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Training the Troops

Tue, 09/30/2003 - 8:00pm
Craig Kuhl, Contributing Editor



PCs, the Internet and DVDs are replacing traditional brick and mortar
in the ongoing education of cable’s finest

Training employees–from new hires to top management–isn't what it used to be. In fact, virtual classrooms, streaming media, WebEx communications services, DVDs and a host of learning-friendly methodologies and technologies are moving the training cheese forward.

Add in the new-era mindset of aligning all aspects of training to the company's business plan, and the once-staid, one- dimensional training techniques of years past begin to peel away. In their place is an evolving, holistic approach to training and the impact it has on the bottom line–from revenue and cash flow to cost reduction and customer service.

"Aligning the training organization with the business plan and pro-actively understanding the business goals, while identifying performance indicators to achieve the business objectives, are very important now," says Mark Allen, president and CEO of Corporate University Xchange Inc., a corporate education research and consulting firm. "Focusing all employment issues to the bottom and top lines such as driving growth, performance and strategic thinking is a whole new approach to business."

On-demand training and online degrees are gaining acceptance, and the use of PCs, streaming media and other non-traditional training methods are becoming vital learning tools, Allen adds. Yet much remains to be done to break free from the mundane training procedures of the past.

"All business units must become teachers. Part of their job descriptions should include being mentors, coaches and teachers. Teach the leaders how to be teachers, all the way up to the CEO," he recommends.

For many cable MSOs, vendors and educational/training organizations, however, finding the right mix of training techniques and methods isn't exactly an easy "A." Instilling in their employees a mentoring mindset is a tough assignment.

"It's very hard for cable companies to push away from the command-and-control business model. But training is one more piece of the pie that can do that, and smart companies know they have to figure out how to do it," says Kate Hampford, president of Hampford and Associates, an organizational development and executive coaching firm.


Table 1: The cost of building a single training program.


And do it while focusing on the business plan. Adds Hampford: "Shaving two percent of marketing costs or two minutes from a customer call are the new business efficiencies, and people who achieve those goals are the key. So, it's critical for managers to be trained in a different way to deal with employees and become facilitators. Companies are being forced to look carefully at what their employees bring to the table, so education and training are the keys."

Still, figuring out how training and education processes work in an organization, and what their impact is on the business plan can be complicated. "Education and skill-building are aligned with our business plan, and we're taking a blended approach to training–more Web-based courses and E-solutions mixed with traditional classroom curriculums, which are all tied to our business needs," says Mary James, director of learning solutions for Cox Communications. "But we have work to do to support the business plan, and the return on investment (ROI) is critical, so measuring and evaluating the training will allow us to be more effective."

Cox, through its Cox University operation, is exploring next-gen methodologies of training and education, and considers its alignment with the business plan an integral part of the new training mentality. Adds James: "We talk with Cox business leaders about the business plan, vision, customer care, growth and learning strategies such as E-learning at desktops and alternative methods, such as tools that allow creation of mock job scenarios on the desktop that are matched with actual jobs themselves. We know learning affects the business."

Yet just how an organization learns can be challenging. Everyone learns differently, so how does a company cost-effectively train its people, who are being asked to do more with less?

"You wouldn't want to be in a situation where there's only one model for everyone. We've found most people prefer the classroom, but how do they fit the training into their busy days? And, what works for GenX won't work for GenY. They have a very different approach to learning and want to learn on their own, using available resources. We have work to do to make that information readily available," admits Marv Nelson, vice president of technical programs for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE).


Figure 1: Jones Knowledge has resurrected the cable training
materials first offered by Mind Extension Institute.

And there's plenty of information out there. Finding and imparting it to employees is the tricky part. "As an industry, cable is accelerating the amount of technology needed to get services deployed, and we're falling behind in getting the workforce prepared," Nelson says. "Trainers are trying to find time themselves to learn the information, so we're now training the trainers. People need to understand what they need to know and not just what's nice to know."

Traditional training methods aren't getting it done, most experts insist. "Going forward, the workforce must be taught not only to understand technology, but the underlying impact they have on the organization," explains Alan Babcock, chief learning officer for the National Cable Television Institute (NCTI). "All of the business units must be aligned so they can perform better and affect the bottom line. The delivery method is changing into a blended approach of online, CDs, PCs and traditional classroom."

It's also presenting its share of challenges. Adds Babcock: "We've done lots of strategic planning to deal with these training issues, and a growing number of MSOs want customized training aligned with their specific procedures. That's what we have to provide, along with the real cost and ROI of training. But if you think training is expensive, try not."

According to NCTI figures, a weeklong classroom seminar can cost from $80,000 to $100,000 and about $1,400 per employee (see Table 1).

Yet most cable industry experts don't blink when it comes to acknowledging the increasing value of a quality training strategy, particularly when it's aligned with a company's business plan.

