Building Talent

How can (and why should) enterprises cultivate talent?

Major shifts in organizational structures, technology infrastructure, workplace demographics, and learning paradigms are under way. Shortsighted emphasis on current economic conditions will translate into missed opportunities for building a future talent base. (See the reference to a current study of talent shortages under "Community Corps" below).

An integrated approach to learning/talent development/results can save time and money now being spent on education and training programs that fail to differentiate between formal/informal learning, information/application, knowledge/individual interpretation, current/future work force.

Learning is moving out of the classroom, into the workplace and online, with immediate onboarding (a concept described below), learning-by-doing, and connectivity to just-in-time information sources. Off-site workshops are carefully selected to provide reflective opportunities specifically for those in a position to guide the enterprises' results (including those responsible for the increasingly critical challenge of workforce development).

In the Window on Talent and Learning, this section on Building Talent is represented as an "assembled puzzle" because, beyond understanding of the big picture, implementation requires careful analysis of how the pieces are differentiated, positioned according to purpose, and applied to the specific needs of an individual enterprise.

Some of the following concepts already are in practice; links are included to companies providing support services. (Note: IFTF does not endorse these companies.) Other concepts are new and changing, and, though some examples may be available, the ideas are still evolving and ideally will be interpreted differently by different enterprises.


E-recruiting has exploded over the past 3 years. There are more than 100 Internet- based software applications to help firms with e-recruiting. Online recruiting companies let organizations post job requirements, collect and store resumes, search for candidates, arrange and schedule candidate interviews, and record and track comments among the recruiting team. Databases can be created listing potential employees with particular skills, knowledge and experience. However, there is no replacement for personal evaluation: companies still need to be careful that they are screening for the best talent, not the right "words."

An enterprise’s learning opportunities are a critical aspect of its attractiveness in a competitive hiring marketplace. More and more companies feature these aspects of their environments in their on- and off-line recruitment material. The following are four categories of e-recruiting tools:

1. Applicant Tracking Tools: These are client-server or Internet-based tools that store candidate resumes. They retrieve resumes by using key word searches. Many of these tools also allow the recruiter to schedule interviews, track progress through the interview cycle, and store information about candidates. These tools are the heart of many recruiting activities and serve as the warehouse for potential hires. Tools in this category include:

 2. Employment Management Systems: These are more sophisticated and complex tools designed to help organizations manage the entire human capital acquisition process. EMS tools allow a manager to create the open position on-line, link to any existing Human Resources Information System and keep the workforce numbers current. They do most of what the applicant tracking systems do but also add better reporting capability. These are end-to-end solutions and are, as such, more expensive. There are fewer of them and they are in various stages of development. None are fully completed systems at this time. Tools in this category include:


Replacing the traditional "orientation," "training," and "retraining," the Onboarding (or "bootcamp") approach to launching new and re-assigned employees is rigorous and intense, an immersion experience with content as well as culture. Onboarding typically involves bringing an entire group to a new level of knowledge/expertise. For example, onboarding for information technology skills helps people quickly learn immediately applicable material for new and evolving roles like that of a network administrator. Now the idea is expanding to include the initiation phase for any group of employees.

While not new, the idea of an intensive development period for employees is gaining popularity and continually being refined and adapted for individual companies. For years National Semiconductor Corporation has had a program called the College Hire Assimilation Program (CHAP) for rapidly integrating new college hires into their new positions. Elements of the program include an intensive day-long outdoor ropes course in which members of a team learn to trust and support each other, activities to explain and immerse them in the corporate culture, career development counseling and social activities. The program runs over an entire year with bootcamp-like days and weeks interspersed throughout. Retention went up and has stayed high for these new hires since the programs inception more than a decade ago.

Onboarding is the time when employees are connected to the full range of support (including the types of support described in other sections of this memo). Employees are immersed into the company culture, learn new skills, and gain access to an internal network of tools and people who then support ongoing informal learning through continuing mentoring and coaching. With top talent increasingly cycling quickly through different organizations, the importance of "bonding" with company culture is essential. Programs such as the one at National Semiconductor show gains both in retention and production.

Onboarding is a process for new recruits, instituting changes within a department or company, or shifting employees from one department for another. The tools and approaches depend on scalability. The cost of customized learning systems is thousands of dollars per minute of training.

For smaller firms or specialized departments, bringing people up to speed on needed information or skills may involve pointers to alternative pre-existing Internet or software programs and a supply of tools/techniques for adapting them. (See Reusable Learning Objects, below).

