May 01, 1999
Meetings & Conventions The Countdown Begins May 1999 Current Issue
May 1999

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 television.

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 broadcasts.

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 employees.

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 Satellite-Savvy

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 to participate.

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 broadcast.

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 Carrington.


Tips for a Tube-Watching Audience

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 students.


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