"Our three key imperatives are to train people to rebuild the network, train people to sell products and services and develop and maintain a skilled workforce, and they are all in line with our business plan," says Regina Hutchinson, vice president of learning and safety for Adelphia Cable. "Now, we need to educate top management and employees to take a chance with online learning, which is more cost-effective."

Adelphia, in the recovery stage following its high-profile bankruptcy, is pushing its training procedures to include cross-functional teams that meet to discuss various company initiatives and training needs "to help them understand the challenges of meeting the business plan objectives," Hutchinson says.

One solution, she details, is decentralizing its training policies. "We've re-organized into five regions with a senior VP in each region and are moving our training out to the regions," she explains. "We still need face-to-face classroom time, but are moving away from that method of training to bring complete training to employees across the board with a blended curriculum that includes online courses."

Figure 2
Figure 2: Jones Knowledge offers training material online or on CD.
Those online courses seem to be paying off. According to an Adelphia study, the company saved nearly $41 per hour when switching to an online curriculum, which doesn't require paid trainers or materials and is more time-efficient. But how effective is it?

Concludes Hutchinson: "We haven't done an ROI study yet, but will this year. We have a sophisticated learning management system in place and are very committed to training and [pursuing] alternatives to deliver that training. Now, it's making the capital investment in learning labs and delivering new information to employees."

More companies are exploring the upside and value of a training strategy aligned with the business plan, experts maintain, and actually ponying up to make it happen, albeit cautiously. "Companies are willing to invest in training but need quality results," says Neil Sullivan, staff consultant for corporate sales and business development for Jones Knowledge Inc., a provider of online learning products. "That hasn't happened in every case, so if you can find a solution that reduces costs with measurable results, such as getting a CSR online in one week versus two, that's the next step."

It's a big step, too. "Online learning is very new to many operators," Sullivan admits. "There are lots of changes and learning curves with training, along with an assessment stage and expenses. It's been a longer adoption cycle than we would have initially guessed, so now it's a partnership with motion video and other methods."

Nevertheless, Jones Knowledge, Sullivan says, is pushing its online solution, which is specifically designed to reduce truck rolls, reduce billing system costs and cut by half the time it takes to train CSRs.

The pressure to learn new technology, deliver it to employees, and digest the burgeoning amounts of information being accumulated at MSOs is affecting the vendor community as well, enhancing the value of the new-era training mentality, which includes alignment with the business plan.

"MSOs are looking at the hot buttons in training and how they affect the bottom line. It's the same for us. Our customers are much more IP and computer savvy, so if they don't understand the technology they've acquired, they won't buy anymore," says Jann Mellman, vice president of customer operations for Motorola's Broadband Communications Sector.

Consequently, companies such as Motorola are exploring new training methods to stay current with their MSO and broadband industry customers. "We have to do a lot more in training and education beyond the classroom, like Web-based elements and easy access to information, when they need it and want it," he notes.

Motorola recently began its online "Webinars," which connect company employees to technical lab training conducted over the Internet. Yet Mellman and others admit there are downsides to techniques such as Internet-based training. "You're fooling yourself if you think you can get away from lab training in a facility," he says. "You just can't capture the knowledge in a one-hour Web meeting. And, you can always put off your Web training."

The training solution, Mellman says, is simple. "We're seeing more holistic network training and its effect on the entire network. If a customer isn't effectively trained, my business goes down."

For many, however, the traditional classroom approach to training remains intact, but with growing pressure to adopt new learning and delivery methods.

"Most MSOs today still want someone to visit their facility and walk them through the steps of installing and maintaining a new product or service. But the issue now is you just can't have someone knowledgeable in all the different products and variations, and lots of technicians don't have good Internet access for online training. Plus, we have to roll in the soft skills such as listening, managing, computers, and pull them all together," says Robert Coffey, group manager of product support for C-COR.net.

Pulling together all of the components necessary for a top-line training program that aligns itself with a business plan isn't for the faint of heart, however. It requires some risk-taking, capital investment and commitment–from top to bottom.

"Continuous training is crucial, and aligning corporate development with business plans and strategies is critical. Some organizations are centralized, some fragmented. There needs to be a middle ground, especially when companies are spending millions of dollars to develop their people," says Allen of Corporate University Xchange.

A respectable return on training investments is right up there as well. Concludes James of Cox Communications: "We're changing to a more robust measurement process and the effects of training on our business. We know our employees need knowledge and skills to support our customers, so what does training cost, versus the returns. The challenge is to deliver a solution to each market with feedback, and there's still work to do on that."

Once the work is done, most agree a blended approach to training and education using a combination of classroom courses, Web-based curriculums, DVDs, online courses, computers, and other E-training methods will prevail.

In the meantime, experts predict more companies will likely explore the opportunity to align their training and educational strategies with their business plans and search for alternative methods of delivering information, while looking for measurable results.

E-mail: craigkuhl@comcast.net

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