learning – John Cone

“Our challenge is to put the learner in charge of the process.”


Title: Vice President
Company: Dell University
Location: Round Rock, Texas
Age: 47


It’s a defining principle of the new economy: winning companies are smart companies. Competition today centers on how much knowledge organizations create, not how many factories they build. Companies that want to grow fast need people who can learn fast. But how do you create tools that allow the pace of learning to match the speed of change? How do you train already overworked employees without pulling them away from their jobs?

John Coné, vice president of Dell University, is answering those questions at one of the new economy’s flagship companies, Dell Computer Corp. Since its creation 14 years ago, in Michael Dell’s dorm room at the University of Texas, Dell has expanded to employ nearly 21,000 people. Today it generates annual revenues of more than $15 billion and is growing at a rate of more than 50% per year. In 1996 and 1997, the company had the top-performing U.S. stock on the Dow Jones World Stock Index. More important, Dell has pioneered a model for the computer business to which other giant companies are struggling to adjust. Dell’s direct-to-customer business model hasn’t just created a prosperous company — it has also redefined the terms of competition that prevail in one of the world’s biggest and most influential industries.

Coné’s job is to redefine education, training, and learning within this high-tech juggernaut. It’s a tall order. The new economy may be a knowledge economy, and people may be every company’s most critical asset, but job education in many organizations remains an undeniable backwater. Far too many instructors from the training departments of far too many companies are frighteningly reminiscent of the dreary science teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Not at Dell. Coné is a genuine radical in a field that is decidedly resistant to change. “The teaching philosophy of most companies today is similar to that of the schools I went to,” he says. “Lots of people sitting in a classroom, with an expert up front telling you things. I’ve always thought that if that was the natural way for people to learn, we ought to see four-year-olds on the playground spontaneously forming themselves into rows. The natural way to learn is simply to be who we are and to do what we do. Kids learn by doing things. And they learn new things when they need to know them.”

That’s the philosophy on which Coné has built Dell University. He calls it “on-demand learning”: “The ideal ‘learning event’ at Dell has a class size of one, lasts 5 to 10 minutes, and takes place within 10 minutes of when someone recognizes that he or she needs to know something. Our challenge is to reduce learning to its smallest, most-useful increments and to put the learner in charge of the entire process.”


It’s an ambitious goal — and one that draws inspiration from Dell’s direct-to-customer business model. Indeed, one of the first items on the curriculum for new Dell employees is the business model itself. Whether you’re a salesperson, an engineer, or a factory-floor manager, Coné believes you will make it at the company only by understanding how Dell does business. “The Dell business model is key to our success,” he says. “It’s unique to our company — something that none of our competitors can deliver. If you want to succeed here, you have to understand the model.”

That doesn’t mean that new employees have to spend their first week at the company locked in a classroom, listening to lectures given by executives. Dell University has created an online course that explains the history of the Dell business model and how it works. “The first thing you do is to take a test and find out if you understand the model,” Coné says. “If you pass, you’re done. If you don’t, you can take courses to learn about just the areas that you don’t understand. We don’t need to send everyone off to a five-day course on the Dell business model.”

That’s been the guiding philosophy behind Dell University since Coné arrived at the firm’s Round Rock, Texas headquarters in July 1995. Dell University offers at least a hundred “classes” — on topics ranging from quality to finance to writing software, and more than 40% of this material is delivered in nontraditional formats (that is, not in classrooms). Coné’s goal is for nontraditional learning to account for 70% of how Dell teaches.

“Nontraditional” also is an apt description of Dell University itself. “Dell University is not an actual, physical place,” Coné says. “Sure, we have classrooms in almost every building where Dell operates. But the university is really a virtual place. We are not a brick-and-mortar operation. That is a model from a different era. Ivy doesn’t grow on a rolling stone. We’ve got no ivy here.”

You won’t find any ivy growing on Coné either. He is in constant motion, talking with his hands flying and his eyebrows bobbing. His least-active hobby is marathon running. And no one would confuse him with Ferris Bueller’s science teacher. Before his career as a corporate educator, Coné did stints as an actor, a radio announcer, and a carpenter. He enjoys hamming it up. During an interview, and without a word of warning, he dropped his voice into the creamy lilt of a deejay as he described his days playing “the world’s most beeyewtiful music” at an Illinois radio station.


But there’s no denying Coné’s credentials as a business educator. He spent 11 years at Motorola Inc., where he was a founder and creator of Motorola University — the gold standard of corporate-learning programs. Companies from around the world visited MU to learn how that education pioneer created and delivered its curriculum. But even during MU’s glory days, Coné was learning that there might be other, and better, ways to teach.

