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Learning By Doing: One Company's Experience With XBT Technology.

As most CEOs know (and some have learned the hard way), yesterday's adage, "if it ain't (too) broke, don't fix it," hardly works in today's hypercompetitive environment. These days, if a CEO isn't seeing pretty outstanding performance using a particular method, it might be time to consider changing things around. We at Avnet reached that conclusion in the area of employee training about two years ago, when we looked into the future and saw that the training methods we were using were just not going to do the trick.

Our standard procedure had been to fly our sales professionals to our Phoenix headquarters once or twice a year for a week of classroom-style training. This "training" consisted mostly of vendor presentations. But, while it covered the basics, it did not teach our sales professionals how to effectively sell. Somehow the messages being taught were not translating into more effective selling techniques; our employees were not learning what our brand and value proposition really was, or how to sell it.

Just as importantly, it was impacting our bottom line. Taking our sales professionals out of commission for five days, buying airline tickets and hotel rooms, and providing meals is prohibitively expensive. We knew that we had to make a change.

Avnet is currently one of the world's largest industrial distributors of electronic components and computer products. But we are evolving from a pure hardware distributor to a provider of integrated solutions. The hardware that we sell is now just one component of a complex package of products and services that we deliver to our customers.

As our business model has become more complex, so has the role of our sales professionals. Our customers today demand solutions that include hardware, training, maintenance, and even financing. Our sales professionals must possess top-notch skills to sell these integrated solutions because, let's face it--if our sales person doesn't understand the sales pitch, the customer won't either.

In one recent case, an experienced Avnet account manager worked for several months to secure a deal that could have easily been lost because of stiff competition from an aggressive small competitor. In this case, the customer needed more than just hardware. By asking the right questions and developing a comprehensive understanding of the customer, the sales professional determined that financing would play a critical role in the terms of the agreement. The account manager used his savvy to zero in on two key factors:

* The competition's major weakness was that it was too small to have the resources to provide competitive financing terms.

* Because of our size, Avnet had the ability to offer a full range of products, services and financing bundled together.

The account manager took advantage of the competitor's weakness and secured the deal by including a financing arrangement that was favorable to the customer. He was successful because of his intuition and savvy gained from years of experience--not because of a sales training course.

This example illustrates the conclusion we reached regarding employee training: Employees will learn best if they learn from experience. Our objective thus became determining the best way to deliver experience to our employees with the least amount of risk and the greatest level of return. We realized that we needed to not only change our methods of training, but our means of delivering it as well.

By combining new training methods that focused on delivering experience with high technology mediums, we determined that we could improve the performance of all employees at a fraction of the cost of traditional training.

Moving Toward Experience-Based Training

Avnet is now moving toward an approach that combines proven effective experience-based training techniques with artificial intelligence, multimedia, and Internet technology. After examining an array of training tools, we turned to a Phoenix-based company called Learning Productions to develop experience-based training (XBT).

Pilots, who learn to fly via flight simulator, use XBT. We would never expect pilots to understand all the complexities of flying planes by studying a manual or listening to a lecture. They learn from doing, from a simulated experience that very closely imitates real life scenarios.

Learning Productions takes this concept of simulation and applies it to the workplace. By mimicking real world--and real work--experiences, Learning Productions' "job simulators" prepare employees for the rigors of business--just as flight simulators prepare pilots for the rigors of flight.

By placing the emphasis on how the mind works and how people learn, Learning Productions essentially embeds all of that knowledge into the tools and technologies that it uses to build the simulations.

Using PC-based simulations gives employees the chance to work through realistic job scenarios and learn from the mistakes that they inevitably make. When they do make mistakes, employees see, hear, and have virtual conversations with Avnet's top sales performers about their experiences. In this way, our top performers become personal coaches and tutors, offering advice and knowledge at critical times in the learning process.

As a result, we are able to:

* Give employees at all levels the ability to become top performers. Salient experiences that our top salespeople encounter over one or two years are condensed into a matter of hours. Our experts may spend only 15 minutes honing skills; they already have the experience. Novices, however, may spend one to two hours learning the skills from the ground up. XBT scenarios are as applicable to experts who need hone skills as they are to novices who need to learn.

* Convert learning from a passive process to an active process. Rather than corralling a bunch of people into a classroom or dumping three feet of manuals on "How to Sell," we activate and energize the learning process. People are engaged with a realistic learning environment and realistic scenarios where they can try, fail, learn, and ultimately succeed in selling to target clients. This difference results in increase learner attention and motivation.

* Gain an important competitive edge. We can deliver complex sales experiences to hundreds of salespeople overnight at a fraction of the cost. Our people will have experience selling before they sell to real clients. The end result is a workforce that is better and more quickly trained to beat the competition out in the field.

We expect this new approach to learning will easily return $4-to-$5 million per year to Avnet in terms of improved effectiveness and reduced costs., and we project that number to steadily increase as the Learning Productions program is fully implemented. But while the numbers might offer the most direct measure of success, we expect to enjoy long-lasting, if more intangible, gains. The advantage of having "just-in-time experience," for example; by focusing on real life scenarios--and because 80 percent of our XBT solution is on-line--we can effectively distribute experience to the workforce when and where needed. We also believe this will help us achieve a six-to-nine month time-to-market advantage over the competition. And, with competitive advantage windows always shrinking, every advantage goes a long way.

Andy Bryant is president and Rich Ward is retired president of Avnet, Inc., a Phoenix-based industrial distributor of electronic components and computer products with '99 sales of $6.35 billion.
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Author:Ward, Rich
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
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