posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Case study: BAE Systems
Investing in people development, collaboration and organisational learning online via its
By Richard West
BAE SYSTEMS is the largest aerospace and defence company in
However, with some 100,000 staff natively speaking six languages across 26 divisions in more than 110 sites worldwide, BAE Systems faces a challenge to maximise its rich intellectual asset base of engineers, scientists and other professionals.
The rapid pace of market and technological developments in the defence and aerospace industries have required the development of new capabilities and partnerships, new innovative ways of working and greater organisational agility in responding to the needs of customers and the marketplace.
A cornerstone of the company’s approach to addressing these challenges has been its ongoing investment in organisational learning and the development of its people, as reflected in the investment made in the company’s Virtual University (VU).
University in a box
BAE Systems wanted to create a learning organisation that would enable employees to benefit from the knowledge of all of the company’s experts located around the world and the terabytes of information stored in countless data repositories. VU, built on ‘university in a box’ package from Gatewest New Media and Autonomy, was initially established simply as a portal to enable more intelligent search and retrieval of information. However, as it has developed, it has helped cut the time that staff spend looking for information by 90 per cent and saved BAE Systems more than £65m.
BAE Systems’ philosophy is different to many other organisations, where training is often in the domain of human resources (HR) professionals with a limited budget to dish out after appraisals every six months.
BAE considers that employees should be learning every day, as they come across new challenges and work with new people and projects. BAE Systems wanted a system that gave employees access to people and knowledge – the everyday learning – not just access to information. The VU forms one of four pillars of BAE Systems as a learning organisation. It provides the underlying infrastructure, which supports people, process and content.
The VU is a gateway to know-how; a dynamic library of information that can be accessed by individuals from across BAE Systems. It plays a major role in collecting and making available best practice and examples of excellence from across the company. It has become a conduit for good ideas that might otherwise never be shared company wide.
Underpinning the virtual university is a scalable IT infrastructure designed to deliver organisational learning and know-how company wide and cope with numerous legacy computer systems and complex networks. It was clear from the VU’s launch that if BAE’s corporate intranet had not already been in place, the VU would have had to create it. E-learning and web technology were the only rational solution to creating affordable access to a continuous-learning environment for over 100,000 employees, working at more than 60 sites across the UK alone, and many more abroad.
Every employee now has access to the VU and its e-based services from a desktop computer or by visiting the nearest learning-resource centre. The VU and its integrated-development portfolio receives more than 22,000 hits a day and remains the most popular site on the company’s intranet.
Though important, courses are not enough. BAE’s thinking with VU was that, to truly drive competitiveness through learning, access to wider sources of learning – such as best practice, know-how, research and even expertise, personalised to an individual’s or team’s needs, available at the right time – would be needed.
Such thinking was reinforced by a significant drive from the chief executive to obtain more return on the investment the company had made in its intranet.
The VU’s aim was to provide employees with the learning, know-how or information that they sought, where they could simultaneously be offered a customised opportunity to be alerted in the future to what they did not know, but would want to know.
In response to the chief executive’s call, we developed and deployed the Intelligent Learning Portal. This provides three approaches to searching for knowledge across the virtual university. First, staff can search across organisational sources such as the intranet, shared drives, learning and best-practice databases, as well as premium news sources and people sources.
Second, individuals can enter a particular website centre of excellence (such as procurement, air systems, manufacturing, engineering or customer solutions) and be networked immediately into relevant opportunities for educational development, vacancies, potential mentors and links to complementary centres of business excellence and job placements across the company.
The third is the ability to create a virtual and global network of people, bringing together ‘colleagues’ who are asking the same questions or seeking a common answer. These are all potential knowledge brokers. The full integration, exploitation, and leverage of the selected databases, along with the know-how emerging from individual’s local and global experiences in diverse businesses, are the strategic goals of the VU, in its knowledge-brokering role.
Using this smart-retrieval technology has been a quantum step forward. But achieving the ultimate business performance requires a can-do attitude among staff and a willingness to share best practices, to overcome the barrier of any ‘not invented here’ syndromes.
The VU approach has also been used for training with Desktop Re-life, an enterprise-wide IT-upgrade programme of 100,000 PCs with Windows XP, including 40 new desktop applications.
Without the virtual university, such a major upgrade would have been outrageously expensive if it had been handled in the conventional manner. For example, the cost of rolling out classroom-based training for just Microsoft Outlook in 2003 was in excess of £2m, based on tutor, classroom and incurred costs due to late cancellations, ‘no shows’ and rescheduled sessions.
The Desktop Re-life project used the VU to enable people to find training courses, refreshers on specific things such as creating pivot tables in the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, identify local IT experts who were close by for one-to-one coaching and to access best practices from Microsoft, in their own time.
The VU approach was credited with saving the company more than £7m and awarded a Chairman’s Award for innovation.
Calculating return on investment on knowledge management and e-learning exercises is never easy, but BAE believes that the virtual university has generated more than £65m in savings through best-practice transfer and better collaboration among staff across the organisation. The long-term benefits are anticipated to be in excess of £150m.
The virtual university makes it quicker and easier for people to find like-minded individuals and the knowledge they need in order to share best practices, cut down duplication of work and to re-use solutions across the company. It encourages and helps staff to learn to use existing knowledge.
Using the VU, BAE has created a place that anyone can go to in order to access knowledge held within the organisation, share best practices globally and to bring people together.
Richard West is head of organisational and e-learning at BAE Systems. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.