Communication is one of the linchpins of modern learning organizations, and Web-based virtual collaboration tools have earned significant credibility as communication aids. Instant messaging (IM), chat, and Web and video conferencing help enable widespread deployment of timely content to aid employee education on new product releases, corporate strategies and critical job function skills. Collaborative learning solutions reduce learning costs, increase productivity and generally surpass communication boundaries for the enterprise.
Chat and IM
A highly collaborative online learning environment replicates aspects of the traditional classroom and offers additional features like mentoring sessions and refresher training that can be organized and deployed quickly and tailored to all kinds of learning. Chat and IM tools, close cousins of traditional e-mail, have caught on quickly in organizations that want to provide their employees with a fast and easy way to deliver knowledge and collaborate with one another. Using tools such as Pathlore’s CollaborationPath, which includes built-in chat capabilities, learners can talk to one another in class and ask the instructor questions using customizable features that allow users to tailor the tool to whatever type of chat best meets their needs. WebEx Training Center has a Q&A function that offers students a more formal way to ask questions. It has a public/private response system that allows other students to see or not see answers. Offering the option of privacy means there can never be a dumb question. Users can interact and simulate a real classroom environment without embarrassment or fear of raising a hand.
Advanced chat options include breakout sessions where an instructor can break the class into multiple groups with specific tasks to complete, then reassemble to share findings and assessments publicly or privately as well as separate audio conference and Voice over IP (VoIP) to use the computer to deliver audio to students and instructors.
Virtual collaboration tools, such as emoticons and more, offer users a virtual feedback mechanism, giving students the ability to virtually raise a hand or respond to an instructor’s question. The instructor can keep tally of the answers, and students can give more colorful feedback with emoticons that say, “I’m dozing off,” “Yes, I’m enlightened” or “It’s time for me to take a break.” There’s even a clapping emoticon so that learners can give enthusiastic feedback when an instructor’s lessons are especially effective or well received, and the instructor can see all of these responses while delivering online education.
Sanjay Dalal, director of WebEx Training Center, said that organizations that want to deliver corporate education to their remote field and sales offices and globally distributed teams can take advantage of interactive virtual collaboration tools like chat to deliver timely, hands-on, cost-effective training. GE Medical used parts of the WebEx Training Center to train its customers and channel partners on how high-end medical instruments such as oscilloscopes, cardiograms and MRI machines are made. “Bringing all the customers in house to a facility in one location was proving to be very expensive,” Dalal said. “The good news is, all the machines that create the medical instruments are controlled by computer. Using the WebEx hands-on lab, they’re able to connect all the machines to the computer. They have a specific lab for each machine. In real-time, in a live online training session, they’re able to give control to the remote participants so that they work directly on the machines as though they were face-to-face. It’s as if you’re right there next to the medical instrument.” As a result of the training, Dalal said that productivity at GE Medical has increased and travel costs have been drastically reduced.
Olympus Medical Products Group, a subsidiary of Olympus America, experienced similar gains. Olympus Medical has some 600 employees and took advantage of virtual collaboration tools to provide product training for their sales force and field engineers, and boost training and development efforts for repair centers around the country. “We saw a need for some form of online because of the number of products that were going out the door. The speed in delivering knowledge was outpaced in the training environment,” said David Delgado, manager of technical training, Olympus America. “Olympus Medical Products Group supports and sells endoscopic video imaging systems and ancillary products, and we had to figure out a way to keep costs down and to accommodate the field organization with product training. WebEx gave us the capability to do some poll and testing functions, which we found necessary for assessment tests. Assessments are used as certification for the training delivered.”
In addition to the poll and testing option, Delgado shares applications through the platform and has used the whiteboard, record and playback, and editing features with dramatic results. “The poll and testing allows us to put in a series of questions, and we can design it to be multiple-choice or set it up for true-false type questions,” Delgado said. “At the end of the session, we launch the test to everybody. They see the questions all at once. We can time the test and the facilitator or host can see how many people have answered the questions and at what point everyone is nearly done. We can launch the scores to them immediately. They don’t have to wait, and I get an HTML or an Excel file that keeps a tally of who answered what question and whether or not it was correct.”
