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An impure solution

by Scott Bradner

In a distant lifetime I did a few years of part time teaching for the IBM internal education organization. It paid well and got me to a number of places I would not have considered going otherwise. IBM is now trying to minimize its need for people like me.

A company the size of IBM with a few hundred thousand employees does a lot of internal education. This is quite a good opportunity for people like me who rent themselves out as teachers but is very expensive for IBM both in terms of money and employee time. The way that IBM worked when I was involved was to schedule some classroom in an education center or other facility for a period of time between a day and a few weeks. Then the problem was to get individual employees to sign up and arrange their schedules to be at the site for the right time.

Considering IBM's reputation as a network company it seems obvious that IBM should try to use network-based technology to streamline this process and reduce costs. They have done so but they did not go overboard and sacrifice function for philosophy. Their solution, which they call "distributed learning," does use network-based tools but also includes CD ROMs and targeted classroom work. This is interesting to me not just because it is good to catch up on what a group that I once worked with is doing but also because it seems to be a good lesson in how to approach the training game. It is also interesting IBM decided to not go to a pure network-based model, something that too many organizations are doing because "it's the future."

Students can access the materials on-line, download them to their own machines or get them on a CD. Students can access the classes when and where they have the time, run at their own pace and even skip sections they already know or are not interested in, something that is hard to do in a face to face class.

Although it has only been active for a couple of years IBM currently has about 1400 classes in the distributed learning program. About 100,000 IBM employees are using the system to the extent of over 160,000 "learning days" in the first half of this year. IBM's goal is to switch at least 30% of their education days to the distributed learning system and save $100 million per year. They are well on the way. They are also offering custom distributed learning programs for sale.

Education, whether in a corporate or university environment, is changing rapidly and will go through many stages as the technology matures. IBM seems to be learning the business of learning and the lessons it is getting will help many others.

disclaimer: Harvard does innovation with all deliberate speed and does not yet have an opinion of IBM's ideas- i.e. the above opinion is mine.