Corporate learning: Blurring boundaries and breaking barriers

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1 IBM Global Services Corporate learning: Blurring boundaries and breaking barriers A learning culture Introduction With the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) reporting that the average company trains almost 80 percent of their workforce, it s not surprising that many businesses are looking for more creative and cost effective ways to educate employees 1. In the press and across the training industry, online learning is gaining momentum supported by a string of successes that include efforts at our own company. IBM saved US $350 million in 2000 through corporatewide e-learning programs. However, another change is underway one that involves more than simply replacing the medium by which training is delivered. It requires a nontraditional perspective on what learning is and how it s accomplished. It calls for a blended approach; education funneled through a single medium even an electronic one can not adequately address the demands of today s marketplace. It demands viewing corporate learning as a mainstream business competency that keeps the corporation functioning more and more efficiently, while offering competitive advantages in return.

2 Lines are blurring In the not too distant past, corporate learning was synonymous with hands-on instruction. Today, the boundaries that define, and in some cases confine, corporate learning are melting away. Across the enterprise, learning is being integrated into various lines of business. In fact, it s sometimes difficult to tell where one function stops and another starts. While the lines of distinction are blurring across business areas, the potential offered by their convergence is clear. Consider for a moment the pivotal role that learning plays or could play in each of these areas of your business: Change Management Coping with change has become a major challenge for most enterprises. New products and services are introduced at a dizzying pace. Staffs are growing or at least changing and employees must constantly master new business processes and tools. Traditional communications methods and instructional programs simply can t keep pace. Reports continue to surface about companies that spent millions on new software only to suffer business setbacks including a lack of return on investment because they underestimated or neglected the need for proper training. Applications today are highly sophisticated and tightly interconnected with other systems and processes. By treating training as an afterthought, companies are putting these investments and customer satisfaction at risk. Yet no enterprise can afford to bring business to a halt while employees learn new ways to conduct transactions. Fortunately, there is no longer any reason to leave work for a class ; technology-delivered training offers a broad spectrum of learning alternatives. Designed for speed and on-demand delivery at relatively low cost, these new methods can help companies transform themselves during the normal course of business. Product Design Consumer goods from televisions to dishwashers are becoming more sophisticated with each new model. While certain features may be attractive to consumers, the functions these products offer and the brand differentiation they afford their manufacturer often go untapped, simply because the consumer doesn t have the time or the patience to learn how to use them. 2

3 New car owners may not have the time to study a thick manual to learn how to use all of the features of the car s air-conditioning system, but they might watch a ten-minute video. Better still, what if the product itself could instruct the consumer on how to use various features? With smart devices becoming more commonplace every day, it s not unreasonable to expect them to start teaching us. cost into a direct-marketing channel for teaching customers how to plant bulbs and keep their roses healthy. If you make ordering easy by pre-filling shopping lists, you can entice those same customers to buy their gardening supplies from you. By integrating e-learning into your overall e-business strategy, you can turn consumer-education initiatives into revenue opportunities. Sales and Marketing Companies whose revenue depends, in large part, on employees giving sound advice to customers recognize the importance of maintaining a knowledgeable staff. At the same time, organizations can t always afford to hire the experts they need; often they must create them. From nationwide nursery chains that train employees on soil types, indigenous plants and garden design; to electronics retailers that educate their sales force on new devices, many businesses have eagerly embraced online training. But why stop there? A number of companies are sitting on a jackpot of digital information in the form of online training materials, internal databases and intellectual capital resources that could be put to use to provide a competitive advantage for their brand. Why not apply these assets to customers? For instance, a Web-based training course originally built for employees could evolve with negligible incremental Customer Relationship Management Every time a customer interacts with your company including via the Internet it s an occasion for strengthening that relationship and reinforcing your brand image. It s also a learning opportunity. While most Web sites offer rudimentary forms of instruction where visitors can read about a company, find out how to request service and learn how to do business with them electronically, innovative e-businesses provide more. You can teach your visitors new applications, show them ways to use your products, or introduce them to new products or services. For example, brokerage firms can create an online environment where new investors can interactively learn about investing, experience simulated trades, or manage an imaginary portfolio. The desired result? Smarter, more active consumers and more demand for the company s products and services. 3

4 Obstacles are disappearing Knowledge management Most corporate learning takes place outside of formal programs like classes, seminars or self-study courses; it happens during the normal course of business as unstructured knowledge passes from one individual to another. Mentors, coaches and topical experts sought out by their peers, as well as naturally formed communities of practice, are all conduits for transferring knowledge within an organization. To foster truly effective corporate learning, organizations must create an integrated learning environment that nurtures both structured learning and informal knowledge-transfer events. With today s technologies, this is all possible. Companies can for example supplement online reference materials by providing electronic connections to subject matter experts for further clarification. Driven by market pressure and technology availability, traditional boundaries related to where, when and how we learn are disappearing. Where Satellite communications and now the Internet have expanded learning far beyond the classroom. With wireless technologies, learning is no longer tied to a particular location. And, as interactive television begins to gain consumer acceptance, online education can even occur in the family living room. When Companies are understandably reticent about asking employees to spend time away from their day-to-day responsibilities to learn a new skill or acquire new knowledge, particularly if there is no urgent requirement to use it. Increasingly, corporate education must be directly linked to the task at hand provided precisely when needed, rather than on a fixed, pre-determined schedule. 4

