Training Goes High Tech

Manufacturers boost use of online, simulator-based training.

As manufacturers seek ways to boost the productivity and effectiveness of their training efforts, both online delivery of courses and new software/hardware simulation packages are transforming the way new people are taught "the ropes."

"We have developed a basic core curriculum that is delivered via e-learning," says John Mallin, director of global learning and development at Owens Corning in Toledo, Ohio. "One of the advantages of this type of learning is that people can attend while working or while they are off-shift. They're not just sitting in a classroom, yet they have to answer questions along the way and be assessed on how well they have learned the material."

At Owens Corning, employees take courses online to learn how to maintain a safe working environment, evaluate staff and review performance, drive company vehicles safely and sell products more effectively.

Owens Corning supplements online training with personal coaching and supervision, so employees aren't left totally on their own. A couple of key factors that are essential to making an online training program a success, Mallin says, are having clear expectations and a disciplined process in place. "Certainly when a program involves people's time, whether in class or online, there are going to be challenges," he explains. "There has to be discipline, and people must know there will be follow-up and they will be assessed. Also, the learning must be tied to an important business need."

The follow-up component is essential, he believes. "E-learning isn't as compelling as a manager saying something is due today by 3 p.m.," Mallin continues. "But an online course, coupled with good management and a work environment that sets the right expectations, can be very effective in getting people to follow through." Owens Corning also offers online courses on lean manufacturing and office productivity software.

Another company harnessing cutting-edge technology for training purposes is Schneider National, a large transportation and logistics provider. Last year Schneider began using driver-training simulators to complement classroom and over-the-road training. "We can use the simulator to put the driver in a challenging position, such as having a blown front tire," explains Tom DiSalvi, director of loss prevention at the Green Bay, Wis.-based transportation firm.

The driver sits in a mockup of a Class A over-the-road truck cab, surrounded by three viewing panels as well as the usual controls -- steering wheel, gearshift, brakes, and accelerator. The panels show computer-generated objects that appear very lifelike. "It's exactly like looking through a windshield," DiSalvi says.

The idea is to present new or inexperienced drivers with the challenge of having to react to various realistic scenarios. These include driving in bad weather, dealing with equipment failures and navigating heavy traffic. "This is a way to teach better defensive driving and decision making," DiSalvi points out.

If a driver has an accident while operating the simulator, the machine ends the scenario. The instructor later replays what happened in the classroom, showing the incident from different angles and pointing out what actions could have been taken to prevent or avoid the mishap.

After trying out the simulators in a pilot project in September 2004, Schneider reported fewer accidents and a significant reduction in the dropout rate for inexperienced and experienced drivers. The company trains more than 7,500 inexperienced drivers each year.

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