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1999 Partnership Optimas Award Profile LearnShare LLC

March 1, 1999
You know the saying—two heads are better than one. When it comes to developing training-delivery methods using constantly evolving technology, 17 heads have emerged the formula.

Seventeen partners partake in LearnShare, a Toledo, Ohio-based consortium of training professionals. The goals: To exchange with each other training material that already exists, convert that material for use with emerging technologies, jointly fund new programs, and share knowledge around developing learning infrastructures in the face of change. Not only is LearnShare accomplishing all of these goals, but it also serves as a model for improving the quality of education in the workplace.

Building the consortium.
LearnShare sprang from an idea by Rick Corry, a 12-year Owens Corning employee with extensive background in sales and marketing. In November 1994, Corry moved to the company’s headquarters in Toledo to start a corporate university. His boss, John Vermeulen, vice president, building materials, sales and distribution, challenged Corry to stretch the limited training budget for its sales and marketing field employees.

The solution came to him the following May while he was listening to an online training vendor extolling the virtues of his training offering. Corry had been doing research around multimedia training prior to this seminar, and something was bugging him. The way the training industry was set up, organizations had to invest in vendor training programs that they ultimately didn’t own (despite paying for the development costs). They had to pay per-use fees on this training, and it wasn’t even customized. In fact, from phone surveys he conducted with other companies, he had learned that approximately 75 percent of all training is almost identical, regardless of industry.

With these thoughts in mind, Corry stood up and addressed the assembly. "I told the group I was amazed that, considering our common training needs, we weren’t sharing what we had and funding what was needed." The vendor wasn’t pleased and the audience sat in silence. But after the presentation, corporate representatives surrounded Corry, praising his idea and volunteering involvement in any further discussions of it. He knew then that he had to make this concept of share sourcing a reality.

Corry sold Vermeulen on the idea of developing a consortium, and Vermeulen "loaned" Corry to the project. Although as of January 1st Corry began drawing salary from LearnShare as its general manager and CEO, Owens Corning continued to pay his salary for the first several years—as part of its contribution to the project—while he began to build the consortium.

Building the partnership meant finding members. In October 1995, Corry invited 18 companies to Toledo to discuss the concept. The majority of the companies invited were those that had shown interest at that May seminar, along with local companies with which Corry knew something about. From that and other subsequent meetings emerged nine original members: Owens Corning; 3M; Deere & Company; General Motors SPO; Pilkington/Libbey-Owens-Ford; Motorola University; Owens-Illinois; Reynolds Metals; and Aeroquip-Vickers. Five additional companies have since joined: Northwest Airlines; Warner-Lambert; GTE; Chevron; and Levi Strauss & Company. Collectively, they’re responsible for the training of 2 million employees.

Jeff Oberlin, senior director for Schaumburg, Illinois-based Motorola University Colleges, had good reason to join. He had just started a department inside the university—emerging technologies—in the pursuit of transitioning training from classroom-oriented to online-oriented. His goal is to deliver 30 percent of training online by 2001. "I needed help to make that happen," he says. "It’s definitely a stretch."

Indeed. According to Mark Van Buren, senior research officer with Alexandria, Virginia-based American Society of Training and Development, only 9 percent of all training in Corporate America was delivered online (which includes via the Internet, intranets, CD-ROM and cable television) in 1997, the most recent numbers available. The numbers confirm that moving to new delivery methods is a challenge, even to companies like Motorola that have begun to put the infrastructure in place to make it happen. And not all of LearnShare’s members were that far along in the process when they joined. But "they all recognized that it might be less expensive to stumble and fall and find out what works and what doesn’t as a group rather than individually," says Corry.

To help the members stay on the leading edge of learning technology, learning philosophy and business education, Corry also invited three universities to become LearnShare partners —Arizona State, at which Corry had an alliance with Dr. Tom Keller who had experience with consortiums; Fairleigh Dickinson, which operates the Center for Human Resources Management and specializes in working with corporations; and Ohio State, which has a state-of-the-art computer center. Keller, a facility member at the college of business at Arizona State University, also helped develop LearnShare’s business plan.

It took 12 to 16 months to get LearnShare off the ground. Corry found that companies bought into the concept in theory, but they were reluctant to share their internally developed training programs. "They would send me a check sooner than they would send me a training program," says Corry. The financial commitment to LearnShare is a $100,000 investment for each of the first two years of membership (one of LearnShare’s initiatives is to be self-funded).

To encourage donation of programs, Corry and Keller developed a detailed operating agreement that outlined the responsibilities of the consortium members. These included working on programs together, donating programs that they had in their libraries and funding the development and the start of the organization. "Having the message backed up in writing has really helped [to foster trust]," says Corry.

