Career agents for Boston-based John Hancock Financial Services Inc. can be excused these days for thinking they're full-time students rather than full-time insurance professionals.Over this past year, John Hancock's 1,400 career agents have had to get up to speed quickly to learn about new-product offerings, new state and federal regulatory compliance issues and a new parent company, Manulife Financial.

With so much to learn and so little time in which to learn it, John Hancock agents are among a growing number of insurance professionals discovering the power of online learning and training. As they consider enrolling in traditional instructor-led courses, agents often find it difficult to squeeze training into hectic schedules. By leveraging insurer-sponsored e-learning tools, insurers and their agents have at their disposal a flexible alternative to classroom instruction.

Indeed, John Hancock has embraced the online training format: Just over the past year, the insurer added 43 new training modules to its online repertoire, effectively doubling to 86 the number of insurance topics offered to agents.

And there's a lot to learn. Agents have to keep pace with the provider's internal requirements for continuing education (CE), requiring them to complete insurance courses to attain a higher level of professional standards. Moreover, John Hancock's agents in 2004 had to endure the growing pains of working for a new parent company, Toronto-based Manulife, which merged with John Hancock last year.

From a sales standpoint, the merger meant agents had to become well versed in Manulife's products and services, some of which differed from John Hancock's.

"Many of our agents take online courses on weekends or during off-peak business hours," says Frank King, John Hancock's general director of program delivery. "When we deploy the online university to fulfill training, we're able to track attendance and verify results. In one regulatory compliance effort, we were able to train 1,400 agents within a 30-day period where completing this task offline in that time frame would have been more difficult."

Industry experts agree that e-learning serves as a nice complement to the overall learning, training and development efforts. But the jury is still out on whether it will ever replace instructor-led programs. "We feel that improving the performance of insurers' key asset-their people-is a top priority," says Katrina Harrison, vice president of membership and business development for Washington, D.C.-based American Insurance Association (AIA).

AIA, which has 450 insurance carrier-members, recently aligned with Atlanta-based Learn.net to enable its companies to access e-learning opportunities at their discretion.

"Improving premium results, better managing compliance requirements, reducing errors and omission exposure and improving profit margins through improved employee productivity are four critical improvement opportunities for our members," explains Harrison, adding that executing these efforts online has become an imperative.

Higher learning

Each year, carriers raise the stakes on their participation in online training methodologies, and why not. Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. reported in a recent study examining e-learning that an "online course taken at home or in non-critical business hours can free up 5% to 10% of total production time, with direct positive impacts on premium growth."

Larry Duckworth, president of Learn.net, which provides video-via-Web e-learning capabilities to insurers, agrees with the assessment.

"If you are a new employee and receive a promotion, you probably have to complete one or more management courses in one month," says Duckworth. "When it comes to adopting e-learning, most insurers I know indicate that, 'yes, we've been laggards with (e-learning) technology, but we don't have that luxury anymore.'"

As demand grows, e-learning technology is becoming more sophisticated. Once predominantly focused on CD-ROM diskettes, more insurers are exploring two-way video conferencing, satellite networks and other technologies that support real-time participation. And while most programs are currently PC-driven, some insurers have identified mobile applications such as MP3 players and iPod devices to make it more convenient for agents.

Interactive instruction is another new option to consider. Synchronous e-learning, for example, involves the inclusion of a Web-based instructor where a student logs on the same time each day to take a lesson. By contrast, asynchronous learning is more self-directed in which a student is on their own to complete an assignment before submitting it for review.

Online universities

While insurers can approach programs from a host of angles, the lion's share of e-learning deployments appear to involve Internet or intranet sites that drive agent participation by offering what's become popularly known as "online universities."

Under this model, agents can access a host of materials supported by PowerPoint slides and video clips. The Principal Financial Group made enhancement this past summer to its Web-based Continuing Education (CE) University, first rolled out in 2003.

The Des Moines, Iowa-based insurer encourages brokers and wholesalers to use the platform to register for seminars on more than 30 topics covering individual life and disability insurance. But The Principal also views the online forum as an excellent way to network with brokers, reasoning that online interaction can replicate, to a degree, what learners would accomplish in a classroom.

