Feds build market for e-learning programs

Rolling out a successful e-learning program requires more than technical support. It often takes an all-out marketing campaign to win over managers and users alike.

"You have to market, market, market," said Jerry Sparks, distance learning manager at the Federal Aviation Administration Academy.

For FAA officials, the marketing campaign has come in the form of a constant flow of e-mail messages and brochures informing employees about courses available through a program developed by SkillSoft. Each wave of marketing sees a spike in interest, and officials try to maintain that interest, said Patricia Crosby, a program analyst in the FAA Academy's distance learning office.

Similarly, Gary Trende, coordinator of the Department of Veterans Affairs Learning Online program, visits large groups of VA employees to demonstrate the program. He also sends out notices and fliers and runs contests that reward participants who complete online courses.

"In an organization of over 200,000 people, getting the work out is one of the issues," Trende said, speaking at an event sponsored by SkillSoft.

But for some agencies, spreading the word isn't as easy as sending an e-mail message or mailing a brochure.

Given its highly decentralized workforce with very diverse needs, the Air Force faced a unique challenge, said Master Sgt. Wayne Repke, program manager of the service's e-learning program.

Air Force employees are located worldwide, and many of them do not sit in front of computers, so e-mail messages don't always reach their intended recipients or may get overlooked in favor of more pressing priorities. Instead, Repke said he focuses on identifying and targeting specific audiences. By contacting managers, he can find out what topics are important and what skills are necessary for individual employees. From there, he can pinpoint the relevant courses and cultivate interest.

"We don't have a means to reach out and touch everybody," Repke said. "We rely on the multiple levels of program coordinators."

Each group within the organization has a different interest level and requires a different form of marketing, Repke said. For example, active-duty employees may need more immediate, just-in-time training, while civilian employees may have more long-term goals and seek training to advance their careers.

"Once you get into those target audiences, they market for you," Repke said.

E-learning officials say that securing management support has proven to be the key to their success. Sparks said the FAA brings employees and managers together through job evaluations and individualized development plans.

"We really have to rely on the information cascading down from each level," the FAA Academy's Crosby said. "You have to rely on the commitment from management."

Katie Tozier, training development specialist for the Secret Service, wasn't convinced of marketing's effectiveness. "We all learned the lesson that marketing didn't work," Tozier said, also speaking at the SkillSoft event. "But we did it anyway."

For the Secret Service, the best marketing method, besides mass e-mail messages and brochures, is word-of-mouth, she said.

"You can't sell someone something they don't need," said Will Hipwell, vice president of marketing for GeoLearning Inc., agreeing with Tozier's grass-roots approach to determining employees' needs. "You can send out a million e-mail messages and brochures, but that doesn't guarantee they will take the training."

Officials must answer the question: "What's in it for me?" Hipwell said. And they must answer that question for both managers and users. "If you can answer that, you can determine how to market it."

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Spreading the word

For an e-learning program to catch on, agencies must organize marketing campaigns targeting users and managers. The approach depends on the agency:

* The Federal Aviation Administration maintains a constant marketing flow of e-mail messages and brochures alerting employees to available courses.

* The Department of Veterans Affairs supplemented e-mail messages and brochures with presentations to large groups of employees.

* With a workforce spanning the globe, the U.S. Air Force looked to the managers of target audiences to get the word out.

* The Secret Service took more of a grass-roots effort to spread the word, listening closely to employees' needs.

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