Great-West Healthcare began using computer-based training to teach new sales reps about its products and services. The company is now using online training for its claims examiners, call center reps and HIPAA compliance across the organization.Spending on employee training has not been felled by budget axe wielders. That's according to the American Society of Training & Development (ASTD), Alexandria, Va., which also found the percentage of total training dollars spent on e-learning jumped from 8.8% in 2000 to 10.5% in 2001-the largest increase in four years.

"The dual shocks of the recession and Sept. 11 appear to have prompted organizations to find faster, more cost-effective methods to train large numbers of people," says Chris Thompson, Ph.D., and author of an ASTD report titled, "Training for the Next Economy."

"E-learning can help organizations accomplish these goals and provide more customized and personalized learning experiences for employees," he says.

That's been the case for Great-West Healthcare, a Denver-based health and life insurance company, which embarked on e-learning even before the terrorist attacks occurred.

"We started using computer-based training for our sales force in the field about three years ago," says Steven Franklin, associate manager of training & development at Great-West.

At that time, Great-West hired new college graduates as sales representatives. The company then flew them to Denver from around the country for two, two-week training sessions.

But classroom sales training was time-consuming and expensive, especially considering that not many of the newly hired reps turned out to be top performers. "We made an enormous investment in time and money to get them in here, and only a certain percentage of them actually succeeded in the position long-term," Franklin says.

As a result, Great-West management decided it needed a more cost-effective way to deliver product training out to approximately 80 field offices across the United States. Then, the company could invest in a week of classroom training-covering "soft" skills-for only the most promising sales candidates.

An unproven deal

To that end, Great-West turned to Web-based computer training from Trainersoft, which has since merged with Boston-based OutStart Inc. "We looked at research online and talked to other people who had looked into-or were doing-computer-based training or online learning," Franklin says. "And we set up certain criteria about price, service and capabilities for vendors."

Great-West ultimately selected Trainersoft because it offered the best price, it promised stellar service, and it enabled its customers to invest in online training in a phased manner.

"E-learning was an unproven deal with our company," says Franklin. "So we couldn't justify to upper management spending $100,000 to get into the game-which is what many of Trainersoft's competitors were quoting us at that time."

Instead, Great-West bought five licenses at $1,500 apiece. And within the first nine months, a small group of trainers produced more than 30 hour-long online training modules to teach sales reps about the company's products and services.

Trainersoft is easy to use, Franklin says, enabling trainers to develop computer-based training on their own. Many other products on the market require some programming background or programmers to help develop the training, he says.

Ease of use was important to Great-West, because the company preferred to develop its online training modules without IT support. "Whenever IT has to get involved, any change you want to make is a big deal," Franklin says. Using Trainersoft, on the other hand, Great-West trainers can make a change to a module within an hour, as opposed to waiting days or even weeks for systems staff to do it.

The online modules themselves, which are accessible via the corporate intranet, are more effective than the classroom for product training, Franklin says. That's because new sales reps can continually go back and repeat sessions as needed-at their own pace.

"When we had classes live, reps would take the final exam once, and they'd get their score. And a lot of them didn't reach the 85% passing score on the first try," he says.

The interactive computer-based training enables them to take an exam after completing each module, and if they don't score at least 85%, they must repeat that module before moving on to the next one.

"With (the trainees) now having to retake the exam and get 85%, we know for sure that we've got an educated workforce," says Franklin. "And, we're able to roll products out to them faster. So they hit the streets with more knowledge."

Great savings

As for financial savings, he says, "because we're not spending money bringing as many folks in to Denver for those two sessions of training, I estimate we saved $100,000 in the first year alone."

Great-West continues to conduct a week-long classroom training session in Denver for "soft" sales skills training, however. "Computer-based training is great for product knowledge," says Franklin. But he believes face-to-face training is more effective for learning to apply soft skills on the job, because reps can role-play with each other and with the instructor.

"When it's just you and the computer, there's no way to really judge how well you understand what we're teaching in the classroom training," he says. "It's much better for people to be in role-playing situations to see how they would apply their knowledge on the job, and judge it that way."

Since Great-West began its e-learning initiative with new sales reps three years ago, the company has rolled it out to it claims examiners, call center reps and underwriters.

The company now has 15 Trainersoft licenses, as well as OutStart's learning management system (LMS), which enables management to assign classes to employees across the organization and track their results.

The learning management system came in handy for Great-West's compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

"For HIPAA, we needed a very convenient way for 4,000 people to take the HIPAA privacy training-and for us to track and certify compliance," says Franklin.

Using the LMS, the entire Great-West workforce-4,000 employees-received online compliance training this year-as required by the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

Franklin praises Trainersoft's customer service all along. At the beginning of implementation, Great-West ran into a problem. Its system couldn't find the pop-up box files in the training modules.

It turned out that the file names were in capital letters-and the insurer's system could only read lower case file names. Trainersoft delivered a new version within four days, he says.

More recently, Great-West needed OutStart to add some reports to its old learning management system so the health insurer could conduct its HIPAA training. "They came back to us within a week or two and gave us those reports," says Franklin.

Franklin also has advice for other companies that are considering investing in e-learning: Don't spend a lot of money, and don't try to replace all training with computer-based training. "Companies make huge mistakes trying to do that, and it ends up failing," he says. "Certain training is great for computer-based training, and certain training stinks on CBT. You've got to be smart about it."

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