Software giant Microsoft, which provides operating systems for many–if not most–of the world’s approximately 600 million personal computers, frequently releases new products. This steady stream of rollouts has been a constant test for the company’s learning and development teams, particularly in delivering content to sales and support professionals who need to know product characteristics almost immediately. These circumstances led Microsoft to team up with Via Training to launch its first online global training program in the fall of 2003 to instruct retail sales representatives in electronic retail stores and specialty outlets on how to sell Windows Mobile Devices like Pocket PCs, Pocket PC Phones and Smartphones.
Both the development and delivery phases of the outwardly focused Windows Mobile training program presented unique challenges, said Tricia Bowyer, group manager of Microsoft’s business and professional curriculum. Boyer works with the sales, marketing and services group (SMSG) readiness within Microsoft, which provides training for 25,000 employees worldwide involved in sales, consulting and technical support.
Input from developers is crucial in designing any learning program that supports products. However, this is often an ordeal at Microsoft, as these professionals have exhaustive “day jobs” that prevent them from working on much else, Bowyer said. For the Windows Mobile training program, Via made a special effort to facilitate transfer of ideas between employee education developers and product developers. “I think their ability to get that buy-in and get that product group to their location was a key success factor,” Bowyer said.
Another difficulty in creating and rolling out the new training program was determining how to meet the distinct learning needs of thousands of independent, highly mobile sales representatives across several different cultures. “A lot of people think about training and localization, and they only think about changing the language,” Bowyer said. “There’s a significant difference between changing the language and looking at the culture. For example, the difference between China and Japan is huge in the way they sell and the way they like to be trained. From my perspective, the biggest challenge is trying to understand the culture and ensure that the training that we provide addresses some of the cultural issues, or else we’ll lose our audience very quickly.”
Differences in culture required Microsoft to deliver educational content according to the preferences of local learners. Bowyer said that sales representatives around the world responded well to learning that involved interaction with others because of their personalities and their vocation, unlike support professionals, who generally prefer a more straightforward approach. “I believe it’s because of their interpersonal nature, as well as the job they perform,” she said. “They’re not as comfortable with looking at a talking head, whereas the technical people are much more like, ‘Give me the technical knowledge, and let me go!’ You have to engage them differently when it comes to training. With the technical organization, we find it’s a little easier to do talking-head or even e-mail (training).”
Sales professionals in other regions were less receptive to technology-based programs. “In Europe, face-to-face training is really important,” Bowyer said. “They like to have that interaction with their colleagues. Moving them into a blended learning environment or an online learning environment has been very difficult.
“I think Asia is similar in that respect,” she added. “They do like face-to-face, but we also find that if we do the cultural piece right, then they are open to the Web-based training. It’s more around interaction with people. In the Americas region, we find it’s a little easier to move over to the Web than it is in Europe and Asia.”
With help from Via, Microsoft was able to conduct roughly 40,000 face-to-face learning sessions, support more than 200 customized portals and provide easily downloadable and printable learning features. Additionally, one year after launching the Windows Mobile training program, retail sales representatives had completed more than 37,000 online courses. Business impact metrics showed that sales professionals who had completed more than three online courses had an average increase of nearly 22 percent in sales revenue. Bowyer said the combination of more conventional methods such as face-to-face instruction with online learning has been vital to the success of the program.
“From our perspective, blended learning is definitely the way to go for most of our training,” she said. “It’s an exciting time in the training industry. Technology is really providing us with more opportunities to reach out.”
Brian Summerfield is associate editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.