A Virtual Study Hall

No where does the world move faster than in the IT realm. Today, IT professionals must constantly continue their schooling to stay marketable. And completing the proper certification is a prerequisite because technology is continually changing.

IT professionals who specialize in desktop applications are turning to Web-based training for these certifications. Many are completing their course work at DigitalThink Inc., a San Francisco, California firm specializes in e-learning solutions. The company, which produces and distributes training courses on the Web, uses no books and distributes no software. All learning takes place on the Internet.

The company has two different educational approaches. DigitalThink, which was labeled a "Forbes Favorite" by forbes.com in its Best of the Web issue, offers off-the-self training courses. It also partners with large corporations to produce custom training modules. All courses are self-paced and interactive.

DigitalThink, which was founded in 1996, offers one-on-one support to its students. If students have a question about any content in the course, they can type in the question and hit the send button on their screens. Langdon Waters, staffing program manager, says every query remains on the company's server until one of the DigitalThink experts answers it. The Web site promises DigitalThink will answer every question within 24 hours. Waters says internally the goal is to respond in six hours or less.

The company employs more than 200 subject matter experts to answer these queries, grade exercises and keep the course material up-to-date. All of them are independent contractors who are based around the globe. DigitalThink pays these experts hourly. "Payroll was a nightmare," says Waters.

Spreadsheets Didn't Work

Every month there was great confusion, recounts Waters. DigitalThink had set up a Excel spreadsheet which it asked its teachers to fill out. Each month they had to list the number of hours they had worked. However, some of the teachers did not have access to a copy of Excel. So they had to send in a text form. Everyone had to email their forms monthly if they wanted to be paid. "The process was cumbersome," continues Waters.

Once DigitalThink received all its payroll emails, one staff member needed an entire day to actually complete the payroll.

To simplify the process, the firm decided to outsource this function to Journyx, an Austin, Texas-based company which specializes in Web-based time tracking. DigitalThink knew all its teachers had access to the Web because that was how they conducted their tutoring sessions.

Journyx created a template for DigitalThink. Now, its tutors simply access the Web site and fill out their hours on this familiar form every month. DigitalThink then accesses the same site and runs a report which becomes the basis for its payroll. Waters says it takes an hour to run the report and do some additional follow-up. He estimates outsourcing its time tracking function shaved between 50 and 75 percent of the time required to complete the tutors' payroll.

Waters says the vendor's interface was intuitive, another plus.

Waters began his search for an outsourcing vendor on the Internet. He then sent Requests for Proposal (RFP) to six vendors. Then he went through the candidates' demos. From the beginning he says he was impressed with Journyx. "They were helpful without being intrusive. They answered my questions quickly without bothering me," he explains.

Up and Running in a Day

Finding the right outsourcing solution took five months of diligent work. Waters says he looked at quite a few systems that were loaded with features DigitalThink did not need and might never use. Many of these top flight systems had price tags beyond the company's budget. One the other hand, some systems were free. But they did not have the sophistication the tutoring company demanded. "We needed something in the middle in terms of functionality," he says.

Once DigitalThink selected Journyx, the vendor was able to get its product up and running in one day. DigitalThink took more time to customize the form. The first pass was unsuccessful. Waters says the form his company created "was completely confusing to our contractors. Everyone was pulling their hair out the first few days. The beta testers were not impressed."

So the company changed the form and added a complete explanation of how to use it in the Frequently Asked Questions area of its Web site. Since then the response has been highly favorable. The first roll out included 60 contractors. "We were expecting to deal with a lot of confusion. Instead, things went off without a hitch," says Waters. Now all 200 contractors are using the Journyx form with no problem.

"Study the documentation. You will find a lot of answers there," the executive says with a laugh.

One reason Waters says this outsourcing relationship is successful is because he did his homework. He says he tried to have all his questions answered before he got near a contract. "Do your research. I know that's obvious. But that's what success comes down to," he notes.

Communication is crucial, too. Waters says he talks to the vendor at least twice weekly.