Putting it into practice.
To date, members have contributed 103 training programs to be shared among the membership, 60 of which currently are in LearnShare’s library. The rest of the programs either weren’t relevant, were incomplete or had copyright issues. By the way, when the members sign an operating agreement, they sign a waiver that says they’re responsible for all of the content that they contribute—meaning they’re responsible for making sure they don’t contribute any material for which they don’t own the copyright. Access to the index of programs donated to the consortium is through a password-protected Web site. Approximately 25 percent of the current training in the inventory is available online. The other programs are available as text-based materials or as CD-ROM programs.

Suppose a member is looking for budget training for its HR staff. The training professional would first go to the Web site and peruse the inventory list. Material is catalogued in a modular fashion, so if a company only needs three of 10 modules, for example, it can take just those three and "plug them into a format that could eventually become an online program for them," says Corry. "So they basically build their own courses, like a puzzle, out of the modules in the library."

If a member finds pertinent material, the member would pay a fee (as low as $5 for text-based material, plus reproduction and shipping and handling charges based on the number of copies needed) for using the program. The fees are set by the board of directors—made up of a senior management person, such as a VP of HR, designated from each member organization.

For online programs, the members simply sign up for them on the Web site. To get the text-based programs, a member would either contact the company that donated the program or LearnShare’s offices. LearnShare currently employs eight people, one of whom is a research manager in charge of fulfilling orders. Not only does she manage the library, but she also would be the one to contact member companies in search of particular programs if a member can’t find what he or she needs in the library. If none of the member organizations have what she’s looking for, she would then turn to training vendors. LearnShare has 22 preferred vendors it works with, and leverages the buying power of 14 companies to negotiate the best prices.

The third option, of course, is developing new content. At board meetings, members review needs and establish development priorities as a group. To date, eight online programs have been developed, which include "Valuing Workforce Diversity," "The First Time Leader Survival Kit" and "Time & Territory Management." Other topics include change management and successful selling, and other delivery methods include CD-ROM programs. LearnShare, and thus all of its member companies, own the copyright to any programs developed through the consortium.

The focus of new development is on programs that deliver education via the Internet, an intranet or computer-based training technology. The programs’ content is applicable to all industries, such as budgeting courses and supervisory skills. "We’re working a bit with soft skills to experiment and see what kind of success we can have translating those topics to an online delivery format," says Corry.

The goal is to eventually reformat all of the text-based content in the shared sources into interactive programming. LearnShare’s university partners play a major role in this process, doing the validation around what kind of testing is appropriate, what kind of audience particular training is best for, and so on. The key, says Corry, is to keep the content flexible enough to adapt to emerging technologies. Although online and CD-ROM delivery is what’s hot now, who knows what the future holds?

Current success breeds optimism.
For LearnShare, the future looks pretty bright. Success has been found—in expected and unexpected ways. Certainly, sharing the cost of development has saved member companies money. The First Time Leader Survival Kit program, for example, cost $285,000 to develop. But split between 14 companies, the cost per company translates into just over $20,000.

And the shared-sources concept has saved members money, as well. Carol Vose, who’s responsible for HR planning and development at Owens Corning, says that in 1998 she was able to track hard dollar savings of between $50,000 and $75,000. That includes costs for training programs the company would have purchased elsewhere that it was able to get from LearnShare’s library or from a preferred vendor at a discounted price.

But Vose says the financial element is only one benefit derived from her participation in LearnShare. The somewhat greater benefit has been the opportunity to network and share ideas with peers struggling with the same issues. Motorola’s Oberlin agrees. "I’m starting to see a lot more benefit from the camaraderie of other members and the learning that occurs between us," he says.

The learning element Oberlin speaks of has indeed become the greatest byproduct of the member’s efforts. What started out as a consortium to simply share training products and funding has in fact turned into a think tank around training delivery. With strategic goals to, one, quantify the value that LearnShare brings to member companies and, two, to create a needs analysis that ties what LearnShare is doing to the member companies’ business goals, LearnShare members are developing a testing ground for learning theory. LearnShare members share experiences of what works and what doesn’t, and university partners provide honor students to help with needs assessment—compiling and analyzing training needs data and making recommendations regarding learning profiles. "It’s the most exciting industry/academic project I’ve been involved with in 20 years," says Arizona State’s Keller. "We’ve identified corporate goals, linked them to training and development goals and directly to learning profiles so that we’re training our people to do the tasks they need to meet organization performance goals—not just in theory, but in practice. The benefit is targeted strategic training that should get people the skills they need to perform their jobs for fewer dollars than they spent in the past."

With results like this, Keller believes it puts the training function on equally visible ground as other units like finance and marketing. And that, he says, raises the value of trainers.

It’s amazing what can happen when people put their heads together.

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 60-65.