Training professionals around the world have been asked in recent years to convert existing training materials into e-Learning modules. The benefits that come from this type of conversion can be many, including decreasing training time and allowing students to move through system simulations at their own pace. There are also pitfalls that need to be addressed. One company, Sterling Commerce of Dublin, Ohio, took on an e-Learning conversion process that required over a year to complete. This is their story...

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In order to improve training for new employees, Sterling Commerce’s Customer Support Training department converted a six-week classroom curriculum into a blended learning solution, including technical simulation e-Learning modules. The Customer Support training department was challenged: few resources, small budget, decreasing class size, complex technical training materials, the need for very high retention, and immediate application of learned skills after training.

Sterling Commerce has a mission to deliver Multi-Enterprise Collaboration solutions that enable real-time visibility for business trading communities. Sterling Commerce products and services — multiple software products and an electronic trading network — help companies make better decisions by automating business processes, reduce time-to-market by reacting quickly to market changes, and increase revenues through effective collaboration with business partners. Sterling Commerce has approximately 1600 employees around the world and the headquarters are located in Dublin , Ohio .

The challenge

Because of Sterling Commerce’s global footprint, training is decentralized. The Organizational Development department, an arm of Human Resources, is responsible for major all-employee training and education offerings. They offer classes in skills that can be used by people across the organization, such as stress management, sexual harassment and business writing. Each department, however, is responsible for any technical and business skills necessary for the employees to perform their jobs efficiently. For example, Customer Support has historically had one person dedicated to instructional design and training. That trainer designed, developed and delivered classroom and e-Learning course materials for all skills related to supporting the electronic data network known as Sterling Information Broker (SIB).

Existing training situation

In the mid-1990s, the customer support department was growing rapidly and hiring approximately 10 to 15 new technical support specialists each quarter. The new employees who were going to support SIB and PC-based software products attended six to eight weeks of classroom training to learn the basic skills to resolve customer interactions. These training classes covered not only the Sterling Commerce products, but also general information about electronic data interchange (EDI), customer support softskills, and support center tools. New hires came from multiple locations within the United States and Europe . International distributors also sent support employees to Ohio to attend this classroom curriculum.

The six-week new hire curriculum included classes covering large amounts of technical information across multiple products, tools and platforms. Specific sections of the class covered topics such as:

  • Customer Support soft-skills
  • Call tracking system skills
  • Telephone system skills
  • Features and functionality of up to six Sterling Commerce software products
  • Features and functionality for SIB
  • Troubleshooting and problem-solving skills
  • Electronic Data Interchange basics, including reading raw business data languages

In the early 2000s, the hiring pace in customer support slowed dramatically, as was the case for many businesses across the US at that time. Instead of 10 to 15 new employees a quarter for these classes, the need was reduced to only two or three new employees per quarter. Sometimes these new employees were not able to start work in the same week, which meant the trainer had the additional challenge of covering the same instructor-led materials with students on differing schedules.

A project was initiated in early 2003 to rebuild this training program to better match the current business situation at Sterling Commerce. (See the Sidebar for details on the project plan.)


SIDEBAR Training Project Plan

Like other corporate projects, training projects need to be supported by a formal project plan. For Sterling Commerce’s effort, this project plan was written and implemented by the training designer.

The mentoring program, self-study workbooks, classroom sessions and reading materials were mentioned in the project plan, but the majority of the plan was dedicated to the e-Learning development tasks. These were the tasks that would require by far the most resources and support from the management team. A project team was assembled and the goals were marketed to the Customer Support management team.

The project plan included information such as:

  • Formal project goal
  • Learning objectives for the e-Learning modules
  • Full outline of each module
  • Student prerequisites, including hardware and internal network access needs
  • Project milestones with projected durations and dates of delivery
  • Risks, dependencies, constraints and assumptions
  • List of project team members, including their role in the project
  • Sign-off to indicate the project team’s approval of the plan

This plan became the backbone for the project. It ensured clear communication, an outline of expectations and a basic schedule to follow. The training designer referred to the plan document throughout the rest of the project, and updated the project stakeholders regularly on the status of each major milestone.


