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Transitioning to unified communications with e-learning

The use of unified communications applications can be accelerated with e-learning systems.

E-learning systems can help accelerate the acceptance and use of new unified communications (UC) technologies. Not only do they help workers get up to speed on the technical aspects of the new system, they can also help foster social acceptance.

"We are dealing with a socio-technical issue, not just technology," noted Bern Elliot, research director at Gartner Group. "People have different styles of communicating. People resist and don't always like to be forced to change how they do things like communicate. That is why you start with the early adopter who volunteers to try out the new things. A lot of the other people prefer to learn around the water cooler, while others like to answer questions around the water cooler. It lets adoption trends and usage patters percolate in a more personal way."

An example of a leader in the use of e-training of new systems is Cisco, which has developed an entire department dedicated to training employees on every aspect of the technology and skills for its various business groups. John Rouleau, manager of technical services and training at Cisco, identified a number of key steps involved in setting up an effective e-learning strategy used for training its own employees on new IP phones, and which is also used for Cisco IP phone customers.

Rouleau said the first step is to scope out what specific knowledge, skill or ability the training program requires. In the scope of a UC deployment, this could include the details on how the different components of the system work and how they can be used to make frontline workers more productive.

Then the organization needs to develop a learning model. Rouleau said a tried-and-true learning model is ADDIE, which stands for analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate.

Building comfort
In the past, Rouleau said, he has run into morale problems when employees were not properly notified about changes to their work environment. It also helps if the e-training systems can be deployed before the new systems, so that at least the tech savvy can have a chance to understand how it's going to affect their work.

"People are anxious when their work environment changes, especially things as important as communication," Elliot explained. "Having a prolonged training period, longer than you would think objectively is required to learn, helps reduce the stress."

In Cisco's case, a lot of people went from landline phones to IP phones, and there was a process of learning the new behaviors. In some cases, a phone user might have had a default set of behaviors that had to be left behind to use the new IP phones.

During the transition phase, management needs to work with the UC solution provider to identify any bugs that might cause problems once the system is integrated into the company's offices. Once all potential problems have been eliminated and the applications are installed, Rouleau recommends a phased approach, in which a few tech-savvy users get to experience the new system and see how it could benefit their work experience.

This group helps identify any problems that might emerge in the way the new UC system might work within the company, so that methods can be streamlined or problems worked around. Then the UC system is rolled out to a larger audience.

Early adopters can mold peer training
At the same time, these first users also get to explore the e-learning system created, enabling them to teach other employees how the features work. "It's a good idea if a new system is not simply handed to employees; but if someone is handed a new device or application, that they [be] given access to e-learning at the same time that walks them through sequenced steps to utilize the new device or services," Rouleau said. A. G. Lambert, vice president of product marketing at SABA, said: "Often, targeted classroom training will train champions with a deep understanding, and those people can be champions across the organization. Then a combination of Web-based and virtual classroom training can help the other workers on an as-needed basis. Once you have trained experts, you identify them to others. So if someone has a question, they can look at a discussion thread or blog post from someone who has been trained."

The Saba Centra platform allows a company to provide the management of the learning program and adds the ability for tech-savvy employees to publish their experiences back to the learning system.

Using e-training to foster informal learning
One part that is not typically included in e-learning systems is the establishment of suggested norms. How should an IM be formatted and used. Communication is often between the lines. The medium you choose in order to say something is as important as the text itself. A certain element of the training is around making people comfortable with whatever the established norms are.

One thing that helps is to create learning peer groups. "Since a lot of these tools are designed to allow people to work together, you can create a group where they are all peers and are on each other's buddy list," Elliot explained.

Keeping it interesting
Claire Schooley, an analyst with Forrester Research, said that it is important to keep employees interested in the learning. Often, more advanced learners will take a class and then say, "I knew all that." With online systems, they take assessments before they do a module, allowing them to skip to material they don't know yet. When people are in charge of their own learning, they take more responsibility. Don't just put the content into words; you need to make it interactive.

About the author:
George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco. Over the last 15 years, he has written more than 2,000 stories for publications on various subjects, including computers, communications, knowledge management, business and health.

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