Name: Bob Corcoran
Title: Chief Learning Officer, Vice President, Corporate Citizenship
Company: General Electric
- Celebrated 25th year with GE, and his 25th wedding anniversary, in March 2004
- First head of the Crotonville leadership development facility who also graduated there.
- Led program to rationalize curriculum, reducing redundancies and filling gaps in course offerings.
- Oversaw selection of learning management system to reach more than 300,000 worldwide employees.
- Working on program to help train associates to think strategically.
- Focusing on shifting expectations of the future workforce in order to institute changes needed to serve those resources.
Learning Philosophy: “The culture and company is based very strongly around a meritocracy. People know their rewards, their opportunities and their careers rest on the merits of their performance and their contribution. The culture truly is a learning culture. We learn everyday. If you stop learning, it’s the first day of the last days of your career.”
More and more companies today are realizing the value of workforce learning and development, reaping the return on investments into human capital. Ask chief learning officers to name the leading companies in the enterprise education movement, and it’s almost certain General Electric would make most, if not all, of the short lists.
GE, the commercial says, brings good things to life. Education, clearly, is one of the catalysts behind that growth.
“We’ve got an enviable history of people innovation, developing, growing business,” said Bob Corcoran, GE’s chief learning officer and vice president, corporate citizenship. “The DNA of any organization rests with its leadership and talent pipeline, and what better way to strengthen how we operate and work in the world as a responsible corporate citizen than through the way we develop our people?”
Corcoran is actually a good example of practicing what’s been preached. A 25-year GE employee who came up through the HR ranks to his role as the head of GE’s fabled Crotonville executive development center, he is widely considered the model for the modern corporate university.
Corcoran has been chief learning officer for nearly three years, but his corporate citizenship title is new this year. It is, he said, an outstanding combination of roles that combines job-skills education with behavioral training, focusing on such areas as volunteerism, corporate values, management practices and ethics.
Once upon a time, the company’s learning was equally distributed throughout the various worldwide locations and different business operations. Addressing that was one of Corcoran’s first missions when he took the CLO role in May 2001.
“We had seen that there was a huge benefit not being realized because we had training just splintered and scattered all over the world,” Corcoran said. “Every different function, every different region, every different business, every different pole. We were not capturing the synergies in many ways. ”
Corcoran’s next step was to develop a strategy, particularly one related to e-learning. The idea, of course, was to maximize the investment and the benefits.
“We spend over 1 billion a year on training in GE. Billion with a B,” he said. “That’s a big number. Three years ago, we weren’t quite sure a) how much we spent and b) where we spent it, because it was so fractured.”
The process started with an examination of the course catalog across the company to consolidate redundancies, eliminate gaps and untangle overlaps.
“That was just a blast to do. It actually was,” Corcoran said. “As one example, we found that we had 48 separate, different but extremely common, courses on effective presentation, ranging from two to eight hours, all of which fundamentally said the same thing: Stand up straight, project your voice to the back of the room, use appropriate visuals, speak in clear sentences, use bullets on your chart and don’t have anything smaller than 18 point type.
“That was actually a lot of fun, to rationalize the curriculum to get a better bang for our buck and allow us to spend some of the money we were spending to develop new and better programs,” he added.
Corcoran also oversaw some process improvements that included turning to off-the-shelf course libraries where possible and weeding through more than 20 learning management systems before selecting a platform to help oversee the education of GE’s more than 300,000 associates worldwide.
“When you look at the learning libraries that are out there, many of them are quite good. You can get them very cheap versus developing in house for much more money. We used the off-the-shelf learning libraries for the basics, then built proprietary and distinct content for expertise that was germane specific to GE,” Corcoran said. “Why create and write something? In other words, why should we go out and machine a bunch of screws when we could go down to the hardware store and buy screws?”
The LMS selection was a little more detailed than a trip to a hardware store. But with such a diverse workforce in 11 business units, it was certainly time.
