With employees in more than 170 countries, IBM’s learning function may be called upon to provide learning at any time. This could involve anyone from a newly promoted sales manager in Bangalore, India, to on-boarding support for a recent graduate in Sao Paulo.
As a result, the fabric of IBM’s learning operation must be equipped with a strategic vision capable of addressing the company’s complex development needs. The company’s answer is to nurture a strong link between learning and business strategies.
“Our learning interventions are fundamentally related to creating business impact,” said Frank Persico, IBM’s vice president of learning. “We spend our time in learning largely looking at what the business issues are and then figuring out how what we do in learning can support those objectives.”
Persico said because customers largely perceive the IBM brand based on their interactions with employees, it’s even more important the company equip employees with the right skills and mentality to be successful.
“It’s not just a matter of getting skilled people to do work,” Persico said. “It’s a matter of realizing that the way IBM appears in the marketplace is largely a function of what our employees do and how our employees behave. Learning is seen as a key component of who our employees are and how it is they behave and what it is that they know.”
Further, given that IBM’s core business — business technology, analytics and services — is built on innovation, leveraging learning to keep its workforce skilled is a major priority.
Persico said IBM’s primary services of business analytics and cloud computing can only be delivered by employees with the highest knowledge base. Each employee must have a deep understanding of how each service is designed and executed, because all of the company’s major growth initiatives are related to progressive technologies and what he calls visionary business initiatives. As such, the workforce needs to constantly be up-skilled so IBM can maintain its position at the cutting edge of technology and innovation.
Persico said the company’s analytics and measurement capability is another factor that separates it from the pack in terms of learning.
IBM has made a strong push recently to use the knowledge and service of the business analytics technology it services for customers to measure the progress and depth of its learning and development programs. This helps it gain more insight into how learning is deployed, to whom it is deployed, and to understand where it is actually making a difference.
He also said IBM’s use of analytics gives the company an overall competitive advantage and helps its learning function operate at an enhanced level compared with other organizations.
The next step for IBM is to move from a reflective approach to learning analytics — retroactively assessing programs based on analytics — to using it predictively to forecast learning development. That means using data about the impact of previous learning efforts to create predictive models of which learning interventions will be best suited to performance issues or needs that may come up.
IBM is already using predictive analytics in areas related to retention and sales productivity. “We are linking the level of participation in on-boarding events for new employees to subsequent attrition,” Persico said. “In the seller space, we are looking at sales training’s impact on quota attainment and attempting to demonstrate causality between the two.”