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Meeting of the Minds

E-learning can provide insurers with a flexible, effective means to educate their employees - as long as creativity, collaboration and the right partner are integral parts of the process.

Every day, insurance companies are bringing hundreds, even thousands, of agents from all over the world together in one classroom to earn their continuing education (CE) credits, and, typically, the agents are back to work in the same day. Better still, it costs just $1 to $40 per person.

Thanks to the Web, carriers are delivering interesting, entertaining and easily digested CE coursework - along with virtual meetings, compliance reporting capabilities, marketing materials and other training - to their agents, who can find help online whenever they need it. But, is it working? According to a number of insurers with varying needs, the answer is yes.

In late August 2004, New York-based MetLife ($987 million in first quarter 2005 net income) was faced with a very specific and very pressing training challenge. The company's compliance department identified a need to certify, in less than three weeks, the entire field force - more than 10,000 agents - in a field underwriting course. As project manager and instructional designer for the Field Development Group at MetLife, Jeff Mines was charged with the task. "Given the time constraints and sheer number of agents requiring certification, I quickly determined that the only feasible solution was to deliver the course online," recalls Mines.

But he needed to find a vendor that could provide an end-to-end solution, including an engaging, interactive presentation consisting of multiple modules that utilized many multimedia formats - such as Flash, video, audio and PowerPoint - as well as an integrated quiz. MetLife also needed a network infrastructure that could bring the class to all 10,000 field agents' PC desktops with the ability to handle hundreds if not thousands of concurrent users - even if all 10,000 agents decided to view the course at exactly the same time - without any delays or network degradation.

"We needed to get the message to a large audience," says Mines, adding, "We wanted a lot of licensing flexibility because of the time constraint." The ability for a large number of "seats" to be filled in the class became a top priority. "We did not have time to consider a licensing restriction of 500, which is what some companies might offer. We needed to accommodate for the possibility of almost everyone being on the platform at once," Mines continues.

"When choosing a technology vendor for e-learning, it is important to find one that is capable of creating a scalable, open forum that is always accessible," says Kristie Cornelsen, national vendor relations manager for Combined Insurance ($2.4 million in total assets). As with MetLife, the Chicago-based carrier faced an urgent, challenging need for e-learning. As the largest insurance subsidiary of Aon Corp. (Chicago; $200 million in first quarter 2005 net income), Combined offers a range of supplemental insurance coverage. But, unlike Aon, which utilizes the brokerage channel, Combined Insurance's core business is door-to-door sales, according to Cornelsen.

"We have small rural offices all over the country, and we were interested in securing a vendor that could provide tools for phone and Web conferencing that would be scalable from five to upwards of 100 people at a time," explains Cornelsen. She estimates that the insurer conducts at least 30 phone and Web-enabled conferences per day with a network of more than 500 users for training, sales meetings, sharing of performance results and more general collaboration purposes. Coordinating so many meetings among busy executives can be difficult, Cornelsen concedes.

"For any company, traveling to a class is tough because everyone is over scheduled, so having education at the desktop is very valuable," says Len Brevik, CEO of PIA, the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (Alexandria, Va.), which has relied on Atlanta-based Learn.net for the past year to provide PIA state and regional affiliate associations the opportunity to offer CE and non-CE skills training courses through their association Web sites. "A number of agencies and insurance company sales forces are small businesses, and each employee is critical," Brevik continues. "If someone leaves to take a class or attend a meeting, that can create a challenge for the entire business."

Combined Insurance has been using telephone conferencing capabilities from Genesys Conferencing (Reston, Va.) for the past six years and rolled out Web conferencing capabilities with the vendor in January. "We went with the same vendor for their Web conferencing and meeting center platform because, with our existing system, we are not intruding with too much change for our employees," says the carrier's Cornelsen, who reports that the insurer uses Web conferencing as a training facility for new administrative employees. "Web conferencing is more of an added feature than a new program," she explains. "Much of the information stays the same, such as only having to use one pass code for either phone or Web conferences." Another benefit of Genesys' Web meeting center platform, according to Cornelsen, is the ability of the solution's management tool to display the names of attendees, thus eliminating the need for a time-consuming roll call.

Partnering for Education

In the case of MetLife, Mines talked to colleagues in the field development group to identify a vendor that could provide online learning to 10,000 agents. Scott Nussey, the insurer's director of field development, suggested Manchester, N.H.-based Pinpoint Global Communications, which he had used over the prior two years to manage similar projects with less-stringent deadlines, developing distance-learning portals for the MetLife field sales force. The portals supported large-scale online compliance and CE courses.

"After a thorough - albeit quick - review of our specific requirements, we decided to work with Pinpoint Global to produce and deliver the field underwriting course," relates Mines. An intense collaboration followed. MetLife's field development group managed the project and produced the online content, which was provided by the compliance department. Meanwhile, MetLife's creative services team developed features such as Flash components, voice-over talent, graphics and other course components. Pinpoint Global then took all of MetLife's resources and assembled them into a delivery format. Finally, MetLife provided a URL for the hosted content and the virtual learning environment was up and running, according to Mines.

