The future of phamaceutical sales training: Internet as instructor

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Pharmaceutical Representative

Learning and training from home is just around the corner.

Picture this: It's a Tuesday afternoon, and you have half an hour before your next call. That gives you plenty of time to brush up on your product knowledge, your selling skills or you grasp of managed care principles -- just as your district manager expects you to do on a regular basis.

Using your laptop, you log into your company's internal network and request your personalized home page. There you see a list of training modules you've completed and a recommendation for which ones to take next. New courses are highlighted so you're sure to spot them. You choose a module on one of your company's newest products. In addition to sound, graphics and video, it includes an interactive case-study section that lets you practice presenting the product to customers and answering their questions. In less than 20 minutes, you're ready to complete the module by taking a brief test. You upload your answers and your score is automatically entered into the database. Your home page is updated to add this module to the list of courses you've successfully completed. Before signing off to make your sales call, you shoot a quick e-mail to your DM asking what time the next district "chat" session will start - it's your turn to lead the weekly on-line discussion held with fellow representatives.

Sound incredible? In a few years, it won't be. Training experts predict that Internet-based training (IBT) is the next leap forward for delivery of distance-learning opportunities to geographically dispersed employees such as sales representatives. Chances are that your company is already looking into harnessing the Internet or developing an internal network - intranets, in technical parlance - to deliver training and support performance in the field.

"We're definitely investigating new ways to leverage technology to deliver training, such as the Internet or company intranets, said Bob Lanting, vice president of training and development at Pfizer Inc. "I think that distance-learning techniques are going to become much more prevalent in the future."

But is this just a fad? Or is it the next wave for pharmaceutical sales training?

"I see [IBT] as both a fad and the next great thing," said Andy Hartnett, director of education services at Astra-Merck Pharmaceuticals. It's a fad, he explained, when companies jump into IBT without addressing whether it is a sound educational vehicle for their people and instead focus on cost. "Senior management may believe IBT will save money because reps will do their training during their free time, which isn't necessarily the case," he said.

Even training professionals, in their excitement, can take it too far, Hartnett noted. IBT is another tool in the educational arsenal, and shouldn't replace all other forms of training. "Like other kinds of computer-based training," he said, "there are times when the Intranet is a phenomenal training vehicle, and times when it is not appropriate."

According to the American Society for Training and Development's (ASTD) Training & Development Magazine, five levels of Internet-based training are commonly in use today:


•Â Level 1: General communications. The most basic use of the Internet is facilitating communication between trainers and sales reps through e-mail, and to distribute course schedules, homework, etc. More advanced applications include real-time electronic interfacing, or "chat" sessions, which allow a speaker to address a group of learners and take questions, through a "virtual workshop," for example.

•Â Level 2: On-line reference. Hyper links on training Web pages can point users to information sources within the company, such as on-line product manuals or documentation, or to external sources, such as Web sites of universities, associations, or government agencies. The amount of information readily available through the Web is stunning.

•Â Level 3: Testing, assessment and surveying. At least one pharmaceutical company has already developed a program that lets reps download tests on product knowledge or selling skills, take the tests on their computers, and send them back to a central office, where they are scored automatically. Other companies are putting tests or surveys on an intranet Web site for employees to access.

•Â Level 4: Distribution of computer-based training. Employees in some companies can download computer-based training modules from the company intranet as needed - known as just-in-time learning. This eliminates the time and expense of disk duplication, packaging and distribution.

•Â Level 5: Delivery of multimedia. The cutting edge of Internet-based training is delivering interactive multimedia real-time over a network, something that has become possible only within the last year or so with the release of new programming languages such as Java and Shockwave. These programming tools enable students to experience interactive lessons with sound, animation and video - if their modems are fast enough. In this arena, intranets, which tend to transfer information much faster than the Internet, present a clear advantage.

Pharmaceutical industry getting on board

This year's annual conference of the National Society of Pharmaceutical Sales Trainers, to be held this month in Toronto, Ontario, features courses including "Training resources on the Internet," "Building a sales training intranet," and "Computer technology and managed care."

Intranets, which use the same technology as the Internet but are not open to the public, probably represent the greatest potential for company sales training, said Pat Brost, director of training at The Jack Morton Company, New York.

"The Internet scares people," she said. "They don't want to put proprietary information on the Internet." Even with all the talk about encrypting and security, she noted, most people still don't want to post their credit card numbers over the Internet, for example. "Until they can be comfortable about using their credit card numbers, they won't put their company's proprietary information out there."

Instead, the Internet will be an enormous library. Trainers can point reps to on-line resources from the Web sites of the CMR Institute, the Physician's Desk Reference, ASTD, and Medline, Brost said.

IBT offers some distinct advantages for pharmaceutical sales training. One of the most important is that it saves on the costs of travel and out of territory time by being time- and place-independent.

"You can't bring 3,000 people out of the field for a day to do computer training," Lanting said. Reps can access the training materials they need at their convenience, or groups of learners can log on from sites around the country for collaborative learning. IBT also allows them to come back on-line to review when necessary.

Compared with developing computer-based training materials or a CD-ROM, putting together Web-based materials is also quick and easy; it is simple to update the information included in a home page. Internet or intranet networks also provide a variety of capabilities for unique training requirements, including e-mail, bulletin boards, real-time video conferencing and interactive tutorials.

On the other hand, companies who simply scan their training manuals and post them on an intranet Web site aren't taking full advantage of the technology's potential to communicate information through interaction, sights and sounds.

"It conveys video and sound better than a book, is more interactive than a videotape and, unlike a CD-ROM, can link people from around the world cheaply," said Thomas Fox McManus, of the University of Texas-Austin, in Training & Development. The Internet is arguably the largest and most diverse information resource in the world today."

Keeping up with technology

But there are some disadvantages to IBT as well. One of the most pressing is limited bandwidth, which refers to the flow of computer information through phone lines. It currently takes much too long to take full advantage of techniques such as video or elaborate graphics.

"When we can condense bandwidth and transfer video at a faster clip, we will be able to support some phenomenal capabilities," said Hartnett. His company is currently developing an intranet and expects to have it in place within the next couple of years.

Company support for IBT varies widely, noted Brost. "The bigger companies are doing it or moving that way," he said. "For smaller companies, it's a compound problem of a lack of money and a lack of knowledge, not necessarily among trainers, but in organization management. There are still some small pharmaceutical companies who have not equipped reps with laptops. They're obviously not thinking about Internet or intranet training, and probably don't know the difference."

Even companies that have invested millions to equip field forces with laptops may find themselves in the position of needing to upgrade. Designed with territory management in mind, many of the units don't have CD-ROM drives or the capability to display complicated graphics or deliver sound.

"We don't want to be ahead of technology, but we need to be there at the right time," Lanting said. "I don't think this is going to go away. We've seen what has happened with the Internet in the last three to four years. There's exciting stuff out there."

The success of IBT also depends on the motivation of learners to participate.

"Internet-based training, like other forms of distance learning, supports the self-motivated learner," Hartnett said. "At any given time, they have the ability to identify a need, identify the appropriate learning experience through the Internet, access it and have the assessment tools in place to help them understand whether they have learned or not."

But distance learning, whether via the Internet, CD-ROM or other media, can also be taken too far. "Learning can occur anywhere, but human beings, particularly pharmaceutical sales reps, eventually need other human beings," Hartnett said. PR