Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.
— Mary Hopkins, 1968
In January 2005, after 130 years in business, AT&T agreed to merge with SBC Corp. In 1980, I left my job as a university professor to join AT&T. Even then, the communications giant was a legend in the corporate training world. Now that AT&T—the company, if not the brand—is about to fade into the history of corporate America, I find myself thinking back on the extraordinary legacy of training in this revered company.
Long before the term “corporate university” was en vogue, AT&T had one. The Bell System Center for Technical Education (BSCTE), in Lisle, Ill., was the place to learn how to operate what was then the nation’s only telephone network. BSCTE had an approach to training development that was far ahead of its time. AT&T had been studying and perfecting instructional design methodologies for years. It literally wrote the book (or at least seven, three-inch-thick binders worth) on training development. The AT&T Training Development Standards was the first complete corporate training design and development process anywhere. Twenty-five years ago, these standards required a performance analysis for every proposed training intervention, as well as post-implementation reviews so that each training project became a lesson learned for the next one. Professional instructional designers, whose role was clearly differentiated from subject-matter experts, were required on every project.
In this golden age, it was tough to become an AT&T instructor. You had to be promoted into it from the field. Instructors weren’t the ones who couldn’t cut it—they were the role models, the best of the best. Pioneering work in instructor training and observation, along with rigorous coaching and feedback, produced outstanding trainers. After a few years in a training position, they rotated back to the field as managers who now had better communication skills and a broader perspective of the business. Ask any of them today, and they’ll still tell you of the impact of their AT&T training experience on their careers.
AT&T training organizations had clear missions and audiences to serve. Their effectiveness was directly related to technical and operational execution in the field. Fully funded evaluation studies showed a linkage between training investment and business performance. When AT&T was broken up in 1983, these training centers and their capabilities were cloned and continued to live on in many of the newly spawned companies.
Before the advent of personal computers, AT&T was already experimenting with technology-enabled learning. It was an early adopter of fledgling systems like PLATO and fully embraced videodisk and distance learning technologies long before they were commercially viable. In the late 1980s, to accelerate the use of learning technology, the company created an internal best practices group, the Corporate Training Support Group, which provided leadership into new areas of interactive learning and pioneered electronic performance support tools before such technologies even had a name.
As early versions of the Internet were deployed in the mid-’90s, AT&T training and documentation groups were experimenting with pre-HTML Web-authoring tools. By 1997, when most companies were just beginning to think about online registration and courseware delivery, AT&T was implementing a complete self-service Web-based training registration system. Learning management systems were still mostly on the drawing board. (The acronyms LMS and LCMS hadn’t even been coined yet.) At the same time, early knowledge management and community-of-practice efforts helped the company win some major global sales by keeping the diverse and distributed sales force up to speed on products, clients and competitors.
AT&T education and training was always known for its innovation and professional approach to learning and development. It pioneered the use of assessment centers. Its full-fledged testing and measurement organization laid the groundwork for solid, research-based evaluation systems. The company’s business training organization was an early user of university faculty and partnered extensively with outside experts to build and deliver programs. From performance management to “mini-MBAs,” the company sought to mirror the best of academia in its internal offerings. AT&T’s contributions to the advancement of education and training are legendary within the profession. More presidents of ISPI and ASTD can tie themselves to AT&T than any other company.
Yet in the end, all this innovation and training professionalism wasn’t enough. When the company hit hard times, training programs were cut severely. And nobody, outside of the training organizations themselves, really protested too much. Innovation wasn’t what business leaders were looking for. They wanted value, but many who led the training community never quite understood how to create and implement a value proposition that executives would embrace.
Executive support for education and training withered when the going got tough. When the company came under tremendous cost and business pressures, competition between training groups increased and cooperation was strained, all in an effort to survive. Redundancies multiplied. Even an attempt at enterprise training governance, led by the most senior executives in the business, failed when the training community used these meetings to teach executives about what training does, rather than ask the executives what they needed.
Marketing replaced instructional design. The overwhelming need to fill seats drove training organizations to offer more and more courses (some at very fancy venues). The quality of the students’ dining room experience became as important as the quality of their classroom experience. When budgets were cut in the business units, training organizations that depended on internal tuition and a retail business model were doomed. In the last few years, by necessity, the training function became a shell of its former self and was significantly outsourced.
AT&T, which in its heyday developed some of the world’s greatest technologies, like the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system, the videophone and cellular telephony, could never figure out how to leverage these advances in a more competitive world. After 130 years, AT&T’s heritage will be carried on by others who are more suited to the times. AT&T education and training’s legacy will go the same way. The breakthrough contributions made by so many great people are now part of the fabric of the training industry and the history of the field. Hindsight lets us see the genius and the folly of all that was done.
I have followed AT&T since leaving in 1998. There was a time when fully 1 percent of everyone who worked for the company worked in a training- or learning-related position. Over the years, that’s a lot of people. Say what you will about AT&T’s business savvy—despite the mistakes, for those of us in the learning field, it was a great place to experiment, create, learn and grow.
Marc J. Rosenberg, Ph.D. is a management consultant in learning and performance improvement, and author of “E-Learning: Strategies for Delivering Knowledge in the Digital Age.” He spent 18 years at AT&T in a variety of training and development positions. Marc can be reached at email@example.com.