At Xerox, Learning Is a Community Activity

By Garry Kranz

Dec. 22, 2008

When Kent Purvis has a question, he doesn’t take out Xerox Corp.’s product manual and flip through the troubleshooting guide. Nor does he chase down colleagues who might (but possibly won’t) know the answers.

    Purvis, a managing principal with Xerox’s global services division, is more likely to tap the collective wisdom of peers inside a special learning and development community. Consisting of the company’s 125 managing principals, the community was set up to help like-minded employees share information and work together on business projects.

The managing principals provide secondary sales support across three interconnected lines of business: document management, business process outsourcing and office services. Their job entails broad knowledge about an array of Xerox products and business services, including software and technical support to companies that run such Xerox office equipment as copiers, printers and components. The principals also are familiar with an individual customer’s specific needs.

    As is the case with physical communities, the learning community’s strength lies in the combined assets of individual members. All participants have the opportunity to contribute to an ongoing base of knowledge, including a wiki of online resources that continues to develop.

    The give and take within the community elevates learning to a highly effective social experience for employees, Purvis says. Equally important, it provides one central location where people can go to find information that previously might have been difficult to obtain.

    “We know there is a groundswell of knowledge among our managing principals, along all the lines of business. Now there is a structure in place for sharing it” that did not exist before, Purvis says.

    Xerox is in the midst of a three-year process of selectively launching targeted learning communities for people in vital “client-facing job roles,” says Gary Vastola, the company’s vice president of learning and development.

Purvis’ group is one of about 15 learning communities launched since 2007, encompassing more than 1,000 employees. Still, that is a fraction of the 15,000-person workforce of Xerox Global Services, which is a division of Oxford, Connecticut-based Xerox Corp.

Used by employees and supported by top executives, the communities attempt to build formal structures around the many informal ways that people learn on the job. The communities also provide a clear roadway to career growth by mapping out expectations, Vastola says.

“We’re promoting the notion that people need to be continuous learners, and it’s not all about being in a classroom or taking an e-learning course,” he says.

Instead, employees learn by participation. Social networking tools are seen as the best way to disseminate information and promote collaboration across a far-flung geographic workforce, company officials say.

A prime example is a wiki, developed by and for Xerox’s managing principals. It enables them to access the most relevant and current information in one online database. In addition to fostering greater collaboration, the wiki has implications for people’s career growth, says Kevin McPherson, a managing principal who oversees the community.

Prior to the wiki, managing principals often were “siloed” in their own lines of business, which stunted their career growth.

    “Our primary focus for the wiki was to make people better at selling our services. But we also wanted to give career development and recognition,” McPherson says.

Xerox is riding the crest of a wave sweeping over U.S. businesses. In its annual report on the training industry last spring, the American Society for Training & Development found that nearly two-thirds of large U.S. organizations said they rely on “knowledge sharing” among their employees, including communities of practice and in-house experts.

    Also, the Alexandria, Virginia-based organization says 98 percent of companies provide on-the-job learning aids, with nearly 91 percent of employees taking advantage of them.

Awful economic projections have companies in a tight squeeze, which could accelerate the trend toward collaborative learning.

    “As unpleasant as the financial environment is, one of the things it will do is force changes in how companies provide education to their employees. We’re always going to have classrooms, but companies that use technology for employee learning probably aren’t going to see their budgets cut,” says Claire Schooley, an employee-learning analyst with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research.

Perhaps, but Xerox Corp. has been buffeted by the gloomy conditions. The company said in October that it plans to trim 3,000 jobs, or roughly 5 percent of its workforce, because of slowing corporate demand for its printers and copiers. It’s not clear how that will affect the launch of future learning communities.

Launching communities involves a lot of analysis. Vastola says the planning process at Xerox usually takes about three months. It begins with brainstorming sessions between learning leaders and top executives. The goal is identify critical roles within sales, consulting, service delivery and consulting, and then methodically structure learning to help people measure up.

    The critical jobs are reviewed and defined by about a dozen competencies. Each person in the role is assessed according to one of three levels of proficiency: foundation, intermediate and advanced, “knowing full well that no two people are at the same stage in their development,” Vastola says.

    Classroom instruction, e-learning courses, suggested readings, or on-the-job activities all could be part of a person’s customized learning agenda.

“The beauty of it is that learning really gets integrated into a person’s day-to-day job,” Vastola says.

The targeted employees are asked to complete an online survey that includes questions about the type of information they seek and which sources of information they use.

    Vastola says employees spend about 15 percent of their time in some type of learning activity at work. The purpose of communities is to help employees use this learning time more productively.

Although participation is voluntary, Xerox executives are hoping that employees seize the opportunity to learn from their peers in a setting that is more immediate—not to mention less time-consuming and less costly—than traditional “one to many” training.

    Xerox has no immediate plans to launch learning communities for every job title, but Vastola says all employees are being encouraged to pursue learning through Xerox Global Services Academy, which includes thousands of online courses as well as traditional training options.

    Efforts during 2008 centered on implementing the new communities, with the company expecting to have measurable results by the end of 2009, Vastola says.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with