For large organizations where many employees share similar needs for knowledge/skills-acquisition, the investment in tailored online learning programs can pay off. This is obviously true for IT training but success has also occurred in the area of people skills. For example, IBM estimated $500,000 in savings by putting its management training program online.

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Community Corps

Since they now have more openings than qualified applicants, enterprises routinely are partnering with schools and community groups around the world to create sources of skilled and adaptable talent.

Is the "war for talent" still an issue, given the 2001 economic conditions? Consider this excerpt from a report on a study by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA):

"While no lost job or business investment should be taken lightly, changes in the aggregate high tech employment marketplace should be identified, analyzed and understood. Perceptions and anecdotes should not be allowed to replace empirical data. Despite the experience of individual companies, the U.S. requirement for a steady supply of new IT workers continues. While the current economic slowdown has diminished demand, such demand for new talent persists.

Indeed, this new study by the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) finds a national IT workforce of 10.4 million. Add to this total an additional 900,000 workers that companies say they hope to hire this year. Of this total, 425,000 positions will go unfilled because of a lack of applicants with the requisite technical and non-technical skills." (For details of this and other studies, go to Information Technology Association of America http://www.itaa.org/)

Far-sighted businesses are continuing their investment in the future workforce. Some businesses are volunteering workers, equipment and funds to schools at all levels: K-12, trade schools, colleges and universities. Technically sophisticated parents are assisting with IT support and implementation in their children's schools with their employers' support. Businesses are participating in regional collaboratives with local schools, governments, and other companies to increase the skills of their communities.

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Anytime, Anyplace, Any Pace

This is the fundamental concept of the shift to informal action learning. We see the proliferation of cell phones, Internet use, databases, peer-to-peer information exchange. We see the future opportunities resulting from advances in display technology, biometrics, tagging, voice technology, small scale power supplies and smart materials in various combinations.

The power implicit in the information/connectivity revolution is being harnessed for talent development. Companies that connect employees with an always-on, wireless infrastructure can reap great rewards by offering instant access to relevant databases, to modular curriculum and to other employees who have similar tasks and potentially more experience. This approach is more efficient than classroom training because workers can "pull" information they need when they need it, enabling learning-by-doing, instead of having information "pushed" at inappropriate times in chunks they may or may not retain.

A major challenge in an always-on environment is providing reflection time. Just-in-time learning may result in short-term productivity increases, but long-term improvement in competence is enhanced by having the time to consider what worked and why. Face to face gatherings or online communities are places for this sort of reflection.

Enterprises face some key questions in leveraging employee connectivity. What tools do you provide? ("A next generation cellphone/Palm/Internet in every pocket"?) What constraints do you place on employee networking? (Figuring out the tradeoffs involved with encouraging employees to enjoy just-in-time knowledge swapping with friends/colleagues through their personal networks which often include people outside of the corporate firewall.) How do you locate/create networks that best will serve employee needs for instant information access.

For an understanding of the technological changes that have come about in the recent past -- and how they are likely to revolutionize learning in every aspect of society globally, we recommend looking at the 1999 IFTF report Effective Distance Communication by Chuck House of Dialogic (Intel).

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Supportive Community of Practice

The term "Community of Practice" originated with Peter Henschel's Institute for Research on Learning (now merged into West Ed). Informal ongoing group learning efforts can be face to face, virtual or a combination of the two modes and can involve coworkers as well as people with similar professional interests both in and out of the workplace. Henschel was instrumental in encouraging a successful e-learning community among Xerox employees who developed a just-in-time community of practice. Each experience and learning during an installment or repair calls was recorded in a data base organized by topic so that the next person going out had access to previous knowledge. Similar peer coaching can occur among networks of companies. A detailed view of how managers can facilitate this way of learning is presented in Henschel's memo, "The Manager's Work in the New Economy."

Online communities may evolve over time into areas not initially envisioned. For example, Tapped In (www.tappedin.org) initially started out as a group interested in curriculum delivery but evolved into a "community of practice" with teachers trading experiences and helping one another design new curricula.

