People associate online learning applications with lots of text and PowerPoint presentationshardly an inspiring teaching method. And when the directive to "get employees out of the classroom and onto the desktop for learning" was given at Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield (New York, $2.2 billion in assets), Scott Gassman, associate vice president of interactive media, knew he had better get "cutting edge."
"I have an HR background," says Gassman. "So training, to me, involved big meetings" in big rooms. "I had to transition to a learner-coach."
Not Your Daddy's e-Learning Provider
To help with the transition, Gassman knew he would have to find an e-learning technology provider, and he also knew that solutions with PowerPoint presentations and online worksheets would not make the cut. "I remembered seeing a company called Ninth House that had a very interesting product," he says. "We set up a pilot with Ninth House in September '99 for 22 high-level executives. Twenty-one executives thought the online training course was very good."
San Francisco-based Ninth House Network won the approval of Empire's executives because of its cutting-edge technology. "Ninth House has articulate, imaginative, television-quality video and audio that uses the best in management thinking," including content from Ken Blanchard, Tom Peters, Larraine Segil, William Bridges and Peter Senge, among others, says Gassman. "The content keeps people on their feet. I still haven't seen anything else like it. Other companies are doing other things, but we did not see streaming media and video."
However, Gassman says, Empire would not have been able to roll out streaming video and media without the company's relatively new IT infrastructure. "We couldn't have done it without the infrastructure to support the media," he says. When Empire revamped its infrastructure to become an "e-business," according to Tom Fischmann, Ninth House co-founder and senior vice president, market development, the company installed broad-bandwidth technology, including state-of-the-art Cisco (San Jose, CA) routers and switches.
Powered by new technology, Ninth House was good enough that the 22 executives decided that 200 of Empire's top leadersboth in IT and on the business side of the houseshould also go through the courses. "Part of the reason why we have been so successful with Ninth House is the executives, in essence, sponsoring the project," Gassman says. The executives required that the company's top 200 leaders complete four Ninth House learning projects. One glitch that developed in this process, Gassman relates, "was that it was evident that in 1999 some of the senior-level executives had never been online."
Fischmann says he sees higher usage at Empire, compared to usage at other companies, because of upper management's buy-in. "Empire has a clear understanding about how important it is that the management get behind a roll-out," he says.
Since the positive response, Empire has expanded the online learning initiative to more than 650 seats and 150 additional seats for the carrier's Medicare division and is contemplating rolling it out company-wide. "We start by rolling it out to the managers and we urge them to sponsor it for their groups," Gassman says. When a manager sponsors the learning project, that manager makes sure that people in the group use the online learning tool. "We just rolled it out to the front-line service staff"customer-service representatives"and they are expected to complete four programs," Gassman adds.
Change Management and 9/11
And the Ninth House tools should also help Empire work through a particularly hard time at the company. On September 11, the company lost its World Trade Center headquarters. "One program deals with change," specifically William Bridges' "Managing Change," for managers, and "Navigating Change," for employees, Gassman says. "Until November 19, Empire had been at a temporary location," Gassman says, and did not have the technical infrastructure to support people using Ninth House. "Now that we are moving to a permanent office, we will try to make a an effort to remind employees to go through the change management courses."
For Gassman, Ninth House has made his job more productive. In order to accomplish a change-management program for approximately 1,400 employees, Gassman says that he would need 28 HR-type people to administer the program. "By using Ninth House, I canalong with two other people and a little technical supportroll out an entire online training program," he says.
Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio