"It's not flunkable," says Lorie O'Neill, director of product marketing for Clarus Corp., based in Atlanta.
Online buyers around the world, some on the lowest administrative levels and some who've never heard of a browser outside of a shopping mall, have gone through various degrees of training, all with a single common denominator: the training continues until it works.
Sometimes that translates into a three-day retreat for the buyers and IT experts who have to know the program's every intricacy and every customizable feature on every reporting function. But more often, it means the guy or gal buying light bulbs or printer cartridges can become passably competent after 45 minutes on an Internet-based walk-through of the e-procurement program.
Trainers brag that students typically incorporate the e-procurement program into their work process immediately even before the training ends, buying items "live" with a little coaching. Some buyers seem to pick up the skills required for e-procurement more quickly than others, and trainers agreed that younger buyers seem to adapt more readily, perhaps due to their familiarity with computers.
"I notice most of the younger people don't even want training," said Renae Hesselink, e-business manager for Nichols Paper & Supply Inc., in Muskegon, Mich. "It's almost like an insult. They say, 'Hey, I know how to use the Internet.'"
But the difference in skill levels between young and old, computer literate and illiterate and manager and frontline worker seems to disappear as more training becomes available to anyone who needs it. Add to that the availability of "refresher courses," and you have a foolproof, non-flunkable system.
"I had one customer, he was real resistant (to an e-procurement system)," said Hesselink. "He had never used the Internet before. I spent maybe a half hour with him, one-on-one. Now he's gone out and bought a new computer for home. And he panics when he can't order online."
Training: The New, Hot Topic
While software manufacturers and system enablers make their e-procurement programs as intuitive as possible, and while some of the more computer-savvy buyers have managed to navigate through the programs without any help at all, training has become a hot topic among procurement managers. Some companies are trying to get thousands of buyers (end-user buyers and those right with a large purchasing department) online by the end of the year, making purchases a bit more complicated than light bulbs and printer cartridges. Some e-procurement programs allow complete marketplace functions online, with requests for proposals, bids, bid analyses and responses all without a single sheet of paper.
In mid 1999, software manufacturer Ariba Inc. had one training center where customers, training partners (such as Arthur Andersen consulting firm) and Ariba workers learned the ins and outs of the company's products. A year later, the company had eight such centers, and the company had all but eliminated efforts to train customers directly, preferring instead to rely upon Ariba's training partners. Those partners could go out into the world training more trainers (sometimes partners of the partners), who could in turn train the end-users or sometimes even more trainers. The system works almost like a phone tree, with certified trainers passing along the knowledge.
"Ariba is a learning company," says Paula Cabacungan, manager of education channels. "Education is absolutely critical. It's valued right from the top."
The state of Connecticut makes clear the need for an intense approach toward training. Bureaucrats had 824 workers buying items from 82 different suppliers online as of the summer, but plans called for 5,000 workers using the system by the end of 2000, all with their own passwords and user IDs. Jim Passier's procurement department offers a weekly, two-hour class for "anybody who needs it."
"I'll have state agency people, computer illiterate you never know who will come into a weekday class," says Joe Giliberto, contract specialist for the state.
The state started its classes in October 1999, and everybody receives a manual for "back up." (Trainees also have access to the manual online.) Trainers keep the class content as simple as possible, allowing attendees to relate more easily. For example, trainers show attendees how to search for items such as file folders and staplers on the Internet.
"I'll have people locate certain items," Giliberto says. "There are good ways of searching and there are bad ways. I'll show them a bad way. If they're looking for a file folder, I'll tell them to look for the word file. Then we get a little more detailed. I explain the whole descriptive process what certain things mean, and I have them add it to a shopping cart."
The search for items confuses people more than any other aspect of basic e-procurement, says Passier, Connecticut's procurement manager, usually because people get overwhelmed when they come up with 1,432,657 hits on the phrase "file folder." Part of the training focuses on greater specification of search words.
"You might get a number of items from multiple suppliers," Passier says. "But if you're looking for a hammer and one supplier calls it a nail-driving device, it won't come up."
One feature that eliminates some confusion is a template the state refers to as a "Tablet of Most Frequently Used Items." The buyer stores the list and orders from that list at regular intervals.
"It cuts down on the search time and increases the accuracy," Passier says.
Not all the state workers pick up the search techniques and the rest of the process flawlessly. In hopes of making the most of the training classes, the state encourages people to take the class immediately prior to anticipated use of the system. Passier doesn't want people taking the class then forgetting everything they learn in a four-week gap between purchases.
The trainers offer refresher courses, and Passier had at least one person return for an entire class because he had never been on the Internet before. But Passier echoes Clarus' O'Neill when he says, "No one flunks it. Some people just take it over."
