Magazine article Talent Development

Consistency Brings Results: ABB Finds an Effective Way to Train Thousands of Engineers Spread across the World

Magazine article Talent Development

Consistency Brings Results: ABB Finds an Effective Way to Train Thousands of Engineers Spread across the World

Article excerpt

Prior to 2011, global giant ABB took a highly decentralized approach to training. Business units arranged their own training events, either by bringing a trainer on-site, sending employees to training at other sites, or contracting with a supplier.

Two factors were making this approach increasingly untenable: The company had grown rapidly through acquisition, and its products were increasingly dependent on software. Although we were interested in making training more cost-effective, a key concern was making it more uniform.

So in 2009, I was tasked with helping ABB standardize a set of practices, tools, and training for the company's several thousand software engineers. We needed the software engineers--who are spread across 52 countries--to know how to use the same processes in the same way, no matter where they worked.

After researching various approaches to training, we concluded three things: Developing training in-house was necessary to guarantee uniformity; webinars and e-learning would be the most cost-effective way to deliver the training; and contracting with instructional designers would be the most nimble approach for getting engineers trained on the right solutions at the right time. What resulted was the Software Development Improvement Program (SDIP).

The reality

ABB is an automation and power technology company whose products include everything from electrical transformers to control systems that manage power networks. Prior to SDIP's formation, business units were on their own when it came to training. Many brought trainers to development sites or sent their staff members off-site. The units independently contracted with tool suppliers for education on specific products.

These options were expensive and were not always successful. Busy engineers (and their managers) did not necessarily want to take time off to travel, and busy units struggled to find that one window when enough staff members were available to make it worthwhile to bring a trainer on-site.

"It was an issue for us to send multiple people at a time for the one time there was a classroom training," explains KS Bhat, a line manager in Bangalore, India.

And without a centralized approach, the company couldn't negotiate for the best price on supplier training. Training programs on industry-leading processes were particularly expensive because we would typically rely on consultants, who would charge upward of $100,000 for a series of classes.

Choosing the right format and people

Even if professional, in-person training is more effective, it is the most costly. A 2012 study by Caper Jones & Associates indicates that online training is the most effective (and cost-effective) method of training that doesn't rely on in-person courses.

Initially we were concerned about interactivity. Video training has been available for years, but the format doesn't allow students to ask questions or interact with classmates and instructors. Thus we decided to use webinars, which do allow for the interactivity we sought.

Now we needed to determine who would build these webinars, and who would serve as subject matter experts. ABB has a team of instructional designers who create product training programs. They could have been a resource, but their mandate is to take care of the customer and we felt that our needs would not have taken precedence. We also needed to identify a ready pool of SMEs. The research group at ABB was a likely source, but serving as SMEs for in-house training would not have been a high priority for this group.

Another issue revolved around the ebb and flow of class creation work. Initially there was quite a bit of work to be done to develop the first batch of courses. After that first group was created, however, the workload would vary depending on what types of new courses we needed to produce.

Our solution was as follows: We use contracted instructional designers to help build courses, with in-house experts serving as consultants. …

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