How a team of do-it-yourselfers from DaimlerChrysler built their own learning management system
Nearly three years ago, staff from the DaimlerChrysler Academy (DCA), the central training organization for DaimlerChrysler Corp. in Auburn Hills, Mich., began work on a project that would make many e-learning managers quake in their boots , building a customized learning management system (LMS) that would track the training of employees at the automaker's 4,500 dealerships throughout the United States.
Until then, keeping tabs on training involved a lot of time , and a lot of paper. In order for dealerships to achieve and maintain Five Star status, the company's trademarked process for ensuring customer satisfaction, every employee has to complete an ongoing series of CD-ROM- and classroom-based courses on customer service, salesmanship, new products and other topics. Employees receive bronze, silver and gold rankings as they complete certain levels of training. As they earn these rankings, the dealerships they work for receive similar recognition.
But to track the multi-tiered certification process, managers had to manually print training reports that detailed the progress of every employee, from salespeople to service technicians. Then they would have to physically cut and paste information into separate documents so each person could view his or her own training history without having access to that of their colleagues.
Every time an employee completed a course, the manager had to mail documentation to DCA's Auburn Hills, Mich., offices. It then took weeks for the records to be verified and credit awarded. "It was very low-tech," says Arlene Janks, senior manager of retail technologies for DCA and a member of the team that built DaimlerChrysler's WebLink learning management system.
There was no question the company needed to automate its tracking system, but why build its own LMS , especially with a number of vendors offering off-the-shelf systems? Although there may be more than 100 tried-and-tested options available today, at the time there were not a lot of systems on the market, says Mike Yatzko, director of WebLink.
Janks describes most of what was available as "cumbersome and generic." The systems were difficult to use, and they couldn't track training for each employee or each dealership. "We looked at a lot of vendors like Saba and Docent, but back then none of them had everything we wanted," says Yatzko. "There simply were no tools that offered a great interface for dealing with students."
Undaunted, DCA decided they'd simply build a system themselves.
Partnerships and red tape
With the help of experts from DaimlerChrysler's IT department and three outside vendors , a data management company, a Web development company and a training company , the DCA team began drafting a blueprint for the system. "The biggest challenge in creating WebLink was getting all four groups , the internal team and the three external vendors , to pull in the same direction," says Janks.
If something didn't work, one vendor would point to the IT department and insist it was a firewall issue, whereas another would say the problem was a design issue. "Instead of finding resolutions, everyone was trying to avoid responsibility," she says.
Janks brought the parties together, first by conference call and then in person. "It wasn't until we brought everyone into the same room that it really crystallized that we were in this together as a team," she says.
Throughout the construction process, firewall security issues caused the biggest delays. Ironically, it wasn't the technology that slowed progress, but red tape. Because WebLink is a DaimlerChrysler site, all users have to go through the corporate firewall to access it. "There were layers of security to go through," says Janks.
In the end, the system was designed to give learners randomly generated access numbers and passwords so they could gain entry to WebLink through the firewall. These measures assured security but presented complications when users forgot their access numbers and had to call the WebLink hot line.
DCA eventually developed a two-sided reference card that walks users through the process of setting up access to WebLink and has space for their access numbers and passwords. In the time since DCA issued that card, calls to the hot line have decreased significantly.
But before WebLink could go live, DCA had to tackle one more problem , the fact that not all dealerships had the equipment needed to run the system. Although DCA provides a standard equipment list, it's up to the individual dealers to buy the necessary hardware and software. (WebLink requires a Pentium PC 300, with 128 MB RAM, sound and Ethernet cards, a 6x DVD player, a 56K modem and Netscape 4.5.)
"Most of the calls that come into the hot line are complaints about the system not working when, in reality, the problem is that the user's system is not up to spec," says Janks. DCA now issues a "system checker." When a user launches a training disk, it evaluates the system's capability to run the course. If there are problems, it returns a message telling the user how to solve them.
Saving time and trouble
Altogether, it took approximately 18 months for DCA and its partners to build WebLink. And today, about a year after its launch, it's being used by more than 90 percent of the 19,000 DaimlerChrysler dealership employees around the country.