Other insurers have found value in marketing an online university concept. MassMutual offers agents what it dubs MassMutual University, a Web-based program enabling agents to tap resources about specific insurance and investment-type products to help support cross-selling efforts.

Providing agents with "chat room" functionality in which to interact online with other professionals, the Springfield, Mass.-based carrier is receiving a great deal of traction from the program, which is available to its 3,800 MassMutual agents encompassing 80 general agencies. Thus far, these agents have enrolled in a grand total of 15,500 courses spanning 500 individual study topics-free of charge.

After implementing the online university format in 2000, MassMutual, which has 10 million clients offering wealth management, life, annuities, disability income and long-term care products, re-launched MassMutual Univer-sity in 2002. Company executives understood that to make online learning not only attractive but effective, it had to make the program more robust and interactive.

The key upgrade: An interactive "learning management system," that was a leap above the static, non-interactive interface of the first version.

These upgrades have spurred agent adoption. But overall insurers such as MassMutual have concluded that the key to convincing agents to embrace online learning hinges on getting them to change their approach to knowledge gathering.

"We don't regard e-learning as just a program: Online learning is really a mindset-it's a way to convey information in bite-size pieces for ready absorption by our agents," says Larry Cowles, MassMutual's second vice president, national professional center for professional development.

Cowles stresses that one of the keys to successful online learning is fluidity-that is, insurers must know what learning components are relevant and which ones have become obsolete. MassMutual gauges these trends through field input.

When it's apparent that a learning module must be replaced, the carrier can quickly mobilize with support of its IT department. Designing Web templates that facilitate the maintenance and expansion of e-learning content, MassMutual can usually have a new program up and running within 24 hours, he says.

Cowles also intimates that another cardinal rule of effective online learning is understanding that when it comes to the learning habits of 3,800 agents, not all study the same way.

"We design online programs to fit the needs of our general agencies-it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all proposition," states Cowles. "The skill level of agents and the way they learn and absorb information is vastly different. As a result, you have to customize. Internally, we have eight training consultants who regularly consult with our GA's on what the specific needs are for their own agents."

The learning curve

Industry experts say that for adoption of online learning programs to accelerate, insurers have to find a way to replicate what agents and employees take away from traditional training sessions.

Insurers already know that e-learning is a cost-effective alternative, when you account for the reduction of travel expenses and the improvement of overall productivity.

But an investment in e-learning hinges on several other factors. Insurance companies must confront both strategic and tactical decision-making processes. From a tactical standpoint, MassMutual oversees its online learning program mainly in-house.

The reason? "We wanted to be more self-reliant," says Cowles. "That's not to say we don't have third-party partnerships. Rather than buying a software package from vendors, we've worked more and more to co-develop programs with vendors, where we both have a stake in the program."

John Hancock partners with two vendors in support of its online university. Learn.net hosts the Web property on its own servers and helps the insurer track agent volume and provide agent user profiles. The other vendor-Manchester, N.H.-based PinPoint Global-maintains and updates the training modules.

Insurers also have to determine whether to host a program or set it up as an application service provider (ASP) model. "Some customers want us to manage this soup to nuts," says Bill Strelke, executive vice president of business development for Bellevue, Wash.-based Knowledge Anywhere. "The learning tools can be put on our servers or be deployed on theirs, and sensitive data is protected."

"IT departments are stretched thin, so insurers want to go the ASP route with distance learning," says Learn.net's Duckworth. "The key is insurers want to have it appear that an e-learning program is originating from their own Web site, behind the scenes, while in fact it's being hosted by a third party."

Duckworth notes that an agent's management system can link directly to a Web site where a course is being offered-and do it quickly. "A few years ago, navigation would require multiple clicks on a Web site to find a program," he explains. "We have a system in place where agents can click once and access the materials."

Learn.net offers a solution called MAPLE (Multi-Adaptive Performance and Learning Environment), a video-over-Web program that tests, tracks and reports learning sessions. "One distinctive aspect of our program is that it's very configurable with an open architecture," Duckworth says. "The rules designed within the system can be formed into learning models, or objects. These models can be re-used as needed for new programs, which speeds up new program deployment and reduces launch expense and delays."

Adoption trends

All these factors are critical to spur adoption of online learning and training by agents, many of whom are younger and have more of an affinity for technology.

