In charge at last

In charge at last

Training facilitator Agriculture ITO once managed 6000 trainees on an old database using mountains of paper. Last year, it launched an IT training management system. How did it make the transition and why now?

In 1999, Agriculture ITO (Ag ITO), a training coordinator for the agricultural industry, was buried in paper. At peak times, its manual system became so backlogged field staff would turn up to visit a trainee with no up-to-date information on the person, their course, or their progress. At worst, entering trainee data into the system could fall nine months behind. “We had no up-to-date data because we had only one basic database at head office for generating reports. Regional offices and field staff had to collect new data manually,” says Kevin Bryant, chief executive Agriculture ITO.

Bryant says the lack of useful data was stressful for Ag ITO field employees, all of whom work from home and put in long hours.

Ag ITO has 59 employees; consisting of 29 field training advisors, 10 field managers and administrators and 20 head office support staff.

Adding to the frustration of field staff was the fact regional offices were not networked. Getting information into or out of the system therefore meant a phone or fax call. Worse, getting a new trainee into the system took about three weeks with no time to conduct data quality checks.

Manual data entry fell hopelessly behind at peak enrolment times, and growth and funding forecasting was made difficult due to time delays.

“It was totally unacceptable. Our paper-based system couldn’t cope and very skilled people had to spend a whole day a week bogged down in paperwork instead of visiting trainees,” says Bryant.

Keeping the cogs turning

Ag ITO organises earn-as-you-learn training courses for farm employees in the New Zealand agricultural industry. Funded by Government and industry, it helps coordinate and deliver training and education at a regional level and is required to enrol, facilitate, track and support the progress of trainees in the agricultural sector.

Trainees are an interesting mix of school-leavers and mature agricultural employees who need to up-skill and move forward with careers. They complete courses while still employed, and this education is paid for by the trainees or by their employer.

Ag ITO is required to send data on the progress of trainees to the Tertiary Education Commission which, together with contributions from industry bodies, funds Ag ITO.

“We get a lot of scrutiny. We have to report back to the industry bodies that channel us levy money. Stuck with a manual system, it was terrible to make growth predictions and set targets with information up to six months old,” says Bryant.

Despite being hampered by out-of-date and in some cases non-existent information technology systems, in 2002 Ag ITO received a 23 per cent increase in government funding through consistently overdelivering on the number of trainees it was supporting.

At any given point, AG ITO now has around 6000 trainees, a 20 per cent increase on 12 months ago.

Bryant says the buoyancy of the agricultural sector and favourable media (remember all those “rich dairy farmer” stories?) have contributed to the growth in trainee numbers. He attributes Ag ITO’s overdelivery and funding success to the quality of its employees who, he says, “really care” about the job they are doing and are prepared to go the extra mile.

Ag ITO management decided it was time to help its employees get out from under the paperwork mountain with a goal to provide them with a new and sophisticated IT tool for use in both regional offices and the field.

Bryant says it was a long overdue business decision, requiring a cultural shift and a change in management attitude. “Previous Ag ITO management had underestimated how significant the impact of growth would be on staff and a new management approach was needed to give employees access to better data, networks and telecommunications systems. We grew fast and the organisations we deal with are used to professional interactions. It was almost a risk avoidance issue.”

Ta-dah: Enter TMS

Early in 2000, Ag ITO employed IT manager Myles Gustofson, who immediately began to work towards the organisation’s goal of implementing a training management system (TMS).

The vision was for a fast, modern, easily administered system unique to Ag ITO’s needs and environment and which would provide it with tools to meet key data requirements.

“We started with nothing at all; a green field. There was no existing infrastructure on which to base a new system,” says Gustofson.

He’s not kidding. Not only did Ag ITO rely on an old Access database built solely to handle reporting for the Tertiary Education Commission, there was no network between the standalone systems of regional offices. Inter-office communication was via external emails, phone calls and faxes.

The almost total lack of IT infrastructure was quite a challenge for Gustofson – an experienced IT consultant and previous IT manager for Health Benefits (which pays health subsidies to medical practitioners).

Previous positions had not required him to start with quite the “bare bones” presented by Ag ITO (in addition to TMS, Gustofson needed to network regional offices, establish a website and a telecommunications infrastructure). Fortunately, he says, it was fun.

“What I like about this job is working with a committed board and employees. They want to see the business get what it needs.”

Gustofson began by reviewing existing systems, analysing business drivers and, with Bryant, lobbying for board approval for IT system funding including the TMS.

