You’ve probably noted the rise of interest in Application Service Providers (ASPs) over the past year. Companies are using ASPs to host their enterprise applications on remote servers. For example, instead of having your firm’s accounting software on a company server, you’d store it remotely on an ASP’s server, and your users would use a Web browser to access the application over the Internet.
As growing numbers of small and large companies move their IT functions to ASPs, firms have started to think about what this means for IT training. The central question: should the ASP or the customer be responsible for training end users? As it stands, training is outside the function of most ASPs, but it appears that more of those companies will be adding training to their service offerings as the popularity of application outsourcing grows. Read on to hear what insiders have to say.
Shadowing the trainer
Training is being bundled as part of some ASPs’ offerings. A small percentage of ASPs offer a higher level of customer service by acting as Total Service Providers (TSPs), featuring application hosting, application development and integration services, connectivity, and e-commerce solutions.
Santa Barbara, CA-based Push Computing, for instance, targets small and midsize businesses by offering a total service package. Eric Greenspan, CEO of Push Computing, said the technology behind ASPs enables Push and other providers new and practical ways to train users.
“Training typically requires people to be in a room together where it’s either one-on-one or you have ten computers in a training facility,” Greenspan said. “From an economic standpoint, you can leverage your existing hardware system, because the ASP can train users in the same conditions that they’re going to work in. Secondly, you can leverage that equipment to use it as a training mechanism without having to manage a separate facility.”
A growing number of ASPs are embracing the benefits of “shadowing” to train customers. “Because the application is centralized on an ASP server farm, an administrator or trainer can conduct a one-to-many shadow of users,” Greenspan explained. “Say you have ten people in an office who want to use SalesLogix. They can log into the network and shadow the trainer. They can all be on a conference call and then watch the trainer, who takes them through a hands-on presentation of how the application works, and the user can interact.”
Finding ASPs that offer training
Experts say ASPs can separate themselves from their peers by providing these add-on training services. Boulder, CO-based Application Solution Providers, for instance, uses thin-client technology to host demonstration applications in real time. This way, users can receive “over-the-shoulder” training and technical assistance without having to travel or attend a seminar.
“We have ubiquitous access, which means we don’t care what operating system happens to be connected to our server,” said Darrell Noble, president of Application Solution Providers. “It can be Linux, Mac, NT, 95, 98, or even DOS clients. In terms of training, we spend most of our time training network administrators after we’ve installed servers in their offices. We shadow them and show them how to administer their own server.”
Finding ASP trainers
Application Service Providers also offers “try before you buy” training to potential clients. “Instead of just telling them what we can do, we actually show them. It gives them the opportunity to make sure the product we’re demonstrating is going to meet their needs,” Noble said. “We don’t want them to find out three months after it has been installed on all their machines that there’s a function or feature they needed badly that’s not included. It gives us the chance to address their concerns, and we add the extra layer to the negotiating process.”
At this point, only a small minority of ASPs are offering training as part of their services to customers, Noble added. “We find that very few use thin-client servers and still call themselves ASPs, meaning that they’re creating HTML-based solutions or applications, portals where you can get your own quasi-private desktop with a few minor applications,” he said. “But we find very few, if any, provide (training), because they’re not using the same kind of technology we are.”
Noble recommends that buyers do their homework and select an ASP that offers a total service package. “It’s very important to seek out the ASPs that offer additional services like training, because they’re significantly less expensive than the classic Web-based solutions in terms of programming time on Web sites,” he said.
Let the ASP do it
It’s not just the delivery of training that will be changed by ASPs. Analysts say the model will also allow companies to cut back on the number of employees they train. Instead of instructing IT workers on how to maintain applications on the user end, the ASP will have the knowledge it takes to do the job.
“If you have to train people to use Microsoft Project or a financial application, some ASP is going to know that better than your in-house crew. They have to learn it and get ahead of the curve in an effort to do it,” said Giga Information Group analyst Arthur Williams. “The benefit of being able to do things immediately and not have to hire people and retrain them when your business priorities change— that is an overwhelming advantage.”
Williams also predicts a minor rift between ASPs and their customers over the level of personalization in their training services. “It’s in the ASPs’ interest to mass-produce [training], to do the same thing for many customers,” he said. “And customers will almost always have some difference of emphasis in what they want.”
Overall, Williams foresees improvements on the training front in an industry that is already expected to grow considerably over the next several years. “It’s all going to get better as it goes along,” he said. “There will be teleconferences and slide shows like we have now, but large corporations are already going down the path of using instant messaging and chatting for customer service. This will be another opportunity for that technology. They’ll get more and more personal with it.”
Please post a comment below to let us know how you think ASPs will affect your organization’s training department. We’ll use your responses in a future article to provide IT trainers with a list of questions to ask when shopping for an ASP. If you have a story idea you'd like to share, please drop us a note.