Cisco’s Quick Study

Tom Kelly is using the Web to reinvent training inside the world’s most Internet-centric big company. Here’s what he’s learned about e-learning — and how it’s changing the style and the substance of training at Cisco Systems.

It was the rhetorical shot heard around the training world — a declaration about the future that frightened traditional educators, energized reformers, and launched countless dotcom business plans. “The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education,” declared John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems. “Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make email usage look like a rounding error.”


That was easy for Chambers to say — enthusiastic talk from the leader of the world’s most Internet-centric big company. But making the CEO’s rhetoric a day-to-day reality inside Cisco is the job of Tom Kelly. Kelly, 51, vice president of worldwide training, joined the company in December 1997 with a clear mandate: to make Cisco a model of Web-based excellence in the one part of its business in which it was a laggard. Cisco is famous for using the Web to reinvent how it takes orders from its customers, how it manages its finances, and how it hires new employees. But three years ago, jokes Kelly, a 20-year veteran of the technology industry, the reality was, “Friends don’t let friends work at Cisco training.” The problem? Cisco’s training division had little credibility, no cohesive strategy, and not much support from the top. “It was broken,” says Kelly. “Actually, it was shattered. People were demoralized. Whenever you walked into a room and said that you were from training, you could hear the ‘ughs’ — that is, if people weren’t already walking the other way.”

Talk about slow company. The training group that Kelly took over had a budget to support 80 people. But the group had managed to attract only 50 people, all of whom were understandably overwhelmed by their jobs. They were responsible for training 4,000 internal Cisco salespeople, as well as the company’s then 15,000 partner organizations and thousands of customers, in a vast array of new products, whole new categories of technology, and new Internet-based business practices. It seemed like an impossible mission: How could this group match the pace of learning at Cisco with the speed of the company’s product releases and changes in its markets? And the old approaches — from classroom lectures to multimedia CD-ROMs — seemed hopelessly out-of-date. “Our internal sales force received about 85% of its training in the classroom,” Kelly marvels. “We were pulling thousands of people out of their jobs, out of contact with their customers, flying them to different locations and shutting them in classrooms for days at a time. It made no sense.”

Over the past three years, cross-functional teams, led by Kelly’s group, have worked to reinvent the way that the company delivers ideas, information, and best practices to what may be the most important part of the Cisco empire — the tens of thousands of people who have the closest day-to-day contact with customers. He has become an influential thought leader and a change agent in a field — training and learning — that should be one of the key strategic outposts of the knowledge economy but that often isn’t. And he is deploying a set of Internet-based tools that educators find either fascinating or frightening — but that few ever use. In short, he is writing a new curriculum for Web-based learning that may actually deliver on his CEO’s pronouncements.


“E-learning is not the answer to every question, but it needs to be applied as broadly as possible,” Kelly says. “The classroom simply cannot address business issues. If you have to teach 100 people about one topic, you can train 25 people in a classroom at a time and repeat the course four times. But if you have to train 3,000 people every 60 days on a new product, or on a new technology, or on a new market — there’s no way that the classroom can work. There’s no way to scale. There’s no way to have an impact on the company. It is doomed to fail.”

Hence, Kelly’s relentless focus on the Web. But before he and his team could equip Cisco with the most up-to-date learning technologies, they had to deal with obsolete mind-sets — assumptions, attitudes, and prejudices that afflict the leaders of most big companies. One such mind-set: that the training operation is not a real part of the business. “There are very few high-tech companies that truly respect how much learning has to happen to allow them and their people to stay current,” Kelly says. Sure, almost every company talks about knowledge workers, the information economy, even the learning organization. But few companies act as if they believe what they’re saying. There’s too much work to do, too many deadlines to meet, too many quarterly results to deliver.

“Learning time is not a respected part of the work environment,” Kelly says. “But you can’t be so busy that you allow yourself to get stupid. People find the time to do whatever it is that they have to do. Staying current is an increasingly important part of everyone’s job. We make choices every day: Do I go to lunch with my boss or do I go to my customer’s site? Well, in this industry, you can’t afford to be stupid. You’ve got to spend time learning.”


Overcoming this antilearning bias also allows the training operation to redefine its job. “More often than not, training is a cost center that spends most of its time justifying its existence,” says Kelly, who worked in training and education at Sun Microsystems and at Oracle before joining Cisco. “Consequently, the metrics of success are rooted in utilization rates: how many seats are filled, how many teachers are used, how much money is saved, whether people filled out the Friday ‘smile sheets’ (evaluations that ask if the hotel was good and if the cookies were fresh). The questions that are hardly ever asked are, ‘Did anyone learn anything?’ and ‘Will what people learn have an impact on the business?’ “

Another obsolete mind-set involves what learning looks like. “There’s a lot of resistance, even in the high-tech community, to the idea that e-learning is really effective,” says Kelly. “Most people are skeptical about learning that does not come in the form of classroom learning. You have to keep reminding them that the classroom-retention rate is only about 25% after the first week and that from then on, people drop off significantly. The main benefit of the classroom environment is human interaction — make new friends, strengthen relationships, that sort of thing. That’s enormously important. But the classroom is not about acquiring knowledge. People need to accept that and to stop clinging to a model that connects people but that doesn’t teach people. Then we can figure out how to connect people in an e-learning environment, and we’ll have the best of both worlds.”

A third obsolete (or at least incomplete) mind-set relates to outcomes — that is, how you actually measure results. “We all think that we understand learning,” Kelly says. “We’ve all, to a certain extent, experienced a familiar pattern: Go to a class. Listen to a lecture. Read a book. And then take a test to validate that you know something. You may not remember it for very long, but that’s how you’ve always learned, so it must work. But if you don’t embed learning into a job and make it an invisible process, then it’s always going to remain a separate thing that needs to be scheduled. When it comes down to it, learning is about one thing: the time-critical value of information.”


Indeed, in a world that changes as fast as Cisco does, learning can’t be only about a set curriculum or required training hours — arbitrary rules, Kelly believes, that are used to make learning seem more businesslike. That’s why at Cisco, there are no required classes or minimum training hours. Instead, sales employees take assessment tests that determine their competency and how much training they may need. “We certainly care that people can pass a test and, even more important, that they can then perform,” Kelly says. “But the simple fact is, you may need 3 hours to learn something, while I may need 12 hours.”

The learning model that Kelly is building at Cisco distinguishes between “structured learning” and “emergency learning,” and tries to customize each form of learning to the needs of the individual. In the ideal learning environment, which Kelly believes will be in place for the Cisco sales force within 18 months, each person will be able to create a customized Web page, tentatively called My Future. The My Future page will serve as a learning portal, where people can chart a long-term, structured learning plan; get all relevant short-term updates; and automatically receive the necessary content, based on their job title, area of operation, field of interest, and learning preferences — time-critical information for emergency-learning situations.

For example, an hour before a crucial meeting with a customer, a salesperson could download a 20-minute chunk of information describing a new product feature and then watch it on a desktop computer, or listen to it on a portable MP3 player on the way to the meeting. “If that won’t get people moving faster,” Kelly jokes, “nothing will.” Ultimately, Kelly says, e-learning will be most effective when it no longer feels like learning — when it’s simply a natural part of how people work: “Today, people say, ‘I’m working,’ and what they’re doing is quickly answering emails and voice mails. They don’t say, ‘I’ve got the next two hours slotted for email.’ If you do things in small chunks, they become just another part of your job. We want learning to become just another part of people’s jobs. E-learning will be successful when it doesn’t have its own name.”


Of Iron Butts and Bonsai Trees

The quickest way to learn what makes Tom Kelly tick is to explore the three photographs that are taped to a cream-colored file cabinet behind his desk. Two of those photographs are of motorcycles. Kelly is an unabashed motorcycle enthusiast. Having tried out 24 different bikes, he is relieved to report that he’s finally found a motorcycle that matches his personality: a Harley-Davidson Wide Glide. Thanks to some custom motor work, Kelly’s Harley can now do 110 MPH in third gear. “What it does in fourth and fifth gear, I don’t know,” he says.

