Learning from a distance

April 1, 2000
George Hradecky

George Hradecky is a former editor in chief of Pharmaceutical Representative magazine.

Pharmaceutical Representative

Web-based technology is changing the way reps train.

It's a bit ironic that one of the most technically advanced industries in the United States – the pharmaceutical industry – has been so slow to capitalize on one of the greatest technical advances in the last 10 years – the Internet. But old habits die hard and the industry has only recenty come around to realizing how Web-based technology can help save them time and money in training new sales representatives. "Sales cultures in general, not just the pharmaceutical industry, have been slow to replace any kind of face-to-face learning with distributed learning," said Kevin Thibodeau, vice president of education services for Baltimore, MD-based Caliber Learning Network Inc. "It's come such a long way in the last two years that they're starting to see the power of what you can do on the Web."

There are two different ways reps can access Web-based training technology: through the Internet and through an intranet. Because an intranet is operated within a company and protected by a firewall – a kind of electronic Berlin Wall through which only those with the appropriate "papers" can pass – most companies choose this option when setting up a training program. Though no system is entirely secure, the protections afforded to an intranet have helped alleviate the security concerns that have also prevented some companies from employing Web-based training technology. It's a good thing, too, because the benefits of incorporating Web-based technology into a training program are far-reaching.

Many benefits

One of the primary benefits of a Web-based distance-training program is the fact that companies are less likely to have to take reps out of the field to train. By doing that, companies incur not only the cost of flying reps in to a central location and housing them, but also lost sales dollars from having the reps out of the field. "To train 1,500 people once and develop a course for 1,500 people that's Internet-based, [the cost] maybe roughly the same," said Hal Stokes, creative director, multi-media and Web-based learning for Total Learning Concepts. "But what happens is when you give that course again the next time and the next time, instead of having those costs be additive as they would be for a workshop, the costs dramatically start to go down."

Not only are reps able to learn out of their homes, but they are also able to learn at their own pace, whenever it suits them. "The biggest benefit of all this access – and access means 24/7 access – is that someone can learn when and where they want to," said Thibodeau. "Whether it be waking up at two in the morning and not being able to sleep and taking a course or a module, or taking time during the day to brush up on a particular product, you can hit a secure Web site and get the information you need on the fly rather than having to wait for a training update or a sales manual."

Not only can reps access the information when they want it, but they only have to access the information they actually need. "If people know the majority of the material and there's only a specific part of the course they want to concentrate on they can do that," said Hernan Cortez, Manager of TAP University. "Versus when they have to go to a classroom, they have to wait until maybe the last two hours of the session before they get to exactly what they wanted."

And, Web-based training ensures that all reps taking a course are getting the same message. "There is really a consistency of training so that the training medium isn't going to have an off day as a live trainer or a workshop facilitator might," said Stokes. "You can be sure that all 2,000 or 3,000 people are going to receive the same level of training."

Web-based distance training is also taking place using many different methods. Many companies conduct training quizzes over the Web, others use the Web as a supplemental learning tool and still others use it to enable reps to simply sign up for their required classroom work without having to contact someone at the home office.

TAP is even using their Intranet as a way for reps to brush up on their computer skills by downloading courses on Windows, Excel and PowerPoint.

Further advances

As the software advances, reps taking online quizzes and studying through online courses are even being evaluated by the computer itself, which tells them areas they need improvement on. "There are companies that specialize in these type of information systems that basically track learner progress," said Stokes. "Not only can they track at a course level, but they can also begin to create aggregate reports to give back to the company telling them where everyone is possibly doing poorly, thereby suggesting new training interventions and so forth."

"These types of software can also, if the materials are designed in a certain way, determine the specific areas that an individual needs help on," added Debbie Newton, director of guild and managed care development for Total Learning Concepts. "For example if a rep missed questions eight, 10 and 12 in each of the modules, and all of those questions involve a particular training, the software can then direct them to refresh on that particular topic area."

Stokes and Newton predict that the future of Web training is in creating Web-based communities where groups of reps from all across the country can train together in real time - whether it's evaluating a case study together or actually sitting in on a lecture taking place 700 miles away. This type of virtual community would fill one of the areas where Web based training is severely lacking – group learning. "One of the other advantages of this kind of connectivity between learners, however, is something that is often not thought of in the world of training, but is thought of in the world of education, which is a sense of community and connectedness," said Stokes. "A lot of training has often been sort of like Moses with the tablets bringing them down from on high and issuing them to people who need to know, but what has happened in a lot of learning environments is when you pair or team peers together, they can really accelerate."

Not extinct yet

Though Web-based training does enable reps to learn a great deal of material from their home, the classroom-based learning environment has not yet gone the way of the dinosaur. No one is predicting that distance learning will replace the classroom altogether and, in fact, most companies are using the Web-based technology as a supplement to the classroom environment.

"I think there will always be room for traditional classroom experiences," said Thibodeau. "That kind of experience is not just about knowledge transfer, it's a community building experience."

"The real strong skill bases like communication skills, you need a workshop for," added Newton, "It's still the best forum because those skills require role play. And the feedback you can get in a workshop from an instructor who really understands the material is still very valuable."

In cases where the two types of learning are blended, reps use intranet courses as a supplement to prepare them for the classroom. While this doesn't do away with having them come in to a centralized location, it does have the potential to drastically shorten the time they might have to spend there. "If people can prepare before coming into the home office for training, you can focus their energies on other things," said Cortez. "So if anything, it's going to allow your schedule to be even more flexible. Or if it's a regional-type training, maybe in the past they came in for two weeks, maybe this time they can only come in for a week."

Cortez said the combined programs that TAP has implemented have been so successful that positive results were evident immediately after the programs began. "When we first rolled it out, we saw a tremendous jump in the test scores and people told us they felt more prepared because now they had something that gave pronunciations and they got to see actually how things worked," he said. "It turns out to be a win-win situation for all people involved. It's great for us because people come prepared and ready to get certified. It's good for them because they feel really prepared coming into this company on the products they're going to be learning. PR