5 With the always on aspect of Internet-delivered training, employees can quickly tap into educational resources whenever it is convenient for them. Imagine a sales representative en route to a customer location. He realizes he s missing a key fact for his presentation. With his PDA, the rep accesses his corporate learning environment (which can take the form of a database or an on call expert) to gain the necessary insight, in realtime. In another part of the organization, a clerk is struggling with a new order application. The software senses the difficulty the user is having, and offers a minitutorial on the specific task at hand. With business complexity growing every day, it s difficult perhaps even unadvisable to determine exactly when a piece of knowledge will be required. Instead, businesses should strive for a flexible infrastructure based on a blended learning approach that allows learners to initiate learning events at the point where they can add the most business value. Educational content must also be developed to accommodate students time constraints. It s often easier to absorb and apply smaller nuggets of knowledge delivered just in time. In terms of development costs and delivery time, businesses can no longer afford to train employees on all aspects of a particular topic. Education designers must thus concentrate on need to know versus nice to know elements. Over the years, corporate educators have faithfully followed the proven learn then do model for instruction. Technology has now made it practical and possible to learn while doing. How With today s constant deluge of communications, businesses find themselves competing not only for the attention of consumers and stockholders, but also for that of their employees. Capturing eyes, ears and minds for even a moment takes some creativity. Luckily, 5

6 technology offers an improved set of learning tools: additional delivery channels like the Internet, satellite and wireless communications, as well as sophisticated learning objects such as broadcast-quality video, animation and simulation. Classroom training can be replayed as Web lectures even delivered live over the Internet. Printed materials can give way to online manuals. There s no need to struggle with complicated written instructions when a video clip can more effectively demonstrate exactly how to accomplish a task. Self-paced, computerbased training can now be personalized through software that adapts to the learning preferences of the student and focuses on trouble spots for that individual. Interactive games can be imbedded to enhance the learning experience. Simulations are more realistic and can emulate real life scenarios to give learners an opportunity to test-drive their newly acquired knowledge and learn from mistakes in a safe environment. Learners working in online labs and workshops can chat with fellow students around the world in realtime. Language is no longer an obstacle with automatic translation technology. When an online instructor talks, each student hears in his or her native tongue. With the right infrastructure in place, we can learn from each other more easily, too. Questions can be electronically routed to an expert in another part of the organization. Systems can even mine correspondence and online databases to pinpoint people who possess knowledge about a particular topic rather than depend on organizational position or self-proclamation to identify subject-matter experts. New educational alternatives are emerging every day. To effectively engage employees in corporate learning, businesses must first identify the right combination of methods and tools based on the subject matter at hand, the unique needs of the audience (including skill level, timeframes and budgets), the technology infrastructure that s available and the learning culture of the enterprise. 6

7 Without bounds Corporate learning is morphing. Traditional forms of training can now be blended with new, technology-enabled methods to tackle broader business objectives and redefine what corporate learning really means. Today, the options are bounded primarily by the imagination. To help assess the learning culture within your own organization and gauge your ability to capitalize on the learning evolution, take a moment to reflect on the following questions: Where could the training assets and learning expertise that you ve already built be used in other lines of business? With your customers? With dealers or suppliers? Would an attempt to leverage employee learning content with customers get trapped in organizational gridlock? What opportunities cost savings, improved organizational effectiveness and coordinated messages to both employees and customers, for example might you be missing because you ve compartmentalized learning? Are your knowledge-management and learning initiatives connected? In what ways? How are you integrating formal learning programs with more informal ones, such as mentoring, peer-to-peer dialog and Q&A with experts? What role does learning currently play in your employee retention? Are your learning initiatives taking appropriate advantage of technology? Does having a variety of vendors, solutions and content types in-house make your learning environment so complex it is nearly unmanageable? Have your e-learning initiatives been driven primarily by tactical cost-cutting goals or by aspirations to build competitive advantage based on an overarching learning strategy? At IBM, we re committed to business transformation through learning for our customers as well as for ourselves. Our workplace learning programs are constantly evolving, and have become key enablers in achieving our corporate business goals. In fact, based on demonstrable results from these programs, IBM has earned several awards from the American Society for Training and Development. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss your business strategy and the part corporate learning can play in your success. For additional information about custom learning solutions from IBM, please visit ibm.com/services/learning 7

8 To explore how we can help you refine your learning strategy and leverage emerging opportunities to improve your corporate learning environment, contact us at To browse through other resources for business executives, we invite you to visit: ibm.com/services/insights About the authors Michael Littlejohn is the General Manager of IBM Learning Services in the Americas. Michael and his team help companies improve their business performance through innovative learning products and services. He can be reached at Copyright IBM Corporation 2001 IBM Global Services Route 100 Somers, NY U.S.A. Produced in the United States of America All Rights Reserved IBM, the IBM logo and the e-business logo are trademarks or registered trademarks of International Business Machines Corporation in the United States, other countries, or both. Other company, product and service names may be trademarks or service marks of others. References in this publication to IBM products and services do not imply that IBM intends to make them available in all countries in which IBM operates. Dr. Celia Lofink is a Global Principal within IBM Learning Services. Dr. Lofink has worldwide responsibilities for IBM Learning Services solutions. She can be contacted via at References ASTD State of the Industry Report. American Society for Training and Development. March, G

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