Resource challenges

The challenge early on was a resource issue. It was impossible to develop new coursework for the continuing education of existing employees while the only assigned trainer was delivering long, instructor-led sessions for new hires. When the trainer was unavailable because she was teaching in a classroom for six weeks, very little design or development of other materials was possible. Virtually no continuing education in new products or releases was developed for the SIB Customer Support staff. All other projects came to a halt until the new employees were up to speed and acting as functioning members of their call center teams. Sometimes the product development staff stepped in to fill the gap and provided informal knowledge transfers to help disseminate information, but formal training was needed and no further training resources were available.

Logistics challenges

New hires needed to become productive as quickly as possible. The six-week classroom sessions were a luxury Customer Support could no longer afford. In addition, it no longer made business sense for the single trainer to spend weeks teaching support center skills one-on-one for each new employee, while the rest of the staff went without the training they needed for new products and services.

It was also becoming more important for new employees at remote locations to have access to quality training materials. After the terrorist attacks in the United States in September, 2001, travel was no longer acceptable or easy to arrange for Support employees. International Sterling Commerce and distributor sites preferred to gain the skills they needed without traveling to the US and staying at corporate headquarters for weeks at a time.

Managers at all locations wanted new employees actively solving customer calls and answering telephone and e-mail contacts as soon as possible. The skills needed were highly technical and specialized.

Now, when a hiring request was granted, the manager not only wanted the new employee as a fully active team member quickly, but the manager needed to know that the new employee had the skills to resolve customer queries on the first call. In other words, management wanted training time decreased, but wanted proof that the trainee had learned skills necessary for the job.

The support employees for the SIB Customer Support team directly handle electronic customer data for thousands of businesses. They manage customer accounts and monitor the flow of data through SIB, one of the world’s largest electronic data networks. It was important to Sterling to make sure the employees with access to the SIB network were well trained and capable of adding, changing and deleting customer records while maintaining uninterrupted data flow for every customer. Management needed confidence that new employees were capable of navigating the complex network environment.

Evaluation challenges

The existing classroom curriculum provided specific feedback for management on each student. The trainer would administer written tests and individual or small group activities regularly to check for comprehension. She would then speak to each hiring manager periodically throughout the six weeks to report on the new employee’s performance. If the trainer had concerns about the new employee’s skills, performance or even about the employee’s attitude, she would discuss these with the manager. Sometimes intervention activities were planned during the training period, including additional one-on-one mentoring for students who were struggling with specific skills or tasks. Managers would expect this type of feedback from the new version of the training curriculum as well. This posed one of the biggest challenges of the project.

The plan

The existing classroom materials were well established. They had been used and maintained for over five years. Updates were made each quarter to reflect any changes to the SIB network. Students had provided useful feedback to improve the materials, and had tested the classroom activities and exercises thoroughly.

To begin planning for the conversion project, the first step was to determine the media for each section of the class. The body of material was large and the learning objectives were numerous. It was immediately apparent that a single medium would not be the most effective solution. The Customer Support instructional designer intended, from the very beginning of the project, to blend the learning objectives and materials in different forms of media — using the most appropriate form depending on objectives, tools and past experience with the classroom environment. With limited resources, including lack of designated development budget and only one person dedicated to the project, the options were limited. Any material development would have to be fast and inexpensive; it was imperative to leverage existing materials wherever possible.

Media choices

In the six-week program, approximately half of the time was devoted to training employees to use support tools for SIB. Many of the tools were stable and the processes were well established. Although the audience was not large, it was diverse and included students from various physical locations — other cities, states and countries. The Customer Support instructional designer had some experience in developing e-Learning, so she decided to break this part of the training down further and examine content for the best pieces to convert to self-paced e-Learning modules. This was an expensive option, but it was the best way to simulate the support environment. The designer planned to find ways to shorten development time, and knew she would have to talk to experts in the field to make this part of the project work.

In one particular mainframe system, there were many tasks the students needed to master. This mainframe system did not offer a viable training environment, so new hires were generally trained in the live, production environment. e-Learning modules for many of these tasks would increase security for the production environment and provide a safe place for the students to learn basic skills. As a result, realistic simulations

for many of these mainframe tasks would be the best alternative to instructor-led classroom sessions. e-Learning modules for these topics could also be reused by employees in other departments who touched the mainframe screens occasionally or who needed to understand how to manage customer accounts on SIB. In this way, the training could be leveraged “just in time” across multiple business departments, helping employees in other areas of the company acquire skills quickly in a secure environment.

