AT&T: The Marriage of Business and Learning

att globeFrom Chief Learning Officer magazine (May 20, 2013)

AT&T stays on top of the latest tools, technologies and methodologies to deliver learning to its global workforce while remaining in sync with business strategy. Contributing to its success is the company’s learning and development function, which works in close collaboration with the business to understand its needs and drive results. Meshing the learning strategy with the business helped propel AT&T to the No. 1 ranking in Chief Learning Officer magazine’s 2013 LearningElite.

From the start, AT&T’s learning strategy is in direct alignment with the company’s core business objectives. Before implementing its learning curriculum, key business groups get together, including AT&T’s corporate strategy and development group as well as its CEO. The learning and development organization is at the table from the get-go, working to ensure that its programs are in direct alignment with the corporate strategy.

“Once we find out what the five-year plans, three-year plans and next year’s plans are, then the CEO team [has] its offsite and they decide our company’s direction: [They say] ‘OK, what are we going to do over the next three to five years?’ They make their long-term planning,” said Ken Fenoglio, vice president of AT&T University. “Then they go to the board to get approval, and we’re right there with them in that planning process. We’re building our learning courses along the way so that we’re right in sync with the business planning process.”

Each business unit gets an action plan from the strategy team; the learning function then builds plans within the business units based on the annual three- and five-year planning process.

“It’s critical that we have people at the table working closely with leaders and others to help define our business objectives,” said Lew Walker, vice president of learning services at AT&T, “and then wrap our learning initiatives around those objectives so we can help the business meet and exceed their expectations, and ultimately deliver value back to our shareowners.”

In other words, no learning event is undertaken unless it has an impact on the bottom line.

“We don’t do the ‘sure would be nice’ training,” Fenoglio said.

Instead the company does pilot courses and administers test content to calibrate the planned training. Then there is a process of fine-tuning until the final product is ready and leadership approves. Then things are scaled and introduced to the masses.

After learning delivery the company uses Net Promoter Score, a metric to gauge customers’ willingness to recommend a product. Learners are asked if they’re willing to recommend the instructor or curriculum to co-workers.

Leadership commitment is another reason AT&T is the top LearningElite organization. Executives actively support a culture of learning at AT&T. In fact, senior leaders are involved in setting the agenda and shaping courses at AT&T University. Starting with the chairman and CEO on down through the ranks, leaders serve as instructors at the university.

“We believe totally in leaders as teachers,” Fenoglio said. “You don’t know your subject matter, you don’t know your business until you actually teach something. We have a nice blend of external and internal [instructors] that we have teaching [and] we really feel like that has gotten us a long way.”

AT&T University also has an advisory board made up of 14 senior leaders from across the company. These leaders make certain every program or course is aligned to business strategies. Fenoglio said nothing is done without their advice and counsel. “They tell us where the points of need are [and] where the business is driving,” he said. “They also make sure that we’re funded properly.”

More than half of AT&T University’s funding comes from the business units, which contributes significantly to buy-in, because if the business units don’t want or find value in something, they won’t pay for it. “And if they want more … they’re paying with their own checkbook,” Fenoglio said.

The learning services team, which is responsible for skills training, partners with the business to provide real-time training to employees on a daily basis. For instance, the team offers programs to help retail store representatives explain the seemingly endless features on wireless devices, TV services and platforms.

“The majority of my budget for learning services is funded by the clients, so they’ve got vested interest to ensure a great return on investment for the curriculum and deliver that content to people that work in their organization,” Walker said.

Meanwhile, AT&T has made efforts to ensure its use of technology in learning remains cutting-edge. Walker said the company is doing a lot of work related to mobile platforms and looking at gaming, even augmented reality. “We’re a technology company, and what we provide from a learning perspective needs to reflect the technology that we are taking out to our customers,” he said. “So all of those sexy things that everybody is talking about, we make it a reality.”

Some employees in AT&T’s retail stores and those who install AT&T U-verse — the company’s television service — now use iPads on the job. “They’ve got iPads and our training needs to reflect what they’re going to see when they get on the job, and so there’s a lot of work around that,” Walker said.

To that end, the learning team has created an effort under the leadership of Delia Hernandez, associate director of learning services at AT&T, to explore advanced learning technology. For instance, Walker anticipates augmented reality — a 3-D version of Web-based training that is still in its infancy — to gain steam in a few years.

“We can’t just be standing still and expecting that leader-led is going to have the impact that it had years ago,” Walker said, “but rather, [we use] technology to be more efficient in our training and hopefully stimulate a better learning experience.”

Even though AT&T keeps up with the latest technology in an effort to stay ahead of the curve, the company’s learning leaders know tools become moot if they don’t impact the business.

“While it’s great to say, ‘I’ve got gaming or I’ve got this,’ if it doesn’t impact the business and move the business forward and make our people better in terms of the jobs that they have to do, then there’s probably no reason to make that investment and make any of the changes that might be required by putting in some of these technologies,” Walker said.

That’s why the team evaluates the impact of any technology or training before rolling it out. At the end of the day, business impact comes first.

“We’re continually looking at how we can be more efficient with our training and make our end users as proficient as possible, so that when they go through our training they can do their jobs successfully and take care of their families and take care of their customers and make a good living,” Walker said. “We [consider] that very, very important within this organization.”