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Banking on intranet training

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In this article:
At a glance: Citibank, N.A.
Web-based training vendors
Lessons learned about intranet training

To Austin Zullo, it was a perfect union. As architect of training programs for Citibank’s newly minted E-Citi division, part of New York City-based Citigroup Inc., which carries out the organization’s e-banking and e-commerce initiatives, Zullo needed an easy, high-tech way to get learning materials and courses on professional development into the hands of the 1,200 employees of the banking giant’s Internet operations. These courses included productivity software and programming as well as management training. With Web-based training programs starting to appear on the market, what could be a more natural fit for modern professionals already immersed in the dot-com world? If only it could be that simple. Zullo had tried Web-based training once before in the early 1990s for Citibank’s telecommunications division. Rather than enjoying a smooth ride, though, the effect of courses distributed over the network was more like bouncing around in a jalopy: There were fits and starts followed by the screech of brakes. After stumbling over issues of bandwidth and desktop PC configuration, a couple of pilot programs had shown promise. But they eventually sputtered when the training software balked at crossing the WAN links connecting multiple locations. But Zullo continued to dream big over the pairing of education and the Net. His real goal was to run professional development programs smoothly and securely right over E-Citi’s intranet–no physical telecomm connections, no breach of the firewall–so employees could improve their skill sets.

AT A GLANCE: Citibank, N.A.
The company: Citibank, part of New York City-based Citigroup Inc., provides banking services for over 200,000 people in 57 countries.

The problem: The company needed a way to get learning materials and courses to 1,200 employees of the banking giant’s Internet operations without overloading the network, or compromising the network security and the firewalls.

The solution: Web-based training over the company intranet that doesn’t overload the network or compromise network security. Employees access the intranet by dialing through a proxy server over the Ethernet network to trunk lines. The training software operates on a $5,000 dual-processor Pentium II running Windows NT server version 4.

No way, according to what vendors showed him. Until this spring, the software Zullo looked at couldn’t meet corporate security needs (i.e., the firewall issue) and wasn’t able to run effectively over the multi-site network. But Zullo held out, and last April, he unveiled E-Citi Learning and Professional Development, an all-intranet Web site with a roster of 70 online courses. Running on a simple Pentium server, the 50-course cyber-curriculum of so-called soft skills-such as team building, leadership, and interpersonal relations–comes from SkillSoft Corp., a Nashua, N.H., software company. NETg, the Naperville, Ill., subsidiary of Harcourt Inc., supplies the other 20 classes in productivity software. The site went live after a one-month implementation period and gets close to 150 site visits a month, according to Zullo, as E-Citi employees peruse three- to four-hour classes in Windows and Java, as well as primers on the fundamentals of customer service or the elements of marketing strategy. The most popular course so far? “Meetings and Negotiations,” which is one of the toughest classes to get employees to sign up for because they tend to think soft skills aren’t all that important, says Zullo, who is based in New York City.

Web-based training vendors
CBT Systems Ltd.
Redwood City, Calif.

Digital Think Inc.
San Francisco

KnowledgeSoft Inc.
Mechanicsburg, Pa.

NETg, a division of Harcourt Inc.
Naperville, Ill.

SkillSoft Corp.
Nashua, N.H.

WBT Systems
San Francisco

It won’t be long before more companies begin adopting the intranet-style learning program that E-Citi has honed. Over the next few years, because of its cost effectiveness and easy rollout, Web training is expected to grab the lion’s share of the market for Internet-based learning, edging out CD-ROM, satellite delivery, and tape, according to market-research firm International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass. But the nascent market is still a mishmash of vendor offerings, with no clear leaders in the categories of training content, delivery technologies, and support and services, according to Colleen Shutrump, senior analyst for IDC’s training research group.

Shutrump expects soft-skills training to lead to more innovation in online teaching methods. “IT training is IT training: There isn’t much differentiation,” she says. “But when someone is learning coaching or communications, there’s tremendous opportunity for innovation in course techniques, mentoring, testing, case studies, simulations–different kinds of learning tools.”

A new way of work and business

After four decades in traditional employee training, Zullo knows what works and what doesn’t–kind of. Classic classroom teaching will always be an important component of training. “But it’s not the only one,” he says. “Just as Web-based training isn’t the only way. To me, they’re symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other.” To serve a mobile workforce, training has to be available anytime, anywhere, he theorizes. As head of training for Citibank’s telecom division with employees in 30 countries, Zullo’s early Web-based training efforts were unsuccessful. “The system kept crashing, and a lot of people didn’t have the bandwidth.” He wound up handing out the training programs on CD-ROM.

When Citibank launched E-Citi in 1997, Zullo joined as vice president of learning and professional development. The opportunity to create training for the new division, serving a new way of work and business, excited Zullo. “But it was also scary,” he recalls. “A lot of these people aren’t interested in training. So I had to instill a learning culture.” And he had to work fast. “We measure things in Web years,” he says, and he calculates that one Web year elapses in the span of three real-time months.

