Posts made in May 2018

Stuff, Not Fluff – DEC’s Networks University – Part 2

Stuff – Not Fluff

In conducting my needs assessment for Networks University, one theme I heard again and again from the people who would attend is that they needed “stuff, not fluff.”  For the most part, the attendees were technical people and they wanted to talk with technical people – they were wary that the program was being sponsored by the marketing group and, repeatedly, they said they didn’t want to “waste their time listening to marketing fluff.”  In fact, the phrase “Stuff, not fluff” became a mantra for Networks U.

As the technologies for local area networks rapidly evolved, we were challenged in how to get the best and latest technical information put together for the program.  We were talking about new technologies, a whole new set of products, new services unlike anything the company had provided in its history.  When I had tried to impress these points on the company’s educational services organization, the response I got was “That’s not how we do things.”

Educational Services had built its own model for how to train employees.  For each new computer model (which took 3 to 5 years to develop), it created a one-week comprehensive program that covered everything from pre-sales to installation to trouble-shooting.  That program took 12 to 18 months to develop and had development costs of $100,000 to $150,000.  The new reality for the Networks and Communications (NaC) group was that the development cycle for new products would be well under a year and sometimes as short as a few months.  The Educational Services model was clearly not going to work for this business unit.

So, if Educational Services couldn’t help us develop and deliver the content for Networks University, who could?  The solution was to get the subject-matter experts to develop and deliver the training.  With the support of the entire NaC business unit, we got whoever we needed – product managers, marketing managers, engineers, back-up support groups, college professors, consultant – whoever we needed, we got.

This was not a slam-dunk strategy from the beginning.  When I approached several engineers as we were planning the first session, I got remarks like, “You want us to talk with sales people (said with a sneer).  What possible value is there for us to talk with sales people?”  I called in some favors that were owed me and got a few engineers to participate in the first Networks University session.  At the end of the session, I met with the engineers.  “It was amazing,” they told me.  “Did you know that these sales people actually talk with customers and know what customers like and don’t like about our products?  That they talk with customers about what they would like to see us develop in the future?  We never thought we could learn anything from sales people, but we were wrong.”  From that point on, we never had problems in getting engineers and other technical people to participate in Networks U.  (It also didn’t hurt that we fed them well.)

Now, you have to realize that engineers, product managers, and other technical personnel do not always make the best trainers.  First, they haven’t been trained to develop or deliver training.  Second, egos sometimes get in the way (“People will see how brilliant I am and once they see that I can answer all of their technical questions, they won’t care if I’m a great speaker or not”).  How to overcome these and other obstacles?  Here are a few ideas (Note: a more comprehensive approach can be found in my article on using subject matter experts that you can find on my Articles page (

  • Provide training on how to put together a presentation
  • Encourage them to take a presentation skills course
  • Assign an instructional designer to work with them to help organize their presentation and develop some good visual and job aids

We also emphasized to these technical speakers that they needed to focus on “stuff, not fluff” and that they needed to prepare for their sessions, rather than walking in cold.  The most effective strategy we developed was to require presenters to review their content and approach with two volunteers from the target audience.  In this way, we ensured that what the audience needed was what was delivered.

Despite all of these warnings and preparations, we were not always successful.  Because we were running multiple concurrent sessions throughout the week-long program, the participants quickly learned to “vote with their feet,” i.e., we had a few disastrous sessions which might have started with 100 or more participants, but ended with only a handful of people in the room – the rest had quickly lost interest and moved to other sessions.  It didn’t take many of these occurrences to get the message across.

These many sessions within a single Network University program were the core of the program.  But there was much more to Networks U that these formal sessions, and I’ll cover some of those aspects of the program in subsequent blog entries.

DEC’s Networks University – Part 1

About 10 years ago, the company for which I was working hired a new vice president of sales.  I saw in the announcement that she had worked for Digital Equipment Corporation and that her time there overlapped with my own 11 years there.  One day, I stopped in to see her.  I told her that her name was familiar and she said that my name rang a bell as well.  She asked me what I did there and I said that, among other things, I had created a program called Networks University.  “Oh!” she exclaimed.  “I just loved Networks U.  I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since.  It was just the best program.”  And this was more than 20 years later.

While subsequent posts will provide background on the creation and operation of Digital Equipment Corporation’s (DEC) Networks University, here are some basic statistics on this remarkable program.  While it took a few years to get everything up to speed, once we got there we were running Networks University:

  • Twice a year in the U.S. for an audience of around 600 people
  • Twice a year in Europe for an audience of around 400 people
  • Once a year in the Pacific Rim for an audience of around 200 people
  • Each week-long program included 40 to 70 separate sessions, ranging from one hour to three days
  • For each 6-month cycle, 80% of the content was brand new
  • In terms of the content of the session, it was all planned by 2 to 3 people (more were involved in the logistics of the events)

Network U was unique, not just for Digital, but in the computer industry (we had many people hired from other computer companies attending the program and they said that their previous companies had nothing to compare).  Networks U was not a “training program” in the traditional sense, but more of a “learning event” where everyone in the networks world (sales, field service, software services, marketing, engineering, support groups, etc., came together to share what they had learned and to learn from each other.