One hard-core skeptic changed his attitude somewhat after taking the class and placing an order in the warehouse where he worked before heading home that day. The skeptic said, "This will never work; it's too efficient." The items came in the very next day.
Somebody higher than Passier in the management ranks decided the program was indeed going to work, and it was going to work by the end of 2000. The state hasn't calculated the resources it has directed toward training, but Giliberto says he is convinced it is well worth the investment, whatever it is.
"We want e-commerce to go and we're doing everything we can to make it go," he says.
Improving Efficiency Through Training
Not only does the training improve the efficiency of the buyers, it also improves the system itself, says Maureen Costigan, e-commerce team leader for Connecticut.
"Sometimes users will bring up issues during training that might spawn enhancements to the system that make it better for everyone," she said.
The training system most familiar to computer users is the one in which the customer sends a core group of workers, usually a procurement manager and a few, key IS representatives, to the software manufacturer's headquarters, preferably somewhere tropical. As technology improves and budgets shrink, this approach has become less popular.
Clarus still provides that kind of training, and sometimes it's appropriate, says O'Neill, especially when a company has four or fewer people who need training. However, classes of more than four will work best with Clarus' on-site "Portable Classroom" training, assuming the customer can set aside a conference room or other space for the activity.
The Portable Classroom comes with a Clarus trainer and all the laptops, manuals and other equipment necessary to maintain Clarus' policy of non-flunkability. The cost is a minimum of $6,000 per day, based on the assumption that six people will attend.
"The Portable Classroom training is most popular for project teams, but our eTour is most popular for end-users," O'Neill says.
Eighty percent of the customers who purchase Clarus' e-procurement program also buy the company's eTour training. Priced at 10 percent of the software license fee per user, eTour offers quick training on the Internet which O'Neill describes as "multimedia and multisensory." In other words, the trainee can view videos and listen to an instructor as they step themselves through the training program at their own pace.
"The person gets to choose how to interact with it," she said. "They can see it, hear it or try it (actually order items during the training). It's available any time. So if you use procurement software only once a quarter, you can go into it for a quick, little refresher course."
Some companies offer training courses via CD-ROM, but O'Neill believes Clarus' Web-based program provides maintenance-free accessibility. At the same time it is flexible, she says. It allows customers to customize the training. In fact, Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad branded the eTour training program with its own logo and renamed it SourceNet. The company has trained 3,000 workers on the program.
"The only thing we required was the ability for users to download a shockwave plug-in," says Mike McClarey, Burlington Northern's manager for e-commerce for strategic sourcing and supply. "That's a program that allows you to view solutions that were written in Macromedia Director (an Internet presentation program)."
Burlington Northern liked Clarus' interactive eTour training program, compared to some other software manufacturers whose Internet training was nothing more than a "glorified help feature," says Leigh Ann Vernon, director of e-commerce and supplier automation. With prospective buyers in 28 states, Burlington Northern needed a training program that would reach people quickly and easily, she says. The company had 30 end-users in May 2000, and that number rose to 200 within three months.
Shirley Sloan, administrative assistant for the vice president of strategic sourcing and supply says, "We came out of the class and they asked me if I was ready to place the first order. We were ordering office supplies. It was very simple with the instructions we had gotten. Plus we had printed instructions. It was a matter of putting in what you needed. It went very smoothly."
Ingredients for Success
Any complaints from end-users have focused almost entirely on problems with on-time delivery, which is unrelated to the software or the users' familiarity with it, says McClarey.
Part of the success in training comes from the assurance that anyone can get help at any time. Andy Wilson, COO of Need2Buy.com, says training is "critical" to his company's success, and his 100-person company pours as much of its resources into customer service as it does technology. His company's Web site brings together suppliers and buyers of electronic components, and the customer service center handles about 10,000 calls per month.
Proper training on e-procurement programs makes life easy for everybody involved the buyer, the supplier, the software manufacturer and the Web site operator. Don Wnorowski, senior vice president of global market operations for FreeMarkets Inc. in Pittsburgh says, "We don't want to have a mistake in a $20 million machining event. We process these events on a day-to-day basis, and by investing in how to use the software, you reduce the risk of somebody putting in the number 10 when they meant to put in the number 100. It's an investment made up front, so things run smoothly for the event itself."
Edward Jordan, vice president and COO for DemandStar.com, an Internet marketplace for business-to-government (B2G) transactions, acknowledged organizations can save money on training up front, but he described it as a "false economy."
"Well-trained users get more benefits from the system and help generate positive word-of-mouth for our company," he says.
And positive word of mouth leads to greater sales. No wonder nobody is allowed to flunk.