The past year has been extremely difficult for anyone involved in the computer and communications industries -- to no one's surprise. We just have to take a look at our 401K investments, buried in a shallow grave behind our offices, to realize what a tough time this has been, and will most likely continue to be over the next several months.
The IT industry in particular has been absolutely ravaged by cutbacks, layoffs, restrictions and a lingering economic black cloud that has stalled development and progress. Most companies are reluctant to invest money in new equipment and IT projects, and those that do invest are being very cautious about the money spent on additional hardware, software and people.
Still, if the figures collected by a number of research companies are any indication, there is still a measurable degree of hiring and new IT business being conducted out there, even in this bleak business environment. However, the rules of engagement have changed quite a bit in this new economy, as companies shift the emphasis away from outrageous hiring bonuses and bloated salary increases and focus more on such things as improving the morale and productivity of their current stationary and mobile work force.
Training and IT self-improvement courses have evolved to become a necessary ingredient to a successful operation, and are also being positioned as an incentive to attract more qualified workers as the clouds lift and the economy improves. Training programs not only provide a way to challenge and stimulate workers, but also create an avenue for new ideas and "fresh thinking" -- things that can be stifled by long work hours, job stress, and the tedium of those 12-hour IT workdays.
The problem, however, is that since most IT staffs are running "lean and mean", managers do not have the luxury of pulling groups of people out of the loop to attend off-site training programs. This is especially true in the case of mobile workers, who often have responsibility for a specific territory and cannot always be back up with a temporary replacement. Many smaller companies also may not have the budget to support their own internal training departments.
One solution that is gaining momentum is the use of out-sourced training companies that provide prepared or even custom-training programs to both stationary and mobile IT workers. These companies basically function as "for-hire" corporate trainers, and usually can customize programs to fit a variety of departments and IT functions. They can also tailor training programs to be highly personalized and to keep pace with the learning capabilities of each IT worker -- important factors when you are dealing with mobile workers who cannot take a chunk of time out of their work schedules.
The OutStart approach
Boston-based OutStart, Inc. specializes in developing flexible on-the-fly training programs and content-centric courses and learning platforms for corporations. These courses, which are an extension of traditional electronic learning systems, are based on adaptable and reusable content and pre-packaged "learning modules" that can easily be used by a remote work force, says company CEO Massood Zarrabbian. The modules can be customized with the individual business knowledge of each company, and then released gradually so that training programs are issued in a "just-in-time" format.
The OutStart approach differs from traditional Web-based training programs since the user pulls the information and shapes the learning program at his or her own pace, and the information is fed in a "need to know" fashion. In short, you are only delivered content that is needed at that moment in your training, rather than getting the entire dose.
The company must be doing something right, since it recently won a four-year $7.5 contract with the Naval Warfare Center Training Systems Division in Orlando, FL. The project involves helping to develop the Navy Integrated Learning Asset Repository System (NILARS), which is aimed at building a system that features standardized and collaborative authoring, improved workflow and business rules, reusable content, and the dynamic and "just-in-time" delivery of learning programs. Other OutStart clients include Boeing Aerospace, Eastman Kodak Co., Tropicana, office furniture maker Steelcase, Inc., and Cisco Systems, Inc.
Sometimes, vendors and developers take it upon themselves to develop end-user training programs as part of their solutions package. This is the case with RPA Wireless, Inc., a Jersey City, NJ-based developer that specializes in field force applications. RPA builds applications that effectively try to eliminate the possibility of "human error" by providing alarms, alerts and other things that go bump in the program to keep data moving swiftly between field workers and a company's central servers. However, very recently RPA recognized the need for training to go hand-in-hand with its systems, and began offering educational Web-based seminars and instructional CD ROMs as part of the development service.
Naturally, these embedded training programs are designed to fit snugly into high-transaction mobile environments, and can easily be adapted to "la vide mobile" (with apologies to Ricky Martin). Current RPA Wireless customers include Xerox Corp, and Siemens, both of which have implemented company's mobile solutions as part of their field force efforts.
Mobile education as part of due diligence
A number of developers routinely take a training and education approach to all their wireless projects, stressing these elements as part of their "due diligence" with a client. One such developer is Revolution Consulting, Inc., which provides everything from initial mobile technology evaluations to actual design and implementation of mobile systems. The company usually begins each project by staging a systems management or mobility "discovery" workshop with each client, which not only provides a wealth of information for that client, but helps to map out a plan of action to help identify problems and provide solutions.
In some cases, Revolution will actually work with a client to develop and operate an internal training and certification group. (Full disclosure: Revolution is a strategic partner with Shoreline Research. Click here to see related press release.)
Of course, we recommend that most companies first look within, and investigate their own internal training operations before settling on an outsourced relationship or adopting a system developed by a particular vendor. After all, no one can better understand your business model and the eccentricities of your mobile work force, and at the very least you will come up with a basic strategy for implementing a mobile training program.
The following are some steps we suggest you take as you charge down the road toward developing a workable training program:
- Establish an initial training and education budget, and then be prepared to double that budget within the first year. Training is usually one of those "iceberg" elements in a mobile system, which has a lot of hidden and unexpected costs down the road.
- Before deciding on any type of mobile system or software, talk with the people who will ultimately be using the system to understand their work styles and limitations. After all, these are the people who will ultimately accept or reject your proposals and plans.
- If your users are comfortable with forms-based input systems, then develop electronic versions that duplicate that system. New tools and technologies should not overshadow or replace methods that are already successful and effective.
- Make sure that any mobile training systems you deploy are flexible enough to adapt to individual user styles, but also offer a centralized management capability. Users should be able to set their own learning pace, and should be able to track their progress against others in the company.
- Introduce and integrate mobile systems training as a mandatory part of your mobile systems effort. You might even consider awarding certificates or establishing paid "off hours" training programs as incentives to temporarily pull workers out of the field.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, MA based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to www.shorelineresearch.com.