Under The Microscope: Will Kenny on Corporate Universities and Just-in-Time Learning

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Will Kenny

Corporate Univerisities play an important role in the continuous learning of many employees. Will Kenny, the president of Best Training Practices talks to e-BIM about how to make a successful Corporate University and the just-in-time learning approach to training your employees.

What do all Corporate Universities need to do to be successful?

Resist complacency. Typically it takes a great deal of effort and a lot of internal networking to build a Corporate University. Once it is established, it seems to take everyone's energy just to work out the bugs and get it running smoothly.

And once it starts running smoothly, there is a tendency to put less effort into that internal networking that allowed the Corporate University to be built in the first place. The staff of the Corporate University can easily overlook the need to maintainand even strengthenrelationships with other parts of the organization.

To be successful, Corporate Universities need to provide a service to other departments and functions in the organization. When Corporate University professionals ask, "How can we help X get better results from their employees?" they do well.

I believe the best Corporate Universities are run much like small, independent businesses, the kind that know they have to keep in touch with their customers, respond to their markets and continually improve product quality to be successful.

Explain the just-in-time approach in regards to Corporate Universities. Why is this approach an effective strategy?

The just-in-time approach is a response to a common problem, namely, that an employee may get training that he or she cannot actually apply for some time. By the time the situation arises where the training is useful, much of it has been forgotten.

Just-in-time, in contrast, seeks to provide the appropriate training close to the time when it is needed. In theory, that delivers better retention and application. As a result, there should be significant time and resources saved because you don't have to retrain content that has already been covered and forgotten, and because supervisors and colleagues don't have to provide as much on-the-job remedial training and guidance to "revive" knowledge and skills that have already been trained.

Just-in-time implies a more modular approach, cutting the content into units that can be delivered as needed. And many people assume that just-in-time means online delivery, with employees tapping into the training they need more or less on their own. But that's an oversimplification, and an important word in your question is that little "an." Just-in-time is an effective strategy, but just one of many. Schedules, resources, development costs and other factors can limit your ability to deliver information just-in-time, so rather than imagine that everything will be delivered just when it is needed, training departments need to do their homework and figure out where this strategy can be applied to deliver the greatest return.

I sometimes think that if we dropped that catchy "Just-in-Time" phrase (which comes to us from manufacturing practices) and talked about "The Right Training at the Right Time," we would make better decisions about how to employ this strategy.

You’ve said that the failure to address the poorly performing programming and tools can be the death of a Corporate University. Why do you feel this way?

Experience. Death comes to the Corporate University quickly. They don't tend to fade away, they tend to be eliminated with a single stroke, when they have lost broad support within the organization and competition for resources is tight.

"Poorly performing programming" may simply mean the wrong programming for the current environment. In other words, we may be doing an excellent job of training people, but we are training them on things that are no longer the most important issues for our internal customers in the organization. We are becoming irrelevant, and we could be missing the mark, not because the quality of our performance as instructional designers and facilitators is poor, but because we aren't closely connected to the current demands in the workplace.

We're in a tough economic environment right now. Product lines will be cut in many corporations because they can't afford the luxury of investing in people, tools and equipment that don't deliver benefits to the organization. Under those circumstances, front-line managers who are battling to get the budgets they need are going to cast hungry looks at the resources devoted to staff functions, including training, and they will support us if they feel we are helping them get more out of their budgets, with programming that clearly fits their needs and objectives.

Why is communication important in a company?

Communication is the most important part of my job, your job and the job of the person sitting next to you, no matter what the job titles are. Communication is what creates a company or organization, as opposed to a collection of individuals. Without that communication, we don't get the increased power of a group of people working together, the power of collaboration. With communication, two people can accomplish much more together than can two individuals working separately.

If you don't think that communication is the essence of your job, no matter what you do for your company, try this little experiment: For the next two days, don't make or answer any phone calls, don't write or read any e-mails or memos and don't go to any meetings.

If your day isn't driven by influencing other people and responding to other people—which is what I mean by "communication"—there's no reason for you to be part of a larger organization.

What are some obstacles to communication? How can companies overcome these obstacles?

Value, consistency and commitment.

Few companies recognize that communication is really the essence of the organization—what makes it a company instead of just a bunch of people. Communication is an afterthought, something you tack on after you have figured out everything else. Valuing communication as the core activity of the company is a great first step.

Consistency is often lacking, both "cross-sectionally" and "longitudinally." Take a cross section of what different managers are saying on a given topic at a given time and you'll often find contradictions. And longitudinally, there's a tendency for messages to change over time, not just because new messages become relevant, but because people get bored with delivering core messages repeatedly and move on to something else. Employees get used to fads sweeping out of the executive offices, and when the company delivers a new message, they just wait for it to go away and be replaced with something different.

