universities and increasingly becomes an integral part of the workplace. Tapscott notes that electronic media can transform education, creating a working-learning infrastructure.

Customer contact centers, in particular, are not well suited to conventional classroom training. It is something of an administrative marathon to get the training scheduled, herd everyone to the correct location, and cover for the agents who are off the phone – all for 15- or 30-minute “bites” of training that are hardly optimal for retention and immediate application. Providing appropriate training for varying levels of ability, essential in contact centers that use skill-based routing, is almost impossible under these circumstances. But if you use online and electronic media throughout the people management process, from hiring to training to monitoring, your CSRs will find that learning becomes not only easier but also more interesting.

Web-based recruiting has proven successful for many employers. Applications completed online can be readily tracked and summarized, and can serve as a test of computer skills as well. Once you move on to training new hires, consider CD-ROM or online tools to handle orientation and preliminary knowledge requirements. This way, all your trainees will learn the same facts about the company, the position, and the product or service before official courses even begin. Online assessment allows new hires to test and skip sections in which they are already competent. You can also use online tests to evaluate required skills after employees have completed the preliminary electronic training. Many organizations prefer to conduct full training in a traditional classroom setting, enhanced with technology-based tools such as simulations, but electronic aids are invaluable for providing refresher courses, access to training materials, and searchable databases. New skills and competencies can be taught through self-paced online or electronic modules. Computer-based testing and tracking of results can be used along with classroom and follow-up training.

Of course, you should expect new media to supplement, not replace, traditional classroom education; aim for a mix of media and methods. CD-ROM and Web-based training are most popular with employers right now, but other options are developing rapidly. DVD, voice-over Internet protocol capabilities, page push, virtual reality, and shared whiteboards and chat are just a few of the technologies that increased bandwidth, affordable software, and improved standards have made possible.

To incorporate electronic learning into your curriculum, you must first make decisions about the presentation methods for each topic, the means of delivery for each application, and the proper instructional approach for each learning requirement. It is vital that you go beyond simply taking existing information and delivering it through electronic means. Presentation options include audio delivery, electronic support, online help, teleconferencing, multimedia, and groupware. Delivery options include – but are not limited to – CD-ROM, e-mail, the Internet, intranets and extranets, lectures, discussions, reading assignments, case studies, demos, role plays, and simulations. Your project team will need to go through each component, eliminating methods or approaches that are not appropriate for the training topic being addressed.

As you develop your training program, keep in mind the importance of “natural learning,” which takes place through doing, failure, coaching at the time of failure, and stories. A phased implementation works best: present, demonstrate, guide, allow for independent study and collaboration, and test before and after the course. Don’t forget to take into account available technology, finance, and resources (project leader, designer, developer, tester, delivery manager), as well as infrastructure considerations such as Internet access, bandwidth, platform standardization, firewalls, support, and maintenance. Consider creating your own electronic programs if you have the verbal, visual, and technical skills to do so; if your content is fairly stable; and if your deadlines and pressures do not prevent you from dedicating time to this effort. Remember, however, that many excellent off-the-shelf programs are available.

Learning portals are another option to look at. There are six basic kinds: (1) content aggregators, which provide access to courses and purchase content from multiple vendors; (2) content assessors, which offer the above plus evaluation of content by peers or experts; (3) content creators/authors, which supply the ability to create or author content right on the portal site through embedded tools and templates; (4) community collaboration vehicles, which enable working with peers or experts using embedded technology; (5) learning management systems, to be used in management and tracking; and (6) training department internal learning sites, which provide, in addition to the features listed previously, classroom and online registration, references, and resources.

Once you have developed your training program, evaluate and test it on a sample of the potential trainees. Based on the results and feedback, revise the program if necessary, and roll it out. Make sure to market it aggressively. Consider the use of a “carrot”: Will you offer learners any rewards for participation? And what about a “stick” – repercussions if they don’t? Conduct post-training analysis, testing, tracking, and measurement. Solicit feedback and suggestions from the training participants. What’s working, what isn’t? For example, self-paced electronic learning often fails, for several reasons. One is that it offers no incentive to participate, such as more money, advancement, or academic participation.

Another reason is that some people just don’t like isolation and prefer the experience of trainer-led traditional training, as well as the opportunity to get away from the daily work routine and interact with peers. Poor course design is also a turn-off. To be at all effective, electronic courses must be engaging, multisensory, and interactive, and offer the option of testing and skipping sections if the user can demonstrate the requisite knowledge and skills.

It’s all very well to talk up the benefits of high-tech in the training room, but before you even listen to the first sound bite, you want to know how much the whole thing costs. According to a study called “The Cost of E-learning Packaged Courses,” conducted by training consultant Brandon Hall, prices can run anywhere from 11 cents to $1,000 per student. Vendors will usually offer a per-student, per-course rate. For example, let’s suppose that 500 users take a self-paced Internet class, ranging in length from 15 minutes to 12 hours. The fee would amount to $12 to $25 per course, or $1.20 to $33 per student. For 5,000 users, the cost becomes $20 to $26 per course, or $2.60 to $20.65 per user.

That may seem high, but keep in mind that over time, new media training can save you a bundle. Training magazine points out that companies reduce 50% to 70% of their overall training cost by replacing traditional training with online delivery. Although technology-delivered courses initially cost a lot to develop, the price drops sharply over a few years. As Hall discovered in another study, a multimedia class cost $655,600 to develop, as opposed to the $519,000 it took to create a conventional lecture/lab offering, but after three years the cost of the technology-based instruction plummeted to $221,054, whereas that of the traditional course rose to $591,827. WR Hambrecht & Co. reports that while businesses spent $500 million on Internet training in 1999, they expect to boost that to $7 billion in 2002.