Not all of the material could be converted to self-paced online modules. Support for the SIB network involved many variables on the customers’ sites and numerous variations of customer configurations on Sterling Commerce’s systems. The e-Learning modules would have to be accompanied by other training media to facilitate knowledge transfer and problem solving for complex combinations of services. The curriculum would still need some sort of instructor-led, classroom interaction for the best learning experience. Live classroom events, such as question and answer sessions with experts in the SIB environment, would be valuable for the learner. The training designer would determine the best combination of media for an effective blended learning solution.

Blended learning

The Customer Support training program had historically included monitoring experiences for new employees, which set the stage for a comprehensive mentoring program. In the old class schedule, students spent a few days out of the six-week curriculum sitting with an experienced Support Specialist listening to live customer calls and watching the Specialist use the tools to do their job. The new mentoring program would assign each student to a Senior Support Specialist on his new team for the duration of the training period. The student would not only use the mentor as a resource for questions throughout their training experience, but would also work on some assignments and monitor real customer phone calls with their mentor. The goal was to establish solid working relationships with team members early on — and not to delay those relationships until after the student sat in a classroom for the first six weeks of their employment. They would immediately be made an integral part of their team.

The training designer knew she would have to develop self-study activities and reading materials to help transfer additional knowledge. Sterling Commerce has an Information Development (technical writing) department separate from any training group. The training designer would leverage their documentation on the SIB platform — assigning reading and creating corresponding activities, worksheets or tasks to check for comprehension. Existing documentation did not contain all of the topics or skills, so training workbooks would have to be written in order to formalize some of what had been taught in classroom lecture. This material would complement the existing Information Development documentation about the SIB network.

Combining the mentoring program and self-study workbooks to replace a portion of the classroom training meant that specific materials would have to be developed for the mentors themselves. Senior or high-performing support specialists would act as mentors while still handling their normal job duties. Most of the mentors had no history or experience with teaching, and they would need support to succeed in this new role. Instructor versions of the workbooks — including expected or correct answers to all of the exercises and questions — were necessary for the success of the learning experience. The training department would teach the mentors how to use the materials, reassuring hiring managers that the students would acquire the same skills as if they had been taught in a more formal classroom environment.

Based on the needs of the Customer Support department and the history of the training curriculum, the training designer chose these blended learning options:

  • e-Learning modules
  • Instructor-led classroom sessions
  • Mentoring or one-on-one training
  • Self-study exercises
  • Reading and study materials

The deliverables

The deliverables for this project were completed in phases, with the e-Learning design and development taking most of the time. However, self-study materials were completed first, and implemented immediately. While new hires were using the new texts and workbook with mentors, classroom sessions were still held, although in a shortened format, to cover topics that would eventually be taught in self-paced e-Learning modules.

Self-study materials phase

Work began in early 2003 on the self study materials. It was a relatively simple matter to track down existing documentation on some SIB-related topics. In fact, many of the documents were already used in the classroom version of the curriculum. The Information Development team maintained an internal Web site where they stored PDF copies of the SIB documentation. This site was accessible to any Sterling Commerce employee and the documents were kept up to date with all current releases of the SIB tools. The documentation provided valuable background information for new employees, as well as reference material for all support employees. The training designer had to list the chapters or PDF files that were most appropriate for new employees and then connect this reading material to other training exercises.

Although the Information Development documents were an excellent source of high-level information on the SIB network, most of the daily tasks performed by customer support specialists were not formally documented there. The existing classroom materials were a much more detailed look at the daily jobs of the customer support teams, and included step-by-step procedures for dozens of tasks necessary to support SIB customers. Subject matter experts reviewed, improved, or corrected the existing classroom texts as needed. Some of the text was out of date, and much of it was not complete. The trainer had filled in large amounts of detail during classroom lectures, and facilitated discussions and activities to help the students retain the information. All of those details needed clear documentation for the new self-study workbooks.

