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Keyboard Courses at Work or Home

QUALCOMM offers a range of online training courses and college degree programs to employees in five states and in Israel.

February 27, 2000
Inside the offices of QUALCOMM Inc., San Diego, a senior electrical engineer is sitting in a cubicle tapping away on a computer keyboard. At the moment, she s not calculating complex formulas or designing the next generation of wireless chips. She's simply viewing her personnel records and taking stock of her accomplishments via the company intranet. With the click of a mouse, she can review the courses and training modules she has already completed, and see what s required for a promotion. The information is customized for her specific position.

After spending a few minutes perusing course descriptions, the engineer clicks on an e-form to make a selection: she opts for a business management course that's conducted through the corporate intranet. In an instant, she s able to receive course materials, including videos, slides, and interactive quizzes. What s more, she is able to log on from home or while on the road. It s efficient, it s painless, and it is helping QUALCOMM dial into the 21st century.

It s no secret that many organizations have turned to computer-based training (CBT) and distance learning over the last few years. According to some estimates, it s now in excess of a $1.5 billion industry. But few have focused their energies as ambitiously as QUALCOMM, the inventor of code division multiple access (CDMA) technology that s used for digital wireless communication throughout the U.S. and beyond.

The 6,000-plus-employee firm--which also sells Eudora e-mail software and until recently manufactured digital mobile phones--now offers more than 250 course modules online. These range from basic word processing to technical design and engineering. QUALCOMM also offers employees the opportunity to obtain an MBA through San Diego State University and a master s in electrical engineering through the University of Southern California s distance learning program.

"Because our founders come from an academic background," says Dawn Ridz, a human resources specialist at QUALCOMM, "we ve always been committed to education through continual learning and training. The organization s entrepreneurial spirit, which focuses on education and learning, is essential within such a highly competitive arena. Over the years, that philosophy has become deeply ingrained in the mindset and culture."

That you can credit to Irwin M. Jacobs, a 66-year-old former Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor who co-founded the company in 1985 and has built it into a telecommunications industry powerhouse. Jacobs, the firm s chief executive, believes that ongoing learning and profits go hand in hand. And who s to argue? Last year, QUALCOMM s sales topped $3.9 billion, with an 85 percent profit increase. The firm s digital technology has been adopted as a global standard for next-generation wireless cell phones. It receives a license fee almost every time a digital phone is sold.

They know their stuff.
At QUALCOMM s sprawling campus of 18 buildings near UC San Diego, that might seem like reason to celebrate. But within the firm s offices, labs, and research facilities, it s business as usual. And in this case that means employees taking courses. Lots and lots of courses. Last year, the firm tallied just shy of 94,000 hours of classroom training and tens of thousands of hours more of online instruction.

Employees--including those at offices in Boulder, Indianapolis, Winston-Salem, Portland, and Santa Clara, and in Israel--learn about an array of business and technical topics, including finance for non-finance managers, goal setting, negotiation, conflict resolution, business writing, creativity and innovation, and a slew of technical and engineering topics.

The program falls into four general categories:

1. Technical CDMA courses, which total 10 topics (9 classroom based and 1 CD-ROM)

2. Computer training/engineering courses, 61 total topics (49 classroom based and 33 online)

3. Manufacturing courses, 17 total topics (17 classroom based and 2 online)

4. Professional/management development, 37 total topics (36 classroom based and 12 online).

From the beginning, QUALCOMM s goal has been to provide cutting-edge training that fits different learning schedules, says Ridz. That meant making some courses available online 24-7. It meant addressing different learning styles by providing conventional classrooms as well as computers. And it meant customizing the online instruction to fit QUALCOMM s culture and critical business needs. Ridz notes that classroom instructors are top experts in their fields and that CBT and other training materials are viewed as alternatives to classroom learning. Consequently, some courses are offered both online and in the classroom.

Managing courses and content is no simple matter, however. That s why QUALCOMM uses so-called Learning Specialists to track the needs of various business units. These individuals monitor staff meetings, meet regularly with senior management, and conduct group needs assessments. Once specialists identify a new training need, they work with vendors and management to define a course and create appropriate and unique content. "Material that s covered in a course is specifically tailored to QUALCOMM," Ridz explains.

