When it comes to training its consultants, Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus Development Corp. takes a decidedly low-tech approach — one that favors children's toys and props over cutting-edge technology.
Its seven-day Lotus Services Academy convenes eight times a year, each initiating 20 to 24 students in “the Lotus way.” The learning techniques are mostly discussion-based, with a focus on communication among the students. Each day, trainees apply what they have learned to a group case study given to them at the beginning of the week — a fictitious company with a fictitious problem.
To get students warmed up, the leaders use basic icebreakers. In one exercise, trainers ask attendees to line up according to their birth dates — without speaking. “It's a simple way to get everyone laughing,” says Carol Worthy, a Lotus systems architect who is both a graduate of the academy and trainer for two sessions each year. Another low-tech tool: They use children's toys to represent aspects of the consultant-client relationship. Most often, the work-flow process is represented by a Slinky; documents moving through the innovation process are modeled using windup toys, and buildings blocks illustrate databases. Finally, stuffed animals or figurines depict clients or consultants.
And attendees never know when they'll be asked to don rubber noses or rhinestone tiaras to get a reaction. “This is serious subject matter, but the play brings out the clowns in the group and gets people opening up. They all come up with ingenious solutions,” says Worthy. “And that's the point. None of our clients is the same, so none of our solutions can be, either.”
Turn off the Phone
You might expect a software company to embrace technology in all its forms, but during classroom time, no laptops are allowed, and students check their cellphones at the door. “They do struggle with it,” says Program Manager Linda Bolle. “But interruptions compromise the learning environment.” Most attendees come to agree. “We've all been to meetings where people run in and out to take calls and check e-mail,” Worthy says. “This is too expensive a program to have people not concentrating.” The course can cost $5,000 per person, including expenses.
Removing digital-age consultants from their elements for seven days works largely because management sets the tone. If senior managers can give up cellphones, pagers, and e-mail all day, students know they can do it, too, says Worthy, who procrastinated scheduling her own training largely because she was afraid of upsetting her clients. “Guess what?” she says. “I didn't die from lack of contact! Having nothing to do but concentrate on the training was good for me.”