Richard E. Osgood: Building Skills in an Itinerant Workforce

Richard E. Osgood is Senior Education Manager at Andersen Consulting Education in St. Charles, Illinois. Osgood earned his B.S. (Chemistry) and M.A. (Religion) at Yale University and his Ph.D. (Computer Science) at Northwestern University. After managing the systems group at the Yale University Computer Center (1969-78), he went to work for IBM (1978-88) selling and installing large systems and developing and marketing expert systems. During 1988-94 he was IBM Resident Study Fellow at Yale and then at the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. In 1994 he joined Andersen Consulting Education to work on the complete reengineering of Andersen’s core curriculum. Forty-thousand students have been through his courses in St. Charles.

Ethix: Could you begin by describing the educational process at Andersen Consulting — and how this involves technology?

Richard Osgood: Andersen Consulting Education is attempting to build skills in a highly itinerant work force. Our annual employee turnover rate is very high because of economic and other forces. We cannot afford a long learning process and then have people leave before contributing significantly. We had to figure out how to prepare people to be productive very quickly. We have done this in two ways. First, we have developed well-defined consulting roles, methods, and processes. Obviously there is always some reconfiguration and adaptation to specific client situations, but our people are able to contribute pretty early by following our method.

The second component is our training approach. Our consulting engagements are very complex and many of our hires are right out of college. I was brought to Andersen Consulting to help transform our training programs to achieve big and rapid transfers of knowledge. We have moved completely away from traditional college-type learning in which you attend lectures, go off to work in a lab-type setting, and then return for more lectures. Instead we produce learning experiences in which people participate in simulations of real work.

So the role of technology in your training programs is in these simulations?

Actually, we have built two kinds of simulations. One kind is software-based. The other is classroom-based where we bring in real executives and itinerant faculty from our engagement teams to play the roles of clients and serve as coaches, respectively, in our courses. But here was a big challenge: in order to get the same benefit from a simulation that one would get on a real job, our participants needed to get off the plane, show up at St. Charles, and suddenly feel as if they had already been on the course engagement for six weeks! We had to figure out how to put that background into place in a morning session so we could get cranking in the classroom simulation by the afternoon.
In some respects, these compressed, time-framed learning experiences are better than the real world.
To help with this, we built what we call “integrated performance support systems for learning,” This refers to an architecture that allows us to lay in large quantities of content. Inside the technology system is a set of information resources to explore that are organized by the process students are using to do their work.

For example, as they begin, students could first watch a brief video that shows what has been going on, what the burning business platform issue is that the client is facing. They could then have simulated conversations with many of the people who have been working on this engagement for a while. They could access materials that have been produced so far in the engagement. It doesn’t usually take all that long for them to get the feel of it. Then as they start their work they have the resources from the systems just in time for each task they are doing. This way our students can do in a week work that would normally take years to do in real life.

This sounds nice but is it really comparable to real world experience?

In some respects, these compressed, time-framed, learning experiences are better than the real world. For example, feedback loops are very tight. Imagine doing something over five years; how do you find out that you made a mistake over two years ago? Who even remembers what you did two years ago? But in the simulation it was just two days, not two years, ago. In our approach you can achieve some interesting learning in areas you could never reach in the real world.

With so many people going through our training, we simply don’t have enough experts available to provide unlimited coaching and expertise for everyone. But we can get you in touch with our experts because we have them videotaped answering questions on all kinds of things that we know you are going to want to know (we have tested this on a lot of people so we know what people want to know).

We have organized our information resources around the chunks of work where the questions are likely to come up. If you are working on a reengineering project and there is a particular problem with one of the business processes, we know you are going to ask about it. What you’ll see next to the materials that we have given you, in the performance support system organized inside your interface, is a list of some of the questions that you need answers for. Chances are the questions you have inside your head are the ones listed on the screen and you can just click on one of them and hear what the expert has to say.

How do you assess this learning environment? How does it compare with a traditional classroom?

It is always nice for people to tell you wonderful stories about how you helped them. But we weren’t satisfied with just anecdotal evidence like that. Our evaluation experts created a method for us to figure out exactly what impact we were having. First, we ask our students what they got out of the course.

Then we do longitudinal follow-up. After six months we interview them again: for example, “here are the twelve things that you learned back in the school; how many of these have you actually been doing in this six month interval?” Then we ask their managers to evaluate them on the things they have been doing. We interview the people they work for. What we really want to see is a nice relationship between what they say they learned, what they have actually been doing, and what their managers say they are good at. For a lot of our courses we see high correlations, e.g., 90%.

After you establish your training modules, do they need to be updated or revised continuously?