"What I've seen in the last three years is that our agents are much younger and these people don't have the problem with online tools," says Beth Gamble Riggins, director of training for Columbia, S.C.-based South Carolina Farm Bureau.

Understanding this trend, Des Plaines, Ill.-based Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (PCI) held a one-day meeting in October to discuss the role that games and simulation might play with online learning and development.

"The use of games and simulation is level-based learning, where a student has to get a question right before they move to the next level," says Robyn Mendelsohn, director of training and development for PCI. "Simulation and games represents a challenge that piques their interest-not unlike a teenager who plays video games for hours trying to attain a higher score."

While adoption of programs might represent the initial challenge, insurers need to know that involvement with e-learning is actually making a difference with agent productivity.

In one internal survey it recently conducted, MassMutual found that agents that selected one particular online study program hiked their productivity anywhere from 5% to 55% compared to those agents that did not take the course in an online environment.

"One thing we have been able to do its put accountability in the program," states Diana Ruddick, vice president, professional development and communications for MassMutual. "We are able to tell, along with our general agencies, which individual agents are taking a particular course, how they fared, which ones are in a so-called queue waiting to take a course and which agents dropped a course. We always have a record of these activities."

While e-learning solutions are proving to have a lot of upside, the burning question on the minds of many industry participants is: Will online learning and training ever supplant traditional methodologies?

Some believe it's the wave of the future. Ninth House, a San Francisco-based provider of online learning technology, worked with one East Coast health provider on an e-learning initiative and found that it "changed the way they looked at training," says Charles Orlando, director of marketing for Ninth House. "The carrier implemented our modules and was able to assess customer needs much better. This carrier moved from an 80% instructor-led training to a blended online approach, which is now about 75% online."

However, others think that traditional instructor-led training will never disappear. "I don't think e-learning or CBT (computer-based training) can ever really replicate instructor-led coursework. It's a great second option, though," states PCI's Mendelsohn.

"You don't see the same level of results. As tedious as it may appear, sitting in a classroom provides a student with immersion-they're immersed in learning. They can raise their hand or blurt out an answer. People like to observe in a classroom, and often the open discussion in a classroom fosters a higher degree of thinking by other class members," Mendelsohn declares.

Insurers Examining Role Of Online Learning

The incentive for insurers to explore online learning, beside the low travel costs and reduction of lost agent and employee productivity, is the fact that carriers can turn around training relatively quickly. This is essential with so many new products, regulatory compliance requirements and other liability issues nipping at their heels.

Larry Duckworth, president of Learn.net, an Atlanta-based provider of online learning and training technology, believes insurers have become extremely concerned about liability, particularly errors and omissions.

"E&O costs are huge today," says Duckworth. "An insurer can get sued because a product was not sold correctly by an agent. A plaintiff lawyer will go after a carrier in a heartbeat because that's where the money is. But if the insurer has proof that the agent passed a continuing education course, the burden is off the insurer and on the individual."

Duckworth says that most insurers regard e-learning as a way to reduce costs associated with travel expenses, such as not having to send employees out of town to participate in training. Duckworth believes travel costs can be reduced two-thirds if traditional training is replaced by Web-based training.

He also indicates that e-learning can help stimulate new-business volume.

"My belief is that four-to-six percent of a producer's time can be freed up to sell more because they are not attending training in an out-of-town location, but doing the training either in the evening at home on their own time," says Duckworth. "Or they are doing the training during work hours where they split their time between training and their workload."

One crucial element to engaging e-learning for insurers is to implement a strategy that emphasizes open and non-proprietary systems and standards.

"XML architecture and plug-and-play features have become necessary. What standards do is provide scalability and flexibility so an insurer can add software to an e-leaning program without a lot of effort, and they can opt for new platforms whether they be Unix or NT and can be implemented without many or any code changes," explains Duckworth.

How should insurers go about adopting online learning programs? One third-party provider, San Francisco-based Ninth House, meets with company executives to first determine if there is a good level of sponsorship throughout the organization.

"You have to have multiple executive sponsors and push it forward," says Charles Orlando, director of marketing for Ninth House. "Then, you have to account for technical integration and run a very small pilot. We got 100 people up and running on one of the courses and we walked them through the process fairly quickly."

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