Siemens is a Germany-based company with approximately 420,000 employees and about 75 billion Euros (approximately $100 billion U.S.) in revenue and a presence in more than 190 countries. The majority of its revenue—80 percent—is generated outside its home market of Germany. Siemens truly is a global organization.
In 1997, Siemens started a management learning architecture with five different programs for each distinct level of management within the organization: S1, S2, S3, S4 and S5. (The “S” is for Siemens, and the numeral represents the level of management.) Each of these programs lasted about a year and included three residential workshops. A key objective was to improve and sustain an entrepreneurial spirit at all levels of management, across businesses and countries in the company. The target group was high-potential managers throughout all layers of the company—roughly 12,000 managers. About 2,000 managers worldwide were educated and developed on a yearly basis, with 35 associates attending the program at a given time.
After intense investigation into the best way to create and sustain an entrepreneurial spirit within a corporate setting and in a learning environment, action learning was chosen as the method of developing this critical competency. This modality was chosen mainly because it relies on learning in the real business world with a focus on results and achievement, but it can be supported by teaching from business school professors, such as those from Babson College, which is known for its instruction and research in corporate entrepreneurship.
Programs spanned eight to 12 months and provided sufficient time to implement the action learning projects. To choose topics for the action learning assignments, suggestions were solicited from participants in order to take their energy, passion and motivation for handling specific projects that would, in reality, be additional work on top of their normal job responsibilities. Each participant was asked to bring up at least one issue for action learning in his or her program. The projects submitted had to be tangible, measurable and achievable. Therefore, a plan by itself would not be accepted if it wasn’t quantifiable (in terms of money, cycle time, process time, etc.) or if it could not be implemented within three to four months. Once a list of potential projects was compiled, all members would vote on the best candidates. After five to six topics were selected for each program, the group of about 35 participants had to form teams aligned to the chosen projects. Projects typically included themes such as cost-cutting, sales growth, new market entry, new product development, process re-engineering, cross-selling and productivity improvement. Once the teams were formed, the targets were defined—the first challenging part of the process.
Most of the projects and teams spanned international borders, requiring team members to work in a virtual fashion most of the time. This process was supported by e-collaboration software, which provided a synchronous means of communication—offering a way to communicate verbally, in contrast to mere text communication provided in chat rooms. Siemens found that managers were more likely to talk than just type.
Over the years, more than 1,500 action learning projects have been implemented: About 60 percent of them met their defined targets, and about 20 percent were sustained in the business after the program was complete. The main reason for teams not meeting their target was generally that they set goals that were too ambitious. Siemens found that this happened not only for young and inexperienced managers, but also more senior managers, which was a learning lesson in itself.
The project outcomes were more than new business plans or strategies. They created results through implementation and substantial contributions to the company’s bottom line. This is probably the most significant reason why there was such buy-in and support of the line managers to send participants or to attend the programs themselves.
The S programs provided Siemens managers with a best-in-class global approach to learning from working on live projects, as well as the critical experience of implementing the projects and experiencing tangible and measurable results for the organization. Individuals gained experience in virtual, multicultural and multifunctional teamwork and learned a great deal from their colleagues while completing projects that benefited the corporation.
Udo Dierk is president of ConEdu and a member of the advisory council for The Institute of Executive Development, and served as vice president of management learning for Siemens for more than a decade. He can be reached at email@example.com.