Given its global significance as a world business leader and a key thread in the very fabric of life in nearly all societies, it’s sometimes difficult to think that Microsoft didn’t exist until a mere 30 years ago. What’s transpired since is a success story of the first order, and it’s not surprising that the principles that built such a strong external brand are being applied internally as well.
On a daily basis, Microsoft markets a message of inspiration and innovation, and those same guiding lights are being used in the ongoing development of a productive, energetic and agile workforce. And fittingly, it’s a creative model, kind of centralized decentralization with communication and collaboration at its core. In short, it’s the Microsoft way.
Unlike many organizations its size, Microsoft has no single chief learning officer, but that’s not to say learning isn’t well-represented across the company. Microsoft’s nearly 65,000 employees fall under one of four major learning organizations, each guided by a general manager who sits on a company-wide Learning Council, along with senior leadership from each major line of business. The learning organizations are divided among 29,000 engineering employees, 30,000 field readiness workers (largely sales teams), 6,000 marketing professionals and the 14,000 managers and 900 senior leaders who work across the lines.
“It’s a balance between having centralization across the company for certain things and then choosing to move others – what I would call ‘functional development activities’ – closer to the respective professional businesses,” said Ashu Garg, who leads field readiness operations globally. “Given the complexities of Microsoft, and I think that’s true for most large corporations, we’re trying to pivot the business, not just learning or the people, on so many different dimensions. Excessive centralization makes it incredibly hard for learning to be productively aligned with the business. We feel very good about the way we are relative to what we hear when we talk to others in the industry.”
“We have the best of both worlds,” said Cedric Coco, general manager of the engineering group. “We have a virtual team that we agree to collaborate and work from, sort of a virtual CLO type of entity called the Learning Council. The big key that comes with that model is the total alignment to the business.”
The Learning Council was formed initially in 2004 to create synergies between the far-flung learning organizations, each with its own missions and objectives. The council provided certain efficiencies, such as reducing redundancies in content, which is now built with an eye on information-sharing where possible and specific customizations as needed. The council meets monthly as a group, with separate meetings held when necessary. The council also works closely with an advisory committee made up of corporate vice presidents.
“The purpose and the intention is we need to have a people strategy,” Coco said. “You have a product strategy, marketing, customer, partner strategies. They hold us accountable to having a people strategy.”
The reasons, of course, are obvious.
“If you look at Microsoft, the biggest assets we have are our people,” Coco added. “Every organization exists to be profitable and to deliver a value. The value comes from the people in the workforce we have. We have to make sure that we have an investment to sustain and maintain that value. The funny thing is that’s partially the textbook answer, but it is really the way Microsoft thinks. The challenge is that in the dynamic high-tech market, what does it mean to have a people strategy and a people agenda? We’re evolving.” There’s certainly no dissension among council members about that.
“People are the intellectual property. How do you upscale that IP?” said Josh Levine, senior manager of the marketing group. “As the company gets more complex and grows further and further, we have to get smarter about the market. That requires us to take people’s games to the next level.”
That mission is easier said than done, of course. Operating in 88 diverse sub-markets around the world, Microsoft’s learning leaders face the usual challenges of content and messaging, and determining what needs matter most and when.
“I think we’ve done really good work in the last couple of years in what I see a lot of CLOs struggle with, which is how do I determine which core, how do I think about my core competency as a company, what I want to do, what I think we should develop capability around, and what I think we should outsource,” Coco said. “I’m actually pleased at a lot of work that we’ve done in that area to figure out really where core competency is. The next step for us is to figure out from a corporate level how we want to think about it and look at it. I think we’ve done it individually, but how does that come together into one puzzle? I think, at least for me, it’s something we’re still trying to address.”
Annual feedback polls from employees are one tool to help identify gaps and potential. Management capability programs also are being used to ramp up the organization. Throughout programs like this, Microsoft’s learning managers aim for experiences that resonate at the individual user level.
