Training the real Net generation

As
you would expect from the company that lays claim to being the backbone of the
Internet, Cisco Systems’ training demands are huge. And it needs a learning
management system of equal proportions to cope, says Sue Weekes

Without
Cisco Systems we might not have the Internet we know today. It is, after all,
said to be the worldwide leader in networking for the Web, with technology used
to transport data, voice, video, and whatever else, around the world.

Even
if you hadn’t heard of Cisco a few years ago, the dotcom revolution took its
name beyond the boundaries of the computer industry, with its Golden Gate
Bridge logo popping up in advertisements for Internet-related companies. Just
as we learnt that PCs often had an pentium chip inside them, we quickly gleaned
that Internet companies, ventures and initiatives, often had Cisco behind them.

Cisco
was founded in 1984 by a group of computer scientists when the Internet
comprised only 1,000 host computers. Today it has nearly 38,000 employees
spread across 135 countries and an enviable employer brand – it is frequently
vaunted one of the best companies to work for by the likes of the Sunday Times
and Fortune magazine.

The
organisation practices what it preaches and was one of the first firms to use the
Net to conduct its business: its products have been sold via the Web since the
mid- to late 1990s and it uses the Internet to provide customer support and
manage finances.

The
Web-enabled approach also extends to its internal systems. Cisco added a vital
piece in the jigsaw at the end of last year when it completed the migration of
its legacy training applications to Saba Learning’s Enterprise Edition system.
The project has been launched across 60 Cisco training organisations and it
aims to deliver 12,000 course titles (spanning sales and technical and IT
training, plus leadership, management and personal development courses) to
38,000 learners in Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Asia Pacific and the US.

Massive
training needs

Cisco’s
training needs are massive, for a number of reasons. First, it can acquire
anything up to 25 companies a year which swells its workforce by 700 to 1,000
people a month, throwing up a constant need to integrate and train new staff.

As
well as employees, staff from its business or channel partners (of which there
are 1,000 currently active in the Europe, Middle East and Africa EMEA region)
and customers are given access to the Cisco e-learning system.

The
organisation also needs to keep up with the pace of technical development.
"Systems engineer knowledge needs updating regularly to keep up with
changes in Cisco solutions and the networking industry as a whole,"
explains training operations and delivery manager Rob Lisanti.

"Much
of the core training may be delivered through classroom-based events and it is
typical for product or technology updates to be disseminated through e-based
solutions such as IP TV, video on demand (VoD), or online White Papers. Upwards
of 40 per cent of the engineer’s time is spent on researching and updating
their technical knowledge using these delivery mediums."

Saba,
a people management and development software specialist, has been working with
Cisco for about four years. When it arrived on the scene, the networking giant
was using a rudimentary e-learning system it had developed, but it wasn’t
sufficiently robust or scalable to cope with the company’s demands.

Saba’s
challenge was a big one: to create a single, e-learning platform, supporting
multiple languages, that could deliver learning in a variety of content formats
across a growing population of employees, customers, suppliers and partners.
"The original infrastructure was made up of lots of different products
from different vendors. Gradually [since 1998], we’ve been replacing parts of
the system and rolling out more functionality," explains Saba
vice-president of alliances and marketing Mike Maunder.

The
backbone of the system is Saba’s Enterprise Edition learning management system,
designed to extend learning to customers and partners as well as employees.
Features include the ability to assign and track personalised learning plans
and certification programmes and to deliver and manage blended learning
experiences.

LMSs
continue to stir debate, and with some 169 available in the UK alone, picking
the right one can be a potential minefield. Some pundits doubt their
usefulness, although in a project like this, a sophisticated LMS is not only a
prerequisite but forms the nucleus and point of entry for the e-learning
programme. In the past two years, Cisco has logged 380,000 registrations and
sees 1,000 daily logins.

Reducing
costs

"Part
of the problem with learning management systems is confusion of the marketplace
and too many vendors claiming they cannot deliver," says Maunder.
"Organisations, too, have been somewhat naive, trusting in promises of
future delivery based on small pilots. Where organisations have approached the
marketplace with very definite business objectives and a thorough analysis of
the right product to fit their needs, there have been some successful
roll-outs. Cisco has reduced the cost across its learning infrastructure by 40
to 60 per cent while Procter and Gamble claim savings of $14m.

"And
in terms of its bad press, remember this is a very young market – one can draw
parallels with the ERP market in the early 1990s."

Although
the migration to Saba was a major task, Lisanti believes a lot of potential
pain was removed by thorough upfront planning by both sides. In particular,
they ensured that all legacy student training records and course descriptions
and schedules were automatically migrated to the new system at the beginning.

The
main problematical area, he says, was experienced by the training
administrators (of which there are 100 around the world) in how the system
handled financial transactions for external students (such as staff from
channel partners although these don’t necessarily have to pay for courses).

The
problems largely stemmed from the fact that they were migrating from an LMS
that had been built in-house, rather than from scratch. "If we were
starting with a clean sheet and using the process and systems as supplied in
the Saba product, this would not have been an issue," he says.

While
Lisanti is reticent about committing to a set of figures when it comes to
return on investment, overall the company believes the system has helped reduce
training costs by 40 per cent. What really excites him, though, is the fact
that it gives much faster access to training for everyone. "The main
strength of the new system is it provides a single portal for users to browse
all training provided by Cisco, globally, The true power of this is that users
can sign-up, particularly for e-learning offerings, and take training that
would otherwise have taken them weeks to locate and complete."

So,
as a member of a company that is so closely aligned with the Internet, does he
see a time when Web-based e-learning will have eclipsed the traditional
classroom? "Cisco is committed to making the most of the benefits the
Internet can bring to training delivery. We are definitely seeing a direct
replacement for instructor-led training taking place as the e-learning tools
and technologies grow," comments Lisanti.

"What
is also significant, however, is that overall training volumes are growing and
courses developers and content owners recognise a blended solution that uses
both classroom and e-learning is often the best way forward. Both have their
place, but certainly the emphasis on the full five-day residential class is
declining."

CISCO’s
Top tips


Good understanding of existing business processes and how this maps to what the
product offers


Technology should fit with existing ERP strategy


Have a high-level business champion and evangelise the benefits

In
summary
The CISCO  way

Cisco’s
requirement: To create a single, internet-based e-learning platform through
which all training would be accessed globally. It aims to deliver 12,000 course
titles to 38,000 learners in Europe, the Middle East, Japan, Asia Pacific and
the US.

Why?
Training is required for its own employees and a growing population of business
partners and customers. Its previous home-grown LMS was too rudimentary and it
needed a more sophisticated LMS to handle the job.

Is
e-learning delivering? Over the past two years, Cisco has logged 380,000
registrations on the system and there are 1,000 daily logins from learners.
Cisco claims it has helped reduce training costs by some 40 to 60 per cent.

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