When Cisco Systems named its first-ever chief learning officer 10 months ago, the IT giant went with a company and industry veteran, with the intention of accelerating learning with a steady hand on the throttle.
Having spent the first 30 years of his career progressing through various leadership positions, Cisco CLO Don McLaughlin intends to leverage his business acumen to up the pace of learning at the company.
“My view is that we’re here to help solve a business problem, so my expectation is that the learning and development solutions group is going to be a global business accelerator and a key differentiator for Cisco,” said McLaughlin, who assumed the position in April 2009. McLaughlin and his team are responsible for educating Cisco’s employee population of about 65,000 in addition to the company’s contingent workforce and partners.
For a dozen years, McLaughlin served in various strategic and operational positions at Cisco — one of the largest telecommunications companies in the world. He’s tasked with bringing together the learning and development capabilities of those various functions on a global basis.
“I’ve got worldwide responsibility to be as nimble as we can to meet business needs yet leverage the value, skill set and mindset of all [our employees] in a way that we can redeploy the learning and development resources to the greatest need,” he said.
Planting the Seeds
Just prior to assuming his role as the head of learning at Cisco, McLaughlin dedicated a number of years to rebuilding the staffing organization at the company by addressing any instances in which the company was not able to “get the right people to the right place at the right time.”
“It was exciting to bring in the future talent of the corporation and to look at how do we, on a global basis, establish a strategy for what the company’s needs are going to be,” he said.
While the initial focus was external — bringing individuals into the company — McLaughlin said it became equally important to create systems and processes for getting those individuals already within the company best deployed based on business needs. From there, McLaughlin was primed for a natural transition into the learning and development of these individuals being placed within and moved around the company.
He realized, “It wasn’t just about bringing new people in and it wasn’t just about moving people from either geography A to geography B or from position A to position B,” he said. “It was making sure that we were growing and nurturing their skill sets in a way that would lead to both the success of Cisco and the success of our customers. There’s a natural draw into ‘What are we doing around making sure that we’re getting not just the right training, but the right learning to these individuals so they [meet with] the business needs that we’re in the process of reinventing?’”
Staying Competitive With Training
Cisco employs an array of training delivery methods, including e-learning, instructor-led learning, self-paced materials and blended learning.
“Depending on what the particular topic is and geography and culture as well, we’ll try and select what we think the best media is for a given subject or the learning community,” he said. Simulations, gaming, wikis, blogs and discussion forums are all utilized extensively for training purposes across the enterprise.
“We’re now focused on developing our capabilities around community-based learning as well as video and podcasting,” McLaughlin said, adding that he takes inspiration from how users on sites like YouTube bring the best posted content to the fore.
“How do we bring that kind of thinking to Cisco? We’ve got a large community of exceptionally bright individuals — how do we leverage that such that there are formal communities based on job roles or self-identified communities based on interest?” McLaughlin asked. “And then, rather than traditional instructor-led [training], how do we make sure we start leveraging the highly skilled brains that are out there in a way that matches what’s happening in non-enterprise learning today?”
Cisco is currently developing a key learning initiative: a network-based system known as My Learning Network, or MLN, which is affiliated with Integrated Work Experience, or IWE.
“If an employee logs on to IWE and accesses MLN, or their learning network, based on their role responsibility we can propagate to them community opportunities,” McLaughlin said. This allows Cisco employees to communicate more than what they do and where they are within Cisco, moving into establishing relationships with other employees with like capabilities and interests and becoming part of the learning community.
“We can use tagging technology to bring to them what their development opportunities are from a structured perspective,” McLaughlin said. “We, in our greater wisdom as executives, think these are the things that ought to be tagged to [employees] and that [they] ought to be learning and we can actually then connect that to our performance management system and their performance review.”
McLaughlin noted that one of the most common questions employees ask is: What should my development plan be, and how do I manage my career?
The MLN was designed with this in mind. “We’re creating the opportunity for them to be able to communicate not just with peers, but with people in their community around that — be they at the same level or different levels — and it can structurally bring them to a place where they can understand and measure their progress against it,” he said.
Alternatively, employees who wish to explore other opportunities in communities can request to be members of said communities.
“[Now], all of a sudden, they’ve got the capability to understand information about themselves, about their development and about the company in a way that they’ve never experienced before,” he said.
Challenging the Status Quo
Having settled into his role as the head of learning at Cisco less than a year ago, McLaughlin is still investigating the validity of traditional learning and development metrics.
“I understand what the traditional metrics are, and I’m questioning them. It doesn’t mean I won’t settle on believing in them,” he said. “We have to have some really [solid] metrics around what we’re doing and how we’re delivering value to the business. I want to make sure that they’re tied to the business strategy, so I’m a bit unwilling yet to state what I think they are.”
What he does state in no uncertain terms is the indelible impact he wants the learning function to have on Cisco’s employee population.
“If you think about something like e-mail, I don’t know a major corporation that doesn’t have e-mail, yet I don’t know anybody that measures the return on investment of e-mail,” he said. “Yet, if e-mail went down, the uprising of the population would be such that IT would not be happy for a long time. My view is: How do we create the same feeling around learning and development? How do we become so ingrained into the nature of the business that we do that people really see the intrinsic value of [it]?”
The Children Are the Future
Advancing learning and development objectives at Cisco does not come unhindered, however. The biggest organizational challenge faced by the learning function at Cisco is the pace of change, McLaughlin explained.
“I was talking to one of my sons who is in his 20s about how to utilize technology today and what’s leading edge,” he said. “What he told me frightened me: ‘Dad, I’m too old.’ He said I should go talk to someone in high school because they use technology dramatically differently than the way I use it. So that pace of change is really fun and exciting, but the idea that we’re going to build something monolithic and we’re going to use it for five or 10 years is outdated.”
Exciting as it is, it’s also a significant challenge to understand how rapidly the world changes, McLaughlin said, explaining that even day-to-day operations at Cisco today are radically different than a mere decade ago.
“We’ve got to understand our business strategy; we’ve got to understand what capabilities the company is going to need to execute against that strategy; and then we’ve got to utilize learning and development to generate business value against that business strategy — and we’ve got to be ready to reinvent ourselves as rapidly as that business strategy is going to evolve,” he said.
“If we can do that, then we start creating a competitive advantage for Cisco — a work environment that’s going to be a natural draw from a staffing perspective — and we’re going to create a community inside Cisco that’s enabled and capable on a go-forward basis. You can feel a positive energy that feeds on itself and becomes a draw for both getting people into the company and developing people that are already here — and that’s a retention value.”