That’s part of a “70-20-10” learning model, theorizing that 70 percent of learning comes on the job, 20 percent comes from mentoring and coaching and the final 10 percent is training-based. You’ll see that approach reflected across the company and supported by senior leadership, who serve as both the mentors and the mentored.
“At most companies, when you dig under the covers, people at a certain level are only mentored by people at a more senior level,” Coco said. “That doesn’t exist here. You will have individual contributors who mentor someone more senior to them. It’s really an unbelievable dynamic model.”
Both Garg and Coco were in place at Microsoft before the Learning Council was created under the leadership of Tanya Clemons, vice president of organizational development and executive sponsor to the council. Both agree the across-the-board involvement is crucial.
“That is an extremely powerful thing, where you have executives, middle-level senior management and entry-level management all being your board of directors and giving you direction, from a fairly dynamic, active perspective to really help you drive your strategy,” Coco said. “It’s a really solid feedback loop.”
With major product launches like Vista on the horizon, it’s important for Microsoft’s learning leaders to look ahead. The company is currently looking three years out in terms of workforce strategies, determining now what skills and competencies will be needed in a few years.
“We want to map their training to these competencies, to these major initiatives and interventions,” Levine said. “One in marketing is the return on marketing investment that we are working on. It’s a big initiative, and part of what will fall out is key skills that we need to upscale or train our employees on. That kind of cascades down to competencies, cascades down to our strategies.”
Delivering literally millions of hours of training to its workforce annually, Microsoft takes advantage of a true blended approach of classroom, online and on-the-job learning. While some of the learning is mandated, much is still offered electively. Add in the need for consistency in branding and messaging, and the burdens of management become clear.
Another struggle currently for the Learning Council is reaching the entire extended enterprise, which includes partners and customers. Part of that mission, of course, entails generational considerations and taking advantage of new learning venues, including podcasts, blogs and communities of practice.
“When you think about this, the paradox is on one hand we’re a very metrics- and numbers-driven organization. If you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen,” Garg said. “On the other hand, the reality of community-driven development activities is they’re harder to measure. They’re less structured. How do you do post assessments around a set of Wikipedia-like activities? So the balance is between leveraging the power of technology and the fact that we have a relatively tech-savvy and young audience that is trying to do things in a very different way. I’m sure its true of other companies as well; it’s not just us.”
That mass customization of productive learning remains a major item on Microsoft’s corporate agenda, as do providing holistic learning experiences with an eye on business value and return on investment.
“The challenge, and in some sense the opportunity, for us is to figure out how to reconcile the fact that we have multiple pivots to our business and at the same time we are trying to deliver some aggressive learning and development needs,” Garg said. “I think we’d be naive to say that any one model is perfect. Working in a virtual team does add complexity. I think the balance, on the whole, has worked well.”
COMPANY: Microsoft Corp.
A decentralized system of learning management reaches approximately 65,000 employees through four major workforce education organizations: field readiness (sales and customer-facing employees), operations (engineering group), professional development (leadership and management) and marketing. Leadership of each organization functions as part of a corporation-wide Learning Council.
- Established a company-wide governance model and framework for readiness that aligns learning with business priorities while providing the flexibility to shift resources/focus based on changes in business environment.
- Built a world-class readiness organization with experienced senior leadership and a focus on driving business performance improvement and a culture of managing readiness like a business.
- Established a company-wide learning governance model and organizational ecosystem that has transitioned the engineering learning function from a training-focused organization to a performance-support-focused organization.
- Re-tooled the core training for employees, at all levels, integrated with career models and competencies.
- Significantly advanced application of the 70-20-10 learning philosophy with more tools and solutions that focus on learning in the 20 space (coaching, mentoring, peer-based learning) and the 70 space (on-the-job learning).
- Created an integrated training and professional development model that is customized for marketers dependent on their discipline focus area and the stage of their career.
Learning Philosophy: “Learning is a system for making the biggest competitive asset of an organization – its people – more productive. A learning system consists of developing people, defining processes and developing tools. The outcome of a well-balanced system is increased efficiency and ongoing innovation.”
– Cedric Coco, general manager, Microsoft