"You never have enough money to do all the training you want to do," says Karie Willyerd, vice president and chief learning officer at Sun Microsystems.
Sun releases a product or an update every day around which training could be built; but putting out a new program or module daily - even with a learning staff of more than 300 - is impossible. Plus, in this era of cost containment, every training dollar must be stretched to the limit to achieve maximum efficiency. These concerns have driven innovation in learning at Sun, and SLX (Social Learning eXchange) is chief among these innovations.
"When the sales division reduced training hours and budget, our learning organization needed to get strategic," Willyerd says. "We needed to solve both an operational problem (sales teams didn't have the information they needed when they needed it) and a business problem (as a result, sales professionals were not as successful as we'd like in closing sales)."
Further, theirs was a moving (and expensive) target audience. Sun employees are geographically dispersed, with more than 50 percent working from home, in regions around the globe. Observing Web 2.0 popularity, increased peer-to-peer information sharing among its employees, and sales team demand for learning in the field, Sun Learning Services (SLS) met learners where they already were - informally finding and sharing information in any medium, often through their cell phones.
Leveraging open-source technology and the company's culture of innovation, SLS created SLX, a YouTube-like collaborative multimedia portal where employees can post, view, rate, tag, share, or download content to a computer or MP3 player. "The technology came along at the same time as our need for it," Willyerd says.
SLX was rolled out virally. Beta testing among 1,500 employees generated a stealthy buzz. High-profile internal bloggers talked it up. SLS engaged internal influencers and sought their feedback. After one official announcement, with prizes for best content, it was all word-of-mouth. The intuitive user interface made training for SLX unnecessary.
In its first seven months, SLX garnered more than 5,000 pieces of media uploaded, more than 47,000 unique users in 146 countries, and more than 300,000 page views. "Now the same environment that makes the personal lives of our employees fun and cool helps them succeed at a given task or their job overall," says Willyerd. SLX has since been turned into a product for sale.
Willyerd was hired as Sun's first CLO in 2005. Her first task - to turn around Sun University, which offered no sales, technical, or external training, and consisted of 12 different legacy organizations. As a chargeback operation, the key to generating revenue at Sun University was simply to offer popular courses that people wanted to take, such as the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People."
"There was no place to go but up with employee learning," says Willyerd, who immediately shut down all of those courses. She then began building an organization that only offered training that aligned with the strategic intent and purpose of the company. "It was a heart-pounding time. It was hard to sleep at night for the first six to 12 months," she says.
Now, employee learning and development is represented at the highest levels within Sun (Willyerd is counted among the company's top 50 executives), and her global learning organization is a respected profit center. If SLS were a stand-alone training organization, it would be among the world's largest. In FY 2008, SLS exceeded all annual financial goals, surpassed global revenue goals four quarters in a row, and achieved 6 percent year-over-year revenue growth.
Annual company goals drive annual SLS goals; Willyerd works with Sun's CEO and other top executives to define business requirements and learning. SLS team members engage in formal strategic planning with key business unit leaders and the CEO at a two-day, annual Strategy Summit, where a rolling three-year strategic plan is updated with critical learning and business goals at departmental and corporate levels.
A program management office manages and tracks all programs, projects, processes, tools, and more, maintaining the information on a wiki so that any SLS employee can check it at any time. A finance and reporting team measures training function management and program effectiveness, individually and at an aggregated level based on companywide metrics.
Learning has helped to drive a dramatic turnaround in revenue and profitability through the creation of sales training programs, most notably Storage University, which generated nearly $500 million in revenue in 12 months. Storage U is a groundbreaking, three-phase sales accreditation program that requires learners to demonstrate comprehension of learning content (product and services coursework), application of learning (demonstrating skills through peer and customer presentations), and validation of impact by documenting results (closing a sale). Participants can earn accreditation at three levels: advocate, specialist, and expert.
Storage U leverages just-in-time, peer-authored content delivered with Web 2.0 technologies. To prepare for their presentations, candidates can download slide shows narrated by the company's top sales performer. The web-based "win report" learners submit to document closed sales, along with training records, is reviewed by a peer board that approves or rejects the sale.
ROI evidence is incontrovertible: The $2.25 million development cost of Storage U was covered by the first three sales. Its program budget has now been quadrupled to extend the model to all sales divisions worldwide, and Sales University, an umbrella role-based accreditation program for all sales personnel, was created.
"We are methodically developing our sales professionals in terms of their skills and their careers, ultimately driving engagement, retention, productivity, and job satisfaction as well as significant revenue," Willyerd says.
Employee satisfaction is a key metric for Sun, and one that SLS has worked to improve. "Our survey data demonstrate a strong positive correlation between opportunities for skill development and employee engagement levels," says Willyerd. Learning 2.0 initiatives have received a strong response from employees, who enjoy blogs, wikis, Facebook groups, Second Life, and Twitter as learning tools. MyLearning is a new single-sign-on portal where employees can access all formal and informal learning content; and can use widgets to personalize their pages with favorite resources and co-worker profiles.
To keep up with demand for learning, SLS has tried to reduce the time required to deploy new initiatives. The team has worked on making content more modular, trying to avoid prerequisite content between modules, and dividing content into nuggets as small as possible. Increasingly, the team engages subject matter experts to create content for internal audiences. SLS provides guidelines, coaching, and tools to capture information quickly. They then package content, post it to the learning management system, and map it to audience-specific learning paths.
Willyerd views all of these successes with mixed emotions: pride and "a tinge of sadness." Oracle Corporation has announced plans to purchase Sun, and SLS will be assimilated into multiple Oracle organizations. t+d