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Learning to Go for Pharmaceutical Sales Reps

Ventiv Health, Inc., keeping more than 6,000 professional sales representatives informed of new products, industry changes, competitive strategies, and sales techniques is the key to success, especially considering that providing trained field representatives for the major pharmaceutical companies is the company’s core business.

Adding a new product line for a customer can mean up to three weeks of intense classroom training for hundreds of field representatives before they are turned loose. Further, keeping them informed of changes to strategy, tactics, product information, and competitive and industry changes after the training when they’re in the field, complicates the training mission.

In order to maintain their training intensity, keep their sales representatives competitive, reduce training costs, and deliver specific training, the training department is implementing a Learning-to-Go strategy.

Ventiv’s sales force is a highly mobile group. During the day, their main form of connection to the office is through wireless personal digital assistants (PDA) running Windows CE for handheld devices.
Ventiv plans to supplement classroom training with elearning by downloading specific content to their field representatives on their PDAs. They anticipate reducing the need for classroom training from a third to a half by using “sound bytes” to send nuggets of news, selling tips, competitive information, strategy changes, and updated pricing. Ventiv also plans to provide classroom pre-training via this method.

Mobile Learning: It’s a part of doing business.

It’s 4:45 pm at the office and you’re packing up your laptop as fast as you can to make it to your son’s baseball game. You have an 8:00 a.m. plane to catch to meet a client and you haven’t had time to learn the latest product updates filed on the company Intranet. No problem. When you get to the game, as you’re waiting for your son to come to bat, you use your wireless device and dial the company Intranet. You browse the company files and download the Web-enabled multi-featured product files you need in less than a minute. Later that evening, you’ll synch the files with your laptop so you can access them (offline) on the plane and integrate them into your Web-based proposal. Later, you’ll explain your proposal to your client at his building site. There’s no Internet connection there, but your presentation is enabled with full browser functionality in offline mode anyway. As you teach your client about your new products, you also input his requirements about your products. (The next time you go online, this information will be automatically synchronized with your company’s product design center). As you review your proposal with the client, you are actually coached by the embedded assistant built into your proposal. The client, who appears to fully understand the proposal and has had all of his questions answered, concludes he is ready to do business with you.

The convergence of the Internet and laptop computing has furthered the growth of the mobile workforce. While working in the field is nothing new, according to International Data Corp., the U.S. work force today includes more than 35 million mobile workers. That number is projected to grow to 47 million by 2003, driven by an annual 10-15% increase in telecommuting and an explosive growth rate in the use of cellular phones and other wireless devices.

These mobile workers, linked to their offices by cell phones, laptops, and handheld devices now comprise 40% of the knowledge workforce and span an ever widening career spectrum: sales, service, engineering, consulting, medicine, law, accounting, and insurance to name a few. They are on the road, working closer to the customer, and telecommuting from home and all other points between the corporate office and the client environment.

High-value employees, these mobile workers are also (according to an October report in Mobile Computing) highly motivated and productive employees. Their jobs depend on accessing mission critical information and continuous industry-specific education. For their careers, and for their employers, learning is a business necessity.

eLearning would seem to be the ideal solution to keep the mobile workforce continuously educated. Yet, for the mobile worker, elearning does not come easily, nor is it easy to design. Their mobility, their time, their access to technology, not to mention individualized content and presentation requirements, are unique issues that must be met in order to provide them with a successful learning experience.

The Current Situation Is Inadequate

Currently, learning for the mobile worker is provided in several ways, including traditional classroom settings, computer-based learning, and web-based online learning. To paraphrase Abe Lincoln, all types of learning delivery work some of the time for some of the people, in some cases. But now the means to provide learning on demand to any mobile worker anywhere at anytime is beginning to take shape.

Traditional instructor-led training will continue to be the preferred mechanism for broad-scope indoctrination and business skills training (e.g., leadership development, sales coaching, skills training such as flying an airplane) where time and location are not an issue and/or instructor interaction and group dynamics are critical.

