One of the most unique aspects of the learning industry is the many paths people take to become leaders in the field. Whereas many CFOs — to cite just one example — will have spent their entire careers in finance, a large number of learning executives will have professional backgrounds that include long stints that aren’t related to employee development.
Take Sun Microsystems’ Vice President and Chief Learning Officer Karie Willyerd. She took a somewhat unconventional and roundabout road to her current role, starting out as a journalist for newspapers and magazines. She decided to change careers a few years afterward, though, and earned a master of science in instructional and performance technology from Boise State University and an executive doctorate in management from Case Western Reserve University.
Once Willyerd got her academic credentials, she took a job authoring training materials for Prentice Hall. Then, she worked for a flight simulator company, which she eventually parlayed into an instructional design and development role at Lockheed Martin. Not long thereafter, she became the head of learning at that company.
After rising through the ranks of the learning industry over several years, Willyerd deviated from it to some extent when she took a job as chief talent officer at Selectron, a provider of security and convergence technology solutions.
“That was really helpful,” she said of the experience. “That role was interesting because I was on the CEO’s staff and got to see how they were running the company. That helped prepare me for this role, because I got to see all the details involved with what it takes to survive in a low-margin business.”
She got back to her roots nearly two years ago, when she was hired on as vice president and CLO of Sun Learning Services. The company’s learning function is responsible not only for the development needs of approximately 34,000 employees globally, but also one of the largest customer-facing training programs in the world, Willyerd said.
“It’s a very large organization,” she explained. “When you get to a learning organization of this size, it’s not just about the top person. It’s really about the team. If you try to do it all yourself, you’re doomed.”
This daunting size was part of the reason Willyerd was brought on board. In what was previously a decentralized organizational structure, she became a CLO to CLOs around the world.
“That was a fairly dramatic organizational change for Sun,” she said. “The CLO role did not exist before I was hired for this position. Not only did we create that at the top of the organization, but we also decided to create a structure of CLOs to support various audiences around the world: customers, partners, employees and communities. Whereas formerly some of our CLOs might have just run our learning business or run employee learning, when they got named chief learning officer, they all had to start wearing several hats: running the business of learning, doing employee learning, training our partners and working with universities to get our content into their programs. We now have a total of 16 CLOs who report to three regional CLOs.”
Chris James, Sun Learning Services’ CLO for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is one of those regional learning executives. He pointed out that Willyerd and the other learning leaders at the company have changed more than just the organizational structure — they’ve also significantly transformed the way they want development programs to be delivered. He compared the difference to how news is consumed today versus a couple of decades ago.
“That information is immediately available to you in multimedia,” James explained. “They often say, ‘If you want more information, visit our Web site.’ That kind
of news transfer is the same experience they want when they learn. In general, this generation expects things to be at their fingertips. And even our seasoned support engineers know what’s possible, and most of them are very adaptable when it comes to using an iPod or a PDA to pick up troubleshooting information. Our challenge is to create an ever-evolving platform to deliver that.”
To that end, Willyerd brought in Sun software developer Charles Beckham to serve as chief technologist for the Learning Services organization. He too recognizes the need to change learners’ experiences — particularly with virtual programs — and has focused on an approach similar to that of Amazon.com, which uses rating systems, allows customer comments and suggests similar offerings that might be of interest. These and other new methods are crucial for getting a new generation of learners engaged, he said.
“When you look at demographic change, you can see there’s going
to be this huge tipping point that
will happen very quickly and suddenly. As the baby boomer generation rolls off, there will be a huge vacuum that will have to be filled by the younger generations.”
For Willyerd, though, this idea of instantaneous, accessible and relevant learning goes beyond the demands of an incoming group of workers. She emphasizes a “just in time, just enough and just for me” learning strategy for its own sake, and also promotes the idea of employee development as a means for supporting and managing workforce performance.
“How you learn something matters less than being able to perform to a standard,” she said. “So we have lots of testing that we can use to authenticate knowledge acquisition and certification to show levels of achievement. We also provide lots of informal learning methods. I think there’s a point where the learning profession has to give up that control of the learning experience and step into what’s actually a much richer role, which is controlling performance expectations.”
This mindset has led her to proclaim, half jokingly, the “death of the LMS” within Sun.
“We see the LMS as something on the back end serving as a database,” Willyerd said. “On the front end, we’re using a set of principles to design the interface for users that allows them to dish up this ‘just in time, just enough and just for me’ learning. It incorporates a Google search: If they put in, for example, the term ‘difficult employees,’ that goes across all kinds of learning objects that they can launch immediately. Things like specific chapters from books and specific e-learning modules pop up. It’s much broader than searching a catalog of things that might be sitting in an LMS. The LMS is the record keeper.”
To be sure, the LMS has been valuable in this capacity. Willyerd said Sun is a metrics-driven organization, so the ability to measure various aspects of learning programs is crucial.
“We’ve got a dashboard with goals and objectives for each of the sections, and we track all of those,” she said. “We’ve still got a lot of classroom training. We delivered 5 million hours of classroom training last year. There’s also a lot of e-learning happening. That’s all tracked, and it goes back to the LMS database.”
Willyerd and the Learning Services team have carefully monitored one kind of learning platform in particular: the company’s new social networks. Sun recently launched an onboarding site aimed at new and prospective hires that includes competitive gaming, user profiles and tag clouds, to name a few features.
“We know that most of our new hires are digital natives,” Willyerd said. “This is an environment most of them are comfortable with. Not only do we have live training and e-learning, but we also have this kind of site to make learning a process and create a social network around that.”
Aside from reaching a new kind of learner and transforming development into a continuous process, the social networking modality serves two distinct purposes for Sun. The first is that it actually supports the overall organizational culture.
“One of the goals of Sun Microsystems is getting people participating on the network,” Willyerd said. “The more people who are participating, the more infrastructure is needed to support that network, which leads to server sales. So our culture is very much about network participation. We have more than 3,500 employees who blog, for example, which makes it easier for us to do some of this cutting-edge stuff. In fact, if we weren’t using some of these tools and technologies, we’d be seen as not ‘getting it.’”
Also, social networks make it possible for Sun employees — many of whom might never actually meet each other in person — to communicate and collaborate comfortably.
“About 25 percent of our employees don’t work from a Sun office — they work from home,” Willyerd explained. “You can come in as a new hire and work from home, and you won’t meet another Sun employee for ages. Even if you do go to work, it might be at a drop-in center, which we have in several major cities. That’s not a group of people who you’ll create a physical social network with. Sun has so many locations and so many people dispersed that creating virtual social networks is a very important part of the overall strategy to attract, retain and motivate employees.”
Because of these unique factors, Sun Learning Services plans to add many varieties of virtual, collaborative programs in the near future.
“[The new-hire site is] just the beginning of the learning offerings we’re moving toward,” said Kelly Palmer, senior director of design and development. “We’re targeting a collaborative learning environment for the next few quarters and beyond.”
“We have a vision for how much more we want to do,” Willyerd added. “We’re all saying, ‘Let’s go faster!’”