Company Intranets: How Satellite Helps Expand Capabilities
Several years ago, Datatel, a provider of information management solutions for colleges and universities in Fairfax, Va., created a satellite-enabled intranet for its workforce. Initially, the technology, which acts as a private computer network, was going to serve as
a corporate communication tool by offering company updates and easy access to proprietary information ranging from changes in accounting procedures to new travel policies. But that soon changed.
As more employees logged on, the company’s human resources department (HR) began exploring how the technology could make corporate training more efficient and economical, says Jennifer Drueen, corporate training manager at Datatel. Ideas started to take shape. Creativity was put into action. Within a few years, the same intranet was expanded to provide a one-stop resource center for training and communications. The same benefits can be achieved at other corporations, large or small.
This scenario is fairly common across corporate America where most, if not all, national or global companies support an intranet. But some experts believe that HRs have only begun to tap into the technology’s training capabilities, especially if the intranet is satellite supported. What started out as a basic communication vehicle is evolving into an invaluable tool that helps employees gain instant knowledge, share challenges and best practices with peers, and maximize business opportunities.
Take Datatel, which now supports 570 employees located on the U.S. East and West Coasts. While its intranet enables employees to register for and complete e-learning courses, broadcasts new online courses and keeps tabs on registration status, Drueen has hopes of expanding its capabilities even further.
“The intranet can really broaden what it means to be a learner,” she says. “From the learner’s perspective, they can access lessons-learned stories and network with other professionals in their area of expertise in different divisions or functional units across the company. They won’t just tap into formal classes but [into] just-in-time training and job aids. It really can support a corporate learning culture that goes way beyond the traditional classroom.”
When building an intranet, Drueen says it is important for HRs to participate in the growth and development of the network to ensure that the user’s needs and the corporate training perspectives are incorporated into the architecture plan. She cites Datatel as an example, as the company is moving from a Lotus Notes-based intranet to Window’s Sharepoint. A member of Drueen’s team sits on the implementation committee and helped make sure that as the transition takes place the online training center will feature a comprehensive menu that connects all of the company’s learning pieces or components.
Drueen adds that HR personnel need to sit on an IT governance committee to help ensure that all training information presented on the intranet is easy for learners to access and meets established style guidelines. As more information becomes available via the intranet, it becomes more challenging for that information to be well organized, easily accessed and connected to other online pockets of information, she says.
Even at her previous employers, Drueen recalls searchability being the key issue with intranets. Companies often end up with such an overwhelming amount of data available that keyword searches become increasingly inefficient because they return too many results, and it becomes difficult for users to efficiently locate what information they need. “Make sure you’re staying on top of what other content developers or content contributors are adding so that you’re making best use of their materials and not recreating a wheel,” she says. “If you know what your customers are looking for, you can streamline the information and make the intranet a lot more usable because you can design it for exactly what they’re looking for.”
Not surprisingly, companies that are experienced with intranets are more advanced with their training applications. Currently, podcasting or audio training is gaining ground, says Michael Rudnick, national intranet and portal practice leader at Watson Wyatt Worldwide, a global HR consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. Podcasting is no different than a music file, as employees simply download the audio file off their intranet on to an iPod or compatible MP3 player. Then they can listen to the information anywhere at any time, he says.
“It’s growing very popular for any kind of training,” Rudnick says, adding that even heath care organizations known for their conservative technology practices are realizing its benefits. “Every year, employees have to go through annual enrollment and learn about changes in their companies’ health care plans. So instead of giving them a Web site where they have to read and retain all of this information, HR is using podcasts to explain these changes and walk employees through the things they have to do.”
Other times, he says HR has used this approach when training staff about Sarbanes-Oxley, a federal law that introduced new standards for disclosure of financial and accounting information. Watson Wyatt initially provides podcasting of key messages to employees who then complete an online training program.
Because intranets are typically more secure than Internet Web sites companies are able to share proprietary information that otherwise may have to be distributed via old-fashioned paper. Some companies are even allowing employees to gain access to non-confidential content on their intranet with a special password when they are outside the office, says Rudnick, explaining that this is yet another way intranets are helping companies extend learning opportunities.
Using intranets to archive information for later use, which reduces information delivery costs for employers while offering employees on-demand training, is another method for taking advantage of satellite-enabled intranet capabilities. Some intranets also act as a portal to the Web sites of third-party vendors that have developed online training programs. Employees sign on just once and do not need to remember multiple passwords, which has been a problem in the past. “We see a lot of training benefits on the intranet,” Rudnick says. “Even if a company is working on some type of sales strategy, it can train its sales force online without being concerned that someone might hack in.”
There are even more advantages with satellite-enabled intranets or hybrid wide-area networks that combine terrestrial or land lines with satellite access. “You’d be surprised where you can and can’t get terrestrial lines,” says John Dwyer, CEO at End II End Communications, a Charlotte, N.C.-based company that secures and optimizes business applications over satellite communication. For example, just five miles outside of Charlotte — one of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the United States by population — companies sitting on one side of the highway can access a DSL line or cable modem while those on the other side cannot.