Kelly’s deep, at times gruff, voice takes on a decidedly softer tone when he talks about his bikes. This is a man who loves motorcycles because of where they take him and how they make him feel. In fact, his whole face lights up as he describes an upcoming motorcycle “adventure” (he insists that he does not take vacations) that he’s planning. The Saddle Sore 1000 requires that Kelly cover 1,000 miles in 24 hours. If he completes it, he’ll qualify for an even more hard-core adventure called the Iron Butt rally. The rally — sponsored by the Iron Butt Association (the “World’s Toughest Motorcycle Riders,” as its Web site proclaims) — is an 11-day, 11,000-mile endurance ride across the United States. And just why does Kelly want to do this? Without a trace of bravado, he says, “Because not many people do.”

But just when you’ve had enough talk of motorcycles and saddle sores, your eye is drawn to the third picture behind Kelly’s desk: a soothing shot of a sprawling, verdant garden. In addition to his love of hogs, Kelly is an accomplished bonsai gardener. He takes on an almost Zen-like disposition when he mentions the 80 bonsai trees that he tends in the garden behind his house. “For the most part, a bonsai tree is not a small tree,” he explains. “The art comes from creating the illusion of age and mass in a very unnatural setting. It’s about achieving balance through asymmetry, not symmetry.” Kelly has been exhibiting his trees for eight years. Last year, he displayed a few of them in a local show. Even though several of the trees broke most of the rules — for example, by not meeting restrictions pertaining to how tall a tree should be before its first branch appears or how big a tree’s pot should be — Kelly still won several awards for the sheer elegance of his bonsais. “One thing that I love about tending bonsai trees is that they are living sculptures that keep changing,” he says. “They require you to change how you see them, and your work is never done.”


That is something of a surprising statement from a hard-charging executive who, in his professional life, manages to accomplish so much work — and has done so at three of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies. As a senior manager of global course development at Sun Microsystems, Kelly waged a war against paper. He recalls the enormous manuals that used to accompany Sun’s Solaris operating systems — manuals that were so thick that they were delivered in a 5-foot-long “docubox.” Kelly and his team launched the company’s first Web site in order to distribute training documentation electronically — a move that accelerated access to information, made it easier to revise documents quickly, and saved Sun millions of dollars in development and printing costs.

But that incremental success taught Kelly a more deep-seated lesson: the importance of figuring out how to link training and education right to the product-development process itself. “At that time, Sun did not believe that training should be an integral part of the product-development process,” he says. “But I knew that if training was not engaged early on, then we would continually be in catch-up mode and therefore would never really be relevant or successful. People were always impressed when we would come out with training materials three months after a new product had been released. It didn’t really make much sense to me at all.”

Kelly eventually moved on to Oracle, where he became vice president of the education-products division and helped grow the business to one of the largest and most profitable vendor-training organizations in the world. His “success criteria” was to help centralize the company’s global-education business and, more specifically, to make sure that training materials for a new product came out on the same day that the software was released. The only way to do that, he had learned from Sun, was to assign training people to the product teams from the beginning. “While I was at Oracle, the company’s biggest product release was Oracle8,” he says. “We released training for customers two months before the product came out. Back then, that was unheard of.”


By the time Kelly left Oracle, 80% of all training material was being released on the same day as the product. Other executives might have been satisfied with this performance. Kelly saw it as an invitation to take his change agenda to the next level. “It was a big deal,” he admits. “But we were only optimizing the old way of doing training. We still hadn’t made much progress in scaling the dissemination of knowledge.”

At Cisco, he could take on this new challenge. “The company was growing too fast and moving too fast to centralize training,” Kelly says. “There was no way that I could use the same model that I used at Oracle, regardless of how successful it was. We had to revamp training at Cisco by creating a whole new model for it. It was pretty daunting, pretty scary.”

“Content Is King, Infrastructure Is God”

Tom Kelly arrived at Cisco with an enviable track record, a broad strategic mandate, and a sufficient budget. So it would have made perfect sense for him to begin the process of building his learning legacy by building a version of Cisco University — a click-and-mortar empire modeled on other well-known corporate universities, such as Dell and Motorola. But Kelly had other plans. “The university metaphor just wouldn’t work in Cisco’s professional technical setting,” he explains. “We’re not interested in promoting an academic description of education or a vocational description of training. We’re interested in building a learning-solutions center — a place where you find what you need in order to do your job better.”


