When it comes to training its consultants, Lotus Corp. takes a decidedly low-tech approach--one that favors children's toys and props over cutting-edge presentation technology.
The Lotus Services Academy has long been the platform from which newly hired employees--including consultants, sales support staff, and training personnel--discover the secrets behind consulting "the Lotus way." Founded in 1982 and purchased by IBM in 1995, The Lotus Corp. is 8,500 employees (and 20,000 partners) strong and markets its software products in 80 countries. For many, this intense, one-week training program is their initiation into the company.
You'd expect a software company, especially one of this size and stature, to train new hires in cutting-edge technology, and certainly employees get technology training on the job. But during their stint at the academy, no laptop computers are allowed during the classroom time, and students must check their cellphones and pagers at the door.
"They do struggle with it," says Program Manager Linda Bolle. "But they are there to learn, and interruptions compromise the learning environment."
Most attendees come to agree. "We've all been to meetings where pagers go off and cellphones ring, and people run in and out of the room to take calls and check e-mail," says Carol Worthy, a systems architect. "Too often they get caught up in something, and that can keep the whole group waiting. That's just not an effective way to learn.
"This is too expensive a program to have people not concentrate on it fully," continues Worthy, who adds that the course can cost $5,000 per person once all expenses are tallied.
How It Works Each weeklong academy is attended by groups of 20 to 24 employees. Academies (Lotus holds eight a year at convention centers across the country) are instructed by senior managers who, according to Bolle, are more powerful teachers than anyon the market. "They're able to present real-world examples to students, rather than just delivering the curriculum and giving theoretical background information."
Lotus builds academy training around its Accelerated Value Method. AVM consists of seven components that form the foundation for sales success: process innovation; collaborative development; transformation management; enterprise deployment; engagement management; workshop facilitation; and effective presentations. Each of the seven days of class is devoted to the training of one AVM module.
The learning techniques are decidedly low-tech, mostly discussion-based with a focus on communication between students. Each day, students apply what they learned to a group case study they are given at the week's beginning--a fictitious company with a fictitious problem.
"It's not based on one single client; we take bits and pieces from customers and create a typified 'customer' with real-life elements," says Bolle. "Everybody gets into the discussion," and at the end of the week, the group presents its solution.
The 12-hour academy days are long and can be tiring, but the week is broken up with activities to help people unwind. In Palm Springs, the group, guided by an astronomer, gazed at constellations in the desert sky. In Indianapolis, they raced go-carts at a local amusement park. In Long Island, they held an indoor clam bake and played trivia games all evening.
The Simpler, the Better Some would find it hard to believe that removing digital age consultants from their elements for seven days and cutting their links to the business world--and to their customers--could produce results. But according to Carol Worthy, Lotus systems architect, it definitely works, largely because senior management sets the tone for the week. "If senior managers can give up their cellphones and pagers and live without e-mail all day, the students know they can do it, too," says Worthy, who procrastinated for months when it came to scheduling her own academy training, largely because she was afraid of upsetting her clients by being unavailable to them for an entire week. But her fears never materialized.
"Guess what?" she says. "I didn't die from lack of contact! It was relaxing. I really enjoyed it. Having nothing to do but concentrate on the training was good for me." She now attends two academies annually as an instructor and has grown to view the week as a retreat of sorts.
To get attendees to know each other, the leaders use the most basic icebreakers. In one exercise, trainers tell attendees to line up according to their birth dates--without allowing them to speak. Worthy describes the drill as "a hoot," with all trainees silently holding up fingers in numerical representations of their birth months and trying to assemble in the proper order without a peep.
"It's a simple way to get everyone laughing," Worthy says. Another low-tech tool they use: children's toys, to represent different aspects of the consultant-client relationship. Most often, the workflow 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, rhinestone tiaras, or alien antennas 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."