Web-based corporate universities have been an emerging trend in recent years as many companies began developing them (or outsourcing to commercial web-based university providers) to provide the kind of certified education necessary for their employees to advance their careers. For the mobile worker, though, this is not always achievable due to lack of uniform and consistent access to the online university. For the mobile worker, web-based learning needs to be available online or offline.

To deploy business-specific learning, where time is of the essence in quickly educating a decentralized and increasingly mobile workforce of sales, support and management professionals, we need a new type of learning. Neither instructor-led training nor continuous online learning can provide the necessary speed or convenience for these “on-the-move” workers.

Mobile Learning Emerges

For mobile workers, their learning environment changes as they move from place to place. They go from airport to hotel room to headquarters to home to their child’s dance lesson. As they move about, their technology changes from personal digital assistants (PDAs) to laptops to cell phones to desktops. Sometimes they are connected to the Internet and sometimes they cannot be connected. Ideally, mobile workers want their learning to keep up with them no matter the medium, the time, and no matter whether they are connected at the time or not. Their fast-lane work environment requires a “take it and go” approach to obtaining their learning.

Mobile learning is emerging to meet the distinct needs of these workers, enabling them to access and capture specific targeted knowledge from anywhere at anytime, on any device, and use it immediately or later in offline mode. The content delivery is driven by events in the marketplace and immediate information needs to support product launches, competitor information, regulatory process and compliance, performance support coaching, and on-demand data-retrieval.

Mobile Learning is targeted in scope and relevant to each customer interaction, ranging from quick “how to” courses to new pricing information. But the common denominator is that the information is delivered in nuggets or chunks—and can be accessed and displayed from multiple devices online, or downloaded for later use in offline mode.

The most effective mobile learning is designed to be a personal, interactive two-way street. Mobile learners need to be able to respond to learning administrators and in turn receive timely responses. Their ability to learn and use the information should be tracked (whether they are online or offline) and returned to the training administrator. The student/administrator dialogue, even in the virtual sense, is vital to the learning process.

And in the case of workers on the front line, where mobile workers usually are, they not only use their knowledge to do their jobs and educate their customers, they also receive knowledge from their customers. Ideally, because the mobile worker is often the connection to the customer, mobile learning should also be the conduit for gathering knowledge from the customer as well as educating the customer (via the employee). Learning what customers think transforms business.

Basic Learning Fundamentals Still Apply

The fundamentals of learning do not change for mobile workers with mobile learning. That can be both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because expensive new methods of learning do not need to be developed; but also a curse because those methods are not always conducive to the environment of mobile learners. The nature of learning does not change just because the work force is more mobile today than it was ten years ago. But for the designer of mobile learning, these fundamentals present some stiff challenges:

1.   Learning is generally more effective when active, rather than passive. So course design built around actively “doing” is better than a design built around passively “reading” dialog on a screen. Limited bandwidth, horsepower, real estate (screen size), and connection opportunities, however, present strong obstacles for mobile course designers to overcome.

2.   People learn in different ways: mainly by reading, observing, doing, probing, or by being mentored. But the preferred method can change depending on the subject, the timeframe of learning, the environment to learn in, the current mental state of the learner, and the purpose of learning.

3.   The learner, not the instructor, controls learning. Content presented in a manner that the student understands, and when the student is prepared to accept it, facilitates learning. The best mobile learning content is student-centric, understanding that the student controls when the information flows and chooses the medium. The instructor, either the human kind or the computer kind, is a facilitator of learning. This facilitative function is not going away, but it must evolve with technology.

Designing for the Mobile Learner’s Environment

While the traditional fundamentals of learning apply to the mobile learner, the experience of the mobile learner is different than that of others. Learners must be able to find, learn and incorporate critical information, wherever they are and on whichever device they are using. Learning necessarily takes the shape of formal self-paced learning.

Self-paced learning has more unknowns than instructor-led training. It is difficult to monitor the students’ progress, know when they will be available, what media they choose, and where they will be when they want to learn. Not only are mobile workers not always connected, when they are connected, their connection speeds are often suspect and unreliable. Training mobile workers means training them where they are, when they are ready to learn; in other words, training anywhere, at any time.

