Meetings & Conventions The Countdown Begins May
From a Distance
In digital satellite systems and the Internet, firms find
efficient alternatives to face-to-face
By Carla Benini
A fter merging with two of its biggest competitors in August
1997, Boeing Co.’s workforce more than doubled from 110,000 to
248,000. Suddenly, the Seattle-based aircraft-manufacturing company
was faced with a Herculean task: If management tried traditional
employee-education methods like sending managers to each of its 350
field offices years might pass before before the last staffers were
trained. Boeing had a premillennial problem in need of a
postmillennial solution. Did somebody say “distance learning”?
In case the term has not yet blipped on your buzzword radar,
distance learning describes any process by which a presenter
appears before an audience despite their being in separate
locations. The audience could be thousands or it could be one. The
presenter could be displayed on a movie theater-size screen or on a
computer monitor. Transmission could be conducted via satellite or
over the Internet.
What is the difference between distance learning and
videoconferencing? Distance learning primarily involves one-way
communication, teachers to students, although some interactivity is
possible. Also, distance-learning programs are not necessarily
live. If videoconferencing is a phone call with visuals, distance
learning is more like corporate TV.
As emerging technologies play an increasingly important role in
connecting people, they also are redesigning the fabric of
meetings. Distance learning “is telling people that there are other
avenues than face-to-face,” says Ben Leikach, director of the
Oracle Channel, part of Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle Corp.
After the company linked its 30,000 employees via satellite,
Leikach says, it revealed just how often people had been flying to
meetings. Of course, there were fears the new technology might
dehumanize the communication process, but Leikach says implementing
a distance-learning system actually has enhanced the value of
face-to-face meetings, which now are reserved for when direct
interaction is absolutely required.
But could the rise of such systems separate some planners from
their jobs? “If the planner continues to operate in the 20th
century, there may be some vulnerability,” says Susan Irwin,
president of Irwin Communications Inc., a consulting and research
firm in Washington, D.C. “There’s going to be much more of a need
for planners who understand the technology.”
The Virtual Classroom
Although some organizations are using the Internet and private
intranets as their distance-learning media, perhaps the hottest
technology is digital satellite broadcasting. Proponents of the
technology say it is more secure than the Internet and, because it
does not have the Internet’s bandwidth limitations, is better for
sending full-motion video. Satellite equipment is inexpensive
EchoStar Communications Corp., a communications company in
Littleton, Colo., offers an 18-inch dish and receiver for about
$150 but production costs can range from $10,000 for a no-frills
program to $150,000 for a glossy production suitable for network
Boeing management looked to satellite technology to solve its
post-merger communication problems, says Tom Fideler, Boeing
Leadership Center’s distance learning manager. With the help of a
producer and director, the company put together a 13-hour
educational television show about how employees should conduct
business. A professional moderator was hired to interact with the
executives. Commentators and actors performed in dramatizations.
The program was broadcast to offices around the world in two-day
cycles over six months, and employees scheduled time to view the
Oracle created its distance-learning program to replace a
costly, twice-annual training session for consultants. By putting
that session on TV and enabling 900 consultants worldwide to stay
in their offices, the company saved $1.2 million from its first
broadcast, says Leikach.
Similarly, the Ford Star Dealer Communications Network
“transformed training” for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co.,
says Larry Conley, manager of education and training. By
broadcasting to about 190,000 employees at 6,000 dealerships, Ford
gained greater control over what is taught; prior to the advent of
distance learning, Conley says, some of Ford’s trainers would skip
over material in which they were not well versed. Now he can hire
one instructor to address all dealership employees, ensuring that a
consistent message is sent.
Another company that flexes its satellite muscle is Palo Alto,
Calif.-based technology firm Sun Microsystems, which uses the
SunBTV satellite network to broadcast product launches. Its New Age
in Telecommunications launch in New York City typically is attended
by an estimated 5 percent of Sun employees, but the most recent
event was broadcast to every employee in North America. “We can
take people to places that they would not normally go,” says
Dallas-based Arnie Kaber, director, Americas field operation,
training and development.
