By Joy Church Millard, Sr. Editor, Expertus
Editor’s Note: Welcome to the 10th interview in our “Learning Luminaries” series — where we showcase conversations with the brightest and most innovative minds in the world of training and development!
This month we feature learning and workplace performance leader and visionary, Tom Kelly. As a senior learning executive for over 30 years, Tom has driven transformational training initiatives at top technology companies such as Cisco, NetApp, Oracle and Sun Microsystems.
Recently, Tom moved to Riverbed Technology, where he is spearheading global sales enablement. We talked with him about how modern learning technology is helping the world’s most innovative companies maintain a competitive edge.
Q1: You’ve been responsible for learning at multiple technology companies for several decades. How do you see the process of learning changing?
TK: I am surprised organizations aren’t more focused on “microlearning” — converting educational content into shorter chunks and nuggets. YouTube is partially responsible for this. People don’t want to watch anything longer than five minutes, unless it’s really compelling.
So, for training professionals, there are two challenges:
- How do you take complex, technical concepts and break them into small portions that are easy to consume?
- And how do you make those bite-sized learning elements easy for people to find when needed?
Originally, websites were developed with a publishing model in mind. Content creators determined where information was located. Now, websites are based on the logic of consumption. For example, salespeople want to find relevant content inside their own personalized sales “containers.” This shift in emphasis from publishing to consumption is also known as being “learner enabled.” It is much more focused on creating an effective context for learning than simply deploying content.
Q2: What is the result of this shift?
TK: Finding and using appropriate educational content is significantly faster now. And when the learning process is more efficient, people can work more productively and perform more effectively.
Q3: What learning-related priorities are most critical for technology organizations to address?
TK: Scalability and agility:
- Scalability, because content must be available to everyone who needs access, anywhere in the world.
- Agility, because content must to be easy to modify and update anytime, without having to relocate it.
It is all about habitual access. Once you teach people where to find something, don’t disrupt that workflow. Why force someone to hunt for learning-related content they’ve suddenly “lost,” just because somebody in marketing or wherever decided to change a link title? That is counterproductive. Your system and processes should shield people from that kind of unnecessary complexity.
Think of poorly managed learning content as a disorganized kitchen pantry. New stuff is piled on top of old stuff. Soon, it’s hard to know if you have the right ingredients to prepare a meal. Or think of a garage, where people just keep filling it up, but never clean it out.
This happens with websites and knowledge portals. If you look through any company’s website, there is a good chance that there stuff on it that hasn’t been edited in two or three years. In a fast-paced tech company, this stuff is, at best, of no value. Or at worst, it’s detrimental.
I think content management is recognized as software. But it is also a discipline — a process. People must practice it regularly, especially in organizations. Organizations put stuff in regularly, but how often do they remove stuff? And when they do “clean house,” what kind of disconnects do they create for people who depend on that content repository?
Q4: How do these learning-related challenges affect sales enablement, in particular?
TK: The world of a technology sales rep or sales engineer moves incredibly fast because products change constantly. Salespeople may need to stay on-track with 40 new products a year — their competitors’, as well as their own. So, sales training and information resources need to be fast and agile.
Salespeople have to keep an open mindset about learning things quickly. They don’t have to know everything, but they have to know where to find the answers quickly.
This goes back to the need for easily consumable content. As I learned years ago in math class, you don’t have to memorize the formula, but you do have to know what book it is in, and where that book is located.
Content has to be easy to find. And it has to be scalable, so it can be changed rapidly without disruption.
Q5: Do you think the next generation of learning technology is rising to these challenges?
TK: There is no shortage of sales enablement technology. But the problem is that we buy these solutions to solve a problem, not a broken process. So we never actually fix the right problem. So yes, learning technology is rising to the challenge. But if it is not used properly, it doesn’t work.
For those of us who manage sales teams, we want to be assured that our people have not only looked at meaningful learning content, but actually understand how to apply it. And new technology helps us manage staff performance much more holistically, rationally and effectively than ever.
New technology also helps us communicate messaging and develop staff more effectively, because it’s now possible to track progress of everyone on a team. We’re not there yet, but soon, managers will be able to analyze, anticipate and respond to what individual sales reps do or don’t do well. This means we won’t have to travel with salespeople in the field. Instead, we will be able coach sales reps to be the “hero,” and save their own accounts.
So, increasingly, technology is helping us accelerate and reinforce sales readiness.
Q6: Beyond technology, what else needs to change for sales organizations to succeed in today’s climate? How can learning help?
TK: Salespeople need to abandon the “hard sell” (trying to convince people to buy) and instead, create an environment where prospects make good decisions. Virtual labs are a great way to do this by simulating an organization’s unique needs and processes. There’s still a lot of trust required in selling and buying, but we are now able to demonstrate a buyer’s specific environment. This focuses the discussion on value, rather than asking them to trust us.
Through simulations, we’re creating an environment where buyers can analyze facts and make buying decisions with more confidence. As an industry, we’re starting to show people the real value of technology — how it affects their business, not just their cost ratios.
We also need to get away from “technology talk” and embrace business language instead. If you’re talking in tech jargon and your buyer thinks in business terms, you’re on different frequencies — AM versus FM channels. You need to talk about the business they are in, not hardware or software features. This kind of change is happening more slowly than technology, itself.
Q7: Any other advice for learning professionals?
TK: A key question we should ask ourselves as training people is — are we really having measurable impact on our business? If you talk about it, but don’t measure it, training really doesn’t have value.
Don’t worry about how many people completed training courses, but instead look at trend lines to determine the impact of learning experiences on business outcomes. What performance issues matter, and how can you tie them to learning consumption, frequency, and so forth, over time?
Success isn’t about training revenue. It’s about how well you align learning with your company’s goals. Which metrics are key performance indicators for your organization? Find out, and build learning solutions that help move those metric in the right direction.
It is not about measuring results. It’s about measuring relevancy.
Image Credit: Pixabay