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Made to Stick

How to Make Corporate Training Rock

How one team transformed a training binder into must-see TV.

How to Make Corporate Training Rock

Russ Berland's first assignment at BearingPoint was a doozy. He was asked to redesign the company's ethics-and-compliance training program. If simply reading the phrase "compliance training" sapped a little of your will to live, perhaps you can empathize with Berland.

Most companies — including yours, probably — have an ethics program, and often the "program" looks uncannily like a three-ring binder. It may be sitting on your bookshelf right now, between What Color Is Your Parachute? and the 2003 Metro Area phone book. It's filled with mimeographed, knuckle-rapping prose, just like the code of conduct Berland inherited, which, he said, appeared to have been repurposed from a law firm.

Yet compliance training was critical at BearingPoint, a management and technology consulting firm, because the company's employees often spent more time on client sites than at home. So Berland, the chief compliance officer, had to influence the behavior of employees who were scattered across the country, operating in organizational cultures very different from BearingPoint's. (BearingPoint filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, due to an excessive debt burden unrelated to an ethics issue.)

Berland and his colleagues began to interview some of the company's associates, asking them about real-world "gray areas": What situations make you feel squishy? What have you seen happen in the field that gave you pause? Soon, they'd uncovered stories of ethical quandaries and anxious situations and strained relationships. It was exactly the sort of drama that was absent from the three-ring binder.

Then came their epiphany: Let's bring this drama to life. They hatched the idea to film a fictional series, modeled on The Office, that would highlight the activities of a single IT consulting engagement team. The team would work for a fictional company called Aggrieva, which was designed to be the evil doppelgänger of BearingPoint. (Motto: "Aggrieva says yes when everyone else says no.")

Berland hired filmmaker Marc Havener to direct the series, and they shot an entire season of 10 short episodes in a weekend. The episodes deal with touchy areas such as bosses hitting on subordinates, teams misrepresenting their expertise, and managers trying to pass along inappropriate expenses to the client. In other words, comedy gold.

Here's a scene where Kevin, the lovably oily boss, has proposed throwing a grandiose surprise party for Ricardo, a client, as a way to curry favor. Vanessa, a levelheaded analyst on Kevin's team, objects:

VANESSA: Sir, how are we going to pay for this?
KEVIN: We'll just work it into the bill somewhere.
VANESSA: We can't bill a client for a birthday party.
KEVIN: [Exasperated] Okay, you know what? Fine. I tried. You know what, Vanessa? I want you to look Ricardo in the face and tell him that we don't care enough to throw a party for him.
VANESSA: Wasn't this party supposed to be a surprise? Why do I have to tell Ricardo that the party is off if he never even knew about it in the first place?
KEVIN: Well, now it's "Surprise! There's no party!" Tell him that.

The episodes were an immediate sensation. The emails poured in: "This is the best training I've ever had." "I think that episode was based on my team." "I'm cackling like a madman," and so forth. Soon, the characters and situations became part of the company's vocabulary. Many employees admitted to Berland that they had "worked for a Kevin."

New episodes debuted each Monday, but employees were so ravenous for the next episode that they started tracking them down on the company's staging server where the videos were posted on the preceding Friday. Thousands of employees watched the videos before they were released.

Note: When your company's employees are madly searching for your compliance videos, you've done something right.

The series also changed the tenor of the internal conversation about compliance. The company had always operated an ethics hotline, and traditionally it had been used largely to make allegations. After the episodes, though, more people called the hotline to discuss issues. The episodes gave people permission to talk about tough topics, to see that these situations weren't private, shameful secrets. They were, in fact, recurring situations. "It gave people a feeling of comfort that 'Oh, Maria went through that, too,' " Berland said. " 'It's not just me.' " Better still, they were situations that had been successfully navigated by other colleagues in the past.

Every business has these "untouchable" issues. They make us uncomfortable, and we usually deal with our discomfort by retreating behind legalistic language. But if we really take these incidents seriously — if we're committed to putting an end to sexual harassment or improper billing or dishonest communication — then we need to show a little bravery. Our three-ring binders won't change a thing. But a little humor and humanity might.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Their next book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, will be released in February 2010.

A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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