Delgado said that the real value of the virtual collaboration tools now in use at Olympus Medical is that curriculum development time is far less for online training than for self-paced training. “The other value is being able to provide your audience with nearly immediate knowledge and training so that you can have a return on investment more promptly. For example, we had an initiative where we needed to train the sales force how to use this utilization worksheet on a new service contract program. Once they were educated on this, they went out and sold these service contracts much faster than they would have through a classroom environment. Instead of waiting to schedule training on a regional or a national basis, we were able to shorten that timeline to deliver training and we got results sooner. We’ve been able to deliver prompt information knowledge to a diverse, remote group as well as keep costs down.”
Virtual collaboration tools ease communication and delivery for instructor and student, but these tools must demonstrate value if they aren’t to be discarded in favor of more measurable tools that illustrate a direct return on investment. Centra offers a collaborative learning ROI calculator to help determine cost-benefit ratios and a general estimate of the savings, increased productivity, accelerated business processes and bottom line impact of live e-learning.
Another attractive element of virtual collaboration is the impact such tools have on customer satisfaction. Prudential Financial took the instant messaging (IM) tool from IBM Lotus and customized it for a customer-facing Web site. Now when users log on to the site, they can use the IM tool to ping or chat with their specific financial analyst. “They’re really creating tighter linkages between the customers and their financial advisors and giving a better use experience,” said Carl Kriger, senior product manager for IBM, Lotus. “Instead of logging on anonymously and then searching for data, the customer logs in and gets an immediate response from their financial analyst. This really speaks to the business needs of the financial sector that Prudential plays in. They thrive on tight relationships, that personalized feel, and Prudential is starting to deliver on that using the technology to enhance their Web site.”
Additionally, if a customer’s financial analyst is unavailable, the next analyst is notified, which enhances customer service and satisfaction. Prudential also has used Lotus collaboration tools to create a notification process for senior management. If key industry news is released, senior management will be notified immediately via IM and given real-time access to market information in the fast-paced financial sector.
Web and Video Conferencing
Virtual collaboration tools such as Web and video conferencing are particularly attractive because they allow organizations to leverage a key asset, their employees. Collaborative tools help to train employees so that they can adapt more quickly to rapidly changing work environments. Microsoft Office’s Live Meeting Web conferencing solution helped Autodesk, a computer-aided design pioneer with global operations, to expand its training and marketing programs. Deploying Live Meeting enabled the company to conduct training programs that would otherwise be available only on a classroom basis and doubled the number of classes the company offers each year. The platform also helped Autodesk generate so many qualified leads, the company cut back the number of trade shows it attends and reduced direct mailings. “The company estimates that reduced marketing costs, plus the savings from offering classes without having to fly instructors into the field, provides a combined benefit of $653,000 a year,” said Coe Harper, product manager, e-learning, real-time collaboration, Microsoft Corp.
Siemens Building Technologies Inc. used “over the shoulder mentoring” and shared applications features to save more than $250,000 in annual operations troubleshooting costs by using Interwise’s record and playback capabilities to quickly and inexpensively create asynchronous training modules. Siemens also enjoyed 2,300 hours of returned employee productivity and an annual savings of $150,000 in one department for Asia-Pacific conference call costs by implementing the Interwise platform across the organization.
Virtual collaboration tools like chat, instant messaging and Web conferencing are quickly becoming necessary elements to learning in organizations that want to leverage highly interactive employee communication at all corners of the enterprise. Organizations are integrating these virtual collaboration tools into business processes such as procurement, product lifecycle management, tracking partner competencies and customer relationship management. The boundaries are seemingly limitless as online capabilities with increasing broadband strength and scope deploy education to learners in different locations and countries with little difficulty, at a fraction of the cost. The only question now is how can these virtually collaborative tools add value to your organizations learning and development?
-Kellye Whitney, email@example.com
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