Bring the Millennial workforce up to speed with hybrid learning environments that meet their needs.
Understanding the next generations' learning preferences is a key to creating classroom environments that engage the user and accelerate learning. To be successful you must design an innovative instructional framework that supports the Millennial generation's need for two-way dialogue and connections without constraints, while still providing structure, guidance, and practical knowledge gained through hands-on interactions.
In 2010, Cisco redesigned its Sales Associates Program to match the mindset of its emerging workforce. First implemented in 2001, the Cisco Sales Associates Program (CSAP) is a year-long curriculum of technical and sales professional training married to 14 connected global classrooms and 1,800 virtual learning experiences, including local, "in-person," on-the-job mentorships. The program is designed to provide young-in-career sales associates and engineers with the skills they need to become our next-generation leaders. During the course of the redesign, we learned valuable lessons about creating talent development experiences that deliver measurable results.
Onboarding new sales representatives is challenging for nearly every company, large or small. For Cisco, the task is particularly daunting since it hires hundreds of sales associates each year from all corners of the globe. These associates must get up to speed on Cisco's myriad products, technical solutions, and methodologies within a short time, so that they can start contributing to the bottom line.
More than 10 years ago, the company created CSAP with the goal of accelerating the onboarding process. The program initially was designed to follow a traditional instructor-led classroom experience requiring a physical classroom and instructor in each of the three geographic regions where Cisco had a presence. Additionally, program participants or associates were required to relocate to one of three global training hubs. Relocation costs, as well as living expenses throughout the life of the program, were covered by Cisco.
Realizing that this model was outdated and that the format was too labor and resource intensive to meet the current market demands, Cisco leadership decided to suspend the offering in early 2010. The learning and development team was charged with redesigning a more scalable and sustainable program that, in addition to reducing costs, would better resonate with the learning styles of young-in-career recruits. The only catch was that it had to be completed and ready for launch in four months in 18 time zones and 13 global sites, with 12 global training tracks running concurrently, and using a core team of only 23 employees.
We began with understanding the change management elements necessary to implement our program. A key component of this process was to define not only what a successful program looked like for Cisco's internal stakeholders and executives, but also to learn what type of program would attract and retain our ideal candidates.
The process consisted of a careful examination of the needs, motivational factors, and information-gathering preferences of our recruits. Since the vast majority of our associates are ages 22 to 25, we needed to make sure that our program messaging, curriculum, and format would resonate with the values of the Millennial generation.
We went into our program design process familiar with the stereotypical Millennial attributes. As the first generation in history to grow up fully immersed in connected, collaborative, social networks, they view technology as an inherent part of their interactions. They are endowed with the ability to multitask, which is often not shared by older generations. However, over the course of our development process, and as we became engaged with our associates, we learned four important lessons:
- Millennials seek an authentic experience. They want to roll up their sleeves on day one and "get in the game," not just stand on the sidelines and watch. They can spot a fake a mile away and have no trouble pointing it out to their peers.
- They possess a strong desire to work as a team on problems and projects that generate immediate results and are tied to larger organizational goals. They also like to see how what they are working on matters and how it fits into the big picture.
- They like to be heard and see immediate action being taking to correct an issue, and the more they can see their voices are heard, the more they contribute.
- They seek peer input, approval, and recommendations on all aspects of life. Peer-to-peer feedback, even in casual conversation, is important in their motivation and is a critical element in learning environments.
Based on our findings, we knew that a classroom-only format would fall well short of their needs and never generate the buzz and enthusiasm we needed to succeed.
Next, we needed to address the issue of program footprint. To reduce travel and relocation costs, we needed something that would allow us to connect multiple geographic locations while still providing the desired opportunities for team-based collaboration and exchange among participants. We also wanted a solution that would allow us to deliver a globally consistent experience while offering more flexibility and scalability than instructor-led classroom sessions. We found our solution in a combination of virtual delivery technologies such as real-time video conferencing, desktop web conferencing, collaboration, and remote access solutions.