Three new texts emerged from this revision: a basic network support guide, an advanced network support guide and a student workbook. The two guides were updated versions of the existing classroom books. The workbook was new for this conversion and contained over 100 pages of exercises and activities that related directly back to the text in the other two volumes. The workbook also contained a short chapter explaining how to use the three volumes together for the best learning experience

In addition to these three texts, the training designer created an instructor’s version of the workbook. It was a copy of the student workbook with additional information added, including a section discussing the role of a mentor and appendices containing the correct or expected answers for every exercise in the book. This would become a key piece for the mentoring program. It allowed the mentor to double-check his own understanding of the exercises and confirm correct answers for his student. If questions arose during the study process, mentors could contact the training designer or other known subject matter experts for advice.

e-Learning design phase

Once the texts were complete and ready for use, the next phase of the project was the design and development of the e-Learning modules. Beginning with detailed outlines, the training designer asked for subject matter expert involvement very early on. Each module was outlined and each outline was reviewed and approved by high-level technical support, SIB network development, customer support managers and at least one Senior Support Specialist.

As the outline reviews proceeded, the training designer was exploring the tools necessary to develop the modules. Sterling Commerce used Macromedia’s Authorware as the tool of choice for authoring e-Learning courses. The training designer had already developed a few courses using this tool, and knew that it was complex and time-consuming for a novice author. In order to take on the four e-Learning modules needed for this project, she knew a template would speed the development process enormously. Sterling Commerce already had an Authorware template that had been developed for an external presentation, and customer support training had access to use it. In the past, however, that template had proven to be unstable and difficult to use. For this new project, the training designer decided she needed a stable, simple template for success.

With management approval, the training designer went to a local e-Learning design company, Encore CBT of Worthington, Ohio. Encore CBT’s offices were close to Sterling Commerce headquarters, so it was easy to arrange meetings and communicate frequently in person for this project. Carol Paquette, an Encore CBT designer and Authorware expert, created a simple, easy to use template for e-Learning development. Working closely with Sterling Commerce’s training designer, in a matter of a few weeks Carol produced the desired templates that would speed the development of these classes. Additionally, the templates could serve for future e-Learning development needs — maintaining the same look and feel for the student throughout all internally created training materials.

The price tag for this piece of the larger project was a consideration because there was no pre-approved budget for the project. When compared to the cost of paying an outside consultant to author all four expected modules, however, the template was economical, to say the least. During the discussions with Customer Support management about cost, the training designer was also able to cite at least three other current or upcoming projects that would benefit from purchase of the templates. In the end, the money was approved and the template was commissioned.

The template files contained items specifically designed to speed development time for novice or even experienced Authorware developers. (See Figure 1.) By building navigation into the template, for example, any Sterling Commerce author could skip the development time dedicated to navigation and move ahead with the substantive parts of the training material. Encore CBT’s template included:

  • Full course navigation
  • Log in sequence to capture basic student information
  • Main menu screen and navigation
  • Scoring and certificates
  • Glossary capability
  • Navigable course outline for returning students
  • Knowledge objects (or mini-templates) for each simulation, interaction or test frame type


Figure 1 Templates made it easy to create uniform, attractive screens in e-Learning applications.


e-Learning content basics

All content for the e-Learning modules was written, organized and edited in Microsoft Word before any development began. Using a simple table, the training designer wrote the full text, described the graphics needed and wrote detailed notes for all interactions on each frame. (See Table 1.) She did not create complete storyboards for two reasons: she was acting as the designer and the only developer, and decisions about the basic look and feel of the finished pieces were already determined in the Authorware templates. She did not have to lay out each frame for another developer, so it was an easy decision to skip formal storyboarding in order to speed the development curve. In order to make sure she was on the right path to meet expectations, though, she did take the time to gather the project team — specifically the Customer Support managers — for a demo of the templates. Providing a few example frames to the project team allowed them to clearly see what they could expect as the finished products.