Using satellite technology for intranets becomes necessary in locations such as these that lack a communication infrastructure or where “last mile” connections are unavailable. Other scenarios may include when a company’s intranet is housed away from its main campus. Since satellite was designed for high-speed transmission of information, a company’s intranet could quickly upload information to the satellite, which then downloads it back to the company’s headquarters regardless of distance.
Companies purchase a certain amount of bandwidth to conduct daily business, such as using the Internet or data applications like Microsoft Exchange but training modules added to their intranet — especially those with streaming video — are bandwidth hogs and can strain the bandwidth of the entire organization, Dwyer says. But overall, satellite is more efficient than cable modem, DSL or other broadband technologies when multicasting or sending the same information at the same time to multiple offices, he says.
Rudnick recalls a client who operates business “in the middle of nowhere”. Without any communication infrastructure, the company could not access a DSL line or cable modem and used to send corporate messages by mailing videotapes to its remote sites. Now, with help from satellite, the company has enough bandwidth to run everyday business applications, offer real time access to its intranet and conduct monthly videoconferences for employees at its remote locations. “The return-on-investment was immeasurable because employees are now a fully integrated part of the organization,” Dwyer says.
Plenty of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of intranets is available, most of it gathered by HR from employee surveys or water cooler conversations. But some companies have actually proven the technology’s value.
While Volvo does not track its intranet’s return on investment, the company does monitor other aspects, such as how many employees accurately apply or understand the content provided by more than 100 online courses, says Tom Coffey, transfer of knowledge advisor at Volvo Trucks North America Inc., in Dublin, Va. For example, managers use a checklist of competencies to measure how well assembly line workers perform certain tasks. So far, employees and the online courses have received high marks.
But that represents a small percentage of the company’s workforce, Coffey says. Other measurements include which intranet pages are visited the most frequently. Volvo’s intranet offers a vast amount of information ranging from travel alerts to daily reports for each of its 17 worldwide locations. The most popular page offers stock information. Next is the financial page, which addresses key data about each of its companies. In third and fourth place are press releases, then interviews with the company’s managers on a variety of topics.
At least 25 percent of the 3,500 employees at Coffey’s factory log on to the intranet, he says, but he believes that number is probably much higher at non-factory locations. To encourage more blue collar workers to log on, he says more intranet kiosks are being installed on the factory floor. “The intranet is excellent if people know how to navigate it,” he says. “Hourly people may not have the expertise, time or knowledge to do this. That’s something we’re working on. It’s astounding what they have access to on the intranet.”
Likewise, GM established its online university five years ago, which mostly appeals to 80,000 salaried professional, technical and engineering employees worldwide, says Donnee Ramelli, president of GM University (GMU) in Detroit. When introduced, about 1 percent of the university’s learning hours was offered on the intranet
Much has changed since then. One-third of the company’s 3,000 courses now are available online with almost 900 offered in multiple languages. In 2005, 200,000 hours of online learning were offered, he says, and about 110,000 learners have completed e-learning courses. Ramelli expects the number of online training hours will jump from 34 percent to 40 percent in 2007 and peak around 70 percent within the next several years.
When evaluating the impact of GMU, Ramelli and his staff discovered a compression factor. A typical four-hour traditional workshop can be completed online in two hours. So the productivity factor for transferring knowledge online to employees is about 50 percent, he says, explaining that conventional classes include time-consuming activities, such as introductions or icebreakers.
Those savings can quickly add up. Ramelli says GM has saved 200,000 hours of productivity. If multiplied by the company’s average labor rate, he suspects that GM saved more than $8 million but that amount does not include any savings related to travel expenses associated with delivering traditional workshops globally or from those who log online for on-demand training.
Before the availability of on-demand training, Ramelli recalls how 65 percent of employees who enrolled in online courses never completed them. When asked why, the employees stated that they needed to learn only a portion of the course to perform their job. They either knew the rest of the course material or it was unrelated to the task at hand. With on-demand courses, employees no longer need to wait several weeks or months to learn or sit through a full day workshop for new information that is presented within the first hour or two. Online courses via an intranet empower employees by letting them take charge of their learning and growth to improve their job performance, Ramelli says.
Meanwhile, Ramelli believes GM has not come close to reaching intranet’s learning curve. His team frequently develops new ways for the company’s intranet to save even more training dollars. For example, some subject matter experts have trouble converting complex concepts into slides for an e-learning format. Now these experts record their presentations in a broadcast studio, verbally explaining their slides. The information then can be converted into an e-learning course or burned onto a compact disc that is sent to more than 200 trainers around the world who can decide how best to teach those practices to their audience.
“People haven’t figured out all the great ways they can use [intranets],” he says. “How are we going to tap [employees’] curiosity and interest in a way that will give them the best information for what they have to get done? I don’t think we’ve broken that code yet. Those things are yet to come.”