When you walked into the hotel where we held a session, there was an electricity in the air, an excitement that I have never experienced in any other program I created or attended.

Did everything work perfectly?  Of course not.  With each iteration of the program, we made improvements and corrected things that didn’t go so well in previous programs.

My hope is that by sharing my experiences with the program other training professionals can benefit from my own experiences.  In the next blog entry, I’ll provide some background on Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a company that pioneered the mini-computer.  While DEC no longer exists, at its height around 1987 employed 125,000 people around the world.

Academic vs. Policy Research — Standards for the Training Profession

Academic Research vs. Policy Research – Standards for the Training Profession

I often make the distinction between academic research and policy research when discussing standards for the training profession.

With academic research, methodology is the sine qua non.  When you want to earn a Ph.D. in any field, you study the methodologies of that field.  Your oral exams test whether you have mastered the methodologies used in that field.  When you write a dissertation, it is judged not so much on getting positive results, but on whether you have followed the methodologies correctly.

In policy research, a decision maker may say “I have to make a decision on this matter in two weeks.  Get me as much information as you can in that time frame so that I can make the best, most informed decision possible.”  With policy research, it is not that methodology is unimportant, but that making the decision in the time given is more important.

The profession of training is rooted in academic research.  Therefore, we believe, if we follow the methodology, the result must be good.  Unfortunately, this can result in sub-optimal results.  If we cannot have training ready when it is needed, we have failed.  If we cannot meet the needs of our employer, we have failed.

One definition of a professional is a person who puts more weight on the standards of his profession than on the needs of his employer.  Certainly, this is a good thing in many fields.  We don’t want a CPA to put false numbers in the annual report to benefit her employer.  We don’t want our doctors to decide on a course of treatment because the hospital with which they are affiliated needs the business.  But, as training professionals, do we have a similar code of ethics to guide us?

Many years ago, I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) – a company that no longer exists but that, at its height in the mid-1980s employed 125,000 people around the world.  DEC had a large Educational Services organization – 1500 employees – responsible for all internal and customer training and documentation.

DEC’s Educational Services group had been built on an academic research model – methodology was everything.  There was a 5-inch binder that specified that methodology – everything from how to write a question for a needs assessment to what font sizes to use in student materials.  The quality of any project was measured on how well you followed the methodology.  Was the methodology a good one?  Well, the company often won industry awards for the quality of its customer training materials.  And the organization did a lot of groundbreaking research, for example with the introduction of the Interactive Video Instructional System (IVIS) that was the forerunner (in the early 1980s) of today’s e-learning.

In the computer industry of the 1970s and 1980s, a new mini-computer (DEC’s main business) took three to five years to develop.  Therefore, there was a lot of time available to follow the strict methodologies mandated by the organization.  But with the advent of new engineering and manufacturing processes in the later 1980s, the development cycle for new products became shorter and shorter.  The Educational Services methodology specified that it took 12 to 18 months to develop a new program.  When the product development cycle became 9 month or less, Educational Services couldn’t meet the demand using the existing methodologies.  Unfortunately, the organization was so tied to its methodologies (“That the way we have always worked and it is the way we will continue to work!”) that it could no longer meet the needs of the company.

In the mid-1980s, I was recruited by a newly-formed Networks and Communication (NaC) business unit to lead all training efforts related to its set of products and services.  At the time, I was employed by the Educational Services organization.  The first thing I was asked to do was to examine how the company trained its sales and sales support personnel on these products and services.  After conducting my own needs assessment by talking with everyone in the NaC organization and with samples of field personnel, I concluded that Educational Services, using its existing methodologies, was not getting the job done.  So I developed a new model for NaC training and presented it to the management team of Educational Services.  I was told, “That’s not how we do things.”  I explained why the current methodologies could not meet the needs of this rapidly-growing business unit, and was told, “That’s not the way we do things.”

These were professionals – they were more tied to their academia-based methodologies than to the needs of their employer.

The result of this conflict was that I left Educational Services and went to work for the NaC marketing group to implement my plan, which would later become known as Networks University.  In subsequent blog posts, I will tell the remarkable story of Networks University – a very successful model for training that was unique not just for DEC but for the computer industry of the time.

A Plethora of Models — Why so many and how do you choose?

Choose any training topic — leadership, coaching skills, performance management, etc., etc., and you will find any number of books, articles, training programs, and consultants with their own “unique” approach, guaranteed to be the “definitive model.”

