USDA eases training headaches

With overwhelmed help-desk workers fielding calls from confused employees struggling to understand their human resources applications, Agriculture Department officials knew they needed to find a training fix.

Most employees of the department's county-based service center agencies access PeopleSoft Inc. software only occasionally, so they forget how to use it. Now, USDA officials have found a solution to stem the flood of help-desk inquiries and incorrect information entered into the system.

The agency is installing Knowledge Products' OnDemand Personal Navigator software to support its PeopleSoft applications, providing on-the-spot help as employees access HR functions.

"We needed something that would jog your memory right on the spot," said Hans Heidenreich, the USDA's project director for PeopleSoft systems.

About 40,000 employees in the service center agencies nationwide — including the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development — use PeopleSoft applications to write progress reviews, request training, develop career plans or nominate fellow employees for a job appraisal. Although about 800 employees use the application daily, the rest access the system only occasionally, and they have often long since forgotten their initial system training.

So far, about 10,000 employees are using the OnDemand software. By May 1, USDA officials expect to have all service center agency employees using it to support HR functions. The software will ease the strain on the help desk and make the complex HR forms easier to use. The help desk can then return to being more proactive about support, rather than reactive to the onslaught of calls for the HR system, Heidenreich said.

"It will let up on the help desk, and it will improve the integrity and quality of the data being entered," said Susan Deeney, vice president for worldwide sales and business development at Knowledge Products, a division of Global Knowledge Network Inc.

PeopleSoft software manages the USDA's HR applications from recruitment to retirement, and employees go through intense training to learn it. "Their power brings complexity," said Kathy Harris, a vice president and research area director at Gartner Inc., but employees often don't retain much of what they learned in training.

OnDemand walks users through a live, step-by-step guide within the application, so they don't have to close down the program or consult a sep- arate help manual. The software explains what information to enter into certain fields and alerts users to any mistakes, because the HR functions often have confusing rules and regulations, Heidenreich said. The software can also administer tests to review employees' understanding.

Jennifer Haley, personnel assistant for the Farm Service Agency in Columbia, Mo., said the new software "will let [employees] be more in charge of their pay and benefits. They can do it on their own time."

Employees using PeopleSoft to review their performance plans, change their tax withholdings or view their training history can call on the help software to walk them through that one area. "If they only need it for one thing, they can just look at that one module, rather than going through the one- or two-week training," she said.

By making "just-in-time" training available, Harris said, agencies may be able to reduce initial training and enhance users' ability to remember important information.

"The concepts the Department of Agriculture is putting into place are critically important," she said. "We know 'just-in-time' learning sticks. The retention rate is much higher."

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Training fix

The Agriculture Department has found a way to keep employees up-to-date on complex human resources applications and ease the strain on the help desk staff.

By supplementing the PeopleSoft Inc. software with Knowledge Products' OnDemand Personal Navigator software, USDA employees working at county-based service center agencies can access step-by-step assistance as they write progress reviews, develop career plans or sign up for training. The program walks users through the HR functions, alerts them when they have made mistakes and administers tests to keep the process fresh. OnDemand jogs users' memories, because they often forget much of their PeopleSoft training when they don't use it often.

By May 1, the 40,000 USDA employees in service center agencies will access OnDemand, lightening the help desk's load and making the HR data entry more efficient and accurate.

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