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CREATIVE LEARNING PAYS
DISTANCE LEARNING TAKES ROOT AS MORE IS ASKED OF THOSE SELLING AGRIBUSINESS
"Oh, great. Another e-mail forcing us to attend a day-long training session. Doesn't management get it? We know what we're doing and we have more important work to do. This is ridiculous," say Joe and Jane Slicksales.

OK, raise your hand if you know someone like Joe or Jane. That's what I suspected. Training is not always popular, but to the glass-half-full folks - and increasingly to agribusiness in general - such invitations for training are viewed as opportunities: to learn more every day; to improve performance; to deliver results.

In this information era, where knowledge can lead to stronger employees and deeper customer relationships (hence sales), astute agribusiness companies are implementing various forms of internal and external distance-learning solutions in the name of improved performance and greater efficiency. And there's a new breed of consultant aiming to help companies successfully navigate both ends of the water glass to reach and educate employees and customers.

REDEFINING TRAINING
Why the trend toward more distance learning? One reason is that the time needed for face-to-face training is next to impossible to find in this day and age where so-called "right-sized" staffs of over-tasked workers are the norm. When you factor in seminar cost, travel expense and time away from work, it can sometimes add up to no training at all.

Simply defined, distance or e-Learning is instruction delivered electronically through the Internet, intranet or extranet - or through other digital platforms such as a CD-ROM, PDA or computer-based technologies. You've no doubt already experienced e-Learning in some form as numerous agricultural input players have, or are developing, internal and external training/education programs.

In many cases, e-Learning provides the mechanism to deliver knowledge and information to the audience faster and more effectively. Reputable studies show participants learn 60 percent faster and retain 25 to 60 percent more compared to traditional classroom training.

Other benefits include: a self-paced format accessible anytime and anywhere; less time away from the office or clients; more cost effective than traditional classroom training (50 to 60 percent less); consistency of message; highly engaging interactive learning environment; reduced time required for training (typically 50 percent less); increased bottom-line sales and employee productivity; and a more efficient and effective way to organize and deliver content, information, and knowledge.

John Ahlberg, president and co-founder of Ag Technologies International
INFO EQUALS INPUTS
"As an industry, agriculture is at a point where information is as critical as the inputs. The question is how do you most effectively transfer that knowledge?" asks John Ahlberg, president and co-founder of Ag Technologies International. "e-Learning will change how food production businesses educate and transfer knowledge."

Ag Technologies, founded in 2000 in Owatonna, Minn., proclaims to be the first e-Learning and digital technologies company exclusively focused on food production and agriculture. And companies are listening. Ag Technologies' client roster includes the likes of Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, BASF, Syngenta Seeds, Farm Credit Services, AgStar, AgriBank, Cargill, Nebraska Soybean Board, National Pork Board and more.

Tom Gray, executive vice president and co-founder of Ag Technologies International
"Currently our clientele are primarily turning to us for help with product training and with the development of various online business tools and the training to use them," says Tom Gray, executive vice president and co-founder with Ahlberg. "Our aim is to help them improve overall internal and external efficiencies, especially regarding communicating with retailers and the entire supply chain.

"For instance, retailers know they need to improve the knowledge and competency of their employees if they are going to compete and thrive in the future," Gray says. "Unfortunately, the same companies that once helped them with these tasks have merged into others and staffs are depleted, so the bulk of the training load falls on the shoulders of retail managers."

DEFINED AUDIENCE
Before Ag Technologies begins to formulate opinions on possible solutions for clients or prospects, it spends valuable time discerning problems, challenges and needs in the areas of training, information, audiences, certification requirements, technology limitations and more.

"If companies don't have a clear view or vision of these areas, we'll often undertake brainstorming sessions or conduct market research to get at the real issues and how to approach them," Gray adds. "Once defined, we then aggregate available content to meet their needs in this critical area. Following that, we carefully craft appropriate instructional design that will do the best job bringing the content to life for each audience."

Once the delivery vehicle is complete, Ag Technologies helps clients integrate these educational tools into their own system and provide delivery to any audience. And all this is followed up with a complete debriefing relative to the finished product.

Here's a look at different distance learning ideas currently being implemented by a few agribusiness companies.

EMPLOYEE EDUCATION
At JC Robinson Seeds/Golden Harvest, Waterloo, Neb., the company began dabbling in distance learning this spring by using Ag Technologies to create a Web-based training module that would assist farmer-dealers to switch from a paper-based order management system to an electronic, Web-based system.

Jon Blasing, director of marketing services for JC Robinson
"Since we market corn in 14 states and the seed business continues to get more complex, we felt the need to give our dealers a better business tool," says Jon Blasing, director of marketing services for JC Robinson.