The world is constantly changing and so are the consulting jobs we are getting, the things we are asked to do. So we are very careful and rigorous about continuously updating our materials, One of the secrets to our success is that all ten of the schools that we run use the same week-long, scenario-based approach to training, and they are all supported by the same piece of software. The only thing that changes is the data base of indices which points to different materials.

So, technology is wonderful, it answers all your questions, and you have no problems with it! Is that what you are saying?

We have a battle inside the firm about this. There are those who will tell you that Andersen has built its success on its ability to deploy technology for our clients’ business purposes. But one of the things that we get accused of is that we are a “solution looking for a problem.” There is a huge impetus to see everything through technology’s eyes. But technology does not solve all business problems. When we are talking about human performance and how people learn, we need to attend to a basic human process. If technology helps, wonderful; if it doesn’t help, get rid of it.

In addition to a large storehouse of knowledge, are there other requirements in consultant training? Do consultants also need to be creative and capable of inventing I solutions and giving new ideas to business clients?

There is a huge impetus to see everything through technology’s eyes. But technology does not solve all business problems.
Your definition of consultant seems to be something like “resourceful people behaving creatively” but that is probably not what most consulting is like. Certainly there are people at the top who worry about these issues, about what is really in the interest of our client, and what they really need. But when you get down below the partner level you start seeing a shift of emphasis toward practical execution of our methods. Consulting itself may not be as creative a process as you think. New people are going to have a fairly limited scope of responsibility and will be assigned very clearly defined tasks. In that case, creativity is exactly what you don’t want.

Let’s go to the teamwork question. The typical college graduate you hire is used to working as an individual, being judged as an individual, and measuring success on an individual basis. How do you train individualists to work with colleagues and acquire people skills they probably didn’t learn in college?

This problem is compounded not only by age differences here but also by cultural and language differences, Andersen hires from nearly every cultural and ethnic group and they are all thrown together for many of their learning experiences.
What usually overcomes individualism and diversity is that we create situations in which a compelling business problem is so difficult that it requires a team effort.
What usually overcomes individualism and diversity is that we create situations in which a compelling business problem is so difficult that it requires a team effort. No one individual could succeed, so they learn very quickly that they need each other.

If the Andersen educational method is successful with college graduates, is there any reason why you don’t go to the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University, for example, and offer them a better way of educating MBA students?

Funny you should ask that. Tomorrow I am meeting with an engineering professor friend, with whom I have been working for almost two years now. He has reengineered the civil and environmental engineering programs at Lehigh University. A couple of his colleagues in physics and business have also restructured courses along these lines.

My friend, Horace Moo-Young, in his mechanics course, contracts with a local environmental agency to provide sites for his students to work on actual land use plans. The class goes to the site, analyzes the soil, and figures out whether something could be built on it, or whether you could put a landfill there, and so on.

Previously, students would listen to a lecture, go into the lab and analyze some soil samples, and write a report. But now the course is at an actual site, punctuated by lectures when the students need them.

There is an age-old debate in education: do people actually have to be in an environment in order to learn anything about it – or can learning in one setting be transferred to another? In the past your teacher stood up in front of you, lectured to you about a topic, and then hoped you would figure out a way to transfer it into the real situation where that knowledge could actually be useful. Now we are trying to shortcut the whole problem of transfer, by transporting elements of the authentic environment into the education environment.

More broadly than the business school, do you see a coming transformation of the whole contemporary university system? Is the Andersen educational approach the right way to transform the whole university?

The fundamental question has to do with the purpose of education in our culture. What is it for? Some of the culture (the business community in particular) is interested in people being educated for productive work-lives. One of the reasons Andersen annually spends $450 million training its workforce is because the school system has failed to prepare graduates for productivity and high performance.

Others in our culture think the purpose of education is to improve the lot of the disadvantaged. Education is not about personal productivity but about credentials and resources to lift the masses. Still others say they want a classical education: spending time on the great books and history and contemplation of the beautiful. But can you make a living from this kind of education? No.
In the past your teacher stood up in front of you, lectured about a topic, and then hoped you would figure out a way to transfer it to the real situation.
As long as competing purposes are present, goal-based education will not be widely adopted except in the sector that cares about productivity and performance.

One way of stating the alternatives is to ask if education is about “learning how to live”-or about “learning how to make a living”?

On another issue: there is a lot of interest today in distance learning. But it sounds like you are saying that it is important that your people come to St. Charles to experience these simulations with live people.

Like everyone else, we are in the virtual learning business. It is something we want to try because it has interesting economic properties. Physical transportation of people from one place to another is very expensive. Virtual transportation using e-mail, telephones, and so on, is relatively inexpensive. We do have a couple of courses that we teach at a distance. Unfortunately they are not as effective as we had hoped, so we are not pushing them.

