Avanade customers expect the highest level of skills and expertise on Microsoft and other technologies, as well as strong capabilities in project management and other business and professional skills. In my job as Avanade’s director of learning and knowledge management, the company’s global reach, continuous growth, ever-changing world of technology and cost concerns were just a few of the challenges I faced in creating and maintaining a world-class learning organization.
“One of the key business drivers for Avanade is to have the deepest Microsoft skills in the industry, before our competition and also before the technology reaches the market,” said Adam Warby, vice president and general manager for Avanade. “Our selling proposition to a customer is based on our deep technical expertise.”
Taking Technical Training to the Next Level
In the first year at Avanade, my team set up traditional technology training classrooms in several Avanade offices worldwide. For each course, we endorsed a small instructor pool and then flew the instructors and students to the classrooms. My attitude toward training is that the instructor is the key—regardless of format, e-learning or otherwise. So we worked to secure only the best instructors in the industry. Avanade’s consultants are already very smart and resourceful, and they know the basic concepts of a new technology, so any structured training has to go above and beyond what they could find themselves. The instructor must be someone they respect as a technical guru, as well as a great communicator of information.
The quality of the training, as measured through comprehensive course evaluations using a five-point scale, was excellent. The course evaluation categories included training impact to skills, content quality, instructor quality and delivery format quality. All of the areas consistently received marks ranging from 4.0 to 5.0. The quarterly quality goal is a minimum of 3.75 in each category. We have always excelled well past that minimum, primarily due to instructor resources—a mix of vendors and internal instructors who must prove that they can keep the scores high and the students satisfied.
Capitalizing on the positive momentum and reputation of the program’s quality, Avanade introduced live distance learning in 2001. The goal was to mimic everything about the traditional classroom environment, but without the need for the students and instructors to be in the same physical location. My team and I created the VIL (virtual instructor-led) delivery format based on my past experiences with live distance learning at MSNBC.com in 1997. First, we collapsed all traditional classrooms throughout Avanade. We literally collected all of the student machines worldwide, 10 of them, and put them on racks in one small training room in our Seattle office. This became our Remote Student Lab (RSL), using terminal services, VMWare, Virtual PC and other virtual technologies so that students could use the machines remotely and securely during a class. This was very important because technical labs are usually quite complex, some requiring a two-to-one machine-to-student ratio. The RSL means that students don’t have to set up labs on their own laptops, eliminating the risk of new technologies interfering with their own work computer. Avanade also signed a contract with Interwise, which provides a virtual classroom tool, allowing the instructor to lecture and lead discussions live (using VOIP), conduct demos, record sessions and look over the student’s shoulders during labs. We combined these two powerful components—our RSL and Interwise—to create the VIL environment.
There was a fair amount of scepticism about whether it would work. But the potential cost savings were hard to ignore. The Avanade executive team was encouraged by the results of the initial pilots, and soon we decided to convert all of our technical classes to VIL, saving the company at least $1.5 million in travel and facilities costs per year. (Training spend is only 2 percent of the company’s revenue.) It also greatly increased the reach and “just in time training” since the virtual classes could contain students from multiple locations—critical mass to run a session was much easier to create. Most satisfying was that course evaluation trends stayed exactly the same—the quality did not suffer at all as a result of the switch, and even VIL as a delivery format ranked consistently at 4.0 or higher. These are 40-hour, in-depth technical classes—a long time for someone to sit in a virtual classroom. I credit our instructor pool with the high scores. While I provided the vision and believed it could work, it was the instructors who made it happen by finding ways to make the students feel engaged. It was another example where instructor quality can make or break a training program. I believe that the program would have failed without our recognition of and insistence on excellent instructor quality.
Eventually Avanade began using the same forum for short, one- to two-hour educational webcasts for its sales and marketing group and other knowledge-sharing ventures—the more typical usage of distance learning tools in other companies. We did it backward, starting with the heavy-duty, 40-hour technical classes. This was unusual, and Interwise commented that they didn’t know of anyone else in the industry doing live distance learning the way we were. In fact, we have trained training groups from three large companies and three technical training vendors on VIL. Our program is recognized in our industry circle as cutting-edge and progressive, more so because we actually made it happen, and with positive results.
