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Xerox tackles competency-based model for product training

Not so long ago, trainers went out like cowboys at a roundup and herded students through the turnstile to “get trained.” If the head count was high, the training was considered a success. Well, maybe it wasn’t that bad. But training often has had a mass-market approach rather than a personalized approach. The same training program is delivered, regardless of the knowledge and skills of the individual learners.

At Xerox, a competency-based model was developed to provide a personalized experience for each learner. This model is being applied to training for customer service engineers who support existing equipment and new product launches, including high-end color copiers, printers and an array of applications. Competency-based training includes a careful assessment of the technical tasks needed to perform the job, an assessment of the learner’s knowledge and skills, and training interventions that close the gaps between the two.

The pluses of personalized

“The Xerox product training model has historically over-trained our service engineers,” says Ernie Chandler, manager of the Customer Services Competency Office with the North American Solutions Group. “In the back of most folks’ minds is the fear we would send an unprepared technician into the field, so we have been training everyone on everything.”

Personalized training offers some major advantages over standardized training. For one thing, it provides a learner-centric rather than a trainer-centric experience. Instruction is more meaningful to a learner when it addresses his or her needs rather than including material that is already known. Training time (and costs) can be reduced when the instruction is targeted--especially time off the job, which accounts for one of the largest components of training costs. In addition, the need for practice equipment is reduced, because training becomes modularized at the product subsystem level.

It's all in the details

Xerox begins with a thorough analysis of tasks required to perform the job, down to a very detailed level. Product experts use a Web-based application to build profiles of the technical competency requirements for each machine. The profile of skills is then compared to the competency inventory for each service engineer.

The competency inventory is based on the learner’s past performance, which includes a detailed history of his or her work experience. The gap between the level of skills required and the level already attained is presented to the student for review. If the work history shows a gap, learners who believe they have the knowledge and skills can “test out” of the training by taking an assessment. That situation might occur if a technician had observed someone performing the task on the job and knew how to do it, even though the competency inventory did not show experience in that area, or if the technician had acquired a skill prior to joining Xerox.

Other skills, such as PC use and networking, are becoming so widespread that they are part of the general background of employees and therefore don’t need to be taught to every employee. An example is the learner’s ability to master the print server through which users of Xerox equipment give commands to the system. Familiarity with PC software and some past experience is usually sufficient to allow technicians to support the print server. A training course to illustrate every menu option might last several hours, but by demonstrating competency with the server, employees can save that time.

Since competency requirements are being defined at such a detailed level, areas of overlap between one piece of equipment and another can be eliminated. For example, a subsystem might have technologies in common with a previous generation. If the employee had worked on the previous generation of equipment, he or she might need training only on the new elements, rather than from the ground up. A new employee might need the entire program. Alternatively, the work history might show that even though the employee had worked on a precursor to the new machine, the particular subsystem involved had never been serviced, so training would be needed on the corresponding subsystem.

The upfront challenge

The use of a competency-based model relies on a thorough understanding of the knowledge and skills required for the job and of the knowledge and skills of the employee. The amount of upfront work is one reason why many companies do not take on that challenge. But once the elements are identified and broken down, more efficient training is within reach. In addition, the modular approach lends itself to a “just in time” delivery mode, as opposed to the “just in case” philosophy that has been typical of large training programs.

Keith Stock, manager of Learning Delivery & Operations, highlights the economic advantages of the new approach. “We estimate decreasing our training needs by 25% through this approach,” he says. “The obvious savings we’ve achieved by reducing the amount of training are significant, but they are relatively small in comparison to the fact that our top-gun service engineers are in the field with our customers, not in the classroom. That’s where the long-term value is found.”

Consensus doesn't always come easily

Competency-based initiatives have been around for ages, but Xerox’s attempt to apply the discipline to technical skills in addition to soft skills represents breakthrough thinking. It hasn’t come easily: Just getting product engineers, subsystem engineers, field engineers, training developers and others to agree on the same terminology for the competency model (such as the description of skills) can be an ordeal. But over time, Xerox expects a big payoff. Competency-based training provides the best of both worlds: It is consistent with the company’s emphasis on customer service and training excellence, and also provides the efficiency needed for today's competitive environment.

Richard Blessing is VP of ORS Interactive (orsinteractive.com), a consulting and e-learning systems development firm.

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