“All these companies were benchmarking Motorola, and I’d take them around and say, ‘This is the way to do it.’ They’d say, ‘Sure, if you’re a multibillion-dollar company with hundreds of people in your training organization.’ That’s when I started to think, ‘Is there another model? We’re the benchmark today — but who’s going to create the next great model?’ “

In 1991, Coné left Motorola to join Sequent Computer Systems Inc., a fast-growing company in Beaverton, Oregon. There he established Sequent University — and began to appreciate some of the concerns that he’d heard from visitors to Motorola. “Nothing that I had done at Motorola was going to work at Sequent,” he says. “I had gone from a huge, old company to a small, young one. And that was the allure — just as it was when I came to Dell. I wasn’t going to be successful by repeating what I’d done. I had to try new things.”

The “new things” he’s doing at Dell University revolve around making simple but powerful distinctions between three kinds of learning inside companies. First there is what Coné calls “learning to know” — the acquisition of general knowledge about the company and about its processes and systems. Then there is “learning to do” — the quick acquisition and immediate application of specific skills to do specific jobs. Finally there is “learning to know and do” — the acquisition of both a big-picture perspective and the pragmatic techniques needed to accomplish something. “The overwhelming majority of traditional corporate education is learning to know — ‘Here’s stuff we want you to be familiar with,’ ” says Coné. “You teach that differently from how you teach learning to do — hard skills that people need to practice and get fast feedback on. These categories help us to deliver education that is very user-friendly.”

Most of Dell University’s delivery mechanisms involve technology. One major “learning to do” priority is for every Dell employee to master the Internet. Toward that end, Dell University created a Web-based program called “Know the Net.” It’s not mandatory; Dell employees access the course if and when they choose. But Michael Dell has been vocal about his support for the course — which may explain why so many cubicles at Dell headquarters display the company’s version of an Internet diploma: A poster of the CEO looking directly at you and pointing one hand in a “you-da-man” salute. The poster reads, “MICHAEL SAYS I KNOW THE NET.”


Other classes, such as training for new, in-the-field sales reps, rely on a clever collection of multimedia tools for self-paced learning. The field-sales kit comes in a cardboard box labeled “In-a-box training for out-of-the-box times.” Inside, new reps find videotapes with information on how to sell Dell products, a CD-ROM with product descriptions, and a video about benefits. The CD-ROM alone, a snazzy interactive offering filled with games and case studies, has eliminated more than 16 hours of classroom time, says Darcy Kurtz, 27, a sales-training manager. “Making that CD was definitely a ‘wow!’ experience for us,” Kurtz says. “We didn’t really believe that we could replace 16 hours of class time with a tool that took one or two hours and was a lot more fun. But the reps loved it, in part because they could refer back to it easily. And it helped us get them up to speed faster — which meant they started selling sooner.”

Dell University has created similar learning tools for topics such as new-hire orientation, customer service, and the giving of performance reviews. Coné is especially keen on this last tool, which is called Employee Appraiser. Some first-time managers may need an in-the-classroom seminar to learn the basic principles of motivating and rewarding their people — and Dell University provides such seminars. But other managers just might need pragmatic tips about how to improve their writing of appraisals.

“Human-resources people at most companies would be scared to death to do what we do on Employee Appraiser,” Coné says. “They’re afraid that if they let managers write appraisals without going through hours of classroom time about theories and models — not to mention the difference between good and evil — that they’ll be turning managers loose to do horrible things. We don’t believe that. We’re a company of smart people. Most companies are made up of smart people. If managers need help, they’ll ask for it.”

This year, Dell University won both the George Land World Class Innovator Award and the National Alliance of Business’s Corporate University of the Year Award. So is Coné satisfied with what he’s created? Hardly. He’s already at work on other projects, trying to create the next learning model.

Coné’s work is getting lots of attention — and attracting heaps of praise. “The old model of learning was entirely front-end-loaded,” Coné says. “You go to school, learn everything you need to know, and get on with the rest of your life. Now we’re into continuous learning: You learn what you need to know as you go. I think the premise behind continuous learning has already expired. There’s going to be a radical shift from the importance of knowing something to the importance of knowing how to find out.


“Creating the new curriculum means showing people how to access information if and when it’s needed,” he continues. “It means creating tools designed to teach you something you need to know, as well as tools that say, ‘Don’t bother to learn this.’ More and more of what we know today is disposable. So don’t fill up your short-term or long-term memory with stuff that doesn’t matter. Just know how to get it when you need it.”

What’s Fast

John Coné is rewriting the curriculum of business education at Dell University. His goal is what he calls “just-in-time, just-enough” training. Here are three attributes of this teaching style.

1. Learning should be synchronous with work. Coné wants “the right people, with the right training, at the right time.”

2. Less is more. Coné is developing “microbyte” tools — tools that enable people to “learn just enough to complete the task.”

3. The best learning happens fast. The goal of Dell’s “Know the Net” course is to have employees “online, at their desks, in 20 minutes or less.”


Cheryl Dahle ( is Fast Company’s Web editor. Contact John Coné by email (john_Coné or visit Dell University on the Web (