But to get a high percentage of dealers to migrate over to electronic, Blasing chose to provide just-in-time training to convert them one step at a time. "We began with meetings on ordering only, then had another round of meetings on inventory management," he says. "Then we shifted gears and created a five-minute interactive tutorial for the Web site on the final aspect of this new system, deliveries. Our dealers are primarily farmers, and the last thing a farmer has time for in the spring is more meetings."

End result? "The tutorial portion saved our dealers a lot of time and travel, and we had the least amount of call-in questions from this method compared to the two previous face-to-face meetings," Blasing says. "I like distance learning, and it can be very effective when used correctly, but it's not a do-all, catch-all solution. We still provide paper tutorials for everything, but the interactivity and the bells and whistles really help bring details to life to engage the learner."

Dow AgroSciences, Indianapolis, a pioneer of distance learning since 1998, uses a wide variety of delivery tools to provide technical training for employees on a global basis. "Since our staff of three can't fly everywhere, and most of us only speak English, we use a combination of Web-based learning, CD-ROM and virtual classroom training," says Barb Nead-Nylander, technology transfer leader.

"Our initial desire was to reduce the amount of time our sales personnel were out of the field and in the home office for technical training. Since we adopted these tools, we have cut our training time in half - from two weeks to one - and we've seen no decrease in understanding and retention," she says. "Since we purchased virtual classroom technology four years ago, we've become very effective at making this distance learning tool almost equal to face-to-face meetings. We can use Powerpoint presentations, have separate breakout sessions and interactively communicate," Nead-Nylander adds.

BUILDING MARKETS THROUGH EDUCATION
Using distance learning as a tool to educate customers on the value of soy biodiesel has been very successful for the Nebraska Soybean Board, Lincoln, Neb. "Our approach was to create an educational leave-behind for fuel marketers and suppliers who attended our training session, and our criteria were to be more effective than a brochure," says Victor Bohuslavsky, executive director.

"Ag Technologies helped us create a 20-minute CD-ROM presentation tool complete with video testimonials, designed to get more interaction from fuel marketers and Nebraska fuel suppliers, heavy equipment/fleet vehicle operators and farmer producers," he says. "It was one component of a total marketing/promotion plan, but it was a good attention-getting tool that helped us due to the very positive feedback we received."

Over the past year, due to this tool and other educational efforts, the Nebraska Soybean Board has gone from 20-plus suppliers selling soy biodiesel to more than 130 outlets selling this product.

For St. Louis-based Monsanto's ag business, the company is using distance learning to enhance retailer use of its Web site, www.FarmSource.com. "We developed an interactive CD-ROM B2B tutorial as a demonstration tool," says Paula Wilber, FarmSource B2B manager. "It not only builds awareness of FarmSource and its growing set of business tools, it also communicates benefits and value of our online resource that makes it easy to do business with Monsanto."

Retail customer Jorge Gonzalez, who manages seed buying for all of Memphis, Tenn.-based Helena's northern business unit outlets, praises the tutorial and the help it provides. "Since Monsanto is one of five major seed vendors we use, I've attended numerous training seminars and viewed educational tools, and this CD is one of the best tools for managing our seed business with a company," he says.

"It's clear, concise, easy to follow, and I can send it to our various locations without making personal visits. Their personnel can view it on their own time and pick and choose what topics they need to learn or brush up on," Gonzalez adds. "It's given us a lot more confidence and reassurance in using FarmSource."

At BASF, Research Triangle Park, N.C., the business management training sessions for retailers that began as classroom-type meetings have been converted to a fee-based distance learning service called Your Training Manager.

Steve Rezac, business director of Your Training Manager
"This classroom setting was very valuable to retailers, but we could reach only about 20 outlets a year," says Steve Rezak, business director of Your Training Manager. "With a goal to reach more, we proceeded to convert many programs and deliver them using any Internet connection." It now features more than 200 different 30-minute Learn2Earn modules, organized into specific categories, which can be taught in a variety of delivery methods - from paper versions off the Internet and video modules using high-speed Internet connections, to Web conferencing tools that bring people together in a virtual environment.

"What we offer is really not training, it's a business system that helps retailers get their employees better at business," he says. "We help businesses develop into learning organizations with people that think fast, stay focused and achieve more together."

Ag Technologies' Ahlberg readily admits that e-Learning is not intended to replace face-to-face training, but he does believe it will become more important as requirements grow for additional training. "Increased regulations and requirements for training are on the rise. For companies searching for solutions that cut costs without cutting productivity, e-Learning is the answer," he adds.

So before you burn that dry and boring Powerpoint training presentation on CDs for the staff and call it e-Learning, stop and think about your audience. One tip that all experts agree on is the need for good content that can be translated into good e-Learning courses by using sound instructional design principles.

For more information on Ag Technologies International, visit www.agtechintl.com or call 507/446-9100.

Kurt Lawton is a free-lance writer based in Minneapolis.


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