Comcast Cable CTDO Martha Soehren shares her team's winning formula.
That was before she and her team tapped a hidden wellspring of support from within senior management to help centralize their far-reaching learning operation.
Little has remained the same. Today's Comcast University (CU) has been reconceived for maximum effectiveness—its 550 learning and development professionals divided among five colleges, one for each business function. Its 5 million hours of annual delivered training merely hint at the impact it is now making on the company's business.
Most importantly, the learning enterprise is supported by a powerful governance structure created to help drive the learning agenda and align outcomes with business metrics. Participants include Comcast Cable's chief operating officer, who is firmly committed to running operations with a talented and well-trained workforce.
And Soehren? She is no longer Comcast Cable's chief learning officer, her title back then. She is senior vice president and chief talent development officer, an expanded role she claims has made a profound difference in the university's ability to provide impact and meet expectations.
Here's the story.
First, fundamental changes
Philadelphia-based Comcast is a global media and technology company with two primary businesses: Comcast Cable and NBCUniversal. Comcast Cable is one of America's largest providers of video, high-speed Internet, and phone products. NBCUniversal, which the company acquired in 2011, has an array of broadcast and cable TV networks, film studios, theme parks, digital properties, and other assets. The cable business is run through three operating divisions divided into 18 regions.
In 2009, as head of Comcast's then decentralized corporate university, Soehren held limited authority over the unit. "I had accountability for L&D, but not the responsibility for it," she says. During a conversation on the subject with her HR supervisor, Soehren voiced her simple philosophy about learning—that a consistent learner experience drives a consistent customer experience, and that's what the cable business is about. She suggested it was time to emphasize this priority.
The discussion ultimately led to a decision by senior management to centralize CU's operations. But to make that happen, Soehren and her team needed to devote a full year to formulating a centralized learning model, presenting its business case to senior leaders, and creating a broad-based transformation team.
Soehren also understood that success of its model depended on the creation of the powerful governance structure that would, among other things, create trust and credibility among Comcast business units concerning the university's response to training needs. With support from Comcast Cable's Chief Operating Officer Dave Watson, the university created a top-level advisory board called the National Executive Learning Council. This group drives learning that is strategically aligned with business objectives.
The council's members include the presidents of the company's three divisions and executive vice presidents of products and functions, among others. Watson and Soehren are co-chairs of the council, which meets quarterly.
Another fundamental change was a decision by HR leadership in 2012 to fold the talent management function into the L&D team's domain, empowering the university to manage the entire life cycle of talent development within Comcast Cable, from assessment to development to movement.
"I think that having talent management linked to talent development and L&D, and having them all under one umbrella, is the ideal way to ensure that we can identify, grow, develop, promote, and retain really great people in our organization," Soehren explains.
A finely tuned process
To suggest that CU seized and ran with its new talent responsibilities is an understatement. "When I took over this function three years ago, it was handed to me in three binders," says Soehren. "Today it's a systematic and finely tuned process for assessing our talent and managing succession planning for the enterprise through very robust talent management reviews."
Talent development initiatives include boot camps for high-potential employees, various leadership forums, and an executive leadership advancement program for high potentials.
Reflecting on a just-completed slate of annual executive talent management reviews, Soehren notes that almost every assessment included participation by Watson or the cable division president. "It doesn't get any better than that," she boasts.
How does Soehren define her new CTDO duties? "It's about the connection of assessing talent, completing the succession planning, and helping with internal talent mobility. Those are my three key functions." For example, she says, whenever an executive-level vacancy opens at the company, the CU team works to identify qualified internal employees based on talent assessments and discussions.
Watson agrees that Comcast has found a winning formula with the realignment of CU under executive council oversight. "We are indeed in a fast-paced, ever-changing environment," he says. "Having a well-trained and focused organization at every level, Comcast University helps us drive the focus around our key priorities."
He identifies his two principal priorities as alignment of training around business goals, and impact of L&D on the organization. Watson says the university is continually rated by the council on both expectations. "The council is not bashful. Martha demands that people show up and participate. It's a terrific forum to make sure we're on track on the right things," he explains.
Watson says he values his role as council co-chairman because it keeps him abreast of the dynamic communications field. "It's important to stay vigilant on the effectiveness of company initiatives, and whether course corrections are needed around goals and priorities," he contends. Watson believes that a principal reason for CU's success is Soehren's ability to "think like a general manager," such as stressing scalability and operational consequences of learning initiatives.
