Bradner's column: An impure solution

In a distant lifetime, I did a few years of part-time teaching for the IBM internal education organisation. The job paid well and got me to a number of places I would not have considered going otherwise. IBM is now trying to minimise its need for people like me.

A company the size of IBM with a few hundred thousand employees does a lot of internal education. This is quite a good opportunity for people like me who rent themselves out as teachers, but it is very expensive for IBM in terms of money and employee time. When I was involved with IBM, the company would reserve a classroom in an education centre or other facility for a day up to a few weeks. Then the challenge was to get employees to sign up and arrange their schedules to be at the site at the right time.

Considering IBM's reputation as a network company, it seems obvious that IBM should try to use network-based technology to streamline this process and reduce costs. The company has done so, but has not gone overboard and sacrificed function for philosophy.

IBM's solution, which the company calls "distributed learning," uses network-based tools but also includes CD-ROMs and targeted classroom work. This is interesting to me not only because it is good to catch up on what a group that I once worked with is doing, but also because it seems to be a good lesson in how to approach the training game. It is also interesting that IBM decided not to go to a pure network-based model - an approach that too many organisations are taking because "it's the future."

Students can access the materials online, download them into their own machines or get them on a CD. Students can access the classes when and where they have the time, run at their own pace and even skip sections they already know or those in which are not interested -- something that is hard to do in a face-to-face class.

Although its distributed learning program has been active for just a couple of years, IBM currently has about 1,400 classes in the program. About 100,000 IBM employees used the system for a total of more than 160,000 "learning days" in the first half of the year. The company's goal is to switch at least 30 percent of its education days to the distributed learning system and save $US100 million per year in the process. The company is well on its way. IBM is even selling custom distributed learning programs.

Education, whether in a corporate or university environment, is changing rapidly and will go through many stages as technology matures. IBM seems to be learning the business of learning, and the lessons that the company is getting will help many others.

Disclaimer: Harvard innovates with all deliberate speed and does not yet have an opinion on IBM's ideas -- i.e., the above opinion is mine.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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