By Joerg Rathenberg, senior director, Marketing, Unisfair
There is an upside to today’s turbulent economy. With increasing regulatory pressure, effective corporate training is becoming more important than ever. Enterprises of all industries and sizes are getting leaner and meaner, seeking new ways for employees to learn about product enhancements from experts, network with their peers, and engage in discussions with their leadership. However, as we know all too well, traditional ways of holding training events—such as classroom-style trainings—are becoming too expensive. What’s more, many organizations have severely restricted their travel policies and aren’t about to ease up on these any time soon.
E-learning environments, on the other hand, don’t encourage the level of interaction and excitement that often accompanies in-person meetings, where executives have a chance to address their entire teams, in order to set direction and provide leadership.
Virtual Learning Environments
Fueled by the downturn, a new technology that combines learning, interaction, and excitement with efficiency is winning over corporate marketing and training departments. Virtual training environments are interactive places on the Web, where people meet in a virtual venue to learn, network, and collaborate, without the inconvenience and costs associated with travel.
Many virtual environments look like elaborate real-world training or conference centers. IBM recently launched its Virtual Event Center, where high-definition video and realistic graphics make participants feel almost as if they are in a real building. Smooth transitions from room to room, conference halls that dim the lights as sessions start, together with easy navigation by clicking on a map or on integrated hot buttons make for an exciting experience.
Virtual training platforms give attendees full control over a stimulating environment. Participants can navigate to different tracks, attend a variety of courses, ask questions, spend one-on-one time with trainers, and network with peers who share similar interests or objectives. They also can visit the information center, which provides downloadable content such as the agenda, presentation files, and study materials to support the session content and the learning objectives.
Attendees can determine what sessions to view, who to chat with, what material to take. Learning can occur in synchronous and asynchrous modes. Because the virtual environment is always on, attendees can log on and complete their courses whenever their schedules allow.
Participants in virtual training enjoy the networking lounge, a virtual space where they can connect with one another, experts, and their leadership teams. They can participate in chats and forum postings, while a live chat translation feature allows attendees to choose from 50 different languages, helping to break down language barriers. They can form their own networks and interest groups. Networking functions include searching for other participants or content, as well as social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter.
A big advantage of virtual training environments is that every participant’s activities can be recorded and leveraged for reporting purposes. Trainers can find out when and how often an individual logged on, and can easily see how many sessions participants viewed and how many minutes they stayed. The environment will record which questions were asked during a training session, as well as the answers participants provided to individual test questions. This wealth of information can be used for individual skill assessment and development, as well as for gaining an overall picture of the proficiency level and progress of the entire organization.
Case Study: Medco’s Virtual Sales Training Conference
With the economic downturn of 2009 and the impact that financial uncertainty had on many of its clients, health-care company Medco faced an urgent business challenge: How to deliver an interactive, engaging learning experience encompassing dozens of products and capabilities to hundreds of geographically dispersed account managers as effectively and efficiently as possible.
In response to this challenge, the company’s Center for Learning and Organization Effectiveness (CLOE)explored both existing, tried-and-true internal technologies, as well as emerging external tools. Ultimately, the decision was made to pilot its first-ever virtual learning environment using Unisfair as the virtual platform provider
The virtual platform offered unique benefits beyond Medco’s current modes of delivering information. Medco regularly employed Webcast sessions and posted e-learning modules on its Learning Management System (LMS). However, neither of these tools allowed for networking among peers—something the company needed to replicate in a virtual setting. The virtual environment wrapped a visually appealing and collaboration-rich environment around the content to enable peers to connect with one another while listening to experts.
Medco also used its in-house broadcast studio regularly for training sessions. While streaming video engages learners, the interaction was limited to one expert at a time. Given the number of experts (more than 40) that would be slated for this event, this aspect of the broadcast studio was limiting. The virtual environment allowed not only for streaming video conferences, but also allowed learners to converse with many subject matter experts in a single locale at the expo hall.
The result was the 2009 Market Group Virtual Event “Strategies for Driving Mail & Positioning the Therapeutic Resource Centers.” It turned out to be a fully interactive five-day event in a virtual learning environment that leveraged Medco’s in-house broadcast studio and incorporated online learning, live chat, discussion forums, immersive booths, downloadable collateral, and live and on-demand sessions. This event was dedicated to providing the latest evolving messages that the Medco’s Account Management Organization could bring to clients and prospects.
A high level of participation was a critical success factor for the event. Medco devoted a great deal of time to garner executive level support and sponsorship. Each of the three group presidents endorsed the virtual world sessions through communication vehicles such as e-mail, memos, and live briefings in the weeks prior to launch. Through these channels, senior leadership was able to reinforce the importance of being an interactive learner and establish a high priority for participating in the virtual world.
The virtual event produced significant cost savings for the company. A typical three-day offsite sales conference carried a cost of approximately $2,000 to $3,000 per person once travel, facilities, catering, and AV were factored in. By leveraging Medco’s in-house technology in the execution of the virtual event on the Unisfair platform, the cost per person of delivering the event via the virtual environment was only $62.41 per person.
Medco successfully shortened the learning curve, while ensuring content was accessible 24/7. It improved the outreach to their learners and, most importantly, trained a geographically dispersed audience at a low cost.
Joerg Rathenberg is senior director of Marketing at Unisfair, a provider of virtual events, virtual trade shows, and online job fairs. For more information, visit www.unisfair.com.