A distance education program may cause some problems even as it solves others. Andersen, for example, is a global firm segmented by industry, by region, and to some degree by language group. There are all kinds of pressures that could tear this company apart. By actually bringing people together at our St. Charles facility, we create tremendous, lifelong bonding experiences, across their differences.

This is important, not just personally, but professionally. When I show up at the client’s place, do I come only with what I personally know? No, I bring with me the whole rest of the firm and its expertise. Unless I am sustaining relationships with many others in the firm, I am not going to give you the best possible solution.

You can’t form good relationships at a distance with technology alone — but technology can help sustain relationships after they are formed.

Yes. Relationships get jumpstarted much better in reality because I have a fuller experience of you in person than I do over the phone or the Internet. Of course there are genuine relationships that get built over the Internet. People decide to get together after conversing over the Internet for some length of time. But the kinds of bonding interactions that occur in human group situations are much more frequent, intense, and long lasting.

What are the major ethical questions that come up in the consulting business? What do you do to educate your people about ethics?

At my former employer, IBM, as well as at Andersen Consulting, we have a code of conduct. The statement is disseminated, employees are required to read it and sign something. I don’t want to sound too jaundiced about this process but I don’t think having an ethics code employees must read and sign does much to build ethical commitments in people. They basically hedge against lawsuits and union problems and such things.

Andersen faces a very difficult kind of problem. Our people are not employees of the companies that they really work with; they are paid sizeable sums of money to do things that the client believes are worth the cost. We had better be worth our fees. Eventually there will be a day of reckoning and the books are going to be tallied; the value we provided better exceed the fees we charged. That is an ethical issue. A lot of the rhetoric in our firm now is about delivering value. In fact, the latest course I designed is called “Delivering Client Value.”

Are you speaking only of economic value?

Relationships get jump-started much better in reality because I have a fuller experience of you in person than I do over the phone or internet.
No, not necessarily. Value is what the client cares about. What are they in business for? What are they trying to achieve? If we can’t contribute to these purposes and values in ways that we can measure, people start to wonder. It is costing a lot and people want to know what they are getting for their investment in us.

Are there no significant ethical issues other than delivering honestly what you said you would?

Well, that is what is at the heart of our business. Another ethical issue concerns who you will work with. Andersen is increasingly interested in permanent relationships with clients. This means we need some reason to believe that our client will be around for a long time. Andersen does not want to be the co-defendent in a lawsuit because our client was operating a little on the shady side.

Let’s move from your code to your culture. Arthur Andersen was first of all an accounting firm. Accountants, CPAs, were among the first in the business world to clearly adopt a professional culture with a moral commitment set higher than what the law required. Does it make any sense to talk about ethical values on a corporate cultural level?

All of the mid- to senior partners in Andersen Consulting were on the accounting side initially. The consulting business has only been in existence for ten years. Certainly we care about having a high reputation, about being thought of as honest and trustworthy. You don’t get clients unless they believe you are honest and trustworthy; that you won’t defraud them.

But saying that bad ethics loses clients is again justifying your ethics by a pragmatic business argument! Is there never a time when Arthur Andersen would say “even If we never get caught, even If we lose this business opportunity we will not do “x” because it conflicts with our basic ethical values”?

Let’s go back to a very difficult issue we are now facing: our high employee turnover rate. This illustrates the way we struggle with a basic conflict of cultural values and practices, and the business implications of the struggle. At Andersen’s Global Consulting Conference last year, the annual meeting where all the partners come together to talk about all the issues that we face, half of the focus was or, the attrition rate. We are moving toward long-term partnerships with clients, and this requires us to have a stable workforce, staying around long-term to see things through. Clients want their consultants to be there long-term and Andersen has difficulty delivering such continuity.

One aspect of this is how we treat our clients. Prospective clients aren’t going to talk to us about what they care about most in their companies unless they trust us completely, and trust requires a long-term relationship. We start pairing up, kind of DNA style: an Andersen partner and a client CEO, our middle manager with his/her counterpart, all the way down to our analyst who is buddies with our client’s analyst. Now for such a chain of relationships to build, Anderson people can’t be turning over every two years or so; they have got to stay. They can’t be just handing out solutions and walking away.

Another aspect is how we treat our employees. Why do our people leave? It is certainly not a money issue because we pay very well. But in order to provide clients the solutions they need, Andersen lays enormous demands on its employees. If you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make it happen, that’s just the way it is. And you can literally get jerked around the world. Many of my friends have gotten a call on a Friday informing them that the following Monday they would begin a six-month contract on the other side of the world. These practices are very hard on employees and many leave.

We have a huge dilemma: do we continue to drive our people hard enough to get the job done with maximum speed and quality no matter what? Or do we build a kinder, gentler, less demanding but longer-term culture to sustain long-term partnerships? That’s a tough one for the firm to answer. We don’t have it resolved yet.