Beginning her career as a high school teacher, Rita Smith learned about corporate education in the same place many people do their best learning: in a library. Smith happened upon a learning and development magazine while browsing at a public library, and she began to realize her passion for teaching could bring opportunities she didn’t even know existed.
After a short time in the field, Smith was ready to set career goals. She felt she could be more helpful and effective if she could help link learning and business closer together, so she went back to school to receive an MBA and eventually a doctorate.
“I felt I would love to be able to speak the language and know more about the minds of the people I’m serving in the business,” Smith said. “That was a jump in my career, as well, in terms of being a differential — I found it really helped accelerate leadership roles and scope because I really did come to the table with business acumen.”
Now the vice president of enterprise learning at Ingersoll Rand University (IRU), Smith is responsible for the learning and development of 18,000 employees.
Founded in 1871, Ingersoll Rand is a global provider of integrated solutions, services and products to a diverse range of industries, including construction, transportation, agriculture and manufacturing. Some of the company’s best-known products include Club Car golf carts and Thermo King portable refrigeration units.
IRU is spread out over four campuses around the world: India, China, the Czech Republic and the United States. Its mission is simple: Produce world-class learning to meet the changing needs of the company.
The university focuses on developing sales, manufacturing and overall leadership with an eye on future needs. Smith was instrumental in developing and showing the need for effective upper-leadership education, said Bill Gauld, senior vice president of enterprise services.
“I saw the university as key to a change management approach,” Gauld said. “Rita began creating this new direction of the university under the direction of our chairman to focus on really delivering leadership training and education, and it’s blossomed since then.”
More than just focus areas, Smith has kept an emphasis on curriculum and delivery — she is responsible for global delivery, as well as managing an annual multimillion-dollar budget.
She also oversees senior management meetings in regard to the agenda, as well as how to best facilitate them, which is another way Ingersoll Rand uses Smith’s talent and skill to streamline large endeavors. Gauld attributes this to Smith’s vigilant execution of delivery.
“Rita’s got a very strong track record getting the courses delivered, so it has more to do with what’s in the courses and how we are going about doing it, whether we’re going to be continuously counted as a learning company or move more to a teaching company and get more of our executives involved, and actually delivering some of that training,” Gauld said.
Smith’s work to combine the business and learning goals into one large, companywide goal also has impressed Gauld, and she works toward this goal with her team, which includes an associate dean who helps with curriculum and education, an operations staff that reports to her weekly and various third-party partners who work with her to customize content.
Gauld said Smith was IRU’s main architect, and she successfully kept the future in mind as she built the university. He also said Smith has been able to sort out and prioritize needs versus demand (the latter of which is always higher) and she’s been able to make IRU an effective brand name of quality leadership training, something employees want to be a part of.
“People inside the company know that to advance their careers, they need to be in it,” Gauld said. “That’s not simple to do. You can have great courses, but it’s not always perceived that way in the organization. She’s been able to tie that and almost create a vacuum to suck the talent into the courses.”
In addition to her MBA, Smith credits many avenues for her ability to link learning with business — her experience and affiliations over the years have given her a valuable network of resources, in terms of both people and programs. One of her first jobs as a learning professional was for an airline, delivering a wide variety of learning, which helped her gain a holistic view of corporate education.
At Ingersoll Rand, the successful alignment of business and learning isn’t just a one-way street. Smith said she knew from the beginning that executives needed to be engaged and seen as faces of the program.
This has been achieved both by direct contact and by staying involved in the decision-making process — executives regularly visit the university to conduct a sort of “fireside chat.” They also keep prime roles in governance and design boards.
“We operate with the rigor of a business unit, so we’re respected,” Smith said. “It is amazing — we don’t develop anything unless it has executive sponsors. We’re really seen as integrated into the business, in terms of value. It’s really been the cornerstone of my career to see that level of engagement.”
Ingersoll Rand has been through a series of mergers, acquisitions and brand changes over the years. As a result, the university has needed to implement a blended learning approach to reach all employees in a unified way.
To ensure everyone is trained to company stands, Ingersoll Rand uses evaluations, focus groups and audit programs to get delivery feedback. These methods have increasing importance when combined with global content and the need to localize content in terms of language and culture.
Forging good, close relationships with regional partners, regardless of the region, is key to keeping the content relevant, Smith said.
“We’ve been very selective and have deep partnerships with very small numbers of vendors, and one of the capabilities is that they have a global network,” she said.
From the beginning of her career in learning, Smith’s seen the advantage of not only speaking the language of business but also having an innate understanding of the workings behind it. An emphasis on metrics and ROI at IRU is a direct result of Smith’s education and experience.
“One of the big things is that we run the university like a business, so we have lots of operational metrics,” Smith said. “We hold ourselves to the same rigor that our business partners have. Whether it’s unit cost, operational productivity or capacity, we really work with and speak the language in terms of operational effectiveness and efficiency metrics.”
NAME: Rita Smith, Ph.D.
TITLE: Vice President, Enterprise Learning
COMPANY: Ingersoll Rand
• Managed high-potential leadership and general management education, which resulted in a decrease in attrition of these target groups.
• Developed an action-learning approach to marketing curriculum
that resulted in a multimillion-dollar revenue increase.
• Implemented a leader engagement model that engages leaders in learning governance, curriculum advisory, program design, visiting executive fireside chats and visiting instructors in 100 percent of the education solutions.
• Created an external learning partner strategy that resulted in
increased quality, global consistency, speed to market and an
annual six-figure cost reduction.
High-value corporate learning is driven by four practices:
1. Engaging leaders to ensure relevance and alignment with strategy.
2. Making certain your learning solutions provide market-driven value
and price points — be the preferred vendor for your organization.
3. Applying the same operational and fiscal rigor to your learning organization as the businesses you serve.
4. Embedding learning into the workplace as much as possible and focus on real-world application.
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