Such collaboration is vital to the success of an e-learning initiative, notes Combined Insurance's Cornelsen. "When an insurer goes into a vendor program, it is truly partnering with the company," she observes. "It is important to find a vendor that believes in the product and program we are developing, as well as one that listens and comes up with solutions that are absolutely tailored to our business and company."

The PIA's Brevik also stresses the importance of selecting the right e-learning partner. "We are the content experts, so we can put material together and provide a course," he says. "But it is still important to find a technology platform that can present the course in the correct manner - in manageable chunks that allow employees to be educated quickly while being somewhat entertained," he continues.

The key goal for the PIA, according to Brevik, is to deliver services to its members, including education for agency owners and staff about insurance concepts, trends and regulations; information for agents about changing insurance company offerings; and advocacy for agents in legislative matters. Through the organization's partnership with Learn.net, PIA affiliates can offer up to 70 CE courses and more than 2,000 non-CE computer, business and technical courses to both PIA members and non-members in their states, at a price of $35.95 for members and $39.95 for non-members, which includes testing and CE filing. "We are happy with the flexible partnership, which allows us to be scalable and move quickly and at our members' convenience," relates Brevik.

The e-learning initiative is in Phase 1 only. According to Brevik, the PIA plans to build out a larger educational platform that will include additional training materials. Learn.net not only provides the PIA with the ability to deliver courses, it also enables the organization to pull programs and classes designed by affiliated state associations into its platform, he relates. And the PIA currently is working to expand many of the state-specific programs into national offerings.

Virtual University

Boston-based John Hancock Insurance also partnered with Learn.net to create an online learning platform. The carrier, a subsidiary of Manulife Financial (Toronto; $271.6 billion in funds under management), provides fast refresher courses to agents on sales appointments through its Web-based education center, John Hancock University.

"Our agents have the ability to look up marketing ideas on a 24-7 basis," says Frank King, VP of education for John Hancock, who refers to the refresher courses as "just-in-time learning." "By doing that, the real benefit is that it maximizes the time our sales force gets to spend in front of prospects and clients."

According to King, the virtual university was updated a little more than two years ago to look more like an actual university. This is an important feature, notes King, who says usability is a major consideration when choosing an online education program. "You enter into what looks like a college campus with six buildings - a classroom, an administration building, a resource center, a career center, a student union and the John Hancock University store - so you can always easily find what you are looking for," he explains. "We have consistently gotten positive comments on the navigability of the site."

Through reporting capabilities offered by the vendor, John Hancock also can examine usage and identify any problems with the system. "Technical challenges tend to be minor but numerous," relates King. For example, the insurer has had to make sure agents are using the correct e-mail addresses to log on and access the site, otherwise their CE credits will not be tracked correctly, according to King. Additionally, preparing for the uptick in activity at the end of the training year (which runs from July 1 to June 30) in which agents receive credit requires attention, he notes.

Most Popular Class on Campus

Fortunately, class size is a relatively minor problem with e-learning. During MetLife's three-week training crunch, 99.5 percent of its 10,000 field agents were trained in time to receive accreditation, according to the carrier's Mines, who notes that the cost of the program was roughly $1 per student. The only difficulty, he relates, was that thousands of agents were using MetLife's intranet to access the learning platform from different versions of browsers. Pinpoint Global solved the problem, however, by integrating a mini applet into the URL.

"When the user hits the URL to take a course, this applet program runs automatically behind the scenes and examines the status of the computer, then sets up the delivery of the class to accommodate" the user's browser, explains Mines. MetLife since has made the course a part of mandatory compliance training for all new hires. With the success of the initiative, the insurer's compliance department also has decided to expand its online compliance program over the next 12 months, Mines adds.

Online learning tools also have proved popular at Combined Insurance. "We've seen an increase in Web usage on a monthly basis," reports the carrier's Cornelsen. Since the technology was presented to employees as simply an enhancement to existing options rather than as a requirement, Cornelsen says she believes the solution's acceptance speaks highly to its value, which also includes significant cost savings, as Combined Insurance no longer needs to fly new hires to a central location for training classes.

But the worth of e-learning goes beyond cost savings, according to John Hancock's King. "There is a cost advantage, but the biggest advantage is being able to track attendance and performance automatically," he says. "The tracking makes it easy for us to figure out when we need to change content, and keep track of the training and progress of our field force [of 1,400 representatives] in compliance and mandatory training activity," King continues. "There is really an overall convenience factor."

For the PIA, a major benefit of Learn.net's Web-based collaborative platform is its ability to facilitate organizationwide communication. "We are working on building an early warning radar network on Capitol Hill as regulations impact the industry," reports the PIA's Brevik. He explains that the PIA will use the network to identify and track emerging regulations and alert companies when legislative requirements change.

Further, the organization plans to conduct surveys electronically and send feedback to Congress to lobby for change, according to Brevik.

"From an insurer's perspective, Web tools are more than e-learning," Combined Insurance's Cornelsen says. "It is making sure that everyone is aware of things that are going on outside of their little area, which sometimes can be very engrossing. Web-based learning tools provide the ability to share news from all over the company and the country."

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