Friday, July 05, 2013

Enterprise Learning: notes from IBM Innovate 2013

IBM described how their enterprise training strategy for their Global Business Solutions division has evolved to support their new DevOps culture.

IBM realized that their training model resulted in many of their employees having what they referred to as “shelf skills”: meaning skills that are not used (think shelfware).  They referred to this as ‘waterfall learning’: gaining knowledge without knowing why or how you are expected to use this information. At the same time, their development organization was making the push towards becoming a more agile, DevOps-focused institution.  They realized that formal training and continuous delivery would have a hard time co-existing, since the deployed software had the potential of changing faster than it would take to develop a traditional training course. 

This encouraged IBM to change the way they train their employees on technical items that are important to the organization over the past few years, switching their focus from a formal, managed method to more of an informal, supported method.

They have done this by transitioning their classroom learning model to a “community of practice” (COP) model. The COP model at IBM is formal, with employees encouraged in their annual objectives to actively participate in COPs.

They quickly found that implementing this model was somewhat harder than they initially thought. A traditional weakness of a COP is how to onboard new members to the community; you would want the level of technical topics in the community to be of a certain complexity to encourage domain experts to participate fully.  In order to ensure that employees joining a COP had a certain base level of understanding of the topic, IBM created what they called “Learning Circles”.  The premise behind a learning circle is: if an individual wants to learn about a topic, they should have access to a trusted list of resources that have been vetted by a known expert. Domain experts were encouraged to contribute material to the Learning Circle to become better known in the community and build their ‘trust network’.  Learning Circles have the goal of getting their members a baseline level of knowledge so they would feel comfortable participating in discussions in the affiliated COP.  

A participant in a Learning Circle has the goal of demonstrating competency in the field of study.  When they feel they are ready to participate in the full COP, they have the option of ‘self-graduating’ from the Learning Circle. At this point, IBM management starts to keep track of the use of this skill – the employee has six months to use these new skills in their job or engagement.  This encourages employees to keep their skills current to their jobs, or help gain skill that can move their career along a new path. This approach appears to align individual training with the needs of the organization, IBM measured that 82% of LC graduates reported that they used their new skills within 6 months of graduation.  Additionally, there was an 80% overlap between the list of skills being learned by employees to a survey of skills that customers said they wanted.

When measuring the effectiveness of the LC/COP model, IBM realized that the communities with higher rates of participation had much better content than smaller communities. In order to boost participation in communities across the board, IBM opened up the communities so members from outside of IBM could join a COP: first business partners, then to the general public.  These will soon be available on the IBM developerworks site.  The concept is the creation of a ‘system of engagement’ with customers using their tools.  IBM hopes to strengthen relationships with their clients by giving away this basic ‘how to use our tools’ content.  They are looking to use this as a new engagement model; it gives many of the advantages of a face-to-face meeting, but is much more scalable.

Enterprise Learning Key Take-Aways:
A key for the IBM training model was that as they transitioned from a traditional learning environment to a self-guided model is that they continued to give their employees time to learn new skills and tools, trusting them to learn the skills that would help the organization. 

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