Cisco Systems offers an advanced, expansive suite of networking technologies that connect billions of devices to the Web. The company’s solutions are found in all kinds of IT environments, ranging from Fortune 100 companies to mom-and-pop shops to massive government bureaus to individual consumers. For an organization that does business on such a scale, a support staff of thousands is needed, and Cisco has just such a staff: Of the company’s 47,000-plus employees, approximately 2,000 are technical support engineers and approximately 5,000 are field engineers.
“The field engineers are dispatched by the technical support engineers to a certain location to change out equipment that needs to be replaced,” said Dick Endean, director of product supportability engineering at Cisco. “They are a little less technical than the people in our support centers because they’re really just going out and doing replacement. The people in our technical support centers are all folks with either a degree in engineering or a degree in computer science.”
Endean is in charge of development of all educational programs targeted at these two learning populations, which are scattered around the globe. “In terms of the challenges in delivering the training, the time zones make it very challenging to us,” he said. “The delivery methods also present us with challenges. If it’s instructor-led, do we have instructor-led in a VOD (video on-demand) type of location, or is it instructor-led in a single location and everyone has to come there? Languages also present a challenge for us. Given the global nature of where these centers are at, as well as the diversity of the development engineers who do a lot of the training for us, you’ll have someone who has English as a second language conducting a training class over the phone with people in Beijing or Tokyo.”
Because of their mobility and the nature of what they do on the job, the field engineers typically get performance-support learning via the Web, Endean said. “We have a software package that they can use to load this e-learning material on to their computers, so they can take their laptop out to the worksite and can actually review the training material as they’re working. If there’s a piece of equipment they’re unsure about, then the e-learning module on that particular piece of equipment can be downloaded and they can have that in the field with them.”
To complement the e-learning, Endean and his team also rolled out a remote lab in which field engineers can determine how the technologies are arranged. “As part of the e-learning training, they can perform exercises remotely in our lab,” he said. “In terms of the installation and configuration of the products, obviously they can’t remotely pull the piece of equipment out and replace it, but they can configure it remotely. By putting the remote lab in, their ability to support the product has gone up dramatically. Based on the time-to-resolution that we track through our system, the time-to-resolution of the cases that get referred to our field engineers has gone down since we put the labs in. Initially it went down about 25 percent, but it’s leveled off now.”
However, for the technical support engineers, who need to have a more in-depth understanding of technology, the training is usually more intensive and interactive, Endean explained. “They’re coming out of school with a background in data networking, computers and things of that nature. What we train them on is the technology they didn’t learn about in college. Let’s say that they’re going to support Voice technologies. We’re going to give them a lot of boot camp training on Voice. As new products are introduced, we’re going to give them training on those.”
“For the technical support engineers, the preferred method is clearly instructor-led because of the interaction that occurs,” he added. “There’s the ability to ask questions. Troubleshooting is part of the training, and they’re actually able to work in teams while they’re troubleshooting. We also have labs associated with that and hands-on exercises that we’ll actually take from the experiences the development engineers had with the products. Those will be examples that we configure as problems that engineers going through the training have to solve.”
Endean relies on metrics — particularly those of the four-level Kirkpatrick model — to determine the efficacy of learning programs. He added that Cisco also is in the early stages of an adaptive testing assessment process, which is designed to ascertain the skill level of individual employees in a given technology and then establish the appropriate courses for their professional development. “The individual will go through a couple of pretty straightforward questions that assess the level of knowledge they believe they have in a technology. We will then start asking them questions around that skill level. If they continue to answer the questions accurately within a given time frame, then within 10 questions they’re usually finished being assessed, and we know with about 80 percent probability what skill level they have with that technology. What we can then do is take something else we’re rolling out called the technology learning roadmap, which has levels in it ranging from beginner all the way through to the most sophisticated engineer — we call them ‘escalation engineers.’ We have training that goes across those levels that helps them progress in any area.”
–Brian Summerfield, email@example.com
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