Alberta deploys virtual agents to train expenditure staff

The government of Alberta (GOA) has finalized a deal with three technology companies to build an interactive online training system for financial employees that will save time and money on training and help it better meet regulatory requirements.


the agreement, Edmonton, Alta.-based CodeBaby Corp. and VTN Technologies Inc. will work with Improsive Technologies Inc. to develop an integrated teaching tool that will deliver required training for new and existing expenditure officers across all ministries via a Web portal. (An expenditure officer is appointed by the province’s deputy minister and is governed by the provincial financial administration act.)

The deal marks the first official project that the companies will work on as a group.

“We’ve been feeling each other out in terms of how the technologies can be blended together and what the capabilities are of each company,” said George Uhrich, president and CEO of VTN, which is the prime contractor for the project.

GOA employees will be able to access the portal, which will be hosted at VTN’s data centre in Edmonton — where similar applications for Air Canada and Enbridge are also hosted — by entering a user name and password from their office or home computer to initiate the session. The application, which is scheduled to be beta tested in mid-July and rolled out in late August, combines VTN’s Ole online learning management system with Improsive’s course creation expertise and CodeBaby’s virtual agent product.

With a total of approximately between 1,500 to 1,700 expenditure officers across GOA, Moez Virji, director of financial management for Alberta Human Resources and Employment (AHRE), expects to see efficiencies in terms of logistics, employee time and cost of trainers with this implementation.

“We won’t have to get trainers to do the training and we won’t have to get people in from all over the province to do the training,” said Virji. “It will be more efficient because training can be taken right away rather than be arranged. It’s immediate and there’s a cost savings in terms of training and travel costs.”

VTN’s system is designed to automatically track each employee as they go through training by sending the individual who set up the training an e-mail when the training is completed so they know to appoint that person as an expenditure officer, explained Virji. In the case that a person has already been appointed but wanted to take a refresher course, the system will note they have taken the training as well.

The system’s tracking capability helps the government meet regulatory requirements that call for companies to keep records that show employees have taken certain courses, said Uhrich.

“In an increasingly regulated environment, you have to keep records that people have taken these courses whereas before, you could keep records and throw them in an file somewhere,” said Uhrich, referring to Sarbanes-Oxley in the U.S.

The training will go over various financial systems that an expenditure officer would use to manage their budget. An expenditure officer, for example, might need to look up how to approve a travel expense claim using that system. Currently, that information resides on a government intranet site but is basically an electronic version of the paper-based manual.

The latter is similar to the way in which most online training is done today, said CodeBaby chief executive officer Shaheel Hooda.

“Rather than it being on paper, it’s now on a computer. It still requires people to read all that information and make sense of it themselves,” said Hooda, referring to the traditional method. “If you take that same content and add a virtual instructor that can provide navigational assistance, it makes it much more like an instructor in a classroom setting and more effective than just learning it on your own.”

While final details are still in the works, the virtual assistant will likely be female (as the name Gina has already been chosen), in her late 20s and have a matter-of-fact tone of voice. Gina is similar to another character CodeBaby created for a previous project with the Alberta Restructuring and Government Efficiency Group.

“When you’re dealing with financially-related information, the character itself needs to come across as authoritative and trustworthy,” said Hooda. “The type of character you use tends to be much more business-like versus other industry verticals like the entertainment industry where it could be an animal.”

To create characters like Gina, CodeBaby uses 3-D graphics technologies for modeling the character combined with proprietary technology from video gaming company Bioware.

Because this training system has a virtual instructor, it’s different from other online training systems, said Virji.

“This is interactive in that it challenges the individual,” said Virji. “If an individual is not able to answer a question it takes them back to the material to find the correct answer.”

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