Board approval was granted in July 2000 and, by September, Ag ITO had secured the partnership of IT systems provider gen-i. The two companies worked together, with gen-i developing the new system around a JADE database platform, and Ag ITO testing and modifying.

Gustofson says working with gen-i and JADE was gratifying. “gen-i people are great team workers. Also, when you’ve been around as long as I have, things get a bit ho-hum in the world of IT. But JADE is interesting to work with, because it is object-based technology in its truest form. And it’s a New Zealand made product.”

Culture shock

As you’d expect with an organisation previously buried by paper, when the Ag ITO’s TMS was completed it had an immediate and profound effect on the organisation’s efficiency and capacity.

Gustofson says the business can now leverage any type of data about trainees, providers, accreditation, standards, employers, or workplaces.

TMS handles course results, attendance details, statistics, and produces output including reports and forecasts.

While the TMS is still undergoing development, meaning some spreadsheet data from regional offices and field workers still has to be entered manually, it’s a world away from what the organisation began with.

However, some things get better only slowly.

Gustofson says telecommunications limitations in the rural sector mean connecting Ag ITO field workers with the TMS is difficult. He says well-documented problems with rural telecommunications eventually ruled out the possibility of Ag ITO field staff working in real-time with the TMS over a telephone connection.

“If you talk to our staff on a rural phone line you can often hear the tick, tick, tick of electric fences. Imagine what would happen to data.”

Mobile wireless and fixed point wireless connections were also considered and discarded, as many Ag ITO trainees are in areas too remote for mobile or wireless coverage.

Ag ITO eventually gave its field workers Compaq laptops loaded with the TMS application, office applications and synchronisation software. It is also testing the tablet PC.

New data can now be entered in the field, and synchronised with the TMS via a regional office network later. What’s more, because field staff now have access to TMS data, staff are as up to date as the last time they synchronised with the system. This starkly contrasts with the former practice of staff having to maintain their own manual record system and refer to outdated database reports.

However, if Ag ITO hoped its staff would rush at the new system and embrace it on the spot, it received a reality check. Gustofson says one of the biggest challenges with the TMS project was getting people to use it.

“You suddenly expect 20 or 30 people to change from a paper-based system to a computer system. Well, we had half a dozen who weren’t computer literate at all and a few more who were a bit too literate and kept playing with settings and changing things they shouldn’t.”

He says there were “mixed vibes” about computerised data entry, with some employees believing it would mean more work.

“We engaged a training partner who gave field staff one-on-one training and we also gave out the laptops to some people before TMS was available. But it was only when they realised they owned their own information and could access it, that things changed.”

<spanc lass="crossheeas">Excitement at the top

While Kevin Bryant was always committed to Ag ITO as an organisation, before the TMS was implemented he was forced to sit on his hands and second-guess strategic moves.

This went against the grain for Bryant, previously a sales and marketing employee of the relentlessly commercial former New Zealand Dairy Board (now Fonterra). Put simply, Bryant wasn’t used to having to make stabs in the dark due to insufficient business data.

So his excitement over the TMS is understandable. “We’re thundering along. Having the TMS has given us confidence and business clarity and we couldn’t be more excited.”

He lists benefits of the system as the ability to manage more trainees, and the employees’ “huge” confidence leap.

“They now have up to date information they know they can trust. Farmers and other agricultural employers are also impressed. They are very focussed on the bottom line and they like to know there will be a payback for the dollars they are investing in their employees.”

Brand awareness has also increased for Ag ITO, a reality Bryant attributes in large part to the TMS. “The main reason for our success is the excellent quality and commitment of our people, and attached to that we’ve now got quality of information. From a management and strategic planning perspective, that information is good enough to create proper business case analyses and justifications.”

Ag ITO has been able to put another 10 people in the field as a result. “In the past we relied heavily on experience and tradition, but now we have the facts to back our decisions up. We feel like we’re in charge of the business at last.”

Selling a winning formula

The success of Ag ITO’s TMS system initially caused the organisation to consider becoming an IT provider. Selling the TMS application to other ITOs (which has already happened) seemed an attractive way to generate a second revenue stream. “We flirted with the idea.

But it would have distracted us from our core focus,” says Ag ITO chief executive Kevin Bryant. Although Ag ITO owns the TMS system, IT systems provider gen-i developed the technologies behind it and gen-i-supported technologies are required to run it. Ag ITO and gen-i eventually agreed to each seek potential customers for the system, after which gen-i would step in to take the process forward.

“We take a share of a successful sale and we get a bigger share if we source the customer,” says Bryant.He says the TMS is unique because it has been customised for the ITO environment.

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