Autodesk has dozens of deeply technical computer-aided design (CAD) products that are sold by partners who are trained on selling the software and supporting end-users.
Until a year ago, Autodesk held two annual instructor-led training (ILT) events for partners in the United States and Canada: a two-day event with approximately 300 salespeople who learned new product features and who to sell to; and a mandatory, four-day event attended by more than 700 engineers who learned how to support the products.
The cost of these events was enormous, both for Autodesk and their partners. Planning and executing training events of this size took a dedicated team of people, and travel expenses for instructors and logistical support personnel were high.
Intrepid Learning Solutions, a firm that provides learning consulting, outsourcing, and technology solutions, had been working with Autodesk for several years developing training programs for their face-to-face events. When Autodesk began to consider a new approach to training, they met with Intrepid's virtual classroom design and production experts to devise a plan.
A scheduled ILT event was just weeks away, and all content was in the last stages of being vetted for accuracy, so they had to move fast. Intrepid Learning Solutions applied a systematic process - develop, drill, and deliver - that kept the project on target and allowed Autodesk to train approximately 1,000 participants in 54 overlapping sessions within a two-week period.
There was no time to redesign the content from a traditional classroom setting to a virtual one, so Autodesk and Intrepid did the next best thing - they optimized it. Rather than compressing four full days of ILT, they chose core content that was essential for the success of partners' sales and technical employees. In-depth product information and nonessential content was migrated to e-learning courses.
Working with core content, most of which was in the form of PowerPoint presentations and product demos, Intrepid's instructional designers and production team reviewed it carefully, inserting interactions in the form of polls, Q&As, games, and pop quizzes to make the content more engaging and keep participant interest high. To prepare the instructors, who are experts in the content they teach, the consultants at Intrepid provided the methodology for design of the virtual learning environment, use of interactive tools, and effective virtual delivery.
First, they developed layout templates that create a "room" - the environment in which a class is held. Layouts contain pods, and each pod delivers a specific learning activity such as sharing a file or conducting an exercise. Intrepid worked carefully with Autodesk's instructors to help them become familiar and comfortable with the technology.
They shared their expertise in production design for virtual learning, including tactics such as prerecording demos without audio and then adding live commentary during the session, which conserves bandwidth and lets instructors create a more dynamic and customized presentation.
To facilitate session design, Intrepid created session maps for instructors to use as a template for their presentation. This structured storyboard gave instructors a blueprint for organizing content, planning points of interaction, and documenting necessary technical support.
Traditional ILT events for hundreds of learners require professional technical and production support, and a virtual ILT (VILT) session for hundreds of learners is no different. All roles and responsibilities were carefully defined.
In addition to one or more presenters, each session also had a crew. A producer facilitated the entire event, loaded files for sharing, ran rehearsals, and kept the virtual sessions on schedule. A host gave an overview of the session, reviewed tools, and conducted the wrap-up. And a moderator answered learners' questions and solved or escalated technical issues. Production teams scheduled practice sessions to get instructors comfortable with the rhythm of presenting and gauge the timing of the class, including keeping the pace fast to maintain interest.
Prior to the VILT sessions, learners accessed Autodesk's learning management system for prerequisite courses and knowledge checks. After successfully completing prerequisites, learners could register for virtual sessions. Thanks to production crews and diligent preparation, the virtual sessions went very smoothly.
Autodesk eliminated nearly $1 million in travel expenses, reduced its carbon footprint by more than 1 million pounds of carbon emissions, and provided the necessary training for partners to sell and support their products. The VILT was so popular and efficient that a year later, many partners have adopted this method to deliver training to their customers.
VILT can seem daunting. A successful event depends on the right technology for the content and audience, a lot of preparation, and much more than a few PowerPoint decks. Here are some recommendations to consider:
- Content over form. Don't let the tools eclipse the content. Quality content, not technology, will hold the learners' interest.
- Prepare the presenters. It's not uncommon for the most experienced traditional classroom instructors to struggle with teaching virtually. Intrepid's facilitator training taught instructors how to be powerful and dynamic presenters in a virtual environment. Linda Fane, lead producer of Intrepid Virtual Training, was pleased at the value and support her team offered. "We allowed the Autodesk presenters and content experts to focus on what they do best: explain and sell great software."
- Importance of interaction. Virtual training can and should be much more than PowerPoint. "You can't have too much interaction," says Don Strimbu, manager of worldwide sales readiness at Autodesk. Frequent check-ins to ask questions, conduct an exercise, or take a quick poll not only kept participants' attention but indicated whether the audience was learning. Each session had a map for presenters to follow, and interactivity was strategically placed throughout the VILT.
- To chat or not to chat. It may be tempting to disable the chat feature if participants are misusing it, but Strimbu advises, "Don't shut down the chat window, it's the way you take the temperature of the room." Autodesk found that chat activity was directly proportional to how interesting the presenter was. If the presenter wasn't compelling, the chat pod would be very active with off-topic discussions.
- Where the savings are. Both Autodesk and Intrepid have the same clear message when it comes to expectations of cost savings: designing and producing content for VILT does not cut development costs. Regardless of the delivery method, content that holds learners' interest isn't cheap, and nothing takes the place of having a dedicated production team to make sure sessions go smoothly. However, rather than thinking about slashing the development budget, consider the other savings: time and travel costs for example.
By taking traditional classroom features such as expert instructors and quality content and combining them with innovative delivery techniques, Autodesk and Intrepid Learning Solutions created a virtual solution that met dual objectives: reduce travel expenses and time out-of-pocket. Just as important, highly interactive VILT satisfied the learners' need to deepen product knowledge to increase sales and service.