Name: Ed Sketch
Title: Director of Organizational Effectiveness
Company: Ford Motor Co.
- Deployment of Six Sigma quality training to tens of thousands of employees.
- Deploying through e-learning the Ford Design Institute programs to improve technical education.
- Deploying major learning programs to support lean manufacturing.
- Rebuilding and updating IT skills, bringing a lot of formerly outsourced skills back into Ford.
Everyone who has spent any time around business knows about the innovations Henry Ford brought to the industrial world, first and foremost with the creation of the assembly line production system. It’s not surprising that the Ford Motor Co. is still an innovator, and that those innovations happen both externally and internally.
While it may be blasé to call Ford’s workforce learning and development an assembly line of education, there is no doubt the organization fits pieces together carefully to achieve the final product—a fully managed workforce with top-of-the-line skills.
With 350,000 employees worldwide, learning at Ford is more than a challenge. Ford does not have a single chief learning officer, but instead divides that role into three areas: organizational effectiveness, education and training and leadership development. Each area plays a crucial role in the company’s success.
Ed Sketch knows about that. In his 31 years at Ford, Sketch has held senior positions in all three areas. Now director of organizational effectiveness, the Wales-born Sketch started his career with Ford straight out of college, working 24 years in Europe before coming to the Detroit-area headquarters. His career has all been in the human resources organization, covering everything from management development to labor relations.
“So I’ve done the hard stuff. I think almost from the moment they got me out of the day-to-day routine stuff I’ve been strategic. I don’t do anything without thinking strategically, even when I was running labor relations. I’m also always very interested in conflict. Conflict is not confined to labor relations. There are always debates going within management, with huge decisions, strategic decisions to be made,” Sketch said. “A lot of my emphasis is around helping people have the skills to handle the big strategic decisions. I guess the third theme in my life has been around creativity and innovation. I say to people, don’t put me in a job where you want me to do maintenance. I go in and I re-engineer, I get it stable and launch and implement successfully and move on.”
Like many large corporations, Ford has realized some economic challenges recently, and Sketch is tasked with helping to fix the business culture to realize new successes. Learning, he said, is critical to that.
“We have pockets of absolute world-beating excellence within Ford, and we have activities that are not so excellent. One of my roles is to get the best areas to teach the less good areas,” Sketch said. “That in itself will greatly uplift the game. Think of it in terms of a football team. You get your best few players to take on the role of coaching your lesser players or a major league team bringing on a team of young players. We have a slogan in Ford: If only Ford knew what Ford knew.”
Ford is certainly working on knowing what Ford knows. In addition to putting 15,000 people through Six Sigma training, Sketch is overseeing the Ford Learning Network, which touches about 125,000 of Ford’s employees, about 30,000 of them on a regular basis. Ford Learning Network, or FLN, organizes all of Ford’s learning resources in one searchable portable. The system was built by Novations Learning Technologies around an amazing neural-network search system designed by Autonomy. Sketch and his team worked closely on implementing FLN with Charles Ogunwuyi, the FLN IT project lead.
“We think it’s pretty industry-leading and that’s a kind of breakthrough,” Sketch said. “It’s one global common infrastructure for learning on a global portal. We now deploy most of our major training initiatives through this architecture.”
FLN contains more than 400,000 titles, including 1,500 online courses, 800 classroom courses and 1,900 e-books from places like Barnes & Noble and Books24x7, and internal resources from Web sites, journals and industry periodicals. Much of the material is mapped electronically to job-role competencies. Employees can self-assess their skills against those mappings, get profiles of gaps that may exist and work on filling in the blanks.
In some departments, use of the FLN is required, while others use it voluntarily as a means to advancement. Either way, it’s a network that’s promoting itself.
“We didn’t do a lot of mass marketing. Most of that is word-of-mouth: ‘Hey this works, it’s cool, it brings you back amazing stuff.’ We have some great stories,” Sketch said. “My favorite anecdote is about a team of purchasing people working on a real business problem. We were prototyping the technology, we just had it on a PC in a conference room. We were bringing people through to try it, and one of these purchasing teams came through, three or four of them. This team came in and said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if we asked the fundamental question that our team is doing?’ So they put in their business questions and just pressed the go fetch rover button, and it brought back an answer. They were so knocked out by the article or text or whatever that it brought back … two of them literally went running off and came back with a printer, plugged it into the back of the PC and downloaded into hard copy.”