Web training is an enhancement, not a replacement, to traditional instructor-led training.

Only this year did Zullo and Peter Bellas, manager of technical training for E-Citi and Webmaster for the training site, begin seeing Web-based tech and soft-skills curricula that could span several geographical locations. “We looked less at content than at whether the technology could run on our network,” says Bellas, in Marina Del Rey, Calif. “Initially, a lot of the organizations couldn’t deliver over an intranet. But now more of them are pure HTTP, which means they work well in an intranet. It’s a significant difference.”

Another key goal for E-Citi’s training was Web-based programs that could engage employees’ attention without the notorious bandwidth hogging of full-motion video. That’s exactly the alternative to which SkillSoft had been tailoring its programs. CD-packaged training courses take up anywhere from 400 to 600 megabytes, but SkillSoft aims to keep its programs to a svelte 6 or 7 megabytes, says vice president of marketing Jerry Nine. To keep students engaged by the still-frame sequences, interactive questions and exercises pop up every four to six screens.

Out of consideration for E-Citi’s network infrastructure, Zullo chose video-less programs, but his preference for the SkillSoft programs and their use of audio came straight from his instruction experience. “Learning happens better when two to three senses are being touched or affected,” he says. The technical classes do not include audio.

Zullo and Bellas shopped around and looked at technical curricula from a dozen training companies. Most showed a browser that relied on a physical connection to the server or they required client software to be installed on each PC–criteria that were ruled out given E-Citi’s far-flung operations. E-Citi signed a contract with NETg in February 1999 and with SkillSoft in March.

After a painless installation, the new intranet training site and package of courses went live last April. Employees access the intranet by dialing through a proxy server over the Ethernet network to trunk lines. E-Citi serves both the SkillSoft and NETg software on a dual-processor Pentium II running Windows NT server, version 4. Bellas calls the $5,000 server set-up “pretty vanilla stuff.”

Sit up and take note

Lessons learned about intranet training
The demographics of your audience will determine how much use the training intranet gets. E-Citi’s Web-based training architect, Austin Zullo, says the majority of Citibank employees logging on to the training intranet are young and just beginning their careers. “We’re finding our more junior people are using it,” he says. Senior staff are too “busy cutting deals and building Web sites. But for junior staff hungry to grow, this kind of training approach appeals to them. One thing I’m learning about this mode of learning is that there’s a niche for it. There’s an audience level that you need to appeal to.”

Don’t expect much cross- pollination. Easy-to-access classes aren’t going to transform software developers into gifted communicators or marketing professionals into HTML wizards. In the first few months of E-Citi’s training intranet, the technical staff is gravitating to the tech courses, and the nontech people are logging on to the soft-skills courses.

Web-based training is volume driven. The more employees accessing the training, the cheaper the training costs.

Word of the training intranet has spread within Citibank’s vast organization. Among the 100 or so hits the site takes in daily have been log-ons by trainers in other corners of the bank. On the prowl for new training options, Citibank training coordinators–some from as far away as Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Brazil–have been requesting access to E-Citi’s new learning intranet.

Closer to home, Margaret Kelly, VP in the information services and technology department within the treasury department at the Citibank campus in Long Island City, N.Y., has clicked her way through “Communicating to Develop Relationships” and “Listening, Influencing, and Handling Tough Situations” from her desk. Only E-Citi employees have access to the intranet, so Kelly, who informally handles training for her department of 20 or so, asked for a password to take a look at what the site had to offer.

She was more impressed by the soft skill curriculum than by the tech courses she reviewed. “I like that you can go back and review–particularly if you realize you weren’t paying attention,” Kelly says of the self-taught courses. “I also liked that through the GUI, you can take a quiz and see how well you understand the subject.” SkillSoft also keeps track of where students are in the program, an important assist for busy employees, she says. “Many, many times I’d have to leave and I wouldn’t have a clue where I had left off. It tells you where you were and how you scored on the last test.”

But Kelly agrees with Zullo that Web training is an enhancement, not a replacement to traditional instructor-led training. There’s nothing like the classroom, it seems, to make an employee sit up straight and pay attention. “When you go to a class, you’re forced to focus,” says Kelly. Internet training relies on employees’ ability to block time out. “A lot of times I’d be in the middle of a class and get pulled away. So it was an hour here, an hour there,” she says. “It’s not as intense as a class, and you don’t get to ask questions or practice things with people you’re in class with.”

Zullo is still tinkering with E-Citi’s e-learning environment, as he has termed it. The training intranet recently underwent its first revision: Course descriptions were tuned up and charts meant to show how the curriculums flowed–which proved confusing to viewers–were deleted. Zullo plans to add more classes as they become available. But he is convinced he’s found the right way of conveying the importance of training to E-Citi employees. “If anyone in the bank should be playing with Web-based training, it should be those who are trying to make the Web a place to do business.” //

Deborah Asbrand is a freelance writer who covers business and technology. She can be reached at

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