Copyright 2001 John Zipperer.
Ford's Search for Employee Training and Education
By John Zipperer
(05/24/01) With a global workforce of about 350,000 employees, the Ford Motor Co. has a strong interest in deploying its people effectively. It's important not only to place people where they will be the most useful, but also to develop people's skills so they will be useful in areas in which the company needs people to carry out its goals.
Part of that burden falls on Ed Sketch, Ford Motor Co.'s director of global education, training, and development for North America and Europe, whose efforts are part of the roughly $900 million Ford spends each year on training. "I don't measure the effectiveness of our training by how much we spend on it," he says, "but it's a good measure of how seriously we take it."
Sketch and his team are rolling out a new program next week that will weave the Internet into the company's training programs in a way he believes will close an internal skills gap. Called the Future Learning Network, it will include a Web-based tool for assessing employees' skills against a set of competencies the company needs. The analyses of the gap between the skills available and the skills needed are then being tied into a search technology to find the necessary training to close the gap -- whether that training exists in a classroom environment, research databases, or other resources both in-house and outside the company.
The search technology that Ford is using was developed outside the company, but Sketch is a bit tight-lipped about its specifics. He's more willing to talk about the benefits his company hopes to receive from a better targeting of training programs by its employees. In a training world in which there are many organizations offering courses and course material, and hundreds of possible courses are available, "I wonder how in the heck people know which courses to take," he said. "We're trying to help people take programs that will help people develop, but in a way that aligns with the business strategy. Search is key, and nobody seems to be taking it seriously.
"We're trying to help steer people so they don't waste efforts. There's also not a lot of value in learning things that don't apply."
He's also looking for Web-based applications for measuring the effectiveness of training and the amount that new skills are used. As it is, you can test people at the end of a course to see if they learned a new technique. "But we're saying, three months later, how much of that learning did you apply on the job?" Sketch said. "What was the killer app, and if there was a killer app, why didn't you share it with other people?" Currently that follow-up is being done with focus groups and one-on-one interviews; the follow-up process will later be migrated to the Web. He gave as an example his company's work to retrain supervisors so they are less overseers and more coaches.
"We're going out there and questioning whether that coaching training is sticking, and if not, why not," he said. In the process, Ford is also finding out what questions will work best on the Net version of the questioning process. "We think the Net offers some huge opportunities to get something better. Once you get the methodology right, the Net allows you to do it quickly and get a lot of data from a lot of people."
It makes sense that Ford would be interested in delivery of training over the Internet. For that to take off, however, the long-promised bandwidth explosion will have to actually arrive. A similar view comes from Glenn R. Jones, CEO and chairman of Jones International, a provider of course materials, education software, and even an accredited online university, all targeted to individual students and to corporations. On a recent pilgrimage to the business press, Jones promised future benefits from streaming multimedia. "We're not there yet, but in three years, there should be enough of those high-bandwidth boxes that it'll make sense to produce a high-bandwidth version and a low-bandwidth version" of online courses.
Sketch noted that everyone is struggling with bandwidth, but when that problem is solved, corporate training will really be able to make use of synchronous video. "The high-tech parts of Ford can do that, so we can set up meetings and satellite hookups," he noted. "What I think will be big in the next five years will be synchronous video and simulations. The two of them may be linked. We're doing simulations now, but then we typically deliver them on CD-ROMs rather than the Net, because of the download times. If someone can deliver simulations quickly and cheaply, we'd be very interested in that."
(Internet Whirl is written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears in this newsletter every Thursday. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .)
Internet Advertisers Deal with Controls
(05/18/01) BERLIN -- When a spat erupted last August over Microsoft's bid to help browser users block third-party cookies, the U.S. ad-serving industry was caught unaware. It complained that it was being discriminated against and besides, its members could be trusted with the consumer information collected from users. Nine months later, cookies are still on the plate of just about every site in the United States, but in Germany even within the ad industry there are some distinctly different views about their use, their future, and their necessity in the success of ad serving.
Germany's law on personal data protection requires opt-in methods. That may create a problem for spammers, but as a result of it, marketing professionals here say that e-mail marketing in Germany is very specialized and targeted. Marketers take advantage of that setup, and also wait for changes in the legal landscape.
Oliver Vater, managing director of online ad agency Add2media, said, "Normally, we look to the U.S. and say the Americans are more relaxed about cookies and the Germans are not." He expects the resistance to cookies to decline over time, and the legal infrastructure "is changing all the time on this." Cookies will yet have their day in Germany, he predicted, because "at this time, there is no other tool" to collect relevant personal data.