Building a Network
How does one actually get a satellite network up and running? Many
firms choose to outsource, leaving the logistics to experts.
Organizations that require only a few broadcast hours each month
may want to use a company like EchoStar, which offers a business
television network that works like a cable television channel.
Those hooked up to EchoStar’s system share its uplink and schedule
broadcasts in advance, one at a time. EchoStar is able to confine
broadcasts of each company’s shows only to that firm’s
At the other end of the spectrum is Ford, which spent $20
million to build its own satellite hub instead of using a vendor.
The company broadcasts 1,400 hours of video every month and uses
downtime to transmit huge amounts of data to its dealers.
Using the Internet
While its dealership employees receive satellite broadcasts, Ford’s
internal employees get their instruction through the Web. The
company introduced last year a series of Web-based courses that
eventually will replace existing classroom courses, says Karen
Hudson Samuels, manager, learning strategy and technology in the
education and training department of human resources. With online
courses, she says, employees can link to other sites for research
and can receive immediate feedback.
The decision to turn to the Internet for internal education was
about accessibility and efficiency. Ford’s 35,000 engineers can
access online training on demand, instead of adhering to a class
schedule, Samuels says.
Sun also supplements its satellite-based program with online
education. It uses the Internet to brief sales reps on new and
changing products, and online courses send employees back to
previous lessons if they fail a test.
According to Dale McGuff, director of distance learning
development and a consultant with Arthur Andersen Performance and
Learning in St. Charles, Ill., the Internet will become the primary
medium for distance learning. “Once the bandwidth issues are
solved, just about everything will be Internet-based,” he says.
But none of these innovations is the harbinger of doom for
traditional classroom instruction, according to McGuff: “Employees
still need to learn how to rebuild car engines and troubleshoot for
computer-server glitches tactile skills that will probably always
be learned best through touch and feel.
An Association Gets
Corporate America isn’t the only place where
classes are beaming into space. The National Association of Social
Workers recently offered a seminar via satellite to its members.
“The thrust of the program was to bring affordable continuing
education to a larger portion of our membership,” says Georgianna
Carrington, continuing education manager for the Washington,
D.C.-based association. About 1,000 members spent from $50 to $75
Naturally, members were not about to buy their own satellites,
so the association asked each state chapter to find a centrally
located facility with satellite capability, said Carrington.
Chapters used university sites and hospitals to receive the
Registrations for the virtual seminar did not cover what the
association spent to produce it. But Carrington plans to sell tapes
and to promote the next satellite event more heavily. How did
members react? “People were very pleased with it,” says
Tips for a Tube-Watching
Those educational content designers who have
made the switch from classroom to studio say it is a different
world in TV Land. Here’s a compilation of the techniques they
employee.Build in a feedback mechanism. Employees must be able to
respond to what’s happening on screen. To facilitate this, San
Jose, Calif.-based One Touch Systems Inc. makes keypads with
built-in microphones, which allow students to be heard not only by
the instructor but by other students. When employees log on to the
system, the instructor can see who is in attendance.Maximize the medium. To keep students entertained and focused,
incorporate elements like animated graphics, panel discussions and
cuts to remote speakers or locations.Silence is OK. In a classroom, the instructor instinctively
allows time for students to digest a concept because he can react
to their body language. In a studio, that time has to be built in.
Don’t feel the need to fill up every second with speech.Find an instructor with star quality. The trainer should have
experience working in front of a camera, not just a live class.
Presentation methods differ: In a studio, information is packaged
in smaller chunks, and there is no face-to-face interaction with
Back to Current Issue indexM&C
| Events Calendar
| Incentive News
| Meetings Market
| CVB Links
| Reader Survey
| Hot Dates
| Contact M&C