Training Gains a Web Hold For Agencies in Need


By John Makulowich

A new wrinkle to the debate about the emergence of information technology haves and have nots was added with the release earlier this year of a survey by the influential American Society for Training & Development.

In its "1999 State of the Industry Report," the organization, who describes its mission as aiming to improve work and work-related issues so people and organizations can do their jobs most effectively, noted there is a growing gap between world-class, leading-edge companies and their industries as a whole.

Specifically, that gap explains the extent to which investments in training and development provide those organizations with a competitive edge.

"Organizations that are falling behind in their training today may well be putting their future success at risk," the Alexandria, Va.-based society's report concluded.

It will come as little surprise to observers of the public sector that government ranked near the bottom of the list on a number of ratios identified by ASTD as offering a quick snapshot of the state of the training industry.

For example, in training expenditures per employee, the government ranked just ahead of health care, which was dead last, trade and durable manufacturing. In the category of training expenditures as a percent of payroll, government was next to last, again just ahead of health care.

Training alone, as ASTD noted, is not the whole picture in leading-edge organizations that wish to gain a competitive advantage. Just as important are complementary practices, such as enlightened management and innovative compensation and training.

Whether or not the government can move up the ASTD key ratio ladder, signs of life are showing in the federal sector.

One good example of a federal initiative is Executive Order 13111, "Using Technology to Improve Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees," which was passed in January.

That dictum from President Clinton stressed the importance of Web-based training. It called for developing flexible training opportunities for employees and the exploration of how programs, initiatives and policies can support lifelong learning through technology. One quick result was the creation of the General Services Administration's OnLine University.

But despite that executive order, all is not well in the federal sector. One need turn only to a slightly different arena, the education sector, where research on effective learning drives the agenda.

There, the news is disheartening, for what is happening in the classroom and the way education is delivered seems a far cry from what a lot of educators and trainers are hawking.

The National Research Council, in a report issued this year entitled, "How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice," concluded: "Educators generally do not look to research for guidance."

Thus, while the White House draws attention to the importance of training, at least one organization seems to throw into question the value that can be achieved by training without further substantive research.

Sophia Kitts

On a more positive note, even before the stimulus of the executive order, one could find scattered bright spots around the government that serve as catalysts for training innovation.

A case in point is the work of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, a Department of Energy contractor in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

That organization developed "Alice in Ethicsland" for the Oak Ridge operations office. A training package that serves as a biennial refresher course on government ethics, it was received so well that it was adopted by the agency systemwide.

The Web-based, 30-minute, interactive training puts the trainee in the Queen of Hearts Ethics Court to find judgment on whether Alice, Tweedle Dee, and the rest of the characters acted ethically in 13 scenarios with which the user is presented.

According to Sophia Kitts, training and development project manager, the course was made as simple as possible to reach the widest possible target audience. That group comprised federal staff with financial responsibility as well as those in the Senior Executive Service, generally individuals at the novice level of Web use.

"Part of our success came from working at the outset with legal counsel as subject matter experts. What was developed for 400 people is now used by 9,000 throughout the [Energy Department]," said Kitts.

She said there were a number of lessons learned over the year in which the course was developed.

First, course content had to be stable, not continually changing.

Second, the client had to understand the need for wide distribution from a cost standpoint. Without wide adoption and use, the cost to develop the course becomes prohibitive.

Third, computer-based courses had to be developed with the idea of filling a need, not just to be innovative. And related to that point, technology could not be used for technology's sake. It is best to make sure the technology use fits best as the mode of delivery.

William Hornbeck

In a case of a different order of magnitude, the GSA recently contracted with VCampus Corp., formerly UOL Publishing Inc. of McLean, Va., to provide a distance learning management platform as an outsourced service to train 14,000 agency employees.

With VCampus, GSA can create and deploy a virtual classroom environment, for example, to enroll, register, test, grade, report, analyze, manage and measure key aspects of a distributed learning program.

Beyond this effort, GSA plans to become a federalwide learning portal by using the VCampus platform. Essentially, the GSA OnLine University will allow GSA employees to enter a virtual campus and gain access to 300 courses in information technology, telecommunications, management and basic skills. It was just in February that GSA contracted with then-UOL to provide the portal for GSA OnLine University.

According to William Hornbeck, president and chief executive officer of Periphery Internet Corp. of Leesburg, Va., and formerly vice president of marketing and strategic business development for VCampus, the company targets as clients the executive team in the corporation, institution or government with the responsibility for delivering enterprisewide training.

