Businesses are always looking for ways to save money, and government agencies are no exception. However, adjusting the routine to cut costs can be hard on employees. According to Lori Ann Jacobs, the virtual environment (VE) program coordinator at the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS), agencies don’t accept change easily. “We like to do it the way it’s always been done,” she said.
But sometimes change is necessary. In 1997, the government established executive order No. 12862 to set new customer standards and audit requirements for various government agencies, including the IRS. While adhering to this order, the IRS found that its national customer service call site phone assistors were not providing unified answers to tax questions. A review of the problem revealed large gaps in employee learning programs, but the IRS did not have the tools to implement an agency-wide system to address deficiencies.
Developing a Virtual Platform
During this same timeframe, the IRS began to implement an e-learning system. The organization developed an intranet interface to give employees access to asynchronous online training such as MS Office applications and various IT courses.
In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton issued another executive order, No. 13111, urging federal agencies to use new technology to improve employee training and productivity. The mandate required all government agencies to transition to an e-learning format by 2007.
That year the IRS acquired an online delivery tool to deliver synchronized learning using its existing infrastructure. However, the tool needed to be updated to train more than 26,000 revenue agents, revenue officers, tax specialists and customer service representatives, as well as 10,000 new employees hired for seasonal tax work. This was a daunting task, since all course content was produced on paper using traditional classroom delivery methodology.
The IRS identified various online instructional tools, delivery systems, training development tools and courses that could be taught electronically in a blended method. Officers knew they had to look for an all-encompassing e-learning collaborative system that would work for different users. For instance, of the 100,000 IRS employees, 22,000 had a handicap, ranging from mobility, to sight, to hearing. For any collaborative e-learning application to be productive, it needed to be accessible to everyone.
After researching the options, the IRS purchased 100 licenses for a collaboration product as its VE development tool and deployed it for Continued Professional Education (CPE) training for senior revenue agents, revenue officers and tax specialists in fiscal year 2000.
At first, many IRS employees were hesitant to try the new software and preferred the face-to-face interactions from on-the-job learning and in-company meetings. The majority of learners were used to a learn-by-doing environment, and they had a difficult time adjusting to the online learning approach.
Jacobs suggested the agency offer gifts as incentives for employees to try the new VE system. Those who were willing to use the collaboration environment for blended and synchronous training got free headsets, and the gifts garnered enough interest for the IRS to train a volunteer group of 50 employees. Each of the 50 people received 10 headsets to conduct synchronous training, introduce blended training and train the event managers within their divisions.
Progress Promotes Standards, Success
The incentives worked, and were one of several factors that enabled the IRS to adopt a synchronous collaboration system for learning and development. Factors such as the Office of Personnel Management’s repeal of training travel budgets also pushed federal agencies such as the IRS to consider e-learning options including online synchronous collaboration.
Like any new change effort, there were hiccups in the implementation of the virtual system. The IRS’ lockdown security environment posed a particular problem, as it required a directory on a user’s workstation be created to download files. Users were required to have administrative privileges to their desktop or laptop for this automatic action to take place. Then, when an IRS employee accessed the VE for the first time, all files could be downloaded and the individual could use the tool.
Once the system was installed, the agency saw immediate results. Traditional classroom instruction costs were reduced as more employees used the IRS’ VE for on-the-job training, CPE, new hire training and work-related meetings. Travel costs were decreased as well because employees could train in-house. In 2001, the IRS held 46 events using the virtual collaboration environment. More than 550 people attended, saving the IRS $140,968. In 2005, that number jumped to 3,941 events with 35,268 people attending, saving $22 million. As of January, the IRS has saved $251 million and held more than 68,048 learning events for 473,376 employees.
Training uniformity is no longer a problem as every employee receives the same messaging via VE. The program also enabled the IRS to put together presentations that could be repurposed year after year. In the past, presentations were often lost when an employee retired, which contributed to considerable knowledge drain.
The VE’s user-friendly interface helped employees ease into the new technology as one click of an embedded link played back an important development object, presented new exam strategies for revenue agents and officers or provided updates on last-minute changes to tax laws.
Employees began helping one another using the VE’s tools in creative ways that ultimately benefited the entire organization. Employees turned to the system first for answers to questions and guidance in solving issues, instead of flooding the IRS help desk with calls. Using VE an IT person could assist an employee by taking remote control of the person’s desktop while recording the session via Web conferencing. The employee could then save the e-meeting and share it with other employees experiencing the same problem, thus enabling employees to learn how to fix daily mishaps in a non-traditional way.
As more employees began to use the program, the IRS expanded its e-learning offerings again. In 2007, AT&T upgraded the IRS’ backbone network to support voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), photo sharing, streaming video and advanced audio programs. All IRS agents and officers had their workstations replaced with upgraded laptops, which gave them the capability to download recordings for later viewing, a kind of “just-in-time” training. The upgrade, coupled with the new laptops, enabled the IRS to increase learning flexibility.
Enterprise use of VE technology began in 2003. Currently, all IRS business units use it for technical training, CPE, new technology training, blended training and project meetings. During the past 10 years, the use of VE for meetings has grown, saving telephone conference costs by using the VoIP feature.
Adding It Up
By March 2011, the IRS had saved a quarter of a billion dollars by installing VE technology. It calculated that each person who uses VE saves the company $800. To attain this metric, the IRS calculated how much it cost for employees to travel to train for any position. It also examined reports, talked to employees and surveyed training organizations to see how much money was spent and how many employees they have to train. The IRS took into account students who didn’t have to travel for training, and thus counted every third student.
The agency’s e-learning program grows annually. Introducing new applications to exchange income, barter and trade over the Internet, the IRS ensures its agents, officers, tax specialists and taxpayer customer support personnel learn about these trends, their impact on taxpayers and on businesses. The agency started the program with one server. Today, it houses 11 production servers.
Last year, the IRS used VE technology for more than 28,000 events, nearly 50 percent of which were virtual meetings. In addition to traditional group meetings, it holds project meetings, strategy sessions, town hall gatherings and audit meetings using the e-learning system. These virtual events draw many more people than the IRS’ traditional meetings because of availability, convenience, accessibility and cost. Prior to implementation, meetings that attracted large groups of employees were often canceled because of budget. Now, not only does the new solution allow anyone to participate, it enables users to record their sessions for anytime playback. Participation ranges from 6,000 to 8,000 employees per month. In August 2010, the IRS saw record numbers of participation in the VE as more than 16,000 employees attended 2,693 events.
An elevated rate of user adoption facilitated success with the VE implementation. The user-friendly system helped employees get acquainted with the new technology without overwhelming or confusing participants. After originally rejecting the system, employees began to support it, and now e-learning VE is the top learning tool within the agency, more popular than asynchronous training delivered through the enterprise learning management system or person-to-person knowledge transfer using Microsoft Office Communications Server.
E-learning via VE saves the IRS time and resources, setting an example for other agencies to begin using new technology to improve and drive business and saving millions of dollars without making a comparable up-front investment.
Babak Salimi is senior director of marketing and collaboration at Saba Software. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.