An unexpected result was that Avanade’s consultants started extending training options to their customers. They recognized the training as high-quality and the delivery formats as cost-effective, and made the correlation that their customers might like it as well. Pretty soon we had a dozen or so customers taking customized versions of our training and wanting to know more about how to create their own VIL programs.
I purposely stayed away from traditional approaches to e-learning at first, since they tend to focus on up-front content development, question prediction and assessments rather than the value of the live instructor. Plus, Avanade students insist on being able to go beyond the content to discuss a particular client scenario they’re working on, find an answer about a related technology or ask a more complex question. We’re teaching beta technology, which changes too fast for traditional e-learning. I always say, “Our training doesn’t have to look pretty”—but it does have to be lab-intensive, customized to our world and scenario-based.
However, we also recognized the value of on-demand, non-live learning as well and wanted to find a way to incorporate excellent live instruction with self-study. After the VIL program was stable, my team built a small media lab in the Seattle office and used Microsoft Windows Media technologies to record its instructors giving lectures and demos. Avanade created a hybrid delivery format called collaborative self-study (CSS), where registered students receive a DVD of a class, which includes 40 hours of recorded lecture, demo and lab content, plus a machine in the remote student lab, with four weeks to complete the labs and assessments. The learning is self-paced, but it’s also very collaborative because we provide instructor support during the four weeks. Instructors must respond to students’ questions and requests for collaboration within 24 hours. It’s not traditional CBT, because it doesn’t take long to develop—we’re simply recording the instructor talking to the camera. And because of how easy Windows Media is to use, we can swap out modules and re-master the content very quickly. This is great for the ever-changing beta technologies we are teaching. And it keeps our delivery costs very low. And once again, the course evaluation trends remained very high. Again, I credit this to our instructor quality criteria. In my opinion, a delivery format is really only as good as the instructor behind it.
Learning and Knowledge Culture
Avanade’s Continuous Learning Strategy outlines four primary modes of learning. At Avanade, skills are developed by:
Learning From Others (Ongoing):
- By joining communities. Avanade has more than 0 active technical communities. Many communities generate three or more threads per week.
- By re-using existing intellectual assets. Avanade has a repository of Avanade-authored intellectual assets that can be searched and re-used. Avanade’s instructors also use intellectual assets in classes to help frame labs and lead discussions.
- Through coaching and mentoring from career leads and others. Avanade has a strong culture of knowledge sharing and mentoring by its technical leaders.
Learning From Direct Experiences (Ongoing):
- Through direct, on-the-job experience. Learning from experience plus training is effective for many people.
- By developing intellectual assets. All Avanade consultants are required to document or record key experiences and strategies from customer projects. This process reinforces what people know.
Learning Through Structured Training Opportunities and Certification (120 hours)
- In classes (VIL classes, CSS classes, business and professional skills classes). Each Avanade consultant is provided with 120 hours per year for structured training.
- All Avanade consultants are required to be Microsoft-certified (either Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer, or MCSE, on Windows Server 2003, or Microsoft Certified Solution Developer, or MCSD, on .NET).
- Live webcasts (short one- to two-hour sessions) on specialized topics are offered throughout the year, usually up to three per quarter.
Learning Through Self-Study Modes (Ongoing): The following materials are provided to all employees through Avanade’s LMS:
- On-demand recordings (short one- to two-hour recordings) on specialized topics.
- Virtual library (e-books from Books24x7).
- Microsoft Official Curriculum (MOC) Kits.
- Microsoft conference and airlift materials (e.g., from TechEd, PDC).
- MSDN & TechNet access.
- Research services – Gartner, IDC and more.
- Certification practice exams.
