States have consistently struggled to provide efficient and cost-effective training for their employees. Caught between the need to keep employee skills up-to-date and an obligation to hold travel and other associated costs to a minimum, they've often failed to provide the training their workers need to keep up with their private-sector counterparts. However, that may be changing.
Using Internet technology, Florida and Oregon are providing higher-quality training to their employees while reducing expenses and the need for travel. What they've discovered is that, with the right tools, they can bring training straight to their employees' desktops.
"We're trying to be a connection between providers of training and users of training," said Bill Lindner, secretary for the Florida Department of Management Services. Lindner heads a program called Training Direct, which acts as a virtual clearinghouse of training services and information for state employees.
Using the Web, Training Direct links government users to various organizations that provide top-quality training, such as colleges and other training facilities or top consulting firms, such as EDS and Andersen Consulting.
While the majority of the classes are still held at a physical location, employees can enroll for most programs using the Internet. "Ultimately, the classes will all be distance learning, online courses," said Lindner, "but, at this point in time, we don't have nearly as much of that as we'd like. What we do have is a huge cost savings."
Prior to Training Direct, Florida spent approximately $20 million a year to train 140,000 to 150,000 employees, according to Lindner. At that time, nine employees staffed a training office to handle coordination and any questions related to employee training. By using the Web, the state is now able to provide the same high-quality training at a fraction of the cost. "The Training Direct application cost $50,000 to develop and only $10,000 to $15,000 year to maintain. The return on investment came in only one month," Lindner said.
In addition, the people who previously ran the training office spent a substantial amount of time explaining to employees why the printed catalog of training schedules was always wrong. "The catalog was printed twice a year, but by the time the ink hit the paper, schedules had already changed. Using the Web, we can keep everything current. That saves a lot of phone calls," said Lindner.
Another benefit to Training Direct is its ability to track an employee's training history. Since everything is done online, the Department of Management Services is now able to track what each employee has done, how much time they've spent training, how many dollars have been spent to train them, etc. "From an accountability point of view and from a training-justification point of view, this sort of information is invaluable," said Lindner.
The Florida Department of Management Services is currently working on a strategy to take Training Direct one step further by integrating it with another online program called Jobs Direct, which lists nearly 4,000 vacant state jobs and allows residents to apply for them electronically. Lindner plans to combine these two programs as part of an effort to better prepare workers for jobs they might aspire to but for which they might not be qualified. The idea is to allow workers to fill out a form indicating what job they'd like to pursue. From that form, the system will recognize their shortcomings, if there are any, and suggest the person link to the appropriate training programs prior to applying. "I think merging all that together is going to be a really powerful strategy," said Lindner.
With Training Direct, the only barrier to high-quality, affordable training for Florida state employees is a connection to the Internet. Currently, Lindner said approximately 35 percent of state employees have the connections needed to use Training Direct, and that number is growing quickly. "This is a very good example of how you can take a small but critical activity in government, automate it to the Web, populate the database with vendors, and give everyone what they need in a simple and cost-effective manner," he said.
Training Just in Time
Oregon is another state that's currently enjoying the benefits of online training, but the training is primarily for educators. Called Just in Time Training (JITT), the site focuses on the "how to" of technology integration in the classroom.
According to Marilyn Kelly, JITT team leader, the Web site began in the mind of a district technology coordinator. "The idea was to use Web technology to deliver professional development and technical resources to educators around the state -- anytime, anywhere. All they needed was a connection to the Internet," she said. "People would have access to training when they needed it (and when they felt like doing it); they wouldn't need to travel to get it; they wouldn't need to arrange for a substitute. Districts and the state would benefit because information and professional development would be delivered in a timely and cost-effective manner."
With this idea in mind, several people from Eugene School District 4J got together with the Oregon Association of Education Service Districts and the Center for Advanced Technology at the University of Oregon and applied for a grant to deploy the Web site. In the fall of 1996, the group was awarded a grant from the Oregon Department of Education. Today, JITT is online and packed with training resources for educators, including a 45-minute, hands-on tutorial on Web navigation.
"Among other things, we [wanted] to create a model professional-development Web site," said Kelly. "We believe we succeeded in doing that. We have received almost nothing but rave reviews from teachers, tech coordinators and other educators at regional training centers around the state. They are excited to be able to go to the Web site, learn about the Web and [learn] how to use it with their kids."
The site also includes a searchable database of the state's recently adopted academic performance standards. Teachers and parents can query the database by grade level and subject for the precise curriculum benchmarks state educators are phasing in over the next five years. Examples of student work and annotated comments on how the samples relate to educational performance are also included.
While Oregon doesn't currently have any statistics on JITT's return on investment, Kelly is confident they are favorable. "When you think about the fact that everyone in the state has access to the latest standards information from the Oregon Department of Education, or to lesson plans for searching the Web, or to listservs for professional development, and to all kinds of information for research, and reaching out to people around the world, the cost of delivering the information is minimal," Kelly said. "The benefits of delivering it and making it available to our teachers and our students are great."