Dec 31 2009

Training From Desktop to Battlefield: Lessons To Be Learned

The e-Training portal serves up thousands of courses to users.

Photo: Ron Aira
Norm Enger, OPM's e-government program director

It's almost axiomatic: When budgets get pinched, training is the first casualty. But with the e-Training project, the Office of Personnel Management is taking an ax to that old saw.

Via the portal, the e-Training project offers employees governmentwide more than 100 free courses and books, and access to more than 3,300 for-fee training courses. Online career road maps help employees plan their future and managers plan their agencies' futures. The Web portal's "Competency Centers" help managers determine their return on investment for training.

But computers and the Web are so ubiquitous today that it's easy to forget that electronic learning is in its virtual infancy, a bit wobbly on its feet given shifting learning trends, immature methodologies and a lack of standards. It also has a potentially brilliant and powerful future.

"One trend we're seeing across the board is the need to connect all kinds of training to business performance, whether that business is an agency fulfilling its mission to serve citizens or a company trying to achieve a bottom line," says Kevin Duffer, a vice president at SkillSoft. The Nashua, N.H., company is one of three e-Training contractors.

Performance-based evaluations "go to the whole issue of whether any training pays off," says Josh Bersin, president of e-learning research firm Bersin & Associates of Oakland, Calif. "There's no clear way to correlate training to anything. Say you give a sales staff training, and sales go up. Did sales go up because of the training or some other factor? There are always other factors."

The same lack of a clear cause-and-effect relationship exists between training and return on investment, Bersin says. "Companies have all sorts of methodologies for doing it, but generally it's not super successful."

E-Training has run analytics on the courses it offers, says Jeff Pon, deputy director for OPM's e-government initiatives and acting e-Training project manager. "It's not just measuring customer satisfaction with the training but also seeing if there's a transfer of knowledge, if the training has an impact on your job, how well our training works for you, what kind of return on investment you get," he says. "We're doing pretty well."

But what about hard numbers? According to Norm Enger, OPM's program director for e-government initiatives, "For every dollar agencies spend with us on one of our training courses, on average, they save $7."

Drawing a clear line between training and ROI is difficult, Duffer says, but "it's all doable if you've done the task analysis to be able to say, 'This skill is critical to this job.'" That kind of determination must be made at the agency level, he says.

Top-down and Bottom-up

In developing its "Competency Management Center," e-Training has been working with agencies to develop task analysis data that will link performance and investment return to competency assessments and, from within the assessment tool, to training recommendations.

At the individual level, an employee goes to and completes a competency assessment. The results reveal skills that are crucial to an employee's current or desired job and identify those for which the employee needs more training. The employee can then click to see what e-learning courses are available to help in acquiring the lacking skills.

At the management level, agency executives can evaluate test results for all their employees to determine which skills are present or lacking in individual employees and across the agency as a whole. Managers can use this information to set training plans agencywide and for specific projects.

The courseware for this training will come from multiple sources, Enger says. Some OPM will buy from its three contract-holders: Karta Technologies of San Antonio, NetG of Scottsdale, Ariz., and SkillSoft. Some will come from other agencies.

A resources section being developed for will become the "government's essential e-learning library," Pon says. E-Training is bringing together best-of-breed courses that all government employees must take and making them available via the portal. For example, Pon says, the portal's ethics course comes from the Office of Government Ethics.

E-Training By The Numbers
Savings on training since 2002: $74 million
Savings estimated over next 10 years: $784 million
Cost for one user, one course in 2002: $150
Cost for one user, one course in 2005: 7 cents
Free training courses: 68
Professional journals and books online: More than 100
Registered users: More than 200,000
Total courses: More than 3,300
Fiscal 2004 budget: $19.4 million

Source: Office of Personnel Management

An ongoing upgrade will extend the portal's capabilities, making it "a central clearinghouse for all kinds of e-learning opportunities across government," Pon says. "Through, the content and the training will be available across government, but agencies will continue to have their own enterprise learning management systems." notwithstanding, Bersin says, the government is behind the private sector in a pretty big way. There are pockets of sophistication, he says, mostly in the military such as the Defense Acquisition University, but civilian agencies are "just getting started" on extensive online training efforts.

A good place to get up to speed, especially for informational rather than skills training, is through the use of low-cost, easy-to-use technology that represents what Bersin says is one of the biggest trends today: rapid e-learning.

A poll his company took last year of 106 enterprises—about 10 of them government—found that when an organization needs specialized e-learning courses 89 percent of them wanted that training to take place within three weeks. To develop specialized courseware so quickly, subject matter experts use the tools they're familiar with—typically Microsoft PowerPoint—to create course content. Then they turn to rapid e-learning development tools to convert their content to courseware.

To ensure governmentwide interoperability, courseware that agencies create must comply with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Sharable Content Object Reference Model. The Defense Department funded SCORM's creation in 2000 by sponsoring the Advanced Distributed Learning initiative, which brings together government, industry and academia to develop e-learning tools based on open standards.

Compliance may be a sleeping giant. "I think a lot of agencies have training courses that aren't SCORM- and 508-compliant, and they just haven't yet hit the radar screen for such concerns," Enger says.

Duffer cautions, "SCORM dictates the standards around interoperability and infrastructure, but it has nothing to do with quality."

Because SCORM falls short of being a standard, Bersin points out, "it's more like a blueprint, which everyone follows—but in different ways."

Despite the shortcomings in the government online learning efforts, the e-Training initiative has undeniably improved training in government and saved money, Enger says.

By leveraging governmentwide buying power to acquire training courses, e-Training—in its two and a half years in existence—has saved the government more than $74 million in training costs while simultaneously increasing the amount of training done, Enger says.

"Two years ago, an agency was purchasing one course for one user at an average cost of $150. Now, it's not one course, it's an annual library of approximately 1,750 courses available for $37 per user—a cost of pennies per course," he says.

And e-Training has several irons in the fire.

In the near future, the e-Training team will craft a development road map for the government's acquisition workforce. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Federal Acquisition Institute and Defense Acquisition University in coming months will test all federal acquisition officials to "get an idea of where the proficiencies and gaps are," Enger says.

DHS Challenge

OPM also is in discussions with the Homeland Security Department, which has a large training challenge as it continues to integrate the missions and functions of the 22 agencies that DHS absorbed from across government. "We'd love to get involved with that effort," Pon says. "We're talking with them now about it, about the architecture."

It's also looking for lessons learned to find ways to allay anxieties people experience when they must switch from familiar technology to new technology, Enger says.

There's some cheering news for federal employees who are reluctant to go back to the classroom—virtual or otherwise. E-learning is likely to become more fun, with more interactive multipath and role-playing simulations embedded in courses. "DOD has been in the vanguard of this kind of e-learning and found it's a way into more mainstream learning," Duffer says.

"So we'll see more game simulations," he predicts. "And they'll be good quality games. They have to be; it's the expectation of general users."