Back in the 1980s, when I worked for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), I was involved with the company’s engineering and manufacturing organizations around the topic of Quality. At the time, there were three major experts identified with the quality movement, each with books, training programs, consulting engagements, and large followings across many industries. DEC had a unique culture, where people were encouraged to experiment with different approaches and find the solution that worked for them. In the quality arena, there were adherents to all three of these approaches, and the people who belonged to each school of thought had their own success stories and an almost xenophobic dislike for the adherents of the other approaches. Not sure how it fitted the employee selection part, or whether these approaches were a major part of employee screening, like what we have these days (click to find out more). Because the culture would not allow any one person to mandate that one of the three approaches would be implemented company-wide, more time was wasted arguing over the “best” approach than in implementing any approach.

Which approach was the best? I didn’t have the answer then, and I don’t have it now. Each of the approaches had its adherents and its wonderful success stories. But the one thing that the success stories from all three approaches had in common was that a company selected a single approach and implemented it across the company. And it was the dedication to a single approach and the alignment of the entire organization to that approach that made the difference.

When I first came to the American Management Association (AMA) to lead the design and development of its programs, I did a quick analysis of all the programs in its catalog that were targeted at first-line managers. There were more than half-a-dozen, and each of them included some instruction on coaching skills. And each, ranging from one hour to several days of instruction on the topic, had its own model — a 3-step model, a 5-step model, a 9-step model, etc. The models were all different, but they were really all the same. The biggest difference in the models was how detailed each model was in its explanation. I argued for my entire 4 years at the AMA (without much success) that we should have a single model that could be used across all programs.

In a previous job, where I was the one-person director of employee development, I got certified to teach a particular coaching skills program and taught that program to hundreds of managers across the company. Was the program I chose the “best in the field?” I don’t know — I guess it depends of what you are looking for and what criteria you use to evaluate the many programs out there in the marketplace. Why did I choose this particular program? Because it was the right length for my audience, it covered the subject matter well, and it included a lot of in-class practice to help people master the skills it taught. Could I have been as successful if I had chosen to adopt some other program? Sure — as long as it met my evaluation criteria. I chose this one because the training certification program for it was being given locally, was reasonably priced, and was offered when I was looking to start the program.

So, why are there so many different coaching models, so many different approaches, so many books on coaching skills, so many training programs? The answer is pretty simple. If I am a consultant or a trainer and I go to a potential client and say “Bob Smith has a terrific 4-step coaching model that I teach in my classes,” the client would (or should) start thinking: “If Bob Smith’s model is so great, maybe we should hire Bob Smith to come teach it to our people.” That’s what I would do. So, if I want to get this potential client signed up, what do I say to make my case? “You know, Bob Smith has a very well-known and successful 4-step model for coaching skills. But I have found that by adding two more steps to the model, I can make it even better. Therefore, you should hire me to teach my 6-step model and your people will get the best solution in the marketplace.” Is my 6-step model really better than Bob Smith’s 4-step model (or better than every other model out there)? Probably not. But only by differentiating my product from the others in the marketplace can I distinguish what I am selling.

This is not to say that there are not different approaches to teaching coaching skills and there are some real differences between these different approaches, just as there were three different approaches to implementing a quality program. What is important is not to get overwhelmed by the plethora of models and programs being offered. Study the field. Look at the major approaches and select the one model that you think will work best in your culture. Once you have selected a model, look at the alternative training programs being offered that use that model and choose one. Don’t get overwhelmed by the plethora of choices. Don’t get stuck in “analysis paralysis” model. If you want to be successful in introducing coaching skills (or quality or any other program) to your organization, choose an approach — one approach — and implement it across the organization so that people are getting the same training, using the same skills, using a common vocabulary — these will be major factors in your success.

I’m back!

Please pardon my absence from blogging for a while.  Early this year I had an unfortunate heart attack that sidelined me for several months.  Now, with three stents in my coronary arteries, and completing a multi-month course of cardiac rehab, I am now in good health and feeling good.

In my 40+ years in the training/learning field, I have been fortunate to have a number of managers who allowed me to try new ideas which, for the most part, resulted in very successful programs.  While I have written 7 books on corporate and individual learning strategies, I still have many stories to tell.  I plan now to write a long series of blogs and articles to help transfer some of my experience to others.

I have been pleasantly surprised throughout my career where I have suggested new approaches that seemed simple to me, but had never occurred to the people I worked with.  In these blogs, I plan to relate many of these stories.  Some of my colleagues may find some of these stories simplistic and obvious, but my hope is that some of these stories may spark an idea for some of my colleagues.  In other blogs, I will share some of my own philosophy of learning and development that I hope at least some of my readers will find useful or, at least, challenge them to rethink how they do things — even if they decide that their current practices fit their situations perfectly, it never hurts to consider other ideas.

I hope that, through this series and through my earlier books, writings, and presentations, I can establish my legacy for the field.

Dan Tobin