Class war

Eight
years ago, a Siemens Communications product course lasted two weeks in the
classroom. Today it would last five times as long, thanks to increasingly
complex technologies and a wider range of applications. Tony Smailes is the man
challenged with bringing training back into the realm of the reasonable. By
Simon Kent

Tony
Smailes is bemused by the attention he has been receiving of late. The manager
of customer services performance development at Siemens Communications says,
“To me, this approach to training is just common sense.”

Nevertheless,
he has been invited to appear before a wide range of audiences to describe the
creation and implementation of his Training 2000 initiative.

Many
organisations are adopting computer-based training and on-line learning, but
few have approached the issue with such consideration and structure, many
preferring to grab whatever technology is around and ask questions about its
appropriateness later.

But
on-line learning represents just one of three prongs to Smailes’s approach
which aims to ensure any learning within Siemens has demonstrable benefits to
both the company and the individuals in it.

Increased
control

His
objectives are increased control of training activities, the creation of a
virtual training school, and the introduction of accreditation and
certification to workplace training.

One
of the major triggers for this initiative was Siemens’ continually expanding
training school. With around 25 classrooms and 20 teachers, Smailes watched as
increased product technical specifications and changes in the use of technology
steadily increased the amount of time his engineers and customer service staff
spent in the classroom.

In
one case, a product course that took only two weeks to complete eight years ago
has expanded by 400 per cent to accommodate the product’s new features and
uses.

“If
you go too far in that direction, you’ll get to the stage where employees are
off the road longer than they are on it,” says Smailes.

In
another move, the company made an investment of over £2m to give the 700
engineers in Smailes’s department top of the range lap-top computers with
CD-Rom and Internet connections, replacing the diverse and out of date models
they had been using. Not only had the engineers gained professional tools with
which to work, but they now had the technology to give them access to education
materials – through CBT or the Internet – wherever and whenever they desired.

Training
2000 will ultimately see all 3,000 UK employees linked up to the Virtual
Training School, managed and delivered via the company’s intranet.

Access
to the resource will be controlled by field managers and supervisors who are
able to view the current skill set of their team, match their skill needs to
the courses held at the school and sign staff up to the relevant courses.

Using
a training administration system from Snowdrop, Smailes is already using an IT
system built around the training function, rather than an HR system where
training is treated as an added extra.

Snowdrop
takes information from the HR database at the front end and will finally
deliver the resulting upgrade of skills among the workforce to the company’s
new SAP despatch system, ensuring that field managers can deploy the new skills
as soon as employees are trained.

Rigorous
testing

At
the same time, a scheme of rigorous testing will be introduced: pre-course,
immediately after the course and a few months down the line, ensuring training
is delivered effectively – the right skills to the right people who then use
them in the workplace.

Alongside
this an accreditation system has been designed which means each course
undertaken will count towards a Siemens Technology Certificate. Holders of the
certificate will have demonstrated competency in four areas – basic
telecommunications, PC skills, network technologies and Windows NT. They will
also have gained the externally recognised A Plus Certificate for the PC skills
discipline.

“When
I presented this structure to the personnel and customer services directors I
told them I needed them to agree to all three areas,” explains Smailes.

“It
wouldn’t work, for example, if we simply took the training control element and
certification, but ignored the establishment of the Virtual Training School.”

At
the same time, while training control and certification cost relatively little
money, the cost of the Virtual Training School could run to around a quarter of
a million pounds a year.

“No
company will invest that kind of money unless it sees tangible benefits. We
believe the VTS will limit the expansion of the training school, increase the
skills of those who work for us and bring down attrition rates. The company
will move towards being seen as the place for professional engineers to come and
work.”

The
first of these goals depends on the introduction and acceptance of
computer-based learning among Siemens’ employees. Rather than deliver courses
exclusively in the classroom, Smailes believes there are three areas where
computer delivery can be used instead.

Before
a course has even started, a trainee’s current skills can be assessed through a
CBT programme, which could also fill in gaps in knowledge and ensure each
trainee is ready to progress to the main class. When the tutor stands in front
of the trainees, they will be sure they all have the same level of knowledge,
maximising the effectiveness of each session.

The
second computer-based element comes mid-course when there may be elements of a
training course which can be delivered by computer rather than in the
classroom. By identifying these elements, course time can be reduced – two
weeks instructor-led, followed by three days of consolidation and improving
understanding via the VTS, before returning to the classroom for the final part
of the course.

Finally,
any additions and improvements made to a product will be covered by computer
delivered products rather than through increased classroom time.

“Initially
I am not looking to reduce the level of classroom training we deliver,” says Smailes.
“At first, the CBT we deliver will simply cover the additional skills our
employees need as products develop. All this will do is prevent the training
school from expanding any further. When we start prerequisite training we
should see a fall in training days required.”

Smailes
has estimated a 10 per cent reduction during the first year, followed by 20 per
cent the following year.

On-line
records

Siemens
is currently trialling elements of the system. Some field managers have been
given access to the VTS and an on-line record of the skill-set for their staff.

Within
the training school itself, products from NETg and SmartForce are being
assessed for content and delivery style.

While
Smailes can report enthusiasm from all concerned, implementation across the
organisation has been cautious for two reasons. First, access will not be
extended until the quality and worth of both the control system and the courses
have been proved among his own staff. Second, he believes that giving open
access to all supervisors and field managers would lead to complications.

“We
have around 60 people who could benefit from access. But if we gave them that
facility they would book their staff on every single course they could.”

This
observation indicates one aspect of the cultural issues raised by the
introduction of the VTS. At this stage Smailes has his work cut out keeping
people away from the system, but will this enthusiasm continue as the reality
of on-line delivery emerges? How will staff react to the replacement of residential
courses with activities to carry out either at home or in their own workplace?
How can Siemens ensure training delivered over an employee’s desktop is given
the importance – and time – it requires? If it means simply putting a “Do Not
Disturb” sign on the door can the organisation be sure such arrangements will
not be abused?

Rewards

Smailes
has yet to arrive at the answer to these questions, but he believes the
accreditation and certification programme is key to gaining employee buy-in. If
employees can see training is rewarded in some way – even through improving
their role within the organisation – they will be motivated to complete the
necessary courses.

At
the same time, training and development will begin to meet the company’s
strategic needs rather than the personal ambitions of an individual.

Whatever
the outcome, Smailes is ensuring the scheme is welcomed at all stages of
implementation, running discussion groups to decide the right approach for
introducing the system and ensuring all feedback from the current trial is
heard and responded to.

“I
want those testing the system at the moment to feel they are part of its
creation,” says Smailes. “There is no point in rolling out the system to
another group of 50 or 300 people if they are going to experience the same
problems as the original trial group.”

CV:
Tony Smailes

Apprenticeship
and 12 subsequent years in the RAF specialising in secure communications and
the design of trade training/testing for field service engineers.
1974 Joined GEC’s telecommunications arm responsible for apprenticeship
recruitment and training.
1979 Service management positions with GEC and GPT gaining field work
experience to bring to training discipline. Became business manager for GPT for
the south of UK.
1994 Creates Siemens GEC Training Services Unit.
1997 Head of a team looking at performance and development for Siemens
Communications.
1999 Submits “Training for the New Millennium” paper and asked to create what
becomes Training 2000
Also works with Kepner Tregoe delivering problem solving and decision making
workshops. Heads a division of the UK national charity “Young Enterprise”.

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