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OPERATIONS

Managing People: Computer Training Made Easy
 

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Not every company has moved into the computer age yet. For those who are still making the leap, introducing computers to employees who are used to doing everything by hand is as difficult today as it's ever been.

John Primus, vice president of sales for Primus Marketing Associates, a Minneapolis-based manufacturer's rep servicing the electrical industry, knows about that first-hand. The business' 20 sales reps spend the bulk of their time soliciting sales and taking orders over the phone for wires, cables, and other electrical components. It's a cutthroat industry, and the 9-year-old firm, which had sales of about $25 million last year, makes its profits off commissions.

Using a computer system to keep accurate records seems like it would be a given at a business such as Primus Marketing. But up until recently, the sales reps recorded all information by hand. They didn't use word processing programs, accounting software, or spreadsheets. Last year, however, the company decided it was time to bring on the computers.

At first, John Primus thought about sending employees to computer classes. But the company couldn't afford to have the staff away for days. So it tried videos and books. That didn't work: the concepts were just too difficult to convey to pure novices. "For most of our people, this was their initial introduction to computers, and they didn't want to put down their pencils and paper," he says.

But there are other options to books--in fact, a whole industry of options. Last year, companies and individuals spent more than $6 billion on information technology (IT) training in the United States. Right now, 76% of all technology training is conducted through a traditional instructor, while 17% is taught using videos, satellite TV, or computers (up from 15.7% in 1994.) High-tech training, in fact, is expected to keep growing, at the rate of 31% over the next five years, according to Ellen Julian, a research manager at research company International Data Corp. (IDC) in Framingham, Mass.

At Primus Marketing, John Primus happened on his answer one evening last fall when he was at a party and was talking about his dilemma. Someone told him about a consulting firm, the Institute for Advanced Technology, that uses computers to teach computers. He called and the Institute, a former division of Control Data Corp., set up a dedicated workstation at his company for training. Employees took turns using the system to follow along with lessons and practice their new skills through the digital video instructor. They were trained on eight different programs including Microsoft Word for Windows and Excel. Each employee kept workbooks and diskettes to record personal achievements, and was required to pass each course before moving on to the next training module.

"The training was simple to follow. It's set up so that all you have to do is hit a key," says Primus. "Books, tapes and classes are fine, but they were not as effective. A lot of people who wouldn't even touch computers are now using spreadsheets." The total cost to Primus Marketing for the training: $8,000.

High-tech training has its advantages. Rajiv Tandon, president of The Institute for Advanced Technology, maintains that people retain about 70% of the information taught via computer-based training, versus only 25% in a classroom setting. People go at their own paces and repeat courses if need be, he says, which reinforces the information. On the other hand, employees don't get the human interaction that they have grown accustomed to when taking courses. "Instructor-led education is changing, but not going away," says IDC's Julian. To adapt to the changing times, she says, instructors will likely use multimedia CD-ROM training courses in their classes or even become online advisors as Internet-based training becomes more common.

"We don't believe we'll ever replace traditional training," said Bill McCabe, chief executive of CBT Group in South San Francisco, which creates and distributes interactive training software. (Renting a library of CBT computer courses costs between $5,000 and $10,000 for two years.) Jim Krzywicki, vice president of education certification for Lotus Development Corp, which works closely with CBT to develop ongoing Lotus courses, agrees: "There's a certain magic in the classroom."

More than 50,000 people took at least one CBT Lotus Notes course last year. Krzywicki suspects that number will continue rising. "A few years ago we saw it [ computer-based training] as a threat." Now, he says, the trend is to use computer-based training to help small companies offer computer courses that they couldn't afford in the past.

Robyn Taylor Parets is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer specializing in technology and media. Her articles appear regularly in Investor's Business Daily and Websight Magazine.

Last updated: Nov 6, 1996




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