By Alesa Lightbourne

imageHaving a hard time finding good help for your laboratory these days?

Join the club. Today it’s tough just to fill the seats at your lab stations, much less find recruits with a good match of experience and education. That explains why managers are either promoting employees to positions for which they’re not yet ready or hiring likely workers and then training them to be the employees they need. Increasingly, industry leaders like Dade Behring and Allegiance Healthcare are doing this training with new online technology.

Online training uses the power of the Internet to deliver much-needed skills and knowledge development. The concept is simple. Put your training content on the Web. Format it for interactivity and easy access. Give employees access to a Web-enabled PC. Let them log on and learn at their own pace. Test them online to make sure they’ve retained key concepts and information. Then review student results and offer positive feedback to recognize success and encourage additional online training.

“E-learning works extremely well for employee orientation, new product training, end-user information, technology skills and professional development,” said Bill Strelke, vice president of Knowledge Anywhere, a Bellevue, Wash., online education developer. “Employers can save between 25 and 50 percent of the costs of traditional classroom training. Furthermore, students may select from multiple courses to become proficient in a wide variety of areas very quickly. This is an important strategic point if recruits lack a strong background in specific medical and technical skills.”

NordinA trend that makes sense
David Nordin, M.D. (left), pathologist and laboratory medical director at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Wash., predicts widespread adoption of cyber-learning programs for labs. “As with so many other decisions, it all boils down to the bottom line,” he said. “Each year brings us a raft of new mandatory training requirements, such as annual competency assessments and safety reviews. Medical organizations simply must find new ways to get staff up to speed and keep them that way in a cost-effective manner. Moving these forms of evaluation and training online would give our employees the flexibility to keep their skills updated anywhere, anytime — even while at home. This option would be especially convenient for our part-time workers.”

Many hospitals no longer have the luxury of taking people away from their jobs for lengthy classes, Nordin noted. “E-learning is becoming a viable answer,” he said, “especially where the infrastructure is already in place. Overlake Hospital Medical Center, for instance, was recently recognized as one of the 100 Most Wired Hospitals in the United States [by Hospitals and Health Networks, a publication of the American Hospital Association.]”

Laboratories aren’t the only ones having to invest in ongoing training. Last year American businesses spent a whopping $54 billion on formal training programs, according to Training Magazine’s Industry Report 2000. That represented education for 73 percent of U.S. workers, 13 percent of whom learned via computer. Clearly organizations of all kinds, including laboratories, are seeing the wisdom of e-learning, making online training a $3.5 billion industry in 2000. Merrill Lynch estimates e-learning will grow to $25 billion by 2003.

Turning on a dime
Managers at Allegiance Healthcare, the national medical products supply giant, discovered the benefits of online training last year during a new service rollout. The entire sales force had to learn about the offering in just 30 days. Allegiance needed quick and cost-effective results. They opted for an online solution instead of the more traditional, costly approach of flying employees across the country to seminars.

le02.jpg (7173 bytes)Dade Behring used Knowledge Anywhere’s
e-learning solution to teach employees skills about a new internal communications software.

A turnkey e-learning system was custom-developed for Allegiance by Knowledge Anywhere. All 391 salespeople were trained within 17 days of deployment.

“The e-learning system was essentially a cross-training program that taught product-oriented salespeople to sell services to their customers,” said Marie Biskup, a general manager at Allegiance Healthcare. “What pleased us most was that ramp-up time was almost zero. We saved thousands of dollars and accomplished results in a time frame that would never have been possible otherwise.”

Cyber students at top of class
Online learning may be fast and economical, but does it work?

Dade Behring, a leading supplier of clinical lab products headquartered in Deerfield, Ill., implemented an e-learning solution to standardize employees’ skills on new internal communications software. Rather than developing a classroom-based program that would only reach a small percentage of employees, it chose a “virtual classroom” instead. This meant delivering preprogrammed content on a password-protected Web site, which staff members could access on the Internet at their convenience.

The interactive curriculum allowed employees to practice skills as they learned and complete quick quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge. Test scores were recorded in an online database, so managers could evaluate who had taken the training and how well they had done.

The results reinforced Dade Behring’s decision to go with Web-based training. Absorption levels proved to be even better than they had hoped. Trainees said they enjoyed the program, too. “Online training provides tremendous benefits for us, said Nick Payne, Dade’s director of training for North America. “We can deploy learning programs to many groups at once. And we can also create a Learning Management System for ongoing training efforts.”

Because of their recent success, Dade Behring executives plan to extend Web-based learning to external audiences as well — delivering product education to customers and employees via online programs.

10 Tips for Selecting an E-Learning Partner

  1. Shop around. There are many providers of e-learning programs for, but they’re not all created equal. Some, offer only “canned” curriculum, which they purchased from big national distributors. Others can develop a customized package to satisfy your exact specifications.
  2. Ask for samples. Any Web designer can boast about their ability to produce an online class that works. But few have laboratory experience or have delivered an education product for real-life laboratory workers. Try to avoid paying for a designer’s learning curve.
  3. Seek a speedy track record. Call previous clients and find out how fast the developer delivered a finished online learning product. An e-learning program that takes the same development time as conventional training methods has probably defeated its purpose.
  4. Assess your needs. Do you need an e-learning program that applies only to your lab? Or could you make do with a lower-priced generic alternative hosted off-site for the time being? A good consultant should be able to discuss the pros and cons of various options and help you make a wise decision.
  5. Look for healthcare knowledge. Laboratories have a unique culture. Off-the-shelf packages or vendors with only corporate experience may not provide a good fit.
  6. Define your goals. Be specific. State desired changes in performance, and quantify anticipated performance improvements to justify investment in online alternatives.
  7. Make it recyclable. Put attention into your program at the outset so it can be used over and over, saving money in the long run. Look for ways to prepare the program’s infrastructure to address other subjects.
  8. Test for results. The best online learning programs are those that feature quizzes and record test results in an online database for management reporting. The database also can be used for tracking individual compliance with OSHA or state-mandated requirements.
  9. Quantify all costs. To determine if online training really saved money, add in intangibles such as transportation, hotels, meals, conference room rentals and instructors salaries. Don’t forget lost productivity for both actual classroom hours and travel time.
  10. Try a pilot program. There’s no need to scrap your entire existing training program to test the waters with e-learning. Start small with a topic that lends itself well to distance education. See if employees enjoy it. Then evaluate whether new media offerings enhance the work culture in your lab and help you get desired results.

Beyond cut and paste
Experts warn that creating an online learning system involves much more than posting content from three-ring binders onto the Internet. Otherwise, the unique possibilities of electronic media — sound, animation, videoconferencing and other interactivity may not be explored when putting together an online learning package. Often it’s best to bring in a consulting organization with experience in optimizing the integration of media forms and keeping participants’ interest high.

When advances in both technology and educational theory are combined, the result can be a learning environment that offers the best of all worlds — low-cost, highly effective modules that are fun for employees and meet employers’ long-term development objectives.

Alesa Lightbourne is a Seattle-area freelance writer specializing in medical and high-tech topics.