“As CLO, you’ve got to be able to fundamentally track development and develop your people,” Corcoran said. “Having a central processing system to do that is hugely efficient, but also it’s just necessary. It’s been enormously successful.”
But it’s the carpenter, not his tools, and Corcoran is savvy enough to know he needed more than courseware and a tracking system. He needed a game plan.
“My job is not to solve today’s problem necessarily, it’s really to end up creating tomorrow’s solutions,” he said. “Anybody in this type of role who’s not doing that, either they’ve got a real big fire going or they’ve missed the opportunity to make things significantly better. That’s a challenge we all have.”
Corcoran is fortunately not in the mission alone. Not by a long shot. In addition to a team of about 600 training professionals in GE, he’s also able to draw on the talents of external consultants, experts and professors at leading universities like Harvard, Columbia and Wharton.
Even more valuable are the internal GE resources who help Corcoran shape future business leaders at GE. For instance, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt spends 40 percent of his time on people issues, including participating full-time annually in “Session C,” GE’s yearly review of all employees.
“That’s an enormous asset for GE. For over 50 years, that process has been in place in a disciplined way, every single year, in the first half of the year, culminating in April, when we have this review process,” Corcoran said. “All of our talent, all of our people. I guess what we learned is that developing leaders, developing people takes three things. It takes leadership commitment, it takes disciplined processes and it takes commitment to people. It works for us.”
Corcoran knows it works for them, but don’t expect him to share ROI figures on GE’s leadership training. GE, he said, measures almost everything, but has no formal cost-benefit measurement on leadership development. It’s such a strong belief, he said, that the question never comes up.
“When you get operating managers who start asking that question, frequently they’ve already predetermined what they think the answer is,” Corcoran said. “When my peers start asking those questions and I see lots of anxiety, I’m just very thankful that our culture is very, very strongly around leadership development and people development.
“In our training, in our job assignments, in our compensation, our challenges, our measurements, our rewards and our promotional practices—it is what we have for decades called a meritocracy. You’ve got to have a system that somehow assesses the merits of people’s contribution and one that is geared around identifying skills competencies, building those and helping people to become much more capable and effective. Higher performers.”
That’s a mission GE associates at all levels have embraced. In addition to the variety of training GE offers (10,886 courses in the current catalog), the company also has programs like CAP, change acceleration process, a change-management tool that seeks to marry quality and acceptance to create effectiveness.
Corcoran can go on, proudly outlining GE’s role in the Defense Industry Initiative, a group of government-contractor businesses that share best practices, and its Management Development Class, which targets those about to enter the first level of the executive track and for those further along in the climb. About 600 people in eight classes will go through that program this year, culminating in a meeting with Immelt, who also teaches sections of the courses, along with other top executives.
That give-and-take process is part of GE’s executive development DNA, Corcoran said, and he should know: He’s the first Crotonville chief who also graduated there. That’s another bit of interesting history, and GE is all about history.
“Stuff oozes out of the walls,” Corcoran said. “(Retired CEO) Jack Welch was in that pit as a young kid, a young professional taking those classes. Jeff Immelt was in there as a 29-year-old or 30-year-old, taking classes. The next chairman of GE is probably in there now. I can’t tell you who it is; if I knew I’d be sucking up big time,” he added with a laugh.
Looking ahead, Corcoran only expects GE’s commitment to education to grow. The expectation of lifelong learning is growing with the company’s newest recruits, to the point that it’s an expected benefit from forward-thinking organizations.
“I think we’re going to see a mass that’s going to want to be led differently. The challenge for anybody in leadership, in learning, in training, as well as in business, is to figure out before that happens how you get first-mover advantage,” Corcoran said. “How do you continue to get the best people in the world to work for you and provide the arena where they can live their dreams, where they can do their best? This company for me has been a place where I have been able to live my dreams. It’s required a lot of hard work and a lot of commitment, but there are thousands of other people just like me in this company.”