Within an organization, managers can provide a simple network for workers connect with colleagues facing similar challenges. Far-sighted managers who want to help employees find an edge in innovation and ideas are helping workers connect with outside communities combining face to face and online activities for ongoing support around a specific discipline or interest. Enterprises seeking to create online communities can go to providers such as:

Many enterprises, of course, are turning their intranets into expanded communities of practice, engaging customers, suppliers, potential employees, shareholders and others in their eco-systems. But usablity can suffer when companies endeavor to "put it all together" on a single website. Web design or re-design with usability studies are essential to the investment. This service is available from companies such as:

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Learning Concierge

A Learning Concierge is an on-line tutor/navigator, an "individualized educational program" that can extract material tailored to the individual's learning style, tastes, sense of humor, level of trust, and previous learning and work experiences in conjunction with an ever increasing user profile. This is a next-generation concept as navigation tools becoming increasingly adapted to the user and information becomes increasingly searchable for relevance to the user.

"The Holy Grail is the system that learns about the learner from the learner's behavior in the system. For example, the learning system knows I enjoy ribald humor, food analogies, and gestalt learning through visualizations.These things begin showing up in my lessons/interactions,'" observes Jay Cross, co-founder of the E-Learning Forum and CEO of Internet Time. He makes the distinction between personal e-learning and enterprise e-learning.

Enterprise e-learning: Some learning management companies are trying to move in the direction of helping enterprise provide a learning-concierge approach to employee development. For example, Ninth House (www.ninthhouse.com) conducts "preference surveys" of users in order to tailor training to individual learning styles. Customized learning spaces which adapt to user experience are being developed by learning software companies including Saba (www.saba.com) and SmartForce. (www.Smartforce.com).Personal e-learning: One ideal is for individuals to fashion their own Learning Concierge from decentralized sources, so they are not relying on another person or organization to interpret what they need but rather have the tools to cobble together their own unique navigational and sorting tools. With the growth of object-oriented learning programs (see "Reusable Learning Objects" below), individuals can become more empowered in charting their own learning course. Also, in many online communities, a live person serves as a Learning Concierge, such as TappedIn's guide Kari Craig who welcomes visitors, answers questions and is available for teachers seeking information resources or like-minded colleagues in specific topic areas.

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Reputation Systems

Who can you trust in a network of distributed people, tools, and sources of information? How can you be sure that what you are being told and learning is correct, up-to-date, and truthful?

Reputation systems let users rate the value and relevance of material and people as sources of reliable information. Through their own intranets or custom learning communities, enterprises can build and track their networks and reputation systems, but knowledge flow through the permeable boundaries of individual organizations requires individuals to have access to reliable information outside the company.

Reputation systems have evolved in commercial domains like the auction system eBay and price finding tools like Cnet. In the future, look for learning systems that assist individuals in evaluating sources of information. Some new companies brokering decentralized knowledge exchange are experimenting with reputation systems. For example Hot Dispatch (www.HotDispatch.com) is a technical information exchange, an "eBay for ideas.", Providers can hang out a virtual "shingle" advertising their areas of expertise and people with specific needs can make a "bid for help." Their exchanges are captured in a database that records the results of transactions and establishes participants' reputations.

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Reusable Learning Objects

Reusable information objects (RIOs) are information and tools broken down to the most basic level. Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs) apply this concept to the education domain. Teachers and learners can use this material to build and extend curriculum. The idea of RLOs is not new. The challenge has been how to (and who will) standardize these components so that they can be found, tracked, labeled and used for educational purposes.

The military (SCORM) has already established standards for RLOs in government sectors. Private companies are racing to have a strategic position in the standardization (See www.cisco.com/warp/public/779/ibs/solutions/learning/whitepapers/el_cisco_rio.pdf for information on Cisco's efforts). The meta-tags for RLOs will determine how individuals can search for them - e.g., by author, by subject, by institution, by process, by date. Improvements in database technologies will lead to greater accessibility to the increasing universe of information in general and RLO's in particular. In the future, users will be able to more easily, accurately and relevantly retrieve learning modules as they need them.

Meanwhile, individuals can turn to several companies that are using the "object oriented" approach to learning. Tens of thousands of people have taken courses they have selected through companies that have a virtual inventory of RLOs that can be customized for the individual.

Companies that make courses available to individuals through RLO's include:

Among the companies consulting with enterprises to package RLOs for employee learning are:

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Increases in bandwidth and desktop processing power have made it possible to view instructional seminars remotely. Many universities now routinely netcast material that had previously been transmitted over closed-circuit television networks. An example is Stanford’s Center for Professional Development, http://scpd.stanford.edu . Another is the consortium of universities run by the commercial entity Unext, http://www.unext.com .