These are a few of the metrics distributed quarterly on a global, area (Americas, Europe APAC) and regional level. “Not only have we embraced the value of learning services at Avanade, we are so committed to keeping the bar raised for our consultants’ ongoing training that we meet quarterly with global and regional executive leadership to set goals,” said Warby. “Scepticism aside, the real proof that our learning and knowledge management initiative is a key to our success is revealed through quarterly metrics for our certification progress, technology proficiency levels and overall intellectual asset contributions.” These metrics are obtained through Avanade’s proprietary learning management system (LMS):
Number of certifications, certification progress:
- 77 percent of Avanade’s system engineers are certified on MCSE Windows 2000 (requires passing a series of seven technical exams).
- 9 percent of Avanade’s solution developers are certified on MCSD .NET (a new MCSD certification released in February 2003, which requires passing a series of five technical exams).
- 52 percent of Avanade’s solution developers are certified on MSCD VB/C++ (requires passing a series of four technical exams).
Skill levels for key technologies (derived using Avanade’s Skills Taxonomy and Tool).
Using Avanade’s Proprietary Proficiency Scale for Skills Assessment (See Table 1), the following are examples of key skills measured at Avanade using the scale below:
- Visual Studio.NET/C# skills: 4 percent of Avanade developers rate at proficient and higher.
- XML skills: 3 percent of Avanade developers rate at proficient and higher.
- Active Directory skills: 77 percent of Avanade system engineers rate at proficient and higher.
- Windows 2000 skills: 82 percent of Avanade system engineers rate at proficient and higher.
Number of intellectual assets:
- 1,39 new intellectual assets were entered into the knowledge repository in 2003.
Quality of intellectual assets:
- 720 ratings are given to intellectual assets in 2003.
- One to three ACE (Avanade Contribution of Excellence) Awards are given out each quarter after the ACE Committee reviews and selects the highest quality intellectual assets each quarter.
- More quality metrics will be measured in 2004.
Re-use of intellectual assets:
- Predicted re-use will be measured starting in 2004.
Training activity (hours completed and progress to plan):
- Each consultant completes 80 to 120 hours of structured training per year.
- Approximately 20 VIL classes are offered each quarter.
- Approximately seven CSS classes are offered each quarter.
- (Other Training Activity data is confidential)
Course quality (through course evaluation trends):
- See Table 2 for a snapshot of combined course evaluation averages of some of the “Key Questions” on Avanade’s 25-question course evaluation. On a scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree).
Kate Guersch is the director of learning and knowledge management for Avanade (www.avanade.com), an integrator for Microsoft technology that’s a joint venture between Accenture and Microsoft. Kate’s learning & knowledge services team is responsible for creating and driving innovative organizational strategies and tools including training, knowledge management, the company intranet and research and survey services to ensure global technical readiness and performance of employees. Readers are invited to send comments or questions to Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table 1: Avanade’s Proficiency Scale
Can explain the purpose, definition and general description of the technology, including when and why the technology is needed. Experience is often limited to training, internal projects or independent study.
Can perform a limited number of standard tasks with the technology. Works under close supervision, for example, assisting another more skilled consultant. Works in typical or expected scenarios.
Can perform all standard tasks with the technology. Works under minimal supervision with the assistance of standard documented practices. Works in scenarios that require some degree of customisation.
Can perform all standard complex tasks with the technology. Works with no direct supervision creating standard documented practices where none exist. Works in scenarios that require integration of this technology with another new or evolving technology resulting in novel environments.
Has performed at an advanced level. Has taught or mentored others in the technology. Has influenced how Avanade uses the technology. Has contributed significant IP to Avanade in the use of the technology (for example, IP that is heavily re-used or is ACE-level).
Table 2: Course Evaluation Averages
As a result of this course, I feel better prepared to do work related to this topic.
As a result of this course, I feel more confident talking to customers about this topic.
As a result of this course, I feel that my skills in this topic have improved.
I would recommend or consider taking another course using the Collaborative Self-Study format.
I would recommend or consider taking another course using the VIL format.
Overall, the instructor was excellent.
Overall, the course met my expectations.
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