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What AT&T’s Corporate Training Revolution, Japanese History and a Cucumber Mean for the New Era of Learning

L&D Talent Management

Imagine creating a business, scaling it into a global behemoth, and then discovering that it has to change the very core of what it does — or risk going extinct.

That’s the position AT&T found itself in over the last few years, as new technologies are steadily wiping out the traditional telecom business.

“With its industry moving from cables and hardware to the internet and the cloud, AT&T is in a sprint to reinvent itself,” the Harvard Business Review reported. The article was co-written by John Donovan, AT&T’s chief strategy officer

For AT&T, the reinvention is fundamental. The Dallas-based corporation is transitioning from being primarily a telecom company to primarily a cloud computing company.

This could have meant mass layoffs and entirely new hires.  But instead, the company took a different route. “Rather than hiring new talent wholesale, AT&T has chosen to rapidly retrain its current employees while striving to engender a culture of perpetual learning,” the Harvard Business Review article added.

That choice presented its own huge challenge.

‘The pivot is happening’

Robert Koehler, the lead consultant in HR technology at AT&T University  (the company’s flagship development program), describes the company’s undertaking as an “enterprise-wide skills pivot, which redefines jobs, roles, methods and skills currently in use.”

“The pivot is happening because there’s danger,” Koehler told a packed crowd of learning professionals at the ATD International Conference and Exposition, a three-day event that drew 10,000 people from 78 countries.

All kinds of businesses are realizing they must evolve because the landscape for how they operate is changing so rapidly, Koehler said.  For his employer, the message was clear: “Things have got to change within AT&T to continue to be competitive.”

When top brass call for it, change happens

Another key factor for AT&T was that top executives specifically called for this change.

“There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop,” CEO Randall Stephenson told The New York Times, sharing the message he has given employees. The article’s stark headline read, “Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else.”

Stephenson made clear he expected learning to become a sizeable chunk of work time.  He told the Times that people who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning “will obsolete themselves with the technology.”

To make this transition work, AT&T announced a commitment to training unlike anything in its history.

“In 2016 we delivered training to 250,000-plus employees, who in turn accomplished 13,143,361 completions and over 2,325,871 student days via 542,454 enrollments,” Koehler announced during his session at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The company’s new program has made waves in the learning industry.

This year’s Global Human Capital Trends report by Deloitte cited it when calling on chief learning officers to deliver “learning solutions that inspire people to reinvent themselves, develop deep skills, and contribute to the learning of others. The goal is a learning environment adapted to a world of increased employee mobility. Interdisciplinary skills development is critical … Learning should encourage, and even push, people to move across jobs.”

The report noted that “since 2013, AT&T has invested $250 million in education and development programs,” and “now offers a wide range of online learning opportunities and encourages employees to find new jobs, seek out mentors, and learn new technologies.”

Personalization is ‘spine-tingling’

Despite the scale, AT&T’s strategy was designed around individuals. It’s called PLE, for Personal Learning Experience, a platform that aggregates development initiatives. “This unified platform will enable workforce planning, talent management and learning strategies to seamlessly align and transform together,” Koehler explained at the conference in Atlanta.

This design is a response to the “writing on the social, cultural and professional wall – trends in evidence everywhere,” including the increases in micro-learning, use of video and mobile, gamification and game-based learning, as well as adaptive learning, Koehler said.

“Importantly, we were seeing evolution in daily life. People learning at a high rate, in a new way, and showing accomplishment, motivation, involvement, and excitement. Any teacher would be thrilled to see those characteristics in learners.  Self-starting, passionate, and discriminating, motivating and immediate.”

“Importantly, we were seeing evolution in daily life.  People learning at a high rate, in a new way, and showing accomplishment, motivation, involvement, and excitement.  Any teacher would be thrilled to see those characteristics in learners.  Self-starting, passionate, and discriminating, motivating and immediate.”