Thomas Simmons is CEO of Novaville, a small ad-serving company that markets its service to organizations and communities that want to offer branded Internet services to their customers or employees. His service does collect information about its users, but they enter that data themselves into their profiles, and, according to Simmons, it is not connected to the individual user's name during the ad-serving process but is used to send ads that match stated areas of interest. "I think it's really important to be open about stuff," said the American-born Simmons. "It'll come back to you if you try to hide something, especially if it's that important. It's like selling vegetables and hiding the rotten ones under the fresh ones and hoping the customer will return -- and he won't."
(05/17/01) BERLIN -- As I exited Berlin's convention center at the end of the first day of Internet World Berlin 2001, two teenagers ahead of me each grabbed a handful of the gloocorp.com promotional pens from the registration table. They then left a trail of pens out the doors and down the stairs in a most un-German example of sloppiness. But if you were looking to partner with an Internet company in central Europe, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you should follow the pen trail and make a business deal at the other end. That would be an exaggeration, but nonetheless teens are an omnipresent fact in this place, and they're going to play a large part in determining how e-business develops from the inside, not just as consumers.
In his wonderful post-World War I travel book, "Vagabonding Through a Changing Germany," Harry A. Franke comments on the ever-present children in the streets and homes, making it a nation of youth. A similar impression is given by modern Berlin, where it's hard not to find teenagers and twenty-somethings all over. And at the Internet trade show, the crowd appears to be younger than that at the U.S. shows. Twenty-somethings are common enough in the American Internet field, but why are there so many teenagers here?
Though I'd love to make some inference that this means Germany's youth are better prepared than U.S. youth to build an e-future, informal discussions with Internet professionals at the show suggest that would be incorrect. In fact, Germany has a way to go just to catch up with its neighbors, and that status may be hurting its ability to compete. German e-business folks point to higher levels of Internet usage, computer-based education, and even government support for technology efforts in Scandinavia, Switzerland, and elsewhere.
"In Germany, the government is not regarded as being very tech savvy, and they want to change that," said Thomas Nisters, manager of corporate communications for e-biz consultancy IconMedialab. Improving schools is one area that would have a big payoff. "This is just what we were talking to the government about last week," he added, noting that businesses can play a role in putting pressure on government to bring the schools up to speed in teaching technology and in developing programs to actually get computers into the schools. He recalled promises from Germany's leaders to ensure a computer -- yes, A computer -- in every school; luckily it eventually became a call for a computer in every classroom, and now the talk is a laptop for every student. Still, other countries are ahead.
The German government isn't sitting on its hands. It does, after all, put its money where its hopes are, via investments in technology upstarts. Thomas Simmons is CEO of Novaville, an online ad-serving company that owed its start to, first, winning a government-sponsored contest for new technology, and, second, government funding that matched the financing provided by one of its VC supporters. Simmons added that "the government has changed a lot of laws on venture funding to make it easier to build jobs." Other companies here have reported similar involvement with government funds at critical early stages of growth. The government also has lent a hand to help new-media companies make the move to the new national capital from elsewhere.
But Amadee, a maker of software for tying together corporate systems over the Internet, took no government funding. "It takes years to get it," the company's marketing director, Kai Tesmer, told me. His company needed the financing more quickly, and more important, "we wanted someone with a global network," which it eventually found with the 3i Group, which provided its second round of financing (completed in May 2000).
But far more important than the role of the government is the role of corporations from America and other countries as partners with German firms as ways of increasing the global reach for each company and getting critical local knowledge. It may be too simple to suggest that growing up in polyglot (and multicultural) Europe has better prepared its business people for international trade; but the teenagers soaking up information on the floor of the Internet World Berlin trade show and their slightly older compatriots running the computer, consulting, design, and software firms don't talk about it as the next big thing. They've been doing it all along. And when all of those U.S. Internet companies that closed their European offices when the market slumped are ready to return, they'll be dealing with young people who are old-timers at internationalization.
(Internet Whirl is written by John Zipperer, associate managing editor of Internet World magazine. It appears in this newsletter every Thursday. E-mail: email@example.com .)
(5/10/01) There's another deadline coming at you, or at least at some of you. June 21 is the date set for federal government Web sites, under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, to be more widely accessible to people with disabilities, and various technology providers are letting people know this goes beyond just the government crowd.
Just as there are many kinds of physical disabilities, there exist many kinds of products and services that, for example, let paraplegics operate a computer or offer alternative methods of manipulating the keyboard. A number of companies are now targeting the needs of Internet users with visual impairments, and it's a propitious time, because as more of the Net becomes voice-enabled, we'll see a natural alliance between makers of products for the blind and creators of services for mobile devices who are seeking a way around the tiny display abilities of their devices.
Section 508 is part of a 1998 reinterpretation of an older law that says, basically, if a federal agency is going to do anything with information technology, then the technology must meet certain standards for federal employees; if the agency is going to make that information available to the public, then it also has to meet those standards.