That search capability is the heart of the Ford Learning Network. The FLN is packed with about 48,000 20-minute chunks of information in various media, with the learning objects designed as just-in-time solutions or refreshers that employees can access as needed. Ford has certainly not abandoned the classroom, Sketch said, but often what workers need when they need it can best be found in those smaller objects, as opposed to a two-day course.
“Searchability is key to our strategy,” he said. “Even if you did it in a classroom some time back, search is critical.”
The Ford Learning Network has also led to a subset for technical training, the Ford Design Institute, or FDI.Next. The institute uses the same design infrastructure and portal as FLN, and delivers in English, German, Swedish and Japanese.
Ford built the Ford Learning Network for less than $10 million, Sketch said, and it’s been relatively inexpensive to maintain since its launch in 2001. As near as Sketch can tell, that investment is being returned.
“I kind of tell a story at conferences,” he said. “I’ve been in and out of training for 31 years. Every time I come back to training, I figure someone will have figured out how to measure the impact of training. We haven’t cracked that one totally.”
Conference laughs aside, Sketch said the FLN is adding an automated survey tool with psychometrically validated questions to help track the value of training received, so Ford’s learning leaders can track how training is used and applied on the job.
“Then instead of wasting our money training people and then people don’t apply it, we can get after the kind of in-workplace things that stop learning happening.” Sketch said. “Most learning doesn’t fail because the learning’s wrong, or screwed up, or the teacher doesn’t teach. Most learning fails in business to be applied, because back in the workplace the conditions are not right for the application.”
That survey tool, he added, brings Ford one step closer to determining the ROI of workplace education.
“We’re a $160 billion company. The big numbers are those immeasurables: We got our product designed better, faster, to higher quality. That’s hard to track to training, but even if we just take one or two percentage points credit for progress, those become very big numbers rapidly.”
Naturally, Sketch believes learning is critical to Ford.
“This is a knowledge economy, we’re a knowledge company employing knowledge workers. What else is there to do but learn?” Sketch said. “You can borrow capital anywhere in the world, any time. You can buy technology. The only issue of making money in the world these days is do you have the talent, and can you orchestrate it, and when you’re orchestrating it, is it playing the right tune. Do you have the right strategy?”
Speaking of strategies, Sketch’s ideas certainly didn’t end with the launch of the Ford Learning Network.
“I think the next step that is both made possible by Ford Learning Network and is made necessary by Ford Learning Network is what I call the democratization of content creation,” he said. “We have people in Ford who know more about braking systems for cars than anybody in the business. How do they teach the next generation that? Typically they do a process that we British people would call ‘sitting by Nellie.’ I’m the expert, and one person sits by me and first of all they watch me, then I get them to do it and I watch them, and I slowly hand it off. There’s so much learning and it’s so distributed, we probably can’t afford that model going forward.”
Instead of sitting by Nellie, Sketch’s goal is to capture the intellectual property of these in-house experts in a variety of media, including video, and to make that information searchable by FLN. Without that, he said, Ford loses value.
“Say we’ve got 10,000 people in this company with serious intellectual property that Ford needs to capture,” Sketch said. “If you haven’t got search and you haven’t got some link to competencies needed to do jobs, the stuff would just sit on a bookcase. Probably exactly what I’m describing is in binders in people’s offices and nobody knows it’s there, and when they go, it gets shredded or they take it to Florida with them.
“If all of the people with IP could start posting their stuff and make it searchable, that would be an image of the future that I think FLN makes possible. I make a very clear distinction between what we’ve got and what we want. What I just described is what we want.”
For Sketch, that’s all a possible vision, and one he’s happy to see assembled a piece at a time.
“You’ll gather we’re obsessed with the application of learning. If you go and learn in a classroom, what stops you from applying it back here?” Sketch said. “The real secret will be if the learning actually takes place at the workstation, it’s almost seamlessly transferred. You almost apply it immediately. That’s another of the drivers for the Ford Learning Network.”