The new shape of training

As information technology continues to change at a dizzying speed, many product vendors see an opportunity to bring two offerings to federal IT buyers: the vendors' primary products and companion training packages.

The heightened interest among vendors in capturing sales for training and in briefing their own end users has changed the market.

The once-clear lines between vendors and third-party training companies -- those specializing in instructor-led courses and those producing computer-based training (CBT) products -- are beginning to blur.

Overall, the wide variety of training options now available in the federal market reflects the fact that federal managers prefer to combine training methods in ways that best suit their staffs. For example, at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, training programs must be convenient to managers as well as employees. Because the attention of the agency's personnel is often diverted to more pressing matters -- the nation's natural disasters -- assessing an employee's need for technical training is often done on the fly.

"With our emergency support functions staffs, we usually look around the room during a technology briefing and decide who looks lost," said Mary Waller, a training specialist at FEMA.

Bringing those users back into the technology fold could involve sending them to off-site sessions at a full-service training company or enrolling them in a CBT program. "We prefer vendor training," Waller said. "I think anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of our training is done by various training vendors, which we always pick from the GSA schedule."

The General Services Administration's schedule of training products and services is loaded with options available straight from product vendors, many of which are aggressively promoting training as a common-sense answer to the dearth of tech workers.

"If an employee is not properly trained, the return on the technology investment we are talking about is zero," said Bobby Makheja, a regional sales manager for Oracle Government, Education and Health, a division of Oracle Corp.

Vendors offer training products in a variety of electronic media. For example, Oracle has 130 classrooms set up nationwide to train users on its database software and other products. But if agency interest is high, Oracle will pitch a temporary "training camp." FEMA hosted an Oracle training station at its site in Winchester, Va., which is just far enough outside Washington, D.C., for trainees to concentrate fully on the lessons, Waller said.

Oracle's training options also include a line of branded electronic training products, which are tutorials on Oracle products and related applications, including Unix programming, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Windows NT operating systems, Java programming and World Wide Web authoring. "By providing the training ourselves, we guarantee customers that they get instruction straight from the source with briefings of all of the nuances that our products provide," Makheja explained.

Instead of standard CBT, in which students work through self-guided lessons on their computer, Oracle markets its electronic education as media-based training. MBT is a new and somewhat loose category of training products that could include classic CBT programs, including software packages or CD-ROMs for the desktop. But it also incorporates Web-delivered sessions and server applications, the latter of which allow agencies to customize training presentations and populate learning sessions with their own content.

Many manufacturers now offer bundled or add-on training products and services, representing a major shift from industry's almost exclusive reliance on third-party training vendors. For example, Sybase Inc., looking to hone end-user skill sets in such areas as data warehousing and mobile and embedded computing, bundles instructor-led sessions with access to the company's online learning content, dubbed Next Generation Learning, and calls the package the Sybase Education Passport.

Dunn/IDP Computer Corp. offers tutorials on the latest version of Microsoft Office loaded on the hard drive of its PCs before shipping. "This was done with federal government employees in mind," said Chuck Spence, director of marketing. "It is all self-taught, so you can learn at your own pace and not have to go through the whole thing."

The new trend, however, does not mean that opportunities are drying up for classic CBT companies. In fact, many vendors continue to rely in large part on those companies to create online learning products, and the two often work together on selling the tutorials.

For example, Lotus Development Corp. recently started carrying in its online LotusStore end-user, application development and systems administration training packages. But Lotus is not interested in generating its own learning products and still relies on CBT Systems, said Terry Edkins, director of services marketing.

"That is a strategy that still makes sense for us," she said. "Lotus also has a very strong training channel with our authorized education centers. Our philosophy has always been to give the customer a choice."

Instead of sales dipping because of the new interest among vendors in selling their own training products, CBT Systems recently has seen some spillover business. The company has alliances with about 20 vendors to help create the CBT packages that coach end users on the products.

"I guess in the strictest sense, they are competing with us, if you consider that as a situation in which we are all competing for the same training dollar. But we don't see them as direct competition," said Willard Scott, CBT director of business development.

A number of product vendors have partnered with traditional training companies. Reseller ASAP Software Express Inc. has teamed with Productivity Point International, Weston, Fla., to help train federal employees on the array of packages ASAP sells to the federal government. That partnership is flourishing on the GSA schedule, said Randy Lee, ASAP's director of government sales. "Through the training schedule, our relationship with PPI has just blossomed," he said.

Partnerships inside an agency also are key to training personnel, vendors said. "We have been promoting training for a long time, but we have found that among our government end users, only about one-third have had formal training," said Jim Massa, director of government alliances at Cisco Systems Inc. Instead, many end users are coached by agency teams that have undergone intensive training themselves.

Trickle-down training works especially well for enterprise applications, according to SAP America Public Sector Inc. SAP regularly invites high-level federal customers to its training centers for full briefings on how the company's R/3 applications support business processes. The company's approach involves intensive training for federal IT project teams responsible for installing the enterprise software. The teams then transfer that knowledge to end users, and agencies then reinforce that exposure by providing end users with online tutorials.

"In terms of end-user training, we have found that [end users] needs a mix of support for knowledge transfer," said John Greaney Jr., director of SAP America Public Sector. "We often find that our customers, after they go live, tend to focus on critical day-to-day activities they need to perform and tend not to spend too much time in training until they actually go to use the processes."

Training companies are pressured by the interest in the growing market of training tools and integrated training applications. "We've seen a trend among federal agencies which are moving more toward technology-delivered learning instead of always bringing students to the classroom," said Max Miller, president of Prosoft I-Net Solutions Inc., a Vienna, Va.-based training company which specializes in Internet/intranet skills.

Classroom-focused training vendor Learning Tree International Inc. has chosen to develop its own line of CBT programs. However, while the shift may appear to point to a federal exodus from traditional classroom training, that is not the case, observers said. In fact, electronic resources may never replace the classic learning environment, a training manager said. Instead, managers predict that those materials will be used mostly to enhance that experience.

Bob Fisher, personnel manager at the Defense Department's Single Agency Manager organization, said his office makes the most of a limited training budget by mixing online and CBT packages with tried-and-true instructor-led training courses. "CBTs are excellent for basic instruction or when students are already familiar with the material -- anything that is introductory or refresher," he said.

Despite all the vendor activity in the training arena, Learning Tree "far and above" still is GSA's largest training factor, said Jim Bowdren, GSA's deputy director for acquisition at the Federal Supply Service.

To retain that lead, Learning Tree is sticking to what it does best even in its rapidly changing competitive environment, the company said. "We have chosen to remain vendor-independent," said Alan Salisbury, president of Learning Tree. "We develop our own courseware and can therefore give a balanced and objective view of the product and can talk about product weaknesses and how to overcome those. A product vendor doesn't spend a whole lot of time covering their own shortcomings, I wouldn't think."

Ultimately, observers say the evolution of the training market will offer agencies numerous options.

Fisher, for one, said he has been bombarded with almost as many IT training options as he has requests for more education from his extended staff of 1,600 IT professionals. Like most federal training managers, he has become a seasoned customer in today's rapidly maturing training market.

"Dollars are getting tight, and I need to spend wisely," he said.

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