Most Americans will never forget where they were when they first heard news of the September 11th terrorist attack. For 62 Allstate claim handlers, they will remember they were attending training workshops at the carrier's
Tech-Cor Research and Educational facility in Wheeling, Ill.
People were deeply traumatized by the terrorist attacks, says Patricia McCarthy, training and education director at Tech-Cor. "We had people who couldn't continue their studies that day." In one class, half the students were from New York. "People were thinking, 'How do I get home?'"
In the weeks immediately following the terrorist attacks, approximately 50% of the Allstate claim adjusters who were scheduled for classes at the Wheeling facility canceled their travel plans. Like businesses around the country, Tech-Cor was faced with calling off its workshops and considering alternatives.
In fact, in the week following the attacks, 58% of corporate travel managers responding to a survey conducted by the National Business Travel Association, in Alexandria, Va., said their companies would reduce travel. Seventy percent expected a recovery in three to six months-but that depended on improvements in airline security and the economic condition of their companies.
Although it's too early to gauge the short- and long-term effects of Sept. 11 on carriers' business travel plans and virtual learning programs, it's clear that online learning was already proving its value in providing cost-effective, flexible delivery for training employees and agents before the attacks. Several carriers contacted for this article indicate that having online technology in place only enables them to be better prepared-if and when they need an alternative to the classroom.
The Hartford School of Insurance, a subsidiary of The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., recently launched an e-campus Web site for insurance agents. The site augments classroom instruction that the school provides in Hartford, Conn., for customer service representatives and new producers.
In early October, the school conducted two-week and three-week workshops, and not one person canceled, says Carolyn Lombardi, manager of operations and sales for The Hartford School of Insurance. "Classroom training is still the best," she says. "But we don't know what's going to happen. We all need to remain flexible in everything we do. And this Web site increases our flexibility."
The high cancellation rate at Allstate's Tech-Cor facility immediately following Sept. 11 required organizers to develop alternatives to the classroom environment. Fortunately, the claim department had been using distance learning and computer-based training since 1989, McCarthy says. And its workshops had already evolved into performance-based, modular programs, which made it easy to reconfigure them into a virtual format.
Sooner, not later
The Tech-Cor team redesigned and delivered its popular auto liability skills workshop in a virtual format within two weeks.
Redesigning the workshop for virtual delivery had been discussed before the attacks, McCarthy says, but Tech-Cor was waiting for enhancements to the corporate online learning platform before moving forward. "When Sept. 11 happened, we decided it made sense to move sooner rather than later," she says.
Prior to holding the virtual sessions, adjusters received videos, manuals, electronic files and other coursework-via mail, e-mail and the corporate intranet learning network. Telephone simulations, which are normally conducted from the Tech-Cor facility, were initiated directly from adjusters' desks. Teleconferencing replaced class discussions.
McCarthy and her team were amazed by the success of the pilots. "This was not only a home run-this was a grand slam," she says.
Allstate's immediate goal in providing its virtual workshop was to provide an alternative to classroom training quickly and cost-effectively in the wake of the attacks. But Allstate and other carriers who use the technology say it provides benefits that justify its use even without Sept. 11 factored into the equation.
The St. Paul Cos., for example, is using Web-based training to control travel costs associated with providing continuing education (CE) to its centrally located claim adjusters-credits that are required for state licenses. The carrier now has three facilities handling routine nationwide claims-two in Tampa, Fla., and one in St. Paul, Minn.
Working with education vendors such as Dallas-based WebCE.com LLC and The Bisys Group Inc., New York, the St. Paul-based carrier has launched an online continuing education program that enables claim adjusters to take CE courses via the Internet-rather than dispatching them to various states to fulfill their license requirements.
Before centralizing its claim handling, St. Paul would incur minimal travel expenses to send a Vermont adjuster, for example, to a local seminar, says Lee Saxton, manager of claim education at St. Paul. But sending claim adjusters from Florida to different states for licensing is a much more costly endeavor. When exploring alternatives, Saxton says, "it was almost a no-brainer to look at online delivery."
In addition to reducing travel expenses, online courses-like traditional correspondence courses-provide students with more flexibility to fit training into their schedules, according to proponents of the technology.
This is an advantage to managers who don't want employees taken away from production for extended periods of time, and it's appealing to insurance agents and financial advisors whose time away from work cuts into their earning potential.
"When you're taking a CE class, you're not selling anything," says Les Ward, CEO of WebCE.com. "We get testimonials from people saying (online CE courses) are the most wonderful thing in the world."