Decreases in the cost of storage have made it possible to view this material at one’s convenience or need. Material from a variety of universities and research organizations may be found at the Microsoft Multi-University/Research Lab. (http://www.murl.microsoft.com)

Experimental systems will make it possible to skim and browse lectures and seminars as rapidly and easily as text. A group at Microsoft Research is experimenting with tools to compress lecture material and automatically extract highlights.

Virtual auditoriums let participants interact in real time and asynchronously (e.g., http://www.placeware.com.)

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Problem Based Learning/Assessment

Problem Based Learning teaches by offering students experiences related to the sorts of work they will be doing in the future. For example, instead of teaching debits and credits in accounting as theoretical concepts with artificial exercises, a team of students works together building a company and develops its the financial statements. Through solving the problem, they learn the concepts. In a workplace this is similar to the Cognitive Apprenticeship technique which lets people learn from peers or mentors with greater previous experience by letting them do new types of work with appropriate coaching.

The approach has been used to give students experience in distributed, cross-disciplinary team work. Dr. Renate Fruchter, director of the PBL Laboratory in the Civil Engineering Department at Stanford has created a curriculum in which teams of geographically distributed Architects, Engineers, and Construction professionals, and students in those disciplines, work together on projects similar to what the students will experience in the real world. This project also addressed assessment approaches for new competencies that cannot be measured by old corporate training ROI methods.

See IFTF's 1999 interview with Dr.Fruchter

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In his book Serious Play, Michael Schrage wrote , "Serious play is about improvising with the unanticipated in ways that create new value. Any tools, technologies, techniques or toys that let people improve how they play seriously with uncertainty is guaranteed to improve the quality of innovation. The ability to align those improvements cost-effectively with the needs of customers, clients, and markets dramatically boosts the odds for competitive success."

There are people who still cringe at the notion of people having fun at their work -- and usually they're not the managers whose departments are generating new ideas. The reverse is true in environment where innovation is encouraged. Workscapes, schedules, tools are aimed at maximizing creative potential. The goals are clear, but how people get there may not be clear to anyone but the individual worker.

Professor Mitch Resnick at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, has pioneered the notion of "Lifelong Kindergarten" as a metaphor for learning in a world that's ever changing where workers will have to repeatedly take on new roles. The sort of "play and reflection" that takes place in kindergarten will be beneficial throughout one’s life. See his website at http://llk.media.mit.edu ]

Some concepts:

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Network Mapping Tools

Virtual communities can best be 'seen' in relation to the wider field of social network analysis and visualized by mapping communication patterns, including strong and weak ties. Enterprises can provide tools and incentives for employees to track their sources of knowledge and ideas.

?Networked learning will catch up to the networked society as enterprises begin:

Scholars and vendors are involved in various online experiments to help design and map networks. Among the companies involved in experimental networking mapping is Group Jazz (www.groupjazz.com) which is exploring how to design networks for communities of practice, project teams, and learners. The goal is to launch networks that attract and engage, and to sustain networks that go beyond the early adopters and become mainstream.

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In a simulation, people can practice new skills in a safe environment where trial-and-error can thrive, the consequences of decisions are immediate, and mistakes are learning opportunities without the onus of real failure.

Pilots, members of the military, and NASA astronauts all have made use of simulations that put them to the test of real world experiences in risk free environments. The application of technology enabled and enhanced role playing and simulations to business environments is increasing.

The rallying cry of simulators in the 1980s was: "Education is the next killer app." Brilliant minds were working on interactive imaginative games that would allow children to learn at play. Twenty years later many found themselves employed in the entertainment electronics industry, making interactive video games instead of educational software, lamenting the lost opportunities for children.

Choosing simulation software is a matter of deciding how much time and money will be saved if an employee can cycle through experiences virtually rather than in real time. Again, IT training is a natural fit. The complexity comes with simulations for soft skills. In the past two years several companies (including some that have partnered with top universities) have tried and failed in the marketplace trying to create simulations to help executives and managers with decision-making. But others are staying the course. Some examples of companies pioneering simulation techniques for business are:

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Extreme Learning

Extreme Learning is the term for social experiences that provide intense action learning, such as participatory workshops, field trips where people are plunged into alien surroundings, ropes courses in which people face physical and social challenges in a safe environment, and retreats where employees participate in on-the-spot decisions affecting the entire organization.

But without reflection and continuity of communication, these experiences may not have lasting effects on the individual or the company. Extreme learning at its best combines highly effective face to face -- whether that is part of the work day or an off site -- with ongoing opportunities for integration and application of learning by using the tools outlined above, including communities of practice and the always-on infrastructure.

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