Considering how fast technology evolves, this article might be outdated by the time you read it. But at press time, intranets were industry's hottest new training tool. You might be thinking, "slow down, I haven't even gotten around to trying out CD-ROM training programs yet." Forget it. Word is, intranets-in-company Internet-like webs-will make them obsolete. Intranet-based training is cheaper, more efficient, and possibly more effective, the techies tell us. And if you're still corralling workers into a classroom, using overhead projectors, whiteboards and slide shows to make your point, well, we won't tell. But you might want to keep reading.

Getting everybody on the same page

Multinational pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company started administering safety training via intranet to lab technicians nine months ago. The safety and health department traded in CD-ROM programs in favor of the kind of "interactivity" an intranet allows, says Brad Arthur, manager of corporate occupational health and safety. Trainees at any lab now can interact directly with their instructors, take tests that ensure they understand the lesson, and feed their scores instantly to the Indianapolis headquarters.

Eli Lilly intends to make its intranet accessible from 25,000 desktops at facilities on every continent by year's end. That will pave the way for almost all worker safety training worldwide to be delivered by computer from one source, Arthur says.

The possibilities for intranet training seem endless. Workers at computer stations in multiple locations can interact synchronously with a live instructor anywhere on the globe, shooting text questions and answers back and forth through cyberspace. Video and audio chats are also within the realm of possibility: the intranet can beam an instructor's videotaped visage onto students' monitors. Or workers can individually access stored training materials and take tests on-line anytime, then use e-mail to send questions as they arise to instructors anywhere on the planet.

Intranet training can simplify life for a safety and health manager, too. Consider being able to:

deliver information instantaneously without passing around CD-ROMs or computer disks;

spontaneously update materials and have workers see results immediately;

eliminate printing costs and the paper trail;

cut travel costs for trainers or students from your budget;

be freed from training scheduling hassles;

track individual training records and test scores globally from your computer screen;

offer training in multiple languages;

make training consistent company-wide.

Plus, no more training your trainers. Navigating an intranet, hyperlinking from page to page with a user-friendly web browser, is as self-explanatory as Internet surfing.

At Eli Lilly, Arthur says workers have adapted easily to being trained on computers. "The people in the lab love it," he says. "They can schedule training on their own time; they're not pulled out of work at an inopportune moment. And they can keep going back 'til they learn it fully."

Stand-up, lecture-style training "just does not belong in the classroom anymore," says intranet training consultant Harvi Singh of Empower Group in Raleigh, N.C., who will speak at a "Web-Based Training and Performance Support" conference in Chicago later this month (see sidebar).

Dehumanized instruction?

Not everybody agrees with Singh's assessment. On the technological side, for now at least, intranets' bandwidth limitations can cancel out the effectiveness of fancy graphics, audio and video features. And traffic jams caused by files and e-mails being sent back and forth across a company could slow down a training session considerably. Solutions to these problems, which can vary from system to system, are on the horizon.

On the human side, training experts debate the wisdom of taking workers out of classrooms and plopping them down in front of computers.

"The intranet has a place in training, but I wouldn't rely on it solely," says University of California at Berkeley health educator, Michele Gonzalez Arroyo. "There's a lot to be said for group interaction."

Lisa Oglesby, an instructional design consultant and instructor in the technology graduate program at San Francisco State University, says it would be narrow-sighted to predict that all classroom training will one day be transferred to intranets. "It's true that the lecture form of training is not cost-effective any more. But distance learning doesn't have the capabilities for negotiation, conflict management, role playing and networking with your peers that's essential for assimilating your skills."

Singh concedes that an entire education can't come over an intranet. "If you're learning how to swim, you have to get in the water. Most hazards training requires some hands on and interaction with an instructor," he says.

Eli Lilly's Brad Arthur says some complicated topics, like bloodborne pathogens training, demand a classroom and a live instructor. But for the most part, other training tools-CD-ROMs, overhead projectors, and classrooms-will become obsolete as Eli Lilly workers gain intranet access, he predicts.

Access is the real issue

Academic debates aside, you can't train your workforce on an intranet if you're not equipped. Many firms have yet to establish intranets. And among those that have, the web is often not spread company-wide.

Of 100 Fortune 1,000 firms surveyed in June by Omnitech Consulting Group in Chicago, 83 percent had intranets. Fewer than half use them for training. And only 14 percent conduct safety training on intranets.

It's only a matter of time before that changes. Most of the 91 percent of respondents to the Omnitech survey who use CD-ROM to deliver training call it an "interim technology." By 2000, most say more than half their workforce will be on-line.

For now, high tech firms are the pioneers. Oglesby, who researched intranet-based corporate training for her master's thesis, says mostly she found "people like Sun Microsystems using intranets for training remote sales staff."

Arthur says Eli Lilly initiated intranet safety training with lab technicians "because most people there have ready access."

Indeed, the division between the "haves" and "have nots" can dictate who gets trained via intranet and who still gets scheduled for classroom instruction.

Bill Monroe, a professional trainer at Harris Corp., a semiconductor manufacturer in Palm Bay, Fla., says even at his high tech firm, where more than 50 workmanship manuals and all MSDSs are on-line, intranet use is restricted. Tech writers, engineers, trainers, secretaries and management have computers, he says. Workers on the shop floor don't. Installing kiosks in manufacturing areas could help. Monroe came up with a plan to put office workers' cast-off computers at soldering stations. "We could have done it for under $7,000," he says. But management wouldn't back him.

For the long run, companies can't afford not to invest in intranet training for blue collar workers, says multimedia consultant Jeff Weinberg with Allen Interactions, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minn. "It's cheaper to create multimedia training than stand-up training. Hardware is only significant as a start-up cost. Once you have a system in place it will last for years," Weinberg says.

What you need to consider

As with safety itself, support from the top for training by intranet is key, say those who've been there. "You need somebody at the top of the chain who's your champion," says Monroe.

Management's understanding of the technology can make or break your chances. "The web is nothing more than an alternative delivery system," says Weinberg. "If you're already using multimedia (CD-ROM) training, you're a prime candidate for web-delivered training."

Weinberg, another speaker at the Chicago web-based training conference, says you don't need a huge infrastructure, nor a big budget or production department to get started. Not surprisingly, he suggests hiring a consultant. But, he adds, "get someone to teach you how to become self-sufficient. Your internal department can be empowered to build its own program."

Lisa Oglesby recommends conducting a needs assessment before launching intranet training. Determine who your target audience is, she says. Are they literate? Are they computer literate? Are they visual learners? Are they people who have a lot of down time on airplanes who would be better served with a hard copy of the training manual?

One employer Oglesby is familiar with went about setting up intranet training without first asking what trainees needed. Course designers jumped in with opinions about what the two-hour quarterly training session should include, but no one asked workers. The information they delivered was useless, she says.

At Eli Lilly, Brad Arthur was hesitant, at first, to impose intranet safety training on employees who weren't used to working on computers. But when he put out feelers, workers surprised him by leaping at the opportunity. Says Arthur, "They felt that, for their careers, in the long term they'd need to know how to use computers."