TABLE 1 Sample e-Learning content plan document
Screen Text Imagery Notes
2.7 Now, let’s practice restoring data. You will have the opportunity to locate data on a MAIL screen and restore it for your customer. Follow the instructions on your screen. William from Fred’s Dog Treat Company has sent an email to Customer Support asking for interchange control number ### from ### (Date) to be restored to his data slot. Click Next to resolve William’s Support case. Practice icon clipart
2.8 Type S in the SYSTEM field and press Tab. Blank MAIL screen Text Entry simulation. CA: S + Tab, Move to next frame WA: Incorrect. Please try again. Click: Remember, CICS is not mouse-friendly. Try again. Exit: Incorrect. You should have typed S in the SYSTEM field and pressed Tab. We’ll do it for you now. Click Next to continue.
2.9 Type O in the OPTION field and press Tab. Blank MAIL with S in System Text Entry simulation. CA: O + Tab, Move to next frame WA: Incorrect. Please try again. Click: Remember, CICS is not mouse-friendly. Try again. Exit: Incorrect. You should have typed O in the OPTION field and pressed Tab. We’ll do it for you now. Click Next to continue.


Each module was approached as a single small project within the larger scope. The content was prepared and the module created for the first class before the content was begun for the second, and so on. All content was reviewed by a team of subject matter experts and edited by a professional copyeditor from the Sterling Commerce Information Development team. When appropriate, text from existing documents was leveraged for introduction or explanation of concepts. Links were then provided so the student could easily move from the class to the Web site containing the current full editions of the documentation.

During text review and revision, the training designer gathered graphics for the courses. Without a professional graphics specialist on staff, the training designer had to find a tool that enabled her to capture the right application screens for simulations without too much time or effort. TechSmith’s Snagit made capturing the SIB mainframe screens simple, and allowed some control over annotating screens and modifying screens to protect security sensitive information. Snagit also had the capability to capture video (.avi) files, which would come into play for a few of the modules. The learning curve on Snagit was very low, so the training designer was able to use it efficiently within only a few hours of installing the program. She captured all screens needed for both informational frames as well as simulation frames and stored them in a secure LAN drive. She listed them by file name for each frame on the content plan document.

Not all frames needed support tool screens. Some frames were designed to display text only, and others contained text and clipart related to the topic covered on that frame. With no budget for graphics and no specialist at hand, the designer used free clipart from Web sites such as Microsoft to provide some visual variety for the student. In two cases — with Sterling Commerce-related symbols that recurred in all of the modules — another Customer Support employee volunteered to create some customized graphics for the project. The result was a symbol reminding the student to charge customers for specific services, and a “telephone” that was used for an activity where real customer calls were simulated within the course.

e-Learning interactions

While designing the content for each module, the training designer knew that the more interaction she could build into the courses, the more effective they would be for new employees trying to learn the complex skills needed to support the SIB network. As a result, she created combinations of simulations, reviews and test questions to keep the student’s interest and promote the most realistic learning environment outside of the tools themselves.

Each module included simulations that mimicked the screens the student would use every day. These simulations included combinations of key press, text entry, mouse clicks and decision making related to the task at hand. In the most complex course, simulations went so far as to replicate real customer calls, using audio recordings of the call and simultaneous video recordings of the keystrokes used by the Customer Support Specialist to resolve the customer’s issue. Interactions in the course that fell outside of the simulations included rollovers, hyperlinks, and drag-and-drop activities. Test questions were true/false, multiple choice or application simulations.

Because of their high level of interactivity, the e-Learning modules would eventually be the pieces of the blended learning curriculum that received the most positive comments from students and managers alike. Students liked the self-paced, interactive features, while managers appreciated the security provided by allowing new employees to try out their skills in a safe environment.

e-Learning development and deployment

After extensive planning and design, the training designer was able to create the e-Learning modules with relative ease. Due to the Authorware templates, development time was significantly less than the accepted industry ratios. Once the text was in its final form and graphics were gathered, the courses took between 40 and 50 hours of development time for each finished hour of e-Learning course. This time included moving the finished text into the templates, configuring the simulations, setting up the quiz questions and other interactions, importing the graphics, and some testing time.

After each module was completed, it was tested by a group of Customer Support employees. Some of the testers knew the topic well and some did not. They were told to test at this time only for functionality of the module itself. Content was already solid, so content changes were not a goal of the testing phase. Testers were given up to two weeks to complete their review. They were provided with worksheets to help direct their testing activities and forms to provide feedback to the training designer. The training designer researched all tester comments, fixed any problems with the course and packaged the course for delivery.