His expectations for the university are echoed by Bill Strahan, executive vice president and chief HR officer at Comcast Cable, and Soehren's direct supervisor. "My expectation is that CU will prepare people for practical outcomes that will create a customer experience that is our best product," he says. Strahan adds that to do so, CU must stress agility and appreciate how rapidly the company's external markets are evolving.
Strahan has a ready explanation for the impressive strength of CU's learning function: the "sheer excellence" of the learning work provided and the capability of its CTDO. Strahan also explains that the training profession's "seat at the table" cliché is irrelevant at Comcast. "Martha doesn't just have a seat at the NELC table, Martha is the table," he says. "The council participants come to Martha to engage in a disciplined, organized, and team-oriented way with her work. Her work is essential to how we run the business."
Soehren's own expectations for her department are equally succinct: "My [top] expectation of our team is that we impact the customer experience in a positive way with everything we do, whether it's developing our leaders or developing our frontline employees—those employees who impact the customer experience either face-to-face or over the phone."
It's all about impact
The strongest possible emphasis on impactful L&D initiatives, each one carefully measured by key performance indicators, has been the cornerstone of the National Executive Learning Council's agenda since day one. To emphasize that priority, every one of CU's people leaders is required to submit two impact stories each year. Last year alone, CU issued 91 stories.
Three learning initiatives stand out for their ingenuity, their ability to address serious pain points, and their impact on the company's operations.
Learning Nucleus. Comcast call centers sometimes struggled to meet personnel demands because of high turnover and a sluggish onboarding pipeline that required six weeks of classroom instruction. The business unit complained that the training was slow and inefficient. Following discussions in the council, the university decided to revamp the onboarding process.
Out went the classroom-based training. In came a self-paced, self-directed curriculum delivered on an iPad at a learning hub purposely located in the middle of the call center action. The new method, called the Learning Nucleus, is staffed not by a trainer, but by a performance consultant who is available on-call. New hires must complete the course by mastering three sections of material, but are free to decide how much training they require to pass.
Following a proof of concept and two pilots, the Learning Nucleus is being rolled out at other Comcast call centers. In addition, the self-paced onboarding method is helping to fill the talent pipeline while also meeting retention goals. It especially appeals to "digital natives" who like self-paced learning.
Career Advance. Another call center learning innovation is aimed at modifying Comcast Cable's approach to customer service. Called Career Advance, it reflects opinions submitted on employee satisfaction surveys concerning turnover rates and difficulties encountered by managers in distinguishing high-performing agents from others.
A diverse team of individuals, including CU, customer care, and HR leaders, was tasked to find a solution that involved the specialized training of agents. So important was their effort that the assignment included direct input from Comcast's board of directors.
The initiative synchronizes the training curriculum of agents around a more targeted method of segmenting customer calls by a customer's commercial profile (such as the number of products purchased and length of tenure) and their specific functional request. Doing so provides the company with talent resources that are fully prepared to serve the needs of the business rather than meet a generic skill set, says Strahan.
Product Demonstration Labs. Comcast has introduced a variety of new innovative products and services to customers within its various fields, including its X1 Entertainment Operating System and wireless gateways. The rapid output of products, reports Watson, encouraged frontline employees to ask for the ability to interact with the new products in a more intimate setting than that provided by online, digital, or classroom situations, he says.
Following discussions within the council, the CU team led the building of product demonstration hubs at Comcast facilities throughout the country to showcase products in interactive settings. Some 150 labs have been built so far. It's a "real win for the organization," says Watson, who calls the initiative an example of the CU team's ability to take a concept and drive it through the organization. "Today we're reaping the benefits," he says.
An eye on the future
With success stories like these, one might think that Soehren could occasionally relax. Not likely. In the competitive fields of telecommunications, there is a pothole seemingly around every bend.
Among them, disappointedly, concerns public opinion surveys that continually rank Comcast Cable among America's least favorite companies. "I have some ownership for that," says Soehren. "Leading the learning organization and being in top management, I take it very seriously."
She says she's confident that CU's talented personnel are doing everything they can to improve the customer experience and make it Comcast's "best product." It's the company's top priority. But she concedes that continued improvement will take additional changes in employee training around products, processes, billing systems, and leadership.
That is just one of the objectives behind a five-year innovation plan called Vision 2020. Other proposed initiatives address the ever-increasing complexity of the business, speed-to-market demands, and the need to be more nimble and economical.
One initiative under way within the university, "Perfect for Me Learning," is an energetic plan to enable every employee to access learning at any time and on any device. It will be made possible by a new integrated platform that will