Cisco Systems Provides a Single-Source Solution for Training Delivery

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JoAnn Hackos, PhD

Tom Kelly, vice president of worldwide training at Cisco Systems, has reinvented training development and delivery at the company. His program for providing education over the Internet to Cisco sales staff is described in the October 2000 issue of Fast Company (pp. 286-295). Also, we recently learned that Wayne Weiseler, a longstanding supporter and colleague of the CIDM, has been a major contributor to the design of a training system that calls for the development of Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) and Reusable Information Objects (RIOs). White papers describing Wayne’s work are available from the Cisco Web site.

Kelly sites an anti-learning bias as one of the major drivers behind the development of an e-learning environment. First, like information-development, training has to keep justifying its existence. That often means measuring the number of people attending classroom training is important, rather than measuring successful learning. Second, Kelly notes considerable resistance to e-learning because people like the social interaction that comes with an instructor-led class. Third, education is viewed as an event rather than an integral part of job performance.

To combat the biases, Cisco has implemented a learning portal where employees track their own learning plan and automatically receive updates of time-critical information based on their job titles, interests, learning styles, and work areas. Kelly foresees a salesperson who downloads a 20-minute information chunk on a new product immediately before attending a customer meeting. If this immediacy of information access works as intended, the employee won’t even label it “training.”

As a training manager at Sun, Oracle, and Cisco, Kelly has long been fighting the paper glut and burdensome classroom time. He notes that Sun delivered a 5-foot box of training materials with the Solaris operating system. Distributing the information electronically saved millions and made access faster and updates easier. But just giving people faster access to enormous piles of information clearly wasn’t a final solution. Accessibility is still the most important issue in information delivery.

At Cisco, Kelly’s team created a Web site that groups content by audiences and delivers a specific learning plan based on job titles, areas of work, technologies, and products. Searching this database of information is facilitated by a search technology they developed called INFO (Information Network for Field Organizations Locator). The Locator tool uses an XML-based metadata system that reads the metadata tags on every content unit in the database, including video, paper, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations.

Because all the information is stored in a repository, content created for one audience can easily be directed toward another audience. In addition, Kelly’s team has developed a method for employees to rank the quality of the content. The ranking system puts pressure on the content developer and helps to better match content with learning needs.

Kelly has also revolutionized content development at Cisco, an issue that should be of considerable interest to information-development managers. First, he gets content from its source (product developers, marketing specialists, technical documentation, and others who are willing to develop structured content using XML and metadata) as quickly as possible. Members of the training group are assigned to product-development teams from the beginning of a project. They record critical information by videotaping product experts, developing slides and audio tracks, and enhancing text with graphics, animation, test questions and answers, games, and simulations as needed. The information is made immediately accessible to the sales force, who prefer fast to polished.

Although content development is decentralized back to the product-development teams, the training organization controls its deployment. Using the e-learning infrastructure, the training team is responsible for getting the content to the people who need it, in the way they need it, and as quickly as possible. Kelly believes that e-learning gives Cisco a competitive advantage by aggressively managing the company’s intellectual capital.

In a recent email, Kelly informed us that they are working with e-publishing groups and the metadata framework team to establish corporate standards and guidelines. They are working hard to keep the momentum going. As we know from working with many in technical publications, the inertia of whatever people are comfortable with is difficult to overcome.

Tom Kelly has as many challenges as we all have in defining a new approach to disseminating vital information. It appears that he is trying to break down old thinking about training and turn it into learning by using the Web as a tool. Publications managers have the same challenge in moving away from books to delivering content dynamically.

Read the Fast Company article.

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