Cisco Systems, the San Jose, Calif.-based Internet networking colossus, went from ground zero in 1986 to revenue of $18.9 billion and 46,000 employees worldwide in fiscal 2000. Imagine, if you will, the challenge of meeting the learning and knowledge needs in such a rapid-growth environment. "When we first started, our goal was to feed the beast, to put as much content out there as possible," says Tom Kelly, vice president of Internet learning solutions. "Since there wasn't any content out there, anything we put out was well received. People were saying 'Wow, this is great, thanks very much.'"
The guiding principle, "Good enough early is better than perfect late," helped Cisco keep up with knowledge demands of its workforce. Once the "wow" factor wore off, however, employees began to suggest improvements in the way content was accessed and made available. "People started telling us that they needed instant, better, smarter, more holistic, more tailored solutions," says Kelly. So the next wave of development focused on tailoring content delivery to the needs of specific target groups, like Cisco's account managers who comprised the company's front-line field sales force.
To determine exactly what the account managers wanted, Cisco carried out an extensive needs-analysis that included hundreds of interviews with account managers. What emerged was a pretty accurate picture of their needs. "We learned what was important to them, what they needed to know and the time they had available," explains Kelly.
A common concern was that the existing content didn't always come down the pipe in a format that fit the account managers' work patterns or learning styles. Since they were on the road most of the time and either on-site or driving between appointments, they wanted to get into the learning portal, find what they needed and get out again. They didn't want to sit at their computers for hours on end taking a linear e-learning course.
The needs analysis essentially shaped the final solution: the Account Manager Learning Environment. amle is a development tool and performance support system built around four core business objectives: increase sales productivity, increase time-to-revenue, increase speed-to-competency and reduce travel and expense costs.
amle is a just-in-time, Internet performance-based training and management system that represents, says Kelly, "the first time Cisco has taken a job focus and aggregated content in one place for a particular audience." Cisco's goal in developing the amle was to create a learning environment that was not only sensitive to both time and place, but one that also would encourage and motivate the account managers to use it. The amle comprises a suite of tools, each with its own delivery and access characteristics: small chunks of tactical information meet the "get in and get out" need; short skill-building lessons help develop key competencies; and at the core of the program, a scenario-based, sales-call simulator provides "real-world" practice.
"The scenarios were developed or treated as practices for the core e-learning," explains Steve Birch, amle program manager. "What we wanted to do was drop the account managers into a virtual sales call where they could sweat a little bit and feel some of the pain of being asked some hard questions." The questions come via a realistic audio feed, and once a response is selected, feedback is both immediate and remedial i.e. developmental in nature as opposed to a simple right or wrong.
Account managers can choose remote access or download lessons to their hard drive. Additionally, there are two travel pack options: a magazine and a "radio" talk show that also can be accessed remotely, saved to a laptop or, in the case of the talk show, downloaded to an MP3 player. The talk-show comprises various discussions on the key issues of account management and the sales process. The MP3 option is an example of the flexible access built into the program: Account managers can listen to the talk show during windshield time—usually unproductive time spent driving between accounts. The magazine is the passive component of the learning environment, but it also is the most accessible, read-anywhere way for the account managers to get fast facts and helpful advice.
"There are at least four different ways to get content from this system," says Kelly, "and they're more or less related, but separate, from the things we've done in the past. We know what's most popular in the company and we're fine-tuning for each audience. I think the elements that make up the amle are an example of refining from our basic large tool set and large selection of media options, down to something that is targeted for this audience."
Content solutions vary from audience to audience, of course, but rapid development and speed-to-market still is a key goal. It helps, therefore, if you can find legitimate ways to shortcut the development process. Cisco uses a method of meta tagging and reusable learning objects to achieve this. For example, each knowledge or learning object (there are nearly 10,000 available through the Cisco learning portal) has embedded within it a meta tag, key words that describe what the object is, what it covers and the solutions it is designed to offer. When an employee queries the system for a solution, it's the meta tag data that determines the objects that are displayed.
However, it's behind the scenes where the real benefits of meta tagging appear: Developers can rapidly assemble curricula based on any number of criteria. And you speed up the design process considerably if you create each piece of content as a reusable learning object to be manipulated and delivered in many different ways. "We design and develop all our content as rlos," says Beryl Agua, field content developer for account managers. "We can repurpose the same content many times over. We might use content to develop a print magazine or an audio file, even though it is a single creation."
The trick is to determine what "shape" the content should take and what it looks like to the user; and you'll know right away if you get it right. "We started this pilot with 30 people less than 60 days ago," says Kelly. "After 45 days, with no publicity, there were over 700 unique users of the system, just from account managers telling other account managers. It's become almost a viral learning experience."
Cisco's learning specialists have progressed from filling a void with video, audio, slides and text to doing a better job of targeting media and content to a specific audience, says Kelly. Creative learning solutions like amle, he says, bring Cisco a step closer to the ultimate learning experience in which the line between training and the real world is invisible. "The amle was our first venture into scenario-based learning," he says. "All the [online learning] industry has done is changed where people learn. Scenarios, simulations and games change how people learn. It's just a matter of time." —M.D.