Commitment to repeated communication of core values and key practices is crucial to providing that consistency and keeping everyone aligned with corporate strategies. But it takes a lot of determination, a willingness to stick with a known message that needs continual reinforcement, instead of tossing it aside for something newer and sexier. One tool to develop that commitment is accountability for communication. When the company looks explicitly at how it communicates its key messages, there is less likely to be this sort of drift, and the company can expect better results from its employees.
What does your job entail?
In general, I work on the side of creating communication tools for companies so they can use to influence employees. In other words, I work on the writing, content development and instructional design side of things, rather than as a front-of-the-room facilitator. (I’ve done plenty of facilitating, but I just find the design and development side of it to be more interesting!)

Sometimes this means designing an entire curriculum focused on a particular function. Often it means creating course materials, anything from content for online modules to leaders' guides, management presentations or various exercises and activities.

Rather than coming in and training their employees, I typically help them figure out why their current efforts to effect or maintain a particular practice or change aren't working. I educate them about what it will take to influence employee performance, and I create tools they can use with internal "amateur" facilitators to get the results they seek.

Why exactly would a company need training? What are some of the reasons companies call you, and how do you help?

When a company calls me for the first time, it is usually after they have tried to solve their problem themselves, a couple of times, without getting results. They are trying to implement a best business practice, correct a bad habit in the way employees do their work or roll out a new corporate strategy, but their own communication efforts have not reached the front-line employees in ways that "stick."

At that point, they have probably heard about me from a colleague and call me in to see if I can produce better results. And I focus on diagnosis and treatment.

It's important that we start by finding out what they have tried and by determining why that hasn't worked. I never sail into a company with preconceived solutions, although I often have a pretty good idea of what's going wrong. Looking at what they've done and listening to them carefully as they talk about the results they hope to achieve is essential to producing better results.

With a good diagnosis, good treatment is usually fairly straightforward. For me, that consists of designing and developing training and communication tools they can use themselves to produce better results.

Of course, after we have worked together on several projects, clients no longer wait until they are frustrated with their own efforts before calling me in. Clients commonly work with me repeatedly, and I have several clients I have been working with for more than 20 years. Those companies call me as soon as they see a communication need that fits the pattern of problems I have solved for them in the past.
When should companies not call consultants for training?
I’ve talked elsewhere about the importance of supporting training, whether with systems and tools, or whether through what is rewarded and what is discouraged by supervisors and managers. If you don't have, and are not willing to create, an environment that will support the training in question, save your money. The best consultant you can find can't deliver training that will make a difference.

Beyond that, it is hard to formulate general rules, but I can give some advice about how to make the decision to call someone in. I think it helps to start with the "outsourcing" attitude that might be found in other functions. For example, sometimes technology staff have to decide whether to build software themselves, hire someone to build it or buy it off the shelf. They base their decisions on the level of expertise they have, the level of resources they have, the speed with which they have to deliver a solution, whether this is a one-time event or a continuing series of events, whether the additional expertise an outsider might bring justifies the cost and so on.

I also recommend that more clients separate the "diagnosis" phase from the "treatment" phase when they contact a consultant. In other words, instead of hiring someone to "solve our problem," start by having them help you define the problem and recommend options for addressing it. Then you can decide if the consultant in question is also the best choice to implement one of those options.

Are there any experiences you had that have shaped your vision?

Like most people in the training business, I have repeatedly encountered situations where training, by itself, could not solve the company's problem. And I have often been asked to create a course to "fix" something, when I can see that the course won't work because the new employee behavior won't be consistently supported when employees return to their desks. That could mean that their supervisors have a different point of view about what employees should be doing, or it could mean that the systems and tools employees have to use will work against the new way of doing things.

I’ve learned to look for the business problem the client is addressing and to be a little cautious when they call me in with a training solution already in mind. They may be right, but I want to talk to them about the bigger picture enough to make sure that the training they have suggested will really have an impact.

I’ve been at this long enough to be comfortable telling a client, even a new one, when I think he or she is headed down the wrong path, or when he or she needs to take steps outside of the training project to get results. And I'm willing to walk away from a project if I know I can't make it work. It doesn't do me or my client any good to invest a lot of time, effort and money into a project that I know won't help the company.

What is your number one philosophy that you try to teach all of your clients?

Effective communication is the most powerful tool you have to reach your goals for the company (or department, or function), and it isn't easy. I can help overcome a lack of communication skills with the tools and consulting I provide, but without an awareness of the central role communication plays in everyone's job, regardless of job title, and without explicit attention to communicating goals, expectations and best practices, those brilliant strategies the executives hatch will have little impact on how employees execute their functions with customers, suppliers and colleagues.

More and more, I talk about "work-style change" as the goal of training and purpose of spreading best business practices. We know how hard "lifestyle change" can be: exercising, losing weight, eating healthier foods. It doesn't happen after an "event," such as reading a book, watching a program or taking a course. It happens when a person clearly understands what needs to be done, and when the environment supports the change and regularly reinforces that understanding.

Any best practice worth following, any change that will make the company stronger and more successful, demands this kind of long-term view of behavior change and the supporting commitment and investment to make it happen.

Interview by Jessica Livingston, editor