One of the biggest problems with learning today is not a shortage of information but information overload. So the first step for Kelly and his team was to figure out what Cisco already knew and where that knowledge was in the company. “When I first got to Cisco, there was a joke that the answer to any question could be found on the Web,” recalls Kelly. “But where on the Web? Well, that’s a different problem.” Kelly says that Cisco has roughly 10 million Web pages on its corporate intranet. Trying to find the right information can be a colossal waste of time — and a big obstacle to learning. “Before, we had no way of aggregating information,” he says. “If you were looking for information on a specific product or initiative, it was almost impossible to figure out where to begin.”

This was an especially big obstacle for the sales force, which depends on quick access to reliable information in order to stay current. One way to deal with information overload on the Web is to use another medium. Prior to Kelly’s arrival, business units would ship 8 to 12 CD-ROMs every quarter to the beleaguered sales force. “This system worked if your only metric of success was how well you could create and distribute CDs,” says Kelly. “But no one could tell you how many people looked at those CDs, or if people learned anything from them. Inevitably, the CD-ROMs would end up stacked in a corner of an office gathering dust. Or, if anyone did watch them, they’d shut themselves in a room and wake up just in time to change the CD.”

So in August 1999, Kelly and his team launched what they call the Field E-learning Connection (FELC), a Web site where content was aggregated by audience and organized in curriculum maps based on job titles, work theaters, specific technologies, and products. “On one database,” Kelly says, “we began to gather all of the information that salespeople would need, so that they would no longer have to suffer through outdated CD-ROMs or wander around 40 business units. But in order to become smart, efficient, and fast on the front end of delivering content, we had to become smarter on the back end of creating it.”


Becoming smarter about content meant letting people outside the training operation create it. “In most organizations, the training group doesn’t just deliver the content,” says Kelly. “It develops it as well. We’ve gone in a totally different direction. We believe that the most up-to-date knowledge exists right at the source. We go to the engineers, to the product-marketing specialists, to wherever the knowledge is, and we give people the tools to build content. So ‘content developer’ is no longer a job title at Cisco. If you’re involved in developing a product, then developing educational content is also part of your job.”

That doesn’t mean that chip designers or software engineers have to become curriculum gurus. Kelly tries to assign a member of the training group to new-product teams at the outset of a project. Then, during the course of development, that team member, armed with knowledge about the new product, can walk into the office of an engineer or a product-marketing manager, sit down with a video camera, and ask for a list of the 10 critical things that an account manager or a systems engineer needs to know. “Thirty minutes later,” says Kelly, “that person walks out of the office with raw material that is deployed directly to the sales force — a group of people who would rather have raw, clumsy data sooner than polished, perfect information too late.”

Democratizing the creation of content does not imply total freedom in how Cisco distributes it. One of Kelly’s favorite slogans is, “Content is king, infrastructure is God” — and there’s absolutely no question who gets to play God. “We’ve decentralized content development back to the subject-matter experts,” Kelly says. “But we’ve centralized deployment. We’ve told people, ‘You have the knowledge, but we give you easy access to the audience.’ People have to use our tools in order to reach our audience. That approach gets us the most impact.”


It also creates the least resistance from the rest of the company. To create an effective e-learning infrastructure at Cisco, Kelly’s training group distributed 160 servers, each with 45 GBs of disk space, to Cisco locations around the world. The team then partnered with the corporate IT group to connect the servers to Cisco’s network so that they never touched the backbone of Cisco’s information systems — a crucial strategic move. “Introducing change in a company is hard enough,” says Kelly. “Introducing technological change that might threaten the overall speed of the network in a company that generates 90% of its revenue over the Web is no laughing matter. People don’t want to get an email telling them that they’re responsible for slowing down the network.”

Indeed, Kelly is so sensitive about the impact of e-learning on the performance of the company’s mission-critical computer networks that he lobbied to create a new position in the IT group, now called director of e-learning for IT, with the responsibility of extending the global e-learning infrastructure. (The position is funded out of the worldwide-training budget.)