"The purpose of this law is to break down the barriers so handicapped people can be productive in the workforce," said Neal Williams, CEO of graphics software maker Corda. "Section 508 deals with handicapped accessibility to the Internet. Most prominently, it covers the visually disabled, so the visually disabled person would have access to the same information online as the normally sighted user."
Bill Sahlberg, a consultant with the client integration services group JefForm, has been involved in the government's efforts to flesh out the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 from which Section 508 is derived. He noted that vendors were at first unconcerned about this federal requirement, "but then they heard more about it and said, 'This is a big deal that impacts our products,'" Sahlberg said.
Both JetForm and Corda are involved in efforts to aid people with visual disabilities. Naturally, people who can't read a screen easily or at all are relying on screen readers to tell them what's on the Web site.
"The text part is pretty easy; you just have to watch out for a few things that can confuse the screen reader and get things out of order," noted Williams. "But the problem arises when you have images. According to the W3C accessibility standard, they have a textual description of the image. That works fine, except in the case of dynamic graphs, where the image is changing all the time."
So that's where Williams focused his attention, dealing with data that is pulled out of a database to create charts on the fly. It would be very time-consuming for someone to create new descriptive text for screen readers each time a chart updates or for all of the possible configurations of data that could be pulled out of the database. Corda offers PopChart D, which includes an information-graphic design tool, a server component, and a years' maintenance. The program will generate the text for the screen reader itself -- saving a great deal of human effort.
JetForm offers Verbal-Eyes, which tackles online forms. Like PopChart D, it will detect whether or not a screen reader is in use; visitors to a site will hear nothing if they're not using a screen reader; if they are, then Verbal-Eyes will read the form and guide the users through entering information in the various fields.
So is this just a concern for federal government agencies? Michael Robertson, head of marketing for Corda, sees four customer markets for his company's product: the federal government, of course; state government; higher education; and large companies. "We have some Fortune 500 companies that do business with government," he said, suggesting it will spread throughout the industry, as did the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Sahlberg also pointed to companies that want to focus on their own employees' productivity. But anyone wanting to reach more customers -- whether consumers or employees of partners and client companies with which you do business -- has reason to be interested, as well. Sahlberg said there are 54 million people in the United States with disabilities; going after a conservative target of only 10 percent of them still amounts to 5.5 million people. "There are not a lot of industries out there that are willing to throw away that kind of customer base if they can avoid it," Sahlberg said.
Sahlberg noted that "the real ruckus is that there are multiple interpretations about what is in the legislation," with some people saying that we'll have to make all sites compliant. "Yeah, it would be nice if they were, but 508 doesn't say you must do that. But if you're going to procure things [from the government], you'll have to make sure it's 508-compliant."
And for every proponent of expanding accessibility, there's a harried businessperson wondering how to make sure his or her site meets the standards. Don't worry, there's a product for that, too. Hiawatha Island Software has an off-the-shelf software product called AccVerify, which verifies that a Web site is in compliance with all necessary parts of Section 508.
(5/3/01) What do rampaging anarchists in Berlin or Australia have to do with you, the savvy e-business executive? They can't possibly affect your business, can they? Only if you buy into globalization.
May Day isn't a huge event in the United States, where socialism and Marxism were stillborn compared with Europe. But around the world this week, it was the cause of much parading and, significantly, some rioting. Berlin, London, Sydney, Melbourne, and elsewhere were the scenes of violent demonstrations and, in some cases, riots by anarchist groups opposed -- in general and in specifics -- to capitalism. People rushing barricades, police using water cannons and batons, photos of bloody victims. These are scenes we're becoming familiar with, because they also have taken place at every international governmental trade conference lately, scuttling some (such as the infamous Seattle trade summit) and causing tension and uncertainty at others.
The Berlin ruckus was at least in part exacerbated by the demonstration by a right-wing extremist political party elsewhere in the city. Considering that the anarchist left and the xenophobic right have a shared animosity toward global markets (and in particular against American attempts to drag everyone into our own version of the future), there's lots of room out there for people to create problems for companies doing business across borders. I'd argue that e-businesses, as the popular vanguard of globalization, have a unique opportunity and a unique responsibility to take these challenges seriously -- and not just consider them antagonistic.
As the Economist's Web site notes, "for all their entertainment value, and despite the stupid violence which mars some of them, the anti-globalists' demonstrations cannot be dismissed as a recurring, juvenile joke." Even without a coherent leadership structure and with an unclear intellectual basis, these folks do represent a large number of political and social movements (and thus constituents), and they're not going away. Also, despite the silliness and violence of the anarchists, there are some serious groups working through private, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to try to have an impact on the way globalization is played out. Thus there are groups and people to engage in discussions over how exactly this future will be built.