In a classroom setting, the instructor somewhat controls the environment with known equipment, space, and plans. Distractions can be dealt with individually. For mobile learners, however, those unknowns must be designed into the content. The issues of where, when, who, and how long are all broadened. Content becomes need-based rather than linear. Mobile learners do not have the luxury of time for a course from start to finish. They must be able to take only the pieces they need at the moment.

In classroom training, instructors can alter the course outline to bring in new content, improvise for surprises, answer and re-answer difficult content, and gear training to the individual needs of the class. In other words, they can improvise to meet the needs of the students. Designers for mobile learning do not have that luxury, thus, they must build in the various “situations” the learners may face.

Conventional wisdom says that learning is enhanced when the students participate in the training. With mobile learning, there is often no one to participate with. Mobile learners can still participate; however, it is more passive than active as they use message boards, email, and chat rooms. Mobile devices, especially PDAs and telecommunication devices, are often less powerful than desktop computers. Meanwhile, a new generation of learners raised with high concentrations of video stimuli is entering the workforce expecting to be trained. After years of blasting their way through “Doom” and “Quake,” text based lessons will not hold their attention. Course designers must consider these issues when creating courses for the mobile learner.

Finally, the issue of monitoring the training of mobile workers is just as important to the company as tracking all corporate training for legal compliance, safety, and employee development reasons. Embedded tracking technology must be operative whether the mobile learner is accessing their learning in online or offline mode. Offline tracking liberates the learner from the dependency of strictly online learning and the problems associated with network disruptions and slow connections.

Content Design: Functionality Will Define Form

What does designing content for the Mobile Worker entail? PCs, laptops, hand-helds —each of these devices offers flexibility for the mobile worker, but present an extreme challenge for designers, both instructional and graphic. When developing content, the instructional designer has to balance what they know to be effective learning, and also take into consideration the advantages and the limitations of the Web. The graphic designer must use proven Web navigation and screen design and also take into consideration the various platforms/devices and technical limitations of each.

The same design will not work for PDAs, laptops, and Windows CE devices. Companies that offer Internet access through cell phones are finding this to be the prevailing case. Each device has its own plusses and minuses and each must be taken into consideration. One size will not fit all.

Instructional Designers often use “chunking” when creating user manuals and learner guides. The chunks are stand-alone nuggets of content. They allow flexibility in terms of how they can be used together and separately. This approach applies when thinking about how to create content for mobile workers. These chunks of information, called “Learning Objects,” can decrease frustration regarding Internet download times.

When content is tagged as a learning object and entered into the delivery engine, it can be reused appropriately within multiple devices. Learners can then find, learn, and incorporate critical information, whenever they are online, and from whichever device they are using. An entire course, with many learning objects, can be downloaded to a PC or laptop. A reference guide or critical learning objects can be downloaded to a handheld.

Graphic design for the mobile worker is not much different than design for the web. Voice, animated graphics, video, and text each have their place. All these elements at the designer’s disposal must be carefully weighed for their effectiveness within the learning activity. The media asset mix is crucial, especially considering the limitations of some mobile devices.

When developing the graphical user interface (GUI), the graphic designer must not only consider developing an effective interface, but must also consider each device from which the learning objects will be accessed. The look and feel and navigation need to be consistent for each.

Feedback to both designers is a difficult issue for delivering to mobile learners. The instructional designer needs to know which devices are being used for which learning objects and whether or not the learner is having a positive experience. The graphic designer must have information from the end user on navigation and design issues. This feedback is a huge challenge for both sides but necessary to the evolution of mobile learning technologies.

As mobile devices and the much-touted wireless world evolve, the proving ground for these technologies is likely to be in the hands of the mobile workforce. To a great extent, mobile workers are on the front line of the new economy. By meeting the challenges of their unique learning requirements, we will no doubt be defining how we all may someday live in a world where the lines between working and learning are gone.

Carol Weiss is Vice President of Communications for Experient Technologies. When not expounding on the merits of elearning, she spends time with her husband restoring a 1788 log home in central Virginia (where a wireless network will keep her in touch with the elearning revolution). Reach her online at or on the web at



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