One-on-One Training Crosses Continents

IBM created a program to offer experiential learning opportunities to thousands of employees.

By Nov 1, 2007

HR Magazine: November 2007

Innovative Business Solution Award

During IBM's WorldJam 2004, a 72-hour online dialogue that senior leaders opened up to the company's 355,766 employees worldwide, executives learned that workers wanted greater access to more and varied experiential learning. This was true across all levels of employees, from senior executives on down, says Yvette R. Thompson, IBM program manager for training and development, in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

As a result, the IBM Learning and Career Development Department created Blue Opportunities, a program now offering 95,000 learners about 1,400 training opportunities—such as stretch assignments, cross-unit projects, short- and long-term job rotation, and on-site job shadowing—via an employee-only Internet site that erases country borders. While still in its second year (see the timeline on page 56), the program received the Society for Human Resource Management's Innovative Business Solution Award recognizing an HR department that successfully develops an innovative and ethical solution to a new or ongoing organizational challenge.

Human resource professionals at IBM do not know exactly how many employees take advantage of Blue Opportunities. But they have plenty of examples of experiential learning scenarios designed by IBM managers, instructive anecdotes from individual workers and a host of documented benefits.

Among those benefits: the relationship that IBM managers and workers build by having dialogues about individual development plans. Once employees have those plans in place, they can search for opportunities from the Blue Opportunities site to help them achieve their goals, says Thompson. Similarly, program administrators have created tools to help employees understand experiential learning and career development.

The goals of Blue Opportunities are developing employees' skills, expanding their knowledge, and offering exposure to potential career or job changes.

Examples of the program's impact:

  • A Brazilian employee contributed his coding skills to a manager in Ireland; during the assignment, the Brazilian learned more about the nature and functions of another business unit without leaving his home office.

  • Eight employees with diverse backgrounds now volunteer to serve as instructors in IBM's new-employee orientation sessions; each instructor has received training in facilitation skills.

  • An employee in India filled a short-term assignment to work directly with customers in Italy, then used his acquired skills to train less experienced engineers.

  • Engineers at a technical support center in Austin, Texas, regularly engage in job shadowing with other teams by visiting other worksites for a half or full day. They also rotate jobs and help establish new technical support teams at other sites.

"We see Blue Opportunities as a way for employees to grow their skills across business units in ways they typically would not have exposure to," says Mary Ann Bopp, IBM manager of career development, in East Fishkill, N.Y.

Overcoming Obstacles

HR professionals charged with creating training opportunities face many obstacles, such as the following ones noted in IBM's award application. "A key theme that continued to surface regarding employee participation in Blue Opportunities was the lack of time to engage in these types of experiential learning activities" because of pressure from deadlines, high utilization, sales quotas and increased workload, Thompson wrote. "By starting with small targeted populations to pilot the program [in 2006] and demonstrating to the business that opportunities can be customized to accommodate flexibility in time for employee participation, business unit [leaders] were more receptive to make it part of their career development offerings."

IBM's HR professionals built on early gains, adding support from one business unit at a time. After success with the Blue Opportunities pilot, Mary Farrell, learning leader for the IBM Software Group, got the support of Tom Fleming, vice president of HR for the Software Group, to deploy Blue Opportunities worldwide, making an additional 27,000 workers eligible. IBM managers would not say how much it cost to set up or maintain the Blue Opportunities program except to note that the company spends $650 million annually on learning.

Benefits All Around

Thompson lists many benefits for managers who post opportunities in the database, such as:

  • Providing an additional way to share expertise and synergy across departments and multiple lines of business.

  • Helping employees develop competencies and careers.

  • Creating access to cross-business functions, thereby allowing employees to contribute knowledge back to their teams.

  • Exposing a specific workgroup's expertise to a broader group of workers.

  • Grooming future talent.

A second-quarter 2007 study documented "that Blue Opportunities is a valuable business initiative and worthwhile investment" that expands participants' skills and knowledge of other departments, functions and corporate resources. Other benefits include improving mentoring skills, acquiring technical qualifications and retaining talent.

Some Blue Opportunities training resulted in promotions for the individuals involved, adds Jatana C. Neff, site support manager in Austin, Texas. Her eight managers and 100 workers participated in the 2006 pilot. Neff notes that managers can't just allow their employees time away from their existing jobs without making sure the team can manage in their absence. Managers "have to plan for this," she warns. Yet "employees understand that growing their careers is important and they can't just do the jobs they have. The more they understand about the business, the more innovative they can be."

Nancy M. Davis is editor of HR Magazine.

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