There’s a level of trust that goes with this new era of learning, he said.  By making materials available, rather than following traditional classroom methods, businesses are telling employees, “We trust you.”
“We trust them to guide their own learning experience, to tell us when it is difficult or confusing, and to ask for help when needed,” Koehler said. “It’s a new distribution of power and responsibility, and an investment in the learning process and the learner that is daring, insightful, and empowering. I find it spine-tingling.”

Make it engaging

For personal learning experiences to work, Koehler emphasized, the materials have to be engaging.

One example, he said, is a YouTube video about Japanese history, brought to him by his son, a senior in high school.  In just over a year, this video has racked up more than 28 million views.

It’s not that the style of this should or should not be copied, Koehler said.  The video is “very visual” and “full of humor,” but also “somewhat ragged,” and some people may find parts of it offensive. Still, it’s extremely successful in delivering its message. In seven minutes, on their own time, millions of people have gained insights into Japanese history.

Another favorite example of Koehler’s lasts less than a  minute.  It’s a rap about the many potential uses for a cucumber. In a couple of months, it’s racked up more than 360,000 views.

These videos are examples of a burgeoning trend of successful and enjoyable communication, Koehler said.  Businesses can learn from this trend and utilize the many tools available today to create fun, memorable and effective learning content.

Create options for everyone

Training and development initiatives are not just for upper-level staff, and not just for intellectual topics, Koehler added. There should be options in the learning ecosystem to help everyone advance. And there should be efforts to get people at all levels, in all departments, excited about training.

“When you get up in the morning, you have to bring your motivation, your inspiration, and apply it to people,” he told the attendees.

Learning professionals should use every tool at their disposal to reach far and wide throughout their organizations so that as many people as possible take part, Koehler said.  “You’ve got to know the multiple levels of influence it takes to move individuals and groups into a position in which they want to do this.”

Getting the funding

Of course, not every company has top execs already on board with the idea of revolutionizing learning culture to meet new demands.

To get things moving, learning professionals will need to prove value.  That can be tricky, because businesses have traditionally looked for return on investments through creating things that are sold externally, Koehler said, adding:

“If you submit a business case to someone and say, ‘This is what we’ve got, there’s $15 million we can bring back to the company,’ the finance experts may say, ‘That’s zero — because it’s not going out and being sold to anyone. It isn’t literally generating revenue.’”

The key is to show in a clear, concise way how this approach to developing pragmatic skills will drive business success, Koehler said. It also means understanding “funding windows” and deliverables. “In this environment, you can be funded in January and defunded in October. And that’s occasionally based merely on perception. People may come in from an executive ‘island’ and say, ‘Oh, I talked to Joe Blow and he said you’re really not using this money, so I’m going to take it and put it in my own project.’”

So, Koehler said, “sharpening your negotiating skills is important.”

Evangelize the effort

Even once an initiative is going, it takes work to make sure those who can best push it forward understand what it’s all about, Koehler warned. “Don’t assume that just because you know the process and its benefits, that leadership does and that your evangelists do.”

He encouraged the crowd to “engineer” learning programs for those potential evangelists so that they feel safe participating and getting to know it.

To chuckles from the crowd, Koehler compared this idea to parents who teach their children.  Too often, parents aren’t fully appreciated “until after they’re dead,” he said. “You need to make your businesses appreciate you while you’re alive!”

Big work for big reward

Koehler, who has been with the company for 18 years, said PLE is replacing “years of embedded, customized, legacy technology across AT&T with a unified personal learning solution that will grow and change with the company.”

But the work, done by so many people across different units, is well worth it. Because ultimately, it’s about tapping the brain power of the workforce. Learning leads people to innovate and create the strongest possible business.

The ultimate success, he said, comes when an employee who spent time learning goes home at the end of the day. “After dinner, they sit down and think, ‘You know what would work? You know what we could do?’”

Each time that happens, he said, a business is given a new idea that can transform it for the better. “Someone dreamed it for you,” Koehler said with a smile. “That’s great.

“A great thing about humanity is that, on occasion, people go outside themselves based on inspiration,” he said.  “You create something, and life gets better.”

Categories: L&D Talent Management
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