Finally, to address the Millennial need for an "authentic experience," we created an on-the-job component that would allow for hands-on experience and mentoring while providing total immersion in the business.
As a result, we developed and launched a 52-week program that uses Cisco's technologies that provide a collaborative high-tech learning environment paired with a controlled high-touch on-the-job experience.
Cisco's learning team revised the curriculum and delivery systems, moving from a lecture format to one of interaction and dialogue. Using a blended (virtual and face-to-face) approach, the program begins with a three-month boot camp that covers a mix of foundational technical training and business acumen. This content comprises 86 modules ranging in duration from one to 10 days, and is delivered using a combination of self-directed learning, collaborative video-conferencing technologies, and role-playing activities.
There are five key learning framework elements for each module.
Asynchronous quick starts and video on demand. Prerecorded content mapped to the curriculum was developed to allow for self-directed learning. By accessing our learning library, students are able to gain knowledge of foundational concepts and materials at their own pace before those topics are introduced in detail in the classroom.
Synchronous virtual facilitation and peer-to-peer sessions. Using Cisco TelePresence video-conferencing technology, hybrid learning experiences were created consisting of a single instructor linked to multiple global classroom sites via video conference. Students can use TelePresence to interact with the instructor and with all the other students, allowing them to gain global perspectives on topics introduced. Additionally, Cisco WebEx and whiteboarding technologies were employed for interactive sharing of content, polling, surveying, and demonstrations by subject matter experts.
Virtual office hours. Mirroring real-world student-faculty interactions, virtual office hours were created to provide students with an opportunity to engage one-on-one with instructors and subject matter experts via video or desktop conferencing. During this time, a student can ask questions, walk through a technical review, or refresh key focus points covered in the classroom.
Milestone assessments and technical and business relevance exams. Using a specially designed performance measurement framework, associates are monitored throughout the program. This framework consists of a series of assessments, including role-playing activities designed to simulate client interactions, and virtual and written tests focused on behavior, technical skills, and knowledge.
Technical and business relevance exam debriefs. At the end of each module's testing cycle, learning gaps are identified for the group and post-exam debriefs are conducted by the instructors to reinforce content that was not clearly understood.
Upon completion of the boot camp, associates are moved into their business units where they will spend the next nine months gaining hands-on sales experience in parallel with their continued classroom learning. This on-the-job experience component is meant to reinforce the sales and technical competencies developed throughout the program, while allowing the associates to apply new skills in a controlled environment.
Rather than using a "watch and learn" job shadowing model, each associate is expected to take an active role in contributing to the bottom line of her team. Our "earn while you learn" model requires program participants to meet a quota during their on-the-job participation, allowing us to deliver an ROI to the business with no additional incremental cost after only 120 days of recruit engagement.
After successful completion of the 12-month program, associates have a solid foundation of technical, sales, and business experience, and are ready to assume full-time roles within the functional areas.
The 52-week development program demonstrates how blending high-tech collaborative technologies with traditional high-touch learning methodologies can provide a unique, yet globally consistent talent development experience, regardless of the culture or location of the participant.
As a result of our new framework, the CSAP has needed 40 percent fewer staff to execute than a traditional face-to-face classroom model, while reducing relocation costs by 50 percent due to program footprint. Our overall training costs have been reduced by 24 percent, and we are expected to realize more savings once the program reaches "steady state."
Early results show that this integrated program model has increased the speed at which associates become productive sales representatives. Many associates are outpacing veteran Cisco salespeople in their business contribution, according to internal metrics. Additionally, it is being forecasted that these associates will be 10 percent more efficient than graduates of years past.
Most important, our associates rave about their learning experience, calling the program "rigorous and comprehensive training," a "career accelerator," and "a great roadmap for transitioning successfully from school to a fulfilling career."
Our next step will be to launch a pilot program to 30 of our Cisco Partners, allowing us to use our proven system of accelerated learning to assist with recruiting and educating their workforce-ready talent.
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