From the Magazine, Profile
Learning on the Line
As AT&T transforms its business, John Palmer is ensuring that learning plays a central role in the move to a fully digital future.
When John Palmer finished his bachelor’s program in 1999 at Baylor University with a degree in communications, he didn’t know where his career would take him. The Colleyville, Texas native heard promising things about what was then Southwestern Bell Corp. and how the regional phone company treated its people. So, he took a job at its Texas call center in Odessa.
Palmer said the West Texas oil town wasn’t his first choice. But there he got to work with people who spent much of their professional lives with the company. These people — a number of whom had spent as many as 20 years at the call center — had a passion for the telephone company and the work, he said.
“That immediately solidified my hopes that I would have a lifelong career here at AT&T,” said Palmer, who today is the senior vice president and chief learning officer for AT&T, which emerged following SBC’s acquisition of the company in 2005.
Over the course of his career with the company, Palmer has watched products and services like caller ID and voice messaging emerge. He was part of the planning, launch and support for AT&T’s multiservice product U-verse in 2006. In all, he’s been there as the company moved from landline to wireless and digital, and all the while, the company’s learning evolved to meet and deliver on its new capabilities.
“When I look at where we are today versus where we were 20 years ago, we have taken leaps and bounds to change the way people learn,” Palmer said.
Previously, training was longer and more often than not it was instructor-led and not nearly as engaging. Today, training at AT&T exists in many forms. Palmer said that a decade ago, leaders realized that in order to grow and compete, they would need to reenvision how they taught employees. When Randall Stephenson became CEO and chairman of AT&T in 2007, he brought with him a focus to align the workforce around a common culture, strategy and priorities. By then the company had doubled in size following the acquisitions of AT&T, BellSouth and Cingular. About five years ago, with data usage on the company’s network skyrocketing, it embarked on an ambitious plan to further transform what historically was a phone company into a digital-first enterprise. As Senior Executive Vice President of Human Resources Bill Blase and Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan found that the workforce lacked the skills needed for the transformation, the vision ignited an organizationwide effort, Workforce 2020, to retool the company’s nearly 265,000 employees. Coding capabilities were just some of the skills needing development among AT&T’s workforce.
“We knew that engaging and reskilling our current employee base to bring them along was the right thing to do for many reasons — not least of which was providing those who have helped to build AT&T an opportunity to grow and succeed along with the company,” Blase said.
The vision — to transform AT&T into a fully digital company using cloud technology to deliver many of its services like internet, TV and phone — goes to show the distance telecommunications has traveled. “Telecom today means much more today than it did 20 or 30 years ago,” said technology analyst and author Jeff Kagan.
The marketplace continues to expand into areas like artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, cloud technology and virtual reality. Kagan said Dallas-based AT&T is a leader, doing what it has to in order to thrive in a market where its competitors increasingly look less like traditional phone companies and operate more like Amazon. “Companies have a choice,” he explained. “They can either lead, follow or get out of the way. AT&T thinks quickly. They lead the charge. They transform industries. Then other companies follow them.”
Palmer said reskilling work isn’t confined to AT&T’s technology-focused roles. It includes people in every discipline at the company, including marketing, finance and human resources. Workforce 2020 touches all lines of AT&T’s business, and it approaches reskilling in a variety of ways: With a new learning management system that centralizes all of the company’s e-learning; through a portal that helps employees map out their careers and understand the skills and training needed; and via partnerships with e-learning companies like Udacity and institutions such as Georgia Tech.
Or, there’s the Personal Learning Experience platform, which launched this year. The platform allows employees to plan, access, view, manage and track their learning. It also allows them to search for jobs based on their current competencies.
Using the company’s Career Intelligence tool, workers can plot out their career, Blase said. Through it, employees can find out which jobs are experiencing increasing demand, where they are located, the potential for the role, what skills are needed for it and what steps they need to take to close any learning gaps. Palmer and his team have mapped training curriculums to every role in the organization, so an employee will know exactly what learning is needed for a specific job. With that information, employees can use the portal to actively manager their careers.
In 2013, AT&T teamed up with Georgia Tech and Udacity to offer an online master’s degree in computer science as a means to develop future tech talent but also to equip its own employees with critical skills for their business. AT&T invested $2 million to help launch the program, and this spring more than 4,000 students were enrolled in the program — a tenfold increase since its 2014 start. That includes 400 AT&T employees. The program costs about $7,000. AT&T offers tuition to its own workers who enroll.
Palmer said that in 2016, the company spent roughly $250 million on employee training and delivered 20 million hours of training to workers. It also provided nearly $34 million in tuition aid for employees pursuing learning outside of AT&T.
With the industry in an almost constant state of transformation due to technological advances, learning and development remains a top focus at AT&T, Blase said. Workforce 2020 is simply the latest and perhaps the most expansive manifestation of the company’s belief in the value of learning.
“This has been a huge effort and a huge partnership across our entire corporation. It’s not just an HR program,” Palmer explained. “Our goal is to make sure our employees understand that their skillsets are continuously transforming as our technologies, our networks and our products and services are transforming.”
Further, Blase said AT&T is doing everything it can to ensure people who want to advance their careers at the company have the tools they need to do so. “Reskilling is not mandatory, but we value it highly. Those who do not participate may be limiting their career options.”
Employees who engage in the program can apply their new skills in their current positions or use them to transition to a new one. Palmer and his team also launched what they call a skills pivot program to help facilitate the career advancement some employees seek. If an employee meets certain requirements, they are deemed a skills pivoter — a label the company’s staffing team considers as it recommends candidates for jobs across the organization. Palmer said that a year into executing the skills pivot program, he’s found that employees with this designation are two times more likely than non-pivoters to get new jobs with the company and four to five times more likely to receive promotions.
“There’s two huge motivations why employees would engage … to be more relevant in their existing job or to get that next job that they’re seeking,” Palmer said.
Ensuring that learning and development at AT&T continues to deliver for the company and its workers requires Palmer to prioritize program usability, content relevance and training accessibility. He said he’s thinking about how to drive effortless engagement with content, understanding that employees have limited time outside of work.
Driving that kind of engagement has involved auditing and simplifying the company’s suite of learning products to make sure the targeted curriculum suggested to workers is what they need. Putting learning in one place also will help. Before the Personal Learning Experience platform launched — Palmer calls it a one-stop shop for training — employees had more than a dozen places to access learning.
He is also making sure that learning is accessible to workers wherever they are, at all hours. In addition to efforts to virtualize all instructor-led training, AT&T’s learning function is focused on making training more digestible — taking traditional, web-based courses that may be hours long and breaking them down into smaller video training modules, for instance. As Palmer prioritizes content curation, he said his team is ensuring learners consume the most relevant information by monitoring how they rate content. “If learners are going to commit their time, then we have to make sure that it’s as relevant and effective as possible.”
Two things drive his continued commitment to AT&T. Palmer calls them “the what” and “the how.” “What we do has always been extremely exciting and extremely innovative,” he explained. The “how” is an even greater part of that loyalty. “It’s how we treat employees on a daily basis, how we communicate to them in a transparent manner to let them know how our company’s changing and how much they’re valued, and how much we’re willing to invest in people.”