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In 2010 Chief Learning Officer magazine’s inaugural LearningElite benchmarking and recognition program evaluated organizations to determine which one did learning best, and in March 2011 judges awarded AT&T the top spot.

AT&T’s elite learning status has been a long time in the making, however. The company has always placed a high premium on learning. While economies worldwide were slowing down at the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, and other organizations were cutting learning and development budgets, AT&T’s learning and development activities sped up.

At that time a merger with BellSouth made AT&T the nation’s dominant phone company, controlling more than half of the telephone and Internet access lines in the U.S. The two companies had a history of working together when they built Cingular Wireless and YellowPages.com, but with an influx of additional talent, AT&T executives saw a need for company-wide learning to solidify its status as a strong national and global competitor.

“In 2008 we recognized that what got us here is not going to get us there,” said Cynthia Brinkley, senior vice president of talent development and chief diversity officer of AT&T. “We knew the only way to really succeed is through investment in our people and through their learning and development.”

Brinkley’s position was created in 2008 to integrate four primary responsibilities — leadership and talent development, AT&T University, learning services and workforce development, and diversity. In 2009 the company put its money where its mouth is and invested $244 million in employee learning and development programs and an additional $27 million in tuition reimbursement for 9,800 employees — 49 percent were women and 54 percent were persons of color.

Support for Learning

Leading with Distinction (LwD) is the umbrella program under which all of the company’s leadership and strategic alignments take place. In the past year the program has been delivered globally to more than 105,000 managers at all levels of the organization through AT&T’s Virtual Management Summit, a conference with keynotes, workshops and opportunities for employees to network and collaborate with peers, leaders and experts. At the executive and senior leader levels, the leadership development emphasis is on strategy. At the mid- and front-line management levels, the focus is strategic and operational.

AT&T’s elite learning strategy aligns closely with individual business units’ learning needs. Having members of the learning organization participate in client strategy meetings to understand the stakes focuses their efforts on mission-critical roles and leadership characteristics that will promote business growth and capabilities. An advisory board of 14 officers from across the enterprise provides guidance to ensure continued alignment with business strategies prior to any program’s rollout.

Satisfaction surveys are completed and tabulated after each learning session, and the advisory board and chairman discuss potential program improvements. For instance, needs revealed in 2009 survey results led to the 2010 Virtual Management Summit.

Leadership support for all major learning initiatives enables the organization to align programs with leadership expectations and to ensure appropriate resources and attention are available from development to delivery. According to Brinkley and Lew Walker, AT&T’s vice president of learning services, consistent support from executives is part of what makes the organization’s learning strategy elite. Prior to launching any large-scale development effort, the learning leadership team meets with each HR vice president and his or her staff to share strategy, gather feedback and gain buy-in and support.

“Leaders from different business units help set the tone and provide information and strategic direction on what they need to get the training accomplished,” Walker said. “We’re able to go back and have this immediate dialogue with learning counsels and other clients to make sure we’re meeting their expectations in terms of the type of training they want and the deliverables we have to have.

“We’re very blessed to have leaders up and down the organization that understand the importance of training. We’ve always been able to get the type of financial support but also mental support and commitment we need to be successful.”

Senior leaders are not the only ones offering support for the company’s learning efforts. AT&T conducted a company-wide employee engagement survey in 2010 and overall feedback on learning and development came in strong. Survey results from business units down to the individual director level prompted action plans, which are being implemented now. For groups that had lower results, additional learning initiatives have been executed since January 2011.

“A company is made up of people,” Brinkley said. “People are the ones who make the decisions, answer the phones in call centers and put in the U-verse televisions. If you invest in your people, since they’re the ones delivering results, you’re going to have a return on that investment. Our company is focused on innovation, but people drive that. Investing in them, giving them the tools to make that happen, creating a culture of learning and innovation, that’s what it’s all about.”

Learning for the People

To keep up with rapid growth and change, AT&T has inculcated learning and development into the organization’s culture to keep every employee attentive and actively involved in transformation.

“Take our learning organization that supports mobility, for example,” Brinkley said. “They have a seat at the executive table. They know about devices that will hit the market months before the devices actually hit the shelf. They work with the rest of the business and device manufacturers to develop the training, and that training is mandatory for all of those involved with that product. This training is offered in different ways: Web-based, webinars, job aids, coaching tools, and again, it’s required.

“Last year we received the highest J.D. Power award for customer satisfaction. If you peel back the onion, that credit is due to the training and learning efforts that were in place.”

The magnitude of the organization’s commitment to learning is echoed by the scale of its operations. All managers have an opportunity to build critical leadership skills online and in learning centers through the AT&T University program. They also have access to a range of self-development resources through a virtual resource center, can participate in continuous skill-training programs and can receive tuition reimbursement. In 2009 AT&T’s tuition program assisted more than 9,800 candidates. There are 22,000 course completions every day through the organization’s learning platforms, and the total employee training hours by head count is more than 30 million each year.

“Although the amount of time spent in training is very important to us, we recognize that when people are sitting in training, they’re not helping advance AT&T, whether it’s selling our devices, handling a customer or building our network,” Walker said. “We’re looking to explore generational learning technology to find the right tools to create training that’s more efficient and increase the student’s ability to absorb information quicker.”

To that end the company has begun to explore how to increase mental assets in the workforce. AT&T recently partnered with Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas, to understand neuroplasticity — the ability to learn and relearn.

Research from BrainHealth shows that after college, the workplace is largely responsible for neuroengineering the mind. AT&T will implement pilot studies that pay particular attention to learners’ strategic attention, integrated reasoning and innovative thinking, and focus on how employees can retain as much information as possible.

“When you have 5,000 employees in a classroom every day and 22,000 courses completed daily, everything is continuous and on a large scale,” Brinkley said. “This gives us a great opportunity to revolutionize the corporation and industry in terms of how we learn and look at things. We’re always looking to get people to learn in the shortest amount of time possible, yet have the greatest retention. Science can show us how to do that.”

AT&T’s strategy to use employees as brain study subjects as it pilots some learning techniques with BrainHealth is part of a long-term view of what might be necessary to prepare the workforce of the future.

Learning With 20/20 Vision

Tomorrow’s workforce will demand more personalization, flexibility and transparency on the job. Further, while the demand for highly skilled workers is increasing, learning leaders also must consider that the availability of workers in the U.S. with the right skills is dropping.

In response, AT&T created a 20/20 vision platform focused on the intersection between its current business, HR trajectories and tomorrow’s workforce trends, using three lenses: attracting, developing and engaging employees. A cross-functional HR task force of 10 members was assembled to examine trends and their implications as the company plans for the future, and each trend is examined through the aforementioned three lenses.

“The 20/20 vision [platform] was created for us to internally recognize the right training platforms for the future,” Walker said. “For example, we know leader-led training is not going away, but we want to know if there is technology we can use to expand or enhance that strategy.”

AT&T leaders are also boosting the company’s employment value proposition and addressing the re‐skilling and growth of employees by strengthening the organization’s relationship with its business partners on learning and development projects.

“Innovation and being innovators in the area of learning with new technologies and new techniques, bringing those to scale across our enterprise, is something we’ve been able to do very well,” Brinkley said. “We’re humbled and appreciate the recognition we’ve gotten for that effort. More importantly, our employees are very excited about that.”

Ladan Nikravan is associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@clomedia.com.