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Cisco Systems’ Director (formerly of MySpace): The 3 Ingredients for Building Innovative Training Teams (Interview)

Written by Bloomfire Admin

Kris Potrafka is a Director in the Strategic Marketing Organization at Cisco Systems.  He leads a team responsible for improving organizational capability and the professional effectiveness of roughly 1500 employees in the global Marketing community.  This includes managing a portfolio of programs, products, and services from change management to an online network of shadowing and stretch assignment opportunities. Prior to Cisco, Kris held a variety of roles at MySpace.com, Sun Microsystems, and Activision, Inc. You can contact him on LinkedIn.

Q. As a director, talk to us about common challenges in training and development projects involving multiple stakeholders.

The usual suspects like budget and deadlines come to mind like with any project, but I believe the nature of training and development presents a couple unique challenges for all stakeholders.  The first of which is, agreeing on a shared vision of the end-result and the second is that every stakeholder believes they are an expert when it comes to development.  The two challenges are not mutually exclusive by the way.  This is due both to the nature of the subject (human behavior), but also the fault of the profession.  I’ll explain a bit more about what I mean…

Human behavior is difficult to predict, unlike a product or process, so despite all your efforts the final product may look nothing like what you anticipated.  Each stakeholder has their own vision of how their decisions and work will impact learning outcome.  My experience is that every initiative gets bogged down because stakeholders struggle to influence others without a strong L&D leader to help them coalesce their vision into the overall plan.

This leads me to my other point, the profession.  The old adage, we fear what we don’t understand, is very true when it comes to discussing human behavior in the context of the business world.  To bring together multiple stakeholders with different viewpoints and different levels of knowledge related to learning truly requires someone with big picture thinking, a systems perspective, and a deep knowledge of adult learning.  In other words, someone who can educate others in a non-threatening manner and clearly articulate how the sum is greater than its parts.  This is no easy task and I believe the profession needs to spend more time developing these skills.

Q. That’s a great way to put it—the 3 ingredients for a successful L&D team: big picture thinking, a systems perspective, and adult learning expertise. With diversity in mind, what do you do to facilitate teamwork?

In my role, I have to partner very closely with executives, the corporate training organization, HR, subject matter experts both within and outside the company, and most importantly the employees. Leveraging technology such as flip video, WebEx and TelePresence on all of our initiatives has obviously helped us improve our communication across cultures, reduce costs, knowledge management, and improve our trust as a team.  The not-so-obvious advantages that I’ve seen over the past several years includes an increase in creativity as people become more savvy with the technology.  We’re starting to see more teams send messages via video, use IM to instantly create an online conference for quick team decisions, and communicating with online whiteboards.

The other advantage I see, however difficult to measure, is that collaborating with technology is a  great equalizer.  Bringing together stakeholders of different levels and authority through online collaboration can diffuse the impact of groupthink and position power that can play a big role in decision-making.

Q. If technology can assist with team collaboration, can it also assist with performance improvement? Any examples?

The programs that my team develops have to pass 3 tests before consideration for approval: 1. User-driven, 2. Cost-effective, and 3. Globally accessible.  It would be impossible not to have technology at the center of everything we do.  We have in place very rigorous measurements following the Phillips ROI Methodology and the data tells us that the portfolio is having a real business impact.

One example of this is our online Global Stretch Assignments Network.  With this program we can fill critical resource gaps in a matter of days and our employees learn through actual hands-on experience.  Compared to a control group, we found a significant difference in skill improvement.

Q. Fantastic! With the success that you’re experiencing, what might that tell us about the future of technology and learning in the workplace? What might 21st century training and development look like?

It’s interesting to me that Knowles’ book on the adult learner was written over 40 years ago, but yet we’ve made so little progress as a profession in applying the basic principles of adult learning.  The good news is that with technology it’s creating a venue for the learner to revolt against the “expert” mentality that still drives a lot of training.  The unfortunate side of online collaboration and learning is that you can sometimes hide behind the veil, but it may be what’s needed for learners to not feel as intimidated by trainers.

Another indication that I see the turning point happening is if you look at the winners of the 2009 T&D magazine.  The #1 spot was Sun Microsystems, a company that unfortunately no longer exists today, but they were recognized for their amazing innovation and use of technology.  And they were a profitable business unit on their own.

The next 5-10 years has the potential to be a very exciting time for L&D professionals. The companies on the leading edge will finally start looking at learning more holistically, a notion that isn’t new to those in the field, but for CEOs this is unfamiliar territory and requires trusting their L&D leaders with resources.

I anticipate that we will see a majority of the training being delivered today move from instructor-led training to facilitator-led.  The facilitators will be those people who really understand human behavior and adult learning.

The other change that I expect is a greater convergence of data analytics and data mining with the field of learning.  Technology is providing us with an amazing opportunity to collect rich sources of data about employee learning behavior and specifically how it impacts the business.

Q. With your MySpace.com background, can you lend us some insight into “online learning communities” and the role they might play?

This is such a hot topic and I’ve honestly struggled to find a company that has really figured out how to sustain highly successful online learning communities.  This may sound funny, but I actually see technology as the biggest barrier to making this work.  What I mean, is that it’s so easy to get excited about launching an online community using all the powers of the technology, but losing sight of what your business objective is for the community.  Just consider all the email aliases that have been created in the spirit of starting a community, only to see very little activity.  I know I’m guilty!

I learned quite a bit from working in the social networking industry and have come to realize that “online” is only one aspect that’s needed to make a learning community work.  The community has a role, but we’ll be disappointed if we rely on it as a panacea for all learning.

Q. Kris, thanks so much for taking the time to share your insights. To wrap up, would you mind recommending some literature for our readers? Books? Blogs?

I’m fortunate to lead a team of really smart individuals who have skills in areas that I count on them to be experts in; with that said, I try to focus my learning on the big picture and bringing their expertise to bear on the overall success of our initiatives.  The Adult Learner by Malcolm Knowles is starting to look pretty ragged from all the notes I’ve taken in this book.  Robert Kegan’s writings are also a must.  Jack Phillips would also be proud to see the damage I’ve done to his publications.  Management of Organizational Behavior by Hersey, Blanchard, and Johnson is my bible.  I also recently read, Managing Your Business Data: From Chaos to Confidence by Kushner and Villar, for non-data types this is a very approachable book.  I try to keep up with Chief Learning Officer Magazine and Training+Development.  Lastly, I make an effort to stay connected to what’s coming out of SIOP, this is really an under-utilized source of brilliant academics and practitioners.

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