Friday, August 1, 2008

Atlas of Learning

In ancient Greek mythology, the Titan Atlas held up the entire world on his shoulders. A modern-day Atlas in his own right, Jan Ginneberge, vice president of learning at Alcatel-Lucent University, supports his company's learning offerings around the world.

Most major companies today operate outside of the borders of their home countries on some level. Modern supply chains, international finance and offshore outsourcing labor arrangements offer increased speed, more cost-savings opportunities and greater market reach to enterprises of all kinds. Thus, despite the often unpredictable nature of doing so, the lure of growing the business by venturing overseas is too lucrative for most organizations to pass up.

But is is likely that few multinationals can claim to have the extensive global character of telecommunications provider Alcatel-Lucent. The company does about one-third of its business in Europe, one-third in North America and one-third throughout the rest of the world. Its values include respect for and embrace of all peoples and perspectives, and its corporate vision is simply: "Transforming the way the world communicates."

Alcatel-Lucent's workforce numbers 77,000 people worldwide. The global nature of the organization influences its approach to talent and how it's developed, said Jan Ginneberge, vice president of learning at Alcatel-Lucent University, who is responsible for all employee training, ranging from technology to managerial and leadership programs.

"If you're working in 130 countries and you have people from different nationalities, it's not only having a global presence, it's also having this distribution of nationalities," he explained. "If you look at the difference between us and other companies that have a global presence, you'll see that we have this global talent pool. We have 21 [corporate] universities across the globe, from Ottawa to Brazil and Sydney to Shanghai. This scope gives us enormous coverage. The distribution of our employees follows the distribution of our customers."

Under the current learning structure, all of these corporate universities report to Ginneberge, who is based at Alcatel-Lucent's headquarters in Paris. But most of them have a large degree of autonomy in terms of how they manage allotted resources and determine the development needs of employees and customers locally.

"On the one hand, we have initiatives where people in this function or that responsibility have mandatory training," Ginneberge said. "But all of our training is run in a self-service, subscription mode, where people subscribe to training online. It's essentially a decision made by employees and their managers, based on geography, function or initiative."

To deliver content to approximately 2,000 personnel around the world every day, the company relies on a combination of instructor-led training and e-learning. More than one-third of Alcatel-Lucent's employee development is delivered through virtual means, Ginneberge said.

"If you look at the hours spent in training by the employee population, a bit more than 35 percent is done online, be it individual learning or Web-conferencing format. We want to promote online learning. It has an impact on the cost of ownership, but it also has an impact on our reach. We can reach many more people through online learning because it's flexible, and we're a geographically dispersed organization."

It was not always this way. When the Belgium-educated Ginneberge first joined the organization in 1986, it was ITT. It became Alcatel shortly thereafter and grew rapidly throughout the 1990s via business expansion and a series of acquisitions. It merged with North American telecom firm Lucent Technologies in late 2006, thereby arriving at the current corporate structure.

Ginneberge himself cycled through a number of different roles in HR and talent development prior to becoming the head of Alcatel University earlier this decade.

"I have been in the same organization, but it's had different configurations," he said.

Not surprisingly, Ginneberge has faced a number of significant challenges in delivering learning as the company has grown. One of these was expanding the amount of online learning. In 2000, the company had just 7 percent of its employee-development programs online.

"We gradually moved more after building a single LMS at the former Alcatel," he said. "We were able to increase online learning to 12 percent. And just before the merger with Lucent, it was at about 22 percent. Everything was done in steps. That's our challenge: How do we include the new technologies and new ways of working in learning? We invest quite a lot to make sure people have what they need to work and learn.

"It's not just on the delivery side. The other challenges is on the receiving end. How do you get learners who are prepared to manage the times and locations of learning? That requires more discipline from learners in a classroom, who have already set a time and place aside for learning and nothing else."

Along with the constant challenge of growing e-learning, when the merger with Lucent was announced in 2006, Ginneberge was called upon to help lay the groundwork for the move. The biggest issue was time: Ginneberge and his team were tasked with bringing Alcatel's entire sales force up to speed on the new suite of products that would result.

"In two days, we trained 11,000 sales and sales support personnel on the new portfolio," he said. "That was a contribution that was very impactful."

Additionally, he moved new learning programs and processes into the unified organization. One of these is a structure of learning consultants who delve into the business to determine what learning needs exist.

"They go and listen to business issues and try to transfer them into learning solutions," Ginneberge said. "We have a contact matrix, and we're connecting with all the key players by function, region and business to make sure we get close to where their needs are. That's a key connecting point that's been proven very successful in a post-merger environment, where not everybody knows who's who. When you integrate teams, roles and responsibilities change."

Also, Ginneberge adapted an integrated talent development program for high-level employees at Alcatel for the merged company. This includes coaching, 360-degree evaluations, online business games and simulations. The efficacy of this initiative was measured by comparing a control group that wasn't developed and a group that was. Proportionally, the percentage of promotions was double in the developed group versus the undeveloped group.

Along with these formal metrics, the program has shown its value as a promotional tool for the learning organization.

"Having developed much of the talent promoted to executive level, we've got quite a number of relationships with leaders who've had a great experience with Alcatel-Lucent University," Ginneberge said. "That's clearly contributed to Alcatel-Lucent University as a brand inside the company."

At the moment, Ginneberge is focused on developing the key competencies needed to make the company run optimally and provide it with a competitive advantage. One of the proficiencies that has been identified as especially critical is project management.

"Let's say we're running large rollouts of wireless networks for customers, and one of those customers announces they'll be giving 3G service or have IPT (IP telephony] on their network," Ginneberge said. "If we want to avoid damaging the credibility of that customer, the project managers' skills in those areas are key. So now we have to qualify those project managers.

"We asked ourselves, 'How can we get the right capabilities and credibility in the company to run these large integration and IT transformation projects?' We started with a project-manager qualification track to have certified project managers and project directors who could move into the market. The first layer is PMI (Project Management Institute), but we have an internal accreditation mechanism, where we review their accomplishments, qualify them and screen them."

In addition to competencies, Ginneberge aims to improve the accessibility of learning for Alcatel-Lucent's global population of employees and customers.

"The tagline of Alcatel-Lucent is, 'Because the world is always on,'" he said. "We're going for an 'always on' learning environment for our employees. That's what we're actively working on for the second half of 2008."

This objective isn't all that surprising for an organization that places so much emphasis on having an international nature.

"The fact that we are multinational, multicultural and multilingual is very much appreciated by our customers and employees," Ginneberge said. "This mix of employees clearly brings the assets of seeing things in a different way and looking for alternatives. This global environment gives us a way of working that's different from a local company, but it's addictive. If people work for truly global companies, they want to stay in global companies."

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