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Bonus Focus - Leveraging Technology to Improve Sales Effectiveness Training


By Jan Sramek

Better training has long held the promise of being the magic ingredient for improving sales force effectiveness in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite the obvious potential, however, few companies have been able to reap the full benefits - and for good reasons. Sales training presents a unique set of challenges that have historically made designing a successful program difficult. With the rise of new technologies (e.g. adaptive learning) and devices (smartphones and tablets), could the tide finally be changing?

The Challenges with Training Sales Reps

As companies around the world have learned, training sales reps is unlike any other type of training that corporations tend to run. In particular, methods and styles that work for the general employee population often fail entirely when used for training sales reps. Let's start by looking at some of the reasons for why this happens.

1. Providing courses that work. Sales people are outcome-driven: If they don't feel that the training works and will lead to more sales or commissions, they won't have the motivation to complete the training. This is less the case for other types of roles where staff are more willing to give training the benefit of the doubt when it comes to its eventual use.

2. Calculating ROI on sales training. Similarly, sales managers are driven by results, i.e. impact of learning on sales. Without analytical tools that collect data and turn it into information and insights, calculating ROI on sales training is difficult, and hence few sales managers get excited about sending reps for further training.

3. Supporting training across platforms, even for individual reps. Depending on the opportunity, sales reps may need to complete their training from their laptops, tablets or smartphones. And of course, they expect that such courses should sync between all three. Few technologies have been able to make this compatibility truly work so far.

4. Fitting training into sales reps schedules. Sales reps have busy schedules driven by their focus on closing the next deal. Convincing them to fit in another training session tends to be a challenge, particularly if the session can only be completed together and cannot be broken down into smaller parts.

5. Updating courses to reflect latest market intelligence and product developments. For some companies, product and solution ranges change frequently. For others, incoming intelligence on competition and market developments is now almost constant. This requires frequent updates to training materials; this has historically been hard to do in a cost effective and scalable way.

What's Changing in Learning Technologies?

Historically, e-learning has been seen as "PowerPoint slides with questions" training. To put it differently, the old generation of learning software has used technology as a "content distribution tool" rather than an actual "learning/teaching tool."

"Shipping textbooks over the Internet" might be faster and cheaper than doing it on paper, but fundamentally, it's still the same learning method, and not a particularly effective or user friendly one at that.

It is this design flaw and focus on presentation of content rather than actual active learning facilitated by leveraging the true potential of technology that has caused most of the problems with existing e-learning. It doesn't work, the user experience is poor, it doesn't produce any meaningful data, only works on some computers and not mobile phones or smartphones, courses are expensive to create and maintain, etc.

The tide is turning, however, as two technological inventions in particular have evolved from visionary ideas into tangible, commercially viable products: adaptive learning and semantic course authoring. Let's start by introducing both.

Adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices. Computers adapt the presentation of educational material according to students’ learning needs, as indicated by their responses to questions and tasks.

A good adaptive learning platform will independently model the knowledge of each concept for each person who takes the course. Often, this will also include a model for how they forget over time. This then allows the platform to dynamically, continuously adapt the material and assessment to each individual learner. Such continuous teaching/testing loop thus creates a fully tailored learning path through the content for each learner, reflecting their prior knowledge and learning speed.

Semantic courses are a related, complementary invention that replaces the former presentational paradigm. Under the old, fundamentally different model, e-learning was used as a way of distributing "PowerPoint slides with questions.” Semantic courses, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with the underlying content. They explicitly encode and codify what we are trying to teach (the domain and its relationships) and what evidence is required to believe that the student has learned it (what you should know).

Together, adaptive learning and semantic courses turn e-learning from a way to put some content in front of people’s eyes into a process of getting knowledge and skills into people’s heads.

Commercial Impact

As global enterprises with large sales forces, particularly in industries such as pharma and healthcare, start deploying these new technologies, ROI on training sales reps online is likely to increase significantly in a short period of time, driven by the following improvements:

1. Learning experience that leads to permanent knowledge and skill improvement. By dynamically adapting material to each learner and ensuring correct repetition and reinforcement, the next generation of learning tools will ensure that sales reps see a return on the time they're putting in.

2. Analytics and dashboards that enable ROI calculations. By capturing thousands of learning data points with fine precision, the new products will provide tools that sales organisations need to understand, assess and optimize ROI on learning initiatives.

3. Offer courses without fixed length or required timing. Adaptive learning courses automatically provide on-demand learning style. This permits sales reps to learn in chunks of any size and come back whenever they like, allowing them to stop at any time and fit bite-sized learning into their schedules.

4. Provide complete device and platform independence. By the nature of their design, unlike the previous generation of learning software, semantic courses support all platforms (Windows, Android, Mac OS/ iOS) and devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) from a single platform, without the need to install any native apps. This dramatically widens the audience and reduces costs.

5. Empower marketing and sales support to build courses faster and more easily. In addition to their benefits for analytics and learning experience, semantic courses also allow faster, easier course creation. This will permit companies to leverage their existing expertise by broadening the range of subject matter experts who can autonomously build courses.

What Will This Mean for How Companies Use e-Learning?

First, the products will become more effective, efficient and finally provide a great user experience. This will in turn improve the reputation of e-learning amongst staff and change its perception from "PowerPoint slides with questions" to an effective learning method that people enjoy using.

Secondly, as the developments above take place, the ROI on next generation learning technologies will become compelling. In addition, advanced analytics, visualisations, and dashboards will help senior management finally understand in depth and detail how learning happens across the company. When they are combined, higher ROI and easier analysis of results likely will lead to increased investments in online learning.

Jan Sramek is the CEO & Co-founder of Erudify,, a software company that provides an enterprise learning platform. He raduated with a First in Mathematics and Economics from LSE and Trinity College, Cambridge. Before founding Erudify, he was a proprietary trader at Goldman Sachs in London.


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