The old axiom “Our people are our greatest asset” has become a rather hackneyed expression that holds little actual meaning for many of the organizations that espouse it. However, for international strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, its 17,000 employees are not only the greatest asset, they are the sine qua non-Latin for “without which not.” Consequently, Booz Allen takes a workforce-centric approach to its operations, part of which involves keeping talent in the firm by providing employees with plenty of opportunities for personal development. To that end, it has an organization within an organization: the Center for Performance Excellence (CPE), which offers a variety of learning programs in order to attract, retain and develop Booz Allen’s most crucial resource: human capital.
“Everything is a derivative of the people strategy,” said Ed Cohen, senior director of Booz Allen’s Center for Performance Excellence. “Our CEO has the philosophy that he’d rather see Booz Allen on your business card than your resume. Based on that philosophy, we make a lot of decisions that all fall into the category of “do the right thing for our people, and they’ll do the right thing for us.” (CPE’s) philosophy is based on everything being aligned to competencies. Everything we do aligns to the needs of the firm. Our mission is basically to build the skills of the staff, but also to impact behavior and change across the firm at the same time.”
“We are a top-notch learning organization that develops our associates so they can better serve our clients,” said Sharon Babajko, senior manager and a member of the CPE’s leadership team. “Over the past seven years, Ed has grown the Center for Performance Excellence to focus on business drivers. The team is really focused on bringing the right programs to the right learners.”
CPE has an array of offerings to bring the competencies of all of its employees, who work with both the private and public sectors, closer to organizational objectives. Content delivery modes include more traditional and familiar methods like seminars, workshops and classroom-based training, as well as novel and innovative techniques, such as strategic gaming and Web radio broadcasts.
As part of its leadership development, the CPE rolled out a strategic business simulation based on a service offering that Booz Allen provides to the U.S. Department of Defense. Senior leaders participated in a scenario that condensed a fiscal year into the span of a few hours and involved working together to land several large-scale contracts. “Many of our contracts exceed the $10 million dollar mark,” Cohen said. “You have to look at organizational conflicts of interest to make sure that putting in a proposal for a contract does not conflict with another one that you have. The war gaming lets us explore these strategies and these various components in a very fast-paced manner. It’s meant to challenge people’s assumptions about planning for the future, about competitors and about ourselves. It’s helped to reshape our perspective on dynamics and drivers. It also acts as a stress test on the system to see how prepared we are for different types of future scenarios.”
Another unique CPE learning initiative is the PeopleTalk Web radio show, which was launched through Booz Allen’s People Communications and People Services organization, in order to get more information out to the field in a faster and more user-friendly manner. The program, which airs every other week, focuses on the news around organizational changes, existing policies and procedures, and community service projects within the company, and features interviews with key business leaders, employees and clients. “It’s run live, but the best part about it is not the live component. It’s actually what happens afterwards, which is we chunk these interviews into objects,” Cohen said. “We have a transcript made from each one of those interviews, and that goes up on our People Talk Web site. People are able to download the information on an as-needed basis in order to get information on any of the areas that they need to get details on. PeopleTalk just exceeded 200,000 hits. About 80 percent of the employees of the firm have, at one time or another, downloaded something from the PeopleTalk site. We’ve exceeded 20 gigabytes of data that has been downloaded, which is about 700 files per month.
“We had our worldwide partner meeting at Booz Allen, we refer to our vice presidents as partners in September (2004),” Cohen added. “The CEO addressed the partners from across the world at that meeting. We did a special episode of PeopleTalk at the worldwide meeting where we had the CEO’s speech live, then we archived it on to the PeopleTalk site so that people could actually download it and listen to it. It’s become a very good vehicle for us for disseminating information very easily and very rapidly.”
Perhaps the most highly developed learning modality at Booz Allen Hamilton is the Virtual Campus, an e-learning platform launched in 2000 with the tagline “Distance is no obstacle.” The program, a combination of vendor-developed and in-house solutions, boasts numerous features, such as competency maps, online courses and discussions, registration for classes and coaching sessions, and hundreds of modules from third-party learning providers. The Virtual Campus also is aesthetically pleasing, with a cityscape of buildingsactually digitized photos of Booz Allen offices that house various educational functions for the company’s international workforce. “When we first embarked on it, we really did not have any kind of Web presence whatsoever,” Cohen explained. “The goal was to create a Web presence, but to do it in such a way that we were able to disseminate learning and information about learning across the firm. It was really our first phase of a strategy we deployed for e-learning. The first step was that we needed to build a solid infrastructure in order to deploy e-learning, and get beyond deploying libraries of off-the-shelf products. The Virtual Campus really formed the foundation for that. It created a solid infrastructure for us to develop the rest of our strategy with.
“The Virtual Campus has actually evolved several times. We do annual usability studies where we bring people together and we videotape them finding different things on the Virtual Campus. We do interviews with them. We log how they go about getting their information and their thoughts on it. We added a learning management system a couple of years ago, and we added our development framework to it a few years ago. These are all pieces that provide people with access.”
The robust blended learning curricula offered by CPE has a hand in job prospects’ enticement to join Booz Allen, which hires an average of 400 employees per month, Cohen said. “This year, we will have brought in 4,200 new hires – we will have grown 24 percent. Booz Allen surveys new hires within the first 90 days of joining the firm. The training that we offer always comes out as one of the top five reasons for them joining the firm.”
The CPE also posts significant financial gains in many of its programs, such as its executive coaching initiative, which had a return on investment of almost 700 percent in one year. “For all of our major programs, we do return-on-investment studies and value-of-investment studies, and that helps us renew or increase the investment in those programs,” Cohen said. “It’s basically a decision framework that we use within all of our internal investments across Booz Allen. It’s not really about controlling the costs. It’s about measuring the value of the investment. We have not been in a cost-control position for the entire time that I’ve been there. Our investment has grown steadily every year to meet and keep up with the size and pace of growth in the firm, but that does not mean that we don’t have to have the right business case in order to maintain that. It’s really more about proving return on investment and the value of the investment.”
Part of the reason CPE offerings have met with success is that collaboration between the department and internal and external end users. “We’re lucky,” said Aimee George Leary, senior employee development manager for Booz Allen Hamilton. “The staff at Booz Allen continuously bring us ideas for learning opportunities and development. The most successful learning programs have come from energized efforts between our development team (Center for Performance Excellence), our internal client staff and our partners in the industry.”
However, in the midst of these achievements, Cohen and his staff are hardly resting on their laurels. The CPE recently undertook a revision of employee competencies to further align the skills and knowledge of the Booz Allen workforce to business goals. “Right now, we’re going through a major transformation,” said Neil Gillespie, senior partner and chair of the People Working Group at Booz Allen Hamilton. “We’re starting to drive (CPE) so that it’s much more dynamic. One of the things that makes it powerful is that it’s not stagnant.”
“Every couple of years, you have to take another look at the competencies that you expect people to perform and ask the question, “Are these competencies still valid?” Cohen said. “In many ways, they’re not for Booz Allen, because we’ve pushed down a lot more responsibility as the firm has grown to include more junior-level people. As we refresh those competencies, we will also refresh the curriculum and all of the different types of learning activities that support it.”
Brian Summerfield, email@example.comFiled under: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Technology