Sterling Commerce did not have a large library of e-Learning modules, nor was the culture ripe to implement e-Learning courses on a large scale at the beginning of this project. As a result, there were limited hardware resources available for storing or deploying the modules. Encore CBT took this into account in the development of the templates. The templates packaged courses for deployment as executable files that would be installed directly on the student’s PC. Sterling Commerce could store the files on the intranet site, where the student could locate and download them. They would run an installer program on their PC to install the training module, which would then reside on their machine for future reference. Encore CBT understood that there might be a need in the future to deploy courses in a true online environment. The templates were set up to gather information such as student name, email address and scores for each section of the class. In the current method of deployment, this data would reside in a file called “User Data” on the student’s PC. This detail would help make a conversion to a Web based training environment — where student data would be gathered and stored on a server instead of on individual PCs — easier when Sterling Commerce was ready for that move.

The results

In the end, the blended curriculum for the SIB Customer Support new hires included the following items:

  • Four interactive e-Learning modules
  • Two text books
  • Student workbook
  • Instructor’s guide
  • Mentoring program
  • References to numerous other company documents
  • Short classroom sessions for specific, advanced technical topics
  • Other e-Learning courses for related topics, such as soft skills, data security, HIPAA regulations, and business writing skills

A detailed agenda is now provided to each hiring manager and new employee. (See Table 2.) The schedule walks them through all of the above materials in logical order, asking them to complete combinations of reading, mentoring activities, self-study activities, e-Learning modules and more for each topic in the curriculum.


title text goes here
Day/time Topic(s) or assignments Method Responsible party
Day 1, am Complete the Introducing CICS: Logging ON and Off and Introducing CICS: Mailboxes and IDs e-Learning modules e-Learning self-study (Alternate Classroom Discussion) Student (Alternate: Discussion Leader)
Day 1, pm Assignments:
  • Read Basic Support Guide: SIB Overview
  • SIB Overview worksheet
  • Read Basic Support Student Guide: Signing On, Reports, Mailslots/IDs
  • Mailslot and ID Exercises
Self-study Student
  • Discuss and Demo Adding a new mailslot
  • Discuss and Demo Adding a new ID
  • New Slots and IDs worksheet
  • Review all assignments and discuss correct answers
Mentoring Mentor and student


In order to provide a checkpoint with the hiring manager, the student is asked to print their final certificate when they finish one of the e-Learning modules and give a copy to their manager. This certificate displays the student’s score on the final test and a message stating whether or not they have successfully mastered the information. It was important to ensure track courses like this as online training; it is one way to provide some feedback to the manager about the student’s progress. Mentors are also expected to have an open dialogue with each hiring manager to promote communication about the student’s progress.

Managers and employees have provided positive feedback on the new method of training new hires to support SIB. It has provided flexibility where the instructor-led version of the curriculum was more rigid. Other departments have leveraged the training — using individual pieces of the materials for learning new tasks. The materials can be accessed remotely for employees who work in other cities or from their homes. In the future, international distributors may be trained with a subset of these materials, saving them the cost of travel. Most importantly, the training has been used to teach new employees — hired one at a time or in small groups since 2003 — how to effectively support the SIB system.

Lessons learned

Throughout the two years it took to bring this project to fruition, other projects repeatedly took precedence. Development was stretched out over about 25 months. If more resources were readily available, the project could have been completed in less than half of that time.

One of the keys to the success of the conversion was commissioning the templates managers were still receiving feedback and evaluation information on their new employee’s success in training. Until Sterling Commerce can deploy and to speed e-Learning development. With Encore CBT, Sterling Commerce was able to quickly create usable, stable templates. Encore CBT also provides current support for the templates, which has been very helpful.

The Customer Support trainer is still looking for ways to improve the student evaluation process. Right now, the hiring manager relies on the student to provide copies of e-Learning module certificates. The hiring manager also relies on informal feedback from the mentor and the student, himself. For now, this is working as a temporary solution, although there is hope that more elegant online tools will assist with this type of feedback in the future.

One more lesson — perhaps the most important of all — is that the new blended learning curriculum has helped new employees have better and immediate access to their team members. Instead of being isolated from their working environment for six weeks or more, the new employee now has daily contact with their teammates and their manager as they work through the training materials. They are present on the call center floor and at team meetings. They complete their training more quickly for these topics and they are better absorbed into the team’s culture within weeks of joining Sterling Commerce.