Then, it s up to employees to boost their skills and competencies. Leaders of various business units determine which courses, if any, are mandatory (most required courses center on business management), and supervisors offer advice, suggestions, and coaching along the way.

"If a supervisor feels that an employee s presentation skills or database skills could use improvement, then it s likely that he or she will suggest that the individual sign up," Ridz explains.

However, many courses are entirely optional and help build expertise that can benefit the person on the job and in a career. As an added incentive, QUALCOMM offers an annual education allowance of $5,250 per employee.

But QUALCOMM doesn t stop there. One thing that makes the program so effective is that it is tightly integrated into a competency management initiative. In August 1999, QUALCOMM introduced MySource, an intranet-based self-service tool that list the classes that an employee is currently enrolled in, as well as the courses taken and certificates and degrees earned. The Learning Center Web site allows employees to map out suggested coursed, given their job duties/department. The two systems work together to provide a complete training picture for the Qualcomm employee.

Managers, on the other hand, benefit from being aware of the learning needs of individuals, teams, and entire departments. It s then possible to slot employees into specific classes. The MySource system--built in-house by QUALCOMM--ties into a PeopleSoft database to track the information across the corporation. That also lets supervisors use the information for performance appraisals, strategic planning, and deploying personnel.

Sitting at a computer, employees typically log on to the corporate intranet, surf through course offerings, and, with a few clicks, enroll in the desired classes. There s no cumbersome registration process and no paperwork. MySource automates everything and even provides assistance about what courses might be relevant, on the basis of a person s job title or skills. A portion of the system called My Development displays a list of classes in which an employee is already enrolled and courses already passed, along with the dates.

Yet the program offers enough flexibility to let employees obtain training material on a just-in-time basis. Instead of a manager signing up for a course on coaching or conflict resolution and waiting three weeks, he can access a short-course and obtain valuable information on the spot.

Says Ridz: "By dealing with issues as they arise, it s possible to resolve things far more effectively. If there s too long a delay getting needed information or knowledge, a manager can be at a tremendous disadvantage."

The objective, says Ridz, "is to make things easier for employees while providing the level of information and learning that the organization requires." Like many other companies, QUALCOMM has discovered that centralized training often isn t cost effective. Fly hundreds of employees a year into a central training site, put them up in hotels, bury them with binders filled with paperwork, and the cost can easily run into millions of dollars.

According to Brandon Hall, editor and publisher of Multimedia and Internet Training Newsletter, it s not uncommon for online training to slash the cost of a program by 50 to 70 percent. "Traditional training is labor and capital intensive. Although it can provide a huge payoff, it doesn t come without a tremendous amount of corporate resources," he explains.

QUALCOMM s online coursework harnesses the power of the Web along with the ability of PCs to provide an interactive experience. For example, hyperlinks let employees jump through complex documents and obtain definitions and more information, when appropriate. Text, photographs, illustrations, videos, audio, and quizzes help employees master a set of skills or specific knowledge before moving on to another topic.

And so that QUALCOMM can continually refine the program, participants fill out online evaluations at the completion of a module or course. The most common questions become part of FAQs (frequently asked questions), and content is continually tweaked. "We re constantly looking for ways to refine and improve the overall program," Ridz points out.

One of the biggest advantages for employees, she adds, is that online coursework doesn t set arbitrary limitations about time. QUALCOMM s employees increasingly are attending courses in the evenings, on weekends, and while traveling--allowing them to better juggle their daily workloads and balance work-life issues. And because the program offers "information on demand," workers aren t subjected to sitting in a classroom simply because an instructor and classroom were available at a particular time. They can take breaks, cope with interruptions, and learn as needed.

Everybody wins in the end.
Make no mistake, QUALCOMM is doing all it can to ensure that its employees are wired for the future. In an era when knowledge is key, it s unlocking the full potential of its workforce through training, employee self-service, and competency management.

"Ongoing learning is one of the things that gives us a competitive advantage," Ridz explains. "It offers enormous benefits for QUALCOMM and all the company s employees. It has played a large role in defining the company and leading to our success."

Workforce, March 2000, Vol. 79, No. 3, pp. 88-92.