The Hartford School of Insurance wanted to accommodate agent needs when it launched its e-campus at www.hsie-campus.com in August. The Web site, administered by DeSai Systems Inc., Bloomfield, Conn., offers agents online registration for homegrown classroom courses and online courses from companies that provide agent education-including CE courses. The site also provides skills assessment and online ordering of books, videos, articles and publications on insurance, technology, general business and management leadership.
"Agents say it's hard enough to keep up with business, let alone professional development," The Hartford's Lombardi says. "We decided to save them the time, trouble and expense of going to a classroom, so we're using the Internet to bring it to them instead."
Similarly, Safeco Life and Investments Co., a unit of Seattle-based Safeco Corp., launched online "just-in-time learning" for its agents and advisors this summer. Adding functionality to its existing producer Web portal at www.safecoplaza.com, Safeco now offers online courses developed in-house on variable annuities, mutual funds and variable universal life insurance, as well as courses for continuing education credits via Life Instructors Inc., New Providence, N.J.
Safeco Life and Investments decided to provide online training because producers were asking for it, says Jim Pirak, vice president of marketing for the company. Agents and advisors who were attending the company's four-day, classroom-based financial school in Seattle said they wanted additional training that was convenient to their schedules.
With just-in-time training added to the Web site, agents can receive education and training after they've finished their appointments for the day, or in preparation for a client meeting, Pirak says. Furthermore, the courses are modular and archived, so agents can retrieve portions of sessions they need, whenever they need them.
"The training targets a broad range of producers-from those who are just getting into the business to those who are very sophisticated and have a specific market opportunity they'd like to learn more about or need a refresher on," Pirak says.
For example, an agent who is newly licensed in securities can go to the first module of variable annuities and learn the basics of that market, he explains, whereas a long-time producer can enter in the seventh module to brush up on 403b's.
Indeed, giving agents and employees access to flexible training is a key advantage of online coursework over classroom delivery, says WebCE.com's Ward. "People's schedules are haphazard, so we've designed the content so you can get out of the course to go to a meeting, and when you get back, you start right where you left off."
Online education providers, such as WebCE, also provide convenient services such as hosting Web training sites for carriers, and administering state CE reporting requirements for adjuster and agent licensing.
WebCE, for example, has developed co-branded Web portals for approximately 25 insurers. Its services include reporting student scores to states that require it, issuing certificates, and maintaining records for five years as required by law.
Similarly, VCampus Corp., a Reston, Va.-based e-learning company, provides servers, network support, security, application software and customer care services to its clients.
VCampus has built a virtual university for a large Midwestern carrier that wishes to remain anonymous, according to Daniel Neal, VCampus president and CEO. The site provides IT training to a dispersed employee base, as well as training on the carrier's policies and procedures, and remote proctored testing.
Despite all its advantages, however, virtual learning has not yet replaced classroom training, and perhaps it never will (see related article on page 28). With online training, "you give up many elements of communication, such as voice inflection and facial expression," WebCE.com's Ward says. (WebCE.com also provides classroom training and correspondence courses.)
narrowing the gap
However, the gap between virtual learning and the classroom will narrow as multimedia and interactive courseware become available, industry sources say. Already, carriers are investigating and experimenting with advanced delivery technologies.
Allstate, for example, has met with vendors of Webcast technology-which enables people to hold live meetings and discussions via the Web. The Tech-Cor training facility also has conducted live satellite training in the past-a technology that makes sense when the company needs to train a large group of people in a short period of time, McCarthy says.
Safeco has tested applications such as Webcasting and streaming video, but agents and advisors currently do not have the broadband capabilities on a broad basis in their day-to-day operations to take advantage of those types of training sessions, Pirak says.
Indeed, several carriers said online training involves a culture shift, which has not fully occurred yet (see chart on page 26). Technology for more interactive courses is advancing, "but it's not there yet," The Hartford's Lombardi says, comparing virtual learning to e-mail 10 years ago. "Not everybody is comfortable with it. It's an evolution. It's coming."
"Anyone who goes in this direction should not expect that overnight people are going to jump in and say, 'Wow!'" St. Paul's Saxton says. Most people need reminders that online training is available to them, and some need "hand-holding" until they're comfortable with it, she adds.
Allstate's McCarthy admits she was surprised at the receptivity of claim handlers to the virtual workshop Tech-Cor held after Sept. 11. "This truly was stepping outside the box," she says.
But the results were so positive that Tech-Cor is running two additional virtual pilots of the workshop this month, then it will replace the traditional delivery with the virtual format in a phased approach next year-an evolution that fits with the facility's long-term goals.
"We made a strategic decision in the last few years to become more of a resource," McCarthy says. "We didn't want people to have to come up here to Tech-Cor to benefit from the content of our workshops."
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