Companies that operate in regulated industries, like BellSouth, must negotiate many complex rules and guidelines. Over the years, BellSouth has expanded into unregulated businesses such as Internet solutions and a yellow pages subsidiary. But its core communications services still operate under the purview of state and federal regulators.
Consequently, the company must keep its workforce of approximately 80,000 current on how to comply with a fluid, multi-layered regulatory structure. Beyond that, BellSouth must keep its people up to speed on safety measures and the company’s products and services, while measuring and managing the training.
To that end, BellSouth has built the BellSouth University, with the BellSouth Online Training System, or BOLTS, at its core. Powered by a learning management system (LMS) from Atlanta-based Learn.net Inc., BOLTS delivers multimedia training to the student’s desktop.
The LMS is accessible through the BellSouth intranet using any popular browser. Users can launch computer-based training and online courses. Instructors and managers can track students’ progress and administer tests before and after students take courses, and BOLTS is compatible with BellSouth’s existing scheduling system and various other applications. In addition, managers can use BOLTS to conduct tests as part of employees’ skills assessments and performance appraisals.
“There’s a lot to it besides just online training,” said Elaine Ware, e-learning manager at BellSouth. BOLTS so far has helped BellSouth to reduce travel expenses, as employees can sit at their desks and complete training. This also reduces lost employee productivity. Even considering reduced travel time alone, BOLTS creates substantial cost savings for BellSouth, Ware said.
“We can run 80,000 employees through it (the program) at a minimal cost,” Ware said. “If every employee uses BOLTS, we’re paying roughly a dollar a person for the actual application.”
The BOLTS user base has grown steadily since its introduction in late 1997. In 1998, its second year of use, 1,902 BellSouth employees used BOLTS. That figure has steadily climbed, and through October, more than 20,000 employees took 55 courses via BOLTS in 2002.
The heaviest users, Ware said, are members of BellSouth’s compliance staff, who ensure that the company is following state, federal and international regulations. BellSouth earlier this year began selling long-distance telephone services, so staff members involved in that business are taking long-distance regulatory compliance training on BOLTS.
In addition, numerous salespeople use the system to stay updated on the products they sell. BellSouth recently added 15 online courses on products including digital subscriber line (DSL), frame relay, ISDN and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) switching services.
BellSouth employees can easily find a BellSouth University icon when they log on to their personal computers. Employees can click on the icon and immediately see an HTML Web page laying out available courses. From there, students can log on to BOLTS and begin taking the online courses. Once a student completes an online course, that result is automatically logged in the student’s history. If the student is charged a fee for the course, BOLTS generates a form outlining the charge. And BOLTS is also integrated with a system that handles charge-backs.
BellSouth has maintained the original BOLTS look and feel, allowing employees to become comfortable navigating the system. It’s all intended to maximize the system’s ease of use.
“That’s a big issue,” Ware said. “It’s a big issue because if the student can’t get into the system, it doesn’t matter what it can do.”
They can get in, and Ware wants to significantly expand what the system can do. For example, in 2003, she hopes to add a webcasting capability in order to create virtual classrooms that employees can access from their desktops and interact with a live instructor in another location.
“Learn.net provides comprehensive learning solutions, and an important component of a broad solution is the ability to integrate new capabilities, such as Web conferencing and webcasting, into BOLTS,” said Ken Leddick, chairman of Learn.net. “We look forward to continuing to work with BellSouth to add technologies that help them achieve business goals.”
Charles Davidson has written about the technology industry in the South for more than a decade. Most recently, he was senior editor of digitalsouth magazine, which covered technology startups and finance in the region stretching from Washington, D.C. through Texas.