"VCampus provides the Web site gateway, the ability to deliver the client's own in-house courses across the Web and the added opportunity to offer additional courses from a library of third-party courseware," Hornbeck said. "Most importantly, there is the internal management system that allows tracking, testing, measuring and reporting on individual progress through a designated training plan."

VCampus, which changed its name in September, has been around for more than 15 years.

Along with the training platform, the company prides itself on offering a "complete solution for Web-based learning," including turnkey service, even to the extent of converting in-house courses into a Web-deliverable product that allows the customer to provide its own training.

Asked where training is headed, Hornbeck grouped the industry into three audiences: content providers, whom he called the prince of the kingdom; the training deliverers and the Internet platforms or infrastructure.

"Most colleagues agree that a major change is occurring in the life of modern man and woman. Specifically, the aging of America is a dynamic force and the power of baby boomers looms large," he said. "We need to continually retool our work skills since we are living so much longer. That means we need to rethink our business and operational skills. No longer will people simply go to college, marry, get a job, raise a family and retire. Back to school will become a constant refrain."

Tom D'Innocenzi

Exploring the training terrain worldwide is the aim of, a Princeton, N.J., developer of Web-based training technology founded in 1996.

It has already rolled out training programs via the Internet for the Singapore government. The training of 2,000 teachers now under way is expected to lead to the eventual education of more than 22,000 Singaporean teachers using the company's VLearn software.

The company also has sold more than 150,000 licenses around the world, including in Japan and China. recently signed an agreement with Loxley Public Co. Ltd. to distribute its VLearn online training application in Thailand.

It claims to be the only firm providing Web-based English language training to government and business in Asia. Further, it has projects under way in Brussels, Belgium, and Tokyo, Taiwan and Thailand, and parts of Europe as well as the in the United States, all run from its Princeton headquarters.

Training in the United States tends to focus on regulatory issues and compliance for the airline, banking and health care industries.

For Tom D'Innocenzi, CEO of, the company's strategy is to exploit what he considers the leading issues in training: deployment, maintenance and technology use. His target market is very large corporations and governments, and his goal is to make learning usable by formatting content, what amounts to taking a book and applying everyone's different profile to it.

"In the government market, you start with tight budgets and large volume among a varied group of people with varied backgrounds and ability. While our competitors offer a fixed interface with fixed content, we provide a dynamic interface with dynamic content," said D'Innocenzi.

As an example, he cited the military, where new recruits are often more knowledgeable about the Internet, browsers and the level of complexity they can expect than their commanding officers.

"What we offer is true middleware. Others include content," he said. "For most of our major customers, we cannot hawk content. We enable what they have. We are the important part between content and Internet learning. Quite simply, we want to be the [Microsoft] Windows of Internet training."

D'Innocenzi feels his company excels in using technology to track what different learners do and evaluating whether training was effective. His VLearn application records all that users do during training and correlates it with the test results. Thus, everything from mouse movements and time spent on using help are gathered to provide a second assessment score.
Another player on the federal scene that offers an e-learning infrastructure is Saba Federal, part of Saba Software Inc. in Redwood Shores, Calif., and founded in 1997.

The company focuses on making training strategic by connecting results with an agency's mission, providing information on gaps in skills and highlighting individual strengths and opportunities for advancement and increased productivity. Like many others, this company does not provide content but partners with other firms that do.

Saba looks to connect the infrastructure so that training information can be used strategically by agencies to track how the training is working, who was trained, the benefits and who has what skills at what level.

Risa Freedman, director of Saba Federal of Vienna, Va., noted there is much chaos right now in the e-learning marketplace as well as difficulty for users trying to sort out what the current products do.

"In deciding on systems for training, you need to make sure learning is tied to business results. In the federal government, you need to know the goal or agency mission and make sure you are getting a return on investment. You also need to be able to measure the results of the learning intervention," said Freedman.

That translates into much more pre- and post-assessment of e-learning so supervisors know what people learned and how they can share it. It also means ensuring that learning is tied to strategic initiatives on operational goals or performance, a point that is critically important to agency heads and enterprise executives.

In fact, Freedman stretched the concept of e-learning beyond the immediate organization and into the supply chain by stressing the importance of the extended enterprise.

"At this point, e-learning is more important to e-business and e-commerce than vice versa," Freedman said. "Look at military. You see a lot of learning going on. The notion of supply chain e-learning and the extended enterprise means not just learning how to operate the tank, but looking into how it was manufactured and certifying the people who make it."

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