On a grander scale, e-business needs to become more engaged in debates over politics, economics, and social consequences, reaching out even beyond the NGOs to the average voter/consumer/citizen. It's not enough to claim the self-evidence of the necessity of technology and globalization. Nor is it enough for e-businesses to be talking among themselves and their financiers and pet legislators. They need to get out into the open and argue their case. They'll win a lot of the arguments, and they'll lose some. But if e-business representatives enter into the arena with an irenic attitude (meaning you're willing to learn as well as share info, and you're not just there to lecture), some important bridges can be built.
I suspect they'll be easier to build in the United States than elsewhere, because Americans love all that talk about technology saving the day. But if we're to take this globalization thing seriously, we have to recognize that our customers include all those people on other continents who will have to be convinced that Internet business will answer their concerns about income inequality and the distribution of power. And that convincing -- sorry, that conversation -- will not occur all at once and probably not in the ways we'd predict at the beginning.
In Peter Schneider's novel "Eduard's Homecoming," after years of living abroad a German comes back to Berlin in order to claim his inheritance: a tenement in former East Berlin. Thinking he'll be able to sell it quickly and split some easy money with his brother, Eduard Hoffman instead gets embroiled in a sometimes-violent struggle with the anarchist squatters who have taken up residence in the building. Hoffman not only has to try to figure out his legal options in a country that has changed drastically since he last lived there, but he has to try to understand the seemingly incomprehensible motivations of these people who have taken up residence in his building.
Schneider may be pointing a way for us, if we're listening (or reading). Spoiler alert for those who might read Schneider's book: "Eduard's Homecoming" ends not with the squatters' eviction or the loss of the tenement by Hoffmann. Instead, the anarchist squatters decide the time for squatting is over, and they make an offer to buy the building from him and become its rightful owners. It's a piece of fiction, but there's something useful in the way in which Hoffman finds himself much better off coming to terms with his opponents than ducking their projectiles.
(5/01/01) Naturally, where there’s a perceived need, there’s someone to try to meet it. And so we have various companies today that are selling programs to offer your employees points toward items like some sort of a corporate Green Stamps program. [See “The Gifted Worker.”] The thinking is that companies need these things to attract and retain employees. All of this begs the question—and it’s most disturbing that it begs any question, because the answer is just so much common sense—of why these tricks are perceived as necessary at all. Including jobs worked while in college, I have been employed by six companies. Not a single job did I take because of raffles or ping-pong tables or free movie tickets; and not a single company did I leave because of the lack of such gimmicks. It’s not that these were low on my priority list; they were not a priority at all. And I have yet to hear from any friend or business associate who has acted otherwise.
My advice to companies that are tempted by such gimmickry is to stop trying to reinvent this particular wheel. Whether it’s a billiard table in the office or Dress-Like-a-Clown Day, these are side issues to the matter of attracting, retaining, and inspiring employees at all levels of your organization.
This point was made well in an article in The New York Times Magazine last year that examined ways in which employers were dealing with employee attraction and retention in a very tight labor market. Madison, Wisc., usually has a very strong economy, thanks to the location there of the state government and my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. But in the late 1990s, it had a red-hot economy that gave it one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. What the article found was that though companies there offered all kinds of silly extras to try to pamper their workers—including regular engine tune-ups in the company parking lot—the fact was that employees tended to stay where they were partly out of inertia and mostly because they simply liked working there. Their jobs were satisfying, they were treated like real people, and they trusted their employers.
Those are the things employees want, but they are difficult to quantify. That’s because they rely on things that seem like common sense to anyone who knows them. You can crank out a spreadsheet showing that your program has given out four Employee of the Week coffee mugs and seven Smart Innovator t-shirts. You can’t demonstrate that you have given away three job satisfactions and two trust builders this month.
Don’t get me wrong: Money is important, but giving it away in games and gimmicks trivializes the fact that most people count on that money to pay rent and buy clothes for the kids. Sociologists have talked about the way in which political movements are focused on economic issues until a certain level of economic comfort and the power resulting from it have been attained, after which the movements become interested in non-economic issues such as the environment, spiritual issues, and quality of life. I think that can be applied to employees, too. Workers are alike in that money is probably the most important issue until they have attained financial security and even a level of wealth that matches their individual perception of where they should be. After that, other things become more important, such as career building or earning professional respect, or just enjoying going to work rather than dreading it as a chore.
Instead of gimmicks, invest in managers who know how to manage people and implement vision, rather than people who just get bumped upstairs because of tenure. That’s far more likely to give you employees who want to stay with the company, who are eager to work on a common plan for the company, and who will be willing to tough it out during the rough times that inevitably come along.