Service and sales people have been using the system to register for courses, access certification rules and guidelines, get news and information from the academy, link to other company and industry sites, and monitor their own training history and career track.
If they take a CD-ROM course, they can log on to the WebLink site and the system will automatically track their progress, assuring instant credit when the training is completed. When they finish classroom courses, the trainer goes online and in minutes updates the learners? records.
Managers such as John Twohig are using the system not only to take classes, but also to monitor their employees? training and the ranking of their employees and dealership within the company.
Twohig, sales manager at Greenbrier Chrysler Plymouth Jeep dealership in Chesapeake, Va., says he often uses the system's remote access options from home to track certification training for the 30-plus sales reps under his supervision. "I go home and do all the work in 30 minutes without interruption," he says. Back when he tracked their training progress in the office the old-fashioned way, the job took a full day.
Just the beginning
Yatzko and Janks say that even though the LMSs on the market today are more sophisticated than the ones that were available three years ago, they would build rather than buy if they had to do it again. "We got exactly what we wanted," says Janks. "WebLink is tailored to our certification requirements. If we bought it off the shelf today, we'd still need lots of customization." Although DCA would not say how much it cost to create WebLink, Janks says it was substantially less than what they would have spent on a ready-made system that needed to be customized.
But building an LMS is something few experts would recommend. "Building your own LMS is doable, but why would you want to spend the time?" says Brandon Hall, president of brandon-hall.com, a Sunnyvale, Calif., consultancy. "It's tantamount to building your own word processor." Hall, who monitors the LMS market, notes that more than 100 vendors offer systems that range in price from $350 to more than $1 million.
Regardless, the DCA team, dealership employees and DaimlerChrysler executives are pleased with the way WebLink is working. Now that the company has an LMS in place, DCA plans to introduce more CD-ROM- , DVD- and Web-based courses to its training library.
Although the company isn't prepared to do robust online training because not all dealerships have the technology to accommodate streaming media files, the percentage of training done in an off-site classroom has dropped from 80 percent to 70 percent since the launch of WebLink. DCA's goal for 2001 is to further reduce that number to 60 percent.
Janks? ultimate vision is to turn WebLink into an e-learning portal that offers dealership employees access to courses developed in-house and by a variety of vendors. "WebLink is still in its infancy stages," she says. "This is just the beginning."
-Sarah Fister Gale (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regular contributor to Online Learning Magazine.
Buy or build?
A few years ago, training organizations like DaimlerChrysler Academy (DCA) that wanted a robust software tool to track training were best off building a system themselves. Today, that may not be the case.
According to Brandon Hall, a Sunnyvale, Calif., e-learning consultant, there are more than 100 learning management system (LMS) vendors on the market today. And those vendors have people dedicated to doing nothing but improving their systems? technology, speed and features; creating the necessary documentation; and offering technical support. "Saba has a development team of 150 people. You can't match that in-house," he says.
Still, if you're determined to take on the challenge of creating a home-built LMS, DCA's Mike Yatzko, who led the team that built DaimlerChrysler's WebLink system, and Arlene Janks, senior manager of retail technologies for DCA and part of the team that created WebLink, have the following advice to share.
Analyze your needs. Janks says it's critical to know what you are trying to accomplish and what you want end users to be able to do before you start building. The same goes if you decide to buy a ready-made system and customize it. "It's a lot cheaper to know what you want going in than to make decisions bit by bit," she says.
Make sure you have the money and staff , either in-house or through trusted vendors , before you begin. And, Janks adds, get commitment from senior management up front, otherwise it will be difficult to justify the time and expense spent on such a project.
Make sure you have an IT team that is trained and able to handle support calls around the clock. DCA put together a hot line especially for WebLink users.
Expect to update your system. Janks says DaimlerChrysler's
internal IT team is working with its partners to determine how best to maintain and upgrade the LMS. "We will never get rid of WebLink," says Yatzko. However, he admits, DCA is considering incorporating off-the-shelf LMS tools into WebLink instead of building new features in-house.
- S. Fister Gale
COPYRIGHT Bill Communications Inc. 2001. All rights reserved.