There’s one final element to making learning smarter, faster, and more effective: tagging the content that you’ve already created, so that you can reuse it or redeploy it at a moment’s notice. In association with the Information Network for Field Organization (INFO) project, led by Kelly’s colleague Cristian Anastasiu, the worldwide-training group has begun the arduous task of implementing a “meta-data framework” for its curriculum — a kind of digital shorthand that creates a tag for every piece of content generated for training purposes, so that it can be stored in and retrieved from a central database. The first order of business was to tag more than 700 hours of video-on-demand content already available to the sales force. When the sales force recognized how powerful this new retrieval system could be, it lobbied for all content — a white paper, an Excel spreadsheet, a PowerPoint presentation from the best salesperson in a particularly enterprising line of business, a video demonstration from a leading engineer — to be tagged this way.


“Virtually all sales employees are using the INFO Locator tool to find what they need,” says Kelly. “But the system is more than just a cost saver. The sales force is blown away by the convenience, control, and relevance that it allows.” Eight months after the launch of the FELC site, the training group launched an almost identical site for its partner sales force, the Partner E-learning Connection. About 60% of training for Cisco’s partners is now available online.

The short-term benefit of this initiative, and the least interesting for Kelly, is that now the content created for one audience can be located, redeployed, and reused for another audience in a matter of minutes. But it’s the long-term benefit that truly excites Kelly and his team. “We’re going to allow the field to rank both the quality and the relevance of the content,” he says. “For instance, a systems engineer from Florida who is interested in voice-over technology can locate information and, based on its rating, choose what content to download. That system will create a certain level of accountability for those people generating content — and, undeniably, a certain level of competition.”

Even more important, Kelly and his team are building an intelligent learning system that is supported by a consistent tagging methodology. The goal: to match content with the people who need it — dynamically and quickly. Kelly believes that this is the true benefit of e-learning.


“We’ll soon have a much better way of managing the intellectual capital of the company,” he says. “Instead of thinking about how many people we have, we’ll understand what they know and what they can do. E-learning creates a definite competitive advantage. There’s no doubt that it makes a difference in how a company can grow, act, and learn.”

Anna Muoio ( is a Fast Company senior writer. Contact Tom Kelly by email (

Sidebar: A Lesson Plan for E-Learning

Tom Kelly, VP of worldwide training at Cisco Systems, works inside the world’s most Internet-centric big company. So it’s no surprise that he champions Web-based education — “e-learning” — and that he and his team operate at the cutting edge of the field. Kelly may be in the early stages of his work, but he has already learned some important lessons.

Small is beautiful.

One problem with how most companies deliver information is that they expect people to spend too much time at one sitting. We work in a world of limited attention spans, unlimited demands on people’s time, and endless multitasking, Kelly says. Learning programs have to reflect these realities: “Most e-learning is still anchored in the mind-set that learning means going somewhere for 8 hours at a time to study a 40-hour curriculum. We may have a 40-hour curriculum, but we deliver it in 20-minute chunks, or even faster. That makes it easier for people to build learning into their workday.”

Blends are powerful.

“E-learning does not imply the absence of human beings,” Kelly argues. “We recently did a workshop where there were 40 people in a physical classroom, plus 60 people online in other parts of the United States and Europe. All 100 people were engaged in a lesson with a live instructor at the same time. It was a real classroom combined with a virtual classroom. We took the outcome of that, digitized some of the video and audio, and put it online so that people who couldn’t participate could later access the information and ideas. The best solutions are often blended solutions.”

Measure what matters.

“The real measures of success here at Cisco do not involve training issues: ‘Do our people learn better?’ They involve business issues: ‘Is Cisco performing better?’ There’s certainly no arguing the altruistic side of education — that well-trained people are more valuable than untrained people. But that’s kind of esoteric. If customer satisfaction goes up because we have a more knowledgeable sales force, that’s not esoteric. If technology adoption occurs faster because the sales force is better-trained, we have real business impact that’s measurable. That’s the real benefit of e-learning, and that’s what we have to measure.”

New technologies require new leaders.

“One real problem with e-learning is that traditional training people are in charge of it,” Kelly says. “You’ve got people who have spent 20 years in lecture-lab environments, and now they’re deploying e-learning inside their companies. No wonder it doesn’t work! Can you imagine if the post office was in charge of email?”