Global Microsoft Learning Partners Create Innovative IT Training Solutions to Address Changing Customer Needs
As Microsoft partners from around the globe gather for the annual Worldwide Partner Conference, a group of Microsoft Certified Partners for Learning Solutions met to discuss the changing dynamics of the professional information technology (IT) training business. Once focused on traditional, instructor-led classroom pedagogy, IT training is now a highly sophisticated industry that incorporates the most advanced high-tech tools and the latest in learning theory. “IT learning isn’t at all a straight-forward classroom experience any longer,” says Lutz Ziob, general manager for Microsoft Learning. “Our Certified Partners for Learning Solutions are pushing the envelope and developing new solutions to get customers in the door, provide them with a great learning experience, and deliver value beyond the classroom.”
PressPass asked four Microsoft Certified Partners for Learning Solutions, Russell Sarder, president and CEO of NetCom Information Technology, Pierre François, CEO of Avolys, Max Kapellman, director general of KED, and Stefano Capaldo, managing director from Training Camp UK, to describe the challenges they face and the innovations they bring to today’s IT training industry.
PressPass: Can you briefly describe the background of your IT training business?
Sarder: NetCom Information Technology is based in New York City and has been in business for over 10 years. Our methods of instruction are unique, combining the very best of Internet distributed technologies as well more traditional instructor-led classroom training. Our motto says it all: “Your decision, our expertise.” You decide on your future and we will use our expertise to help get you there. Since we began, we have served 95 percent of Fortune 500 companies, have provided training at over 10,000 different companies, and have trained over 25,000 individuals. We are the only IT training center in the United States that offers authorized training for 17 different IT vendors. However, Microsoft training is the largest component of our business, accounting for 50 percent of our revenue. We have about 100 employees and offer over 1000 courses. In addition to our headquarters and classroom facilities in the Empire State Building, we offer classes in over 100 different locations worldwide.
François: Avolys has been a Microsoft training partner since 1993, with 54 locations in France. We were the first Certified Partner for Learning Solutions in France, and we now have about 21 percent of French market share in Microsoft training. Avolys employs 600 people and offers coursework in over 300 classrooms.
Kapellmann: KED is based in Mexico City and has provided quality customized IT training courses for over 15 years. We also have Microsoft Custom Development and Certified Software Advisor (CSA) competencies, and have developed the Cuestionario 911 application for the Mexican government, which connects 300,000 schools across the country and provides online services for 25 million people. In terms of providing Microsoft technology training, we employ 35 Microsoft Certified Trainers and can deliver training for all the Microsoft official curriculum, in three different ways: instructor-led training, and online asynchronous or synchronous modes.
Capaldo: The Training Camp concept is relatively simple: we provide accelerated IT training and certification in a residential setting. It’s also a principle of learning and a way of delivering knowledge to different learning styles. Our primary facility in the United Kingdom is in Oxfordshire, though we have five regional locations elsewhere in England, Scotland and Ireland.
We each learn in different ways, be it visual, tactile and auditory, and everyone has a way of learning that suits them best. By rotating these approaches throughout the day, we target each person’s preferred style – and reinforce information through the other two. We are the largest provider of accelerated IT training within Europe and the United States, and globally we are US$30 million company.
PressPass: What are the top challenges that you face in today’s IT training marketplace?
Sarder: The fact that technology is constantly changing provides a major challenge for IT training professionals. For instance, not only is Microsoft always updating its technology, it is also constantly changing its requirements and qualifications for IT professional certification. So, in order for IT training professionals to stay in the industry and work effectively they need to constantly update their skills and their certification. And they also have to make sure when they update their skills that they are not just training to pass the test. They need to get training that prepares them for the challenges of real-life IT implementations. NetCom must consistently recruit top trainers that also have the real world experience and knowledge to provide the insights and skills needed by their clients.
François: In France, the IT training market is similar to other countries. There are a lot of innovative solutions available and the market for training is increasing steadily. However, the market is fragmented into many submarkets, which address the very specific needs of the customer. Traditionally, we would offer coursework on public platforms, where we open a class and register customers from many different companies. Now, it is more common to design a private platform class that addresses the specific training needs of a single company. We must be very efficient and very focused when we design these trainings. Our corporate customers don’t want to pay for their trainees to relearn what they already know, or to learn something they don’t need to know. They are to learn exactly what they need. That is one of our greatest challenges, designing these very focused classes.
Kapellmann: The top challenge in our business is gathering information. We need to be able to follow our business processes at any time, in order to win the loyalty of customers, monitor if they are happy with their training experience, and learn what we can do to improve. At KED, we create a single database of information on prospects and customers, which we use for tracking the sales pipeline as accurately as possible. This information also provides us with insights for planning and creating more effective marketing campaigns, and enables us to offer better service to customers by responding more quickly to issues. Our information gathering processes also provide management with the insight needed to make better decisions and help automate repetitive business processes and streamline operations.
Capaldo: One of the greatest challenges facing IT training professionals is designing curricula that target business processes and teach across disciplines, instead of just off-the-shelf, individual product-focused trainings. In the past, it was sufficient for IT pros to focus on how to program a Cisco switch, or deploy Windows Server. However, today technology is so interlinked and one configuration change in one system can affect many others, so IT professionals are expected to possess a much broader multi-product competency. If you don’t have exposure to other parts of the organization’s technology platform, you can’t add value. So clients’ demand for training has gone the same way. It’s no longer acceptable for a training provider to simply have a portfolio of products provided by the vendor. To be successful, training companies must design training solutions that help students and companies add value across business processes.
PressPass: What is different about your approach that sets you apart from other training companies?
Sarder: We are in the IT training business, so it makes sense that we are leveraging our own IT investments to increase our operational efficiency, decrease our operational costs and simplify otherwise complex procedures. We have built an internal system called CMS, for Central Management System, where our entire day-to-day operation -- our sales department, our marketing department, our training evaluation department, our intranet -- everything is integrated into the system. To help the sales team keep up with constantly changing course requirements, the CMS provides continuous access to product certification overviews, how the certification relates to a specific course track, how it relates to a specific job title, and if the specific solution can be approached through different formats.
CMS also has an integrated proposal builder to help us deal with course customization; it offers online assessments to make sure the clients have the right prerequisites before they take a class and has an online evaluation system that ensures quality control. Our CMS is looped into our daily processes, and every time we face a problem we go back and look at the process. Because CMS is integral to our success, we allocate 10 percent of our overall revenue into software development. If you look at our company from the outside, you might think that we are an IT training company, but I think of NetCom as a software development company that develops and leverages software to manage a profitable IT training program.
François: We work very closely with a new Web site in France called MSEmploi.com, which is a marketplace for training, certification and recruitment that launched in September 2005. More than 40 percent of the Microsoft community in France, that is, more than 21,000 individuals and 1,300 companies, have registered with MSEmploi.com. The Web site contains a database of Microsoft IT pros and developers, who can use it to keep track of training and certification opportunities. It also addresses the huge IT skills shortage problem by serving as a recruitment tool for unemployed workers.
Recruiting new IT trainees through MSEmploi.com has become a larger and larger part of our market, and it helps our corporate customers because we can help reduce the skills shortage situation by training new workers with new IT competencies. We try to identify people through MSEmploi.com who have basic skills and motivation and who can quickly pick up the necessary IT training from our programs to become employees for our corporate customers. Between 2,000 and 3,000 new jobs are created per year as a result of MSEmploi.com. MSEmploi.com Web sites will open in July in Germany, Sweden and Italy, with other European countries to follow.
Kapellmann: We have developed a powerful application called KED Online that addresses all the business processes of our company. We use KED Online to spearhead our marketing campaigns through targeted promotions that engage specific groups of customers. It provides sales and assessment questionnaires that allow customers to indicate their level of technology capability and to state their specific needs and business drivers. Using this information, KED Online is able to accurately evaluate a client’s qualifications and then accurately recommend what level and what kind of coursework is appropriate to meet their objectives. KED Online also manages delivery of coursework proposals, tracks course evaluations by clients, and provides a portal through which students can take e-learning and distance courses, as well as chart their certification or skill-path progress. We have leveraged Microsoft’s technology to accomplish these goals, which also gives our trainers the working experience they need to deliver effective courses.
Capaldo: The most unique aspect of the Training Camp is our accelerated learning model and residential format. The idea behind Training Camp is to put trainees in an immersed environment, where you leave all your distractions at home. Whether it’s seven or 14 full days, trainees live on site with the instructor, working into the evenings and into the weekend. We provide all the lodging, food and facilities onsite, with the idea that it’s an environment that we control and facilitate for high tech learning. We’re the Virgin Atlantic of the training business because we’re very keen on customer service.
Our business is growing because of the obvious return on investment that we provide for our customers. A lot of the training that people buy tends to be modularized, so they buy training for part A of a product but then have to wait until a month later to buy part B, and another month to buy part C. The elapsed time to actually learn a product could take months, if not years. If you plan to take a large course that takes 35 days of training, we can deliver an equivalent course in 14 days, which is actually 10 business days. So, you are halving the cost and the time. There’s a really massive return on investment (ROI) for the person paying the bill, because our methodology returns a fully-trained and highly effective worker to the workforce much more quickly than traditional teaching formats.
PressPass: How are your marketing or training processes unique or innovative?
Sarder: One of NetCom’s primary competencies is reaching out to prospective students through marketing and lead generation. We have a lead generation system that includes a developer who works with our Web site and ensures that our name shows up on Google and Live Search. We also generate a lot of leads through specific online content sites for people looking for Microsoft training. We also have an exciting program called VAR Site, where we research if a company is selling solutions but doesn’t sell related training. We then approach them to combine NetCom training with their solutions so they can provide a complete product to their customer. NetCom also recently also bought a magazine previously called Computer User, which is now published as Computer Training magazine. Through it, we are able to address the IT training community.
So, through all these channels, plus trade shows and word of mouth, we are able to generate lots of leads. In fact, one of the problems at NetCom is that we have too many. We don’t have enough sales people to deal with all the leads. We are consistently growing our sales team to meet the demand of the incoming leads.
With these leads and our CMS we are able to analyze the needs of our prospects and make rapid informed decisions on how to provide the best training solution to meet our client’s specific needs.
François: We use a number of learning technology solutions for our IT training, though our target is the training result, not the methodology. We use classic instructor-led training (ILT) classrooms, blended learning, e-learning in classroom settings, and distance learning -- and sometimes all of these for the same corporate project. Our customers are frequently very large enterprises with thousands of employees, and in such large projects, we can’t base our solutions on only one technology, so we use a blend of all of them.
Kapellman: The KED experience is unique because all customer contact from marketing, sales, content delivery, quality assurance, to post-learning is automated and built on Microsoft technology. This is a totally paperless company, and since KED is a powerful user of Microsoft technologies, we can present the benefits of Microsoft SQL Server or Microsoft Dynamics Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Microsoft Exchange Server through our KED Online solution. We provide training to about 600 customers each month with a mix of methodologies, including ILT in 13 face-to-face classrooms, plus asynchronous e-leaning and Microsoft Official Distance Learning through our portal. This makes it very convenient for our customers to have the kind of learning experience that suits them best, when and where it is most convenient for them.
Capaldo: Traditional training has a very definite stop-start attitude to delivery. When you’re learning a product, it’s like a chapter in a book. If you read chapter one and then you go back to the book six months later, you’ve probably forgotten what was in chapter one. A similar principal applies to training: when there is a product to learn and the product is multifaceted and has many modules, it is an enormous benefit to learn related modules together. People who come on a Training Camp receive a ’sheep dip,’ as it were, into the entire technology. We cater to different training styles, with each training day beginning with instructor-led lectures in the morning, followed by afternoon lab sessions. In evening is a lecture and lab review, in which the instructor engages students and focuses student interactions to ensure that everyone is progressing. At the end of the course, all trainees take an exam, which emphasizes that this is training geared toward results. Measures are an important part of our model.
Also, we don’t employ any of our instructors, and there’s a reason for that. We use the term “real world instructors” because we expect our instructors to be consultants as well as instructors. They implement the technology one week and train for us the next. What better way to teach a class of 16 IT pros than to show them an example of an implementation you just completed last week?
Our training is so unusual and so revolutionary that once trainees experience it they will keep coming back throughout their career path. Over 20 percent of our customers return from year to year. We’ve won Training Company of the Year in 2006 and 2007, and Learning Centre of the Year 2007 from the UK’s Institute for IT Training, which is the highest recognition available from our own industry.
PressPass: What trends do you see in IT training?
Sarder: Today, IT training is a $22 billion dollar industry. It is growing 7 percent year after year, according to IDC. So the problem isn’t lack of demand, it’s how to respond wisely to the opportunities. A lot of Fortune 50 companies have started to outsource their entire training divisions to companies like NetCom. Most companies are looking for customized training focused on job-specific requirements. They aren’t looking for classes on how to use Microsoft Office Excel in general; they want classes in how to do use Excel to perform specific tasks which are now integrated seamlessly into programs like Microsoft Office SharePoint or Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Microsoft has also changed many of its technical certifications to meet the job roles of IT Professionals with their new Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) certifications.
Kapellman: Definitely, the trend is toward consultative customization. Our customers demand more flexibility and a greater variety and blending of learning methodologies, including e-learning, books, e-books, pod casts, classroom lectures and more. This way, they can have a better ROI for their training investment. There is not a single, unique solution for training; it has to have the combination of several methodologies to achieve the best possible result. We anticipate that Microsoft Official Distance Learning, which utilizes Microsoft Office Live Meeting to provide the interactivity of the classroom and the flexibility of an online course, will become a principal value-add in our market. This is also complemented by tracking the customer’s training using KED Online, giving a complete solution through the life cycle of their training experience. We have to deeply understand the value and potential of these tools, and align methodologies with the needs of our customers, because we are all part of the ongoing evolution of how we gain knowledge, skills and learning.
Capaldo: As the corporate world gets more sophisticated in its use of technology -- and affluent in the purchasing of technology -- it inevitably demands more of a service from the providers of technology, even IT training companies. It’s no longer enough to sell a commodity product off the shelf, because customers want to see a level of customization. Customers who are buying training now need to see added value, and that’s where the opportunity is. At the same time companies increasingly feel the need to tighten up on IT department service delivery within the business, and closely monitor the ability of IT teams to deliver projects both on time and in budget, and with results that address business needs. We view ourselves not just as a training company; we are selling solutions to help trainees and companies bridge business processes.
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