When Carolyn Jacobson conducted a needs assessment for management development programs last year, she was overwhelmed by the amount of information her company’s 15 to 20 frontline managers needed. “We identified key competencies in soft skills that we needed to fill, and I realized we had a lot of information to put into the heads of managers. It seemed like too much information for even a week session,” says Jacobson, director of learning and development for Minneapolis-based Ceridian Corp., a payroll and human resources information systems provider. “I knew they’d be overwhelmed if we gave the information to them all at once, so I decided to give it to them in chunks, then bring them all together for one meeting.”

The problem was that even this chunking approach, if delivered in conventional seminar-style training sessions, would bust the budget. “We were geographically distributed, so it was cost-prohibitive to bring everyone to one place several different times. It also would be a huge time commitment for these people,” Jacobson says. “We had to find a way that they could get the majority of the soft skills training on their own.”
Reprinted with permission from the November/December 1999 issue of Inside Technology Training magazine. Copyright 1999 Bill Communications, Inc., Minneapolis, MN. All rights reserved. Not for resale.
Enter the computer. It’s readily available and always willing to dispense various amounts of information. Best yet, it’s there before work, after work, during lunch, even on weekends.

Sure, it was accessible, but could Jacobson get these managers to learn warm, fuzzy, interpersonal skills through a beige block of plastic? Could a computer program, the ultimate representation of a low-touch, high-tech approach, really teach low-tech, high-touch people skills? “I wasn’t sure the audience would accept this method,” says Jacobson, “but we wanted to get them up to speed in three months.”

Jacobson developed a training program that combined the best elements of computer-based training (CBT) with the advantages of working in a group. The managers were sent a CD-ROM on soft skills like performance management, coaching, or interviewing skills. Then, after spending about 10 days with the program, they’d meet in two separate groups by teleconference. At this point, they’d discuss what they had learned, summarize key points, and ask questions. Ultimately, they would meet as a large group for three days to conduct role-play exercises.

The computer lessons weren’t the same as meeting in person, but they sufficed, says Paul Brady, manager of application development for Ceridian’s Malvern, Penn., branch and one of the managers in Jacobson’s newly devised training program. “As human beings, we want to feel that we’re interacting with others,” he says. “There’s only so far you can go with technology. My initial reaction was that these CBT programs were a little dry, a little rough around the edges—and that they fell a little short in some places.”

But Brady also sees the advantages. “It provided a way to give us a standardized training program without having to bring us together,” he says. “It was a good way to learn new basic concepts, to build a basic foundation in certain areas. The scenarios the CDs set up were an effective way to get a better feel for the situation, as opposed to just reading text.”

Play the game
Just a couple years ago, CBT for soft skills meant staring at stark black-and-white type on a computer screen. The trainee would scroll up and down, perhaps taking a test, but would never actually interact with another person.

Today’s soft skills programs are more like video arcade games. Take too long to respond to an employee’s question in one of Drake Beam Morin’s new Knowledge Communication Library, and the employee shuffles his feet and looks at his watch. Say the wrong thing when conducting a performance review, and the fictional employee becomes belligerent and more difficult to manage.

“I was skeptical about showing real-life situations when you’re alone in a room with a computer,” admits Eileen Garger, vice president of product development for Drake Beam Morin in New York City. “But just like a good computer game, these programs literally show you the consequences of your actions. I wouldn’t have believed it, but it works.”

Even Garger acknowledges that these programs are no substitute for classroom training, but they do provide some advantages in a cost-conscious, employee-lean marketplace. “When you look at any soft skills training, you see that there is a great deal of time you’re being lectured to. This technology lops off that time and presents the information in a more engaging way. It also builds a common language of what is appropriate interpersonal skills behavior. The acquisition of information becomes fun instead of drudgery. Then, the company can follow up with company-specific information in a classroom setting,” she says.

Eliminating the lecture time also means that employees can go through the lessons on their own terms. “If you put 100 people in a classroom, everyone proceeds at the rate of the instructor,” says Clint Everton, president and founder of Dallas-based Knowledge Communications Inc. “By going at their own pace, no one gets bored and no one loses valuable information because they can’t keep up.”

Computer-based soft skills training also helps alleviate the discomfort of role-play exercises. “Learning interpersonal skills can be frightening to people because they don’t want to expose themselves,” Garger says. “I’ve been in classrooms where senior executives were doing a terrible job in role-plays. With the computer training behind them, they would have been more prepared. They could have entered a risk-free environment because their initial mistakes would be confidential.”

Allowing trainees to take control of their development often yields better results, too, says Garger. “They’re doing it on their own time, when they’re in the mood for it, and when they’re not worrying about other work,” she says. “They don’t resent being pulled out of work for training, and they don’t feel dumb if they are singled out for this training.”

Another advantage to these programs is that they mirror the workplace’s just-in-time nature. “In today’s fast-moving business world, there isn’t time to learn something and then practice it for months,” says Garger. “But if you have a CD with a soft skills program on it, and you have a performance review coming up, for example, you can access the program just a few minutes before the employee comes to your office. You can’t get that immediate refresher with classroom training.”

Margaret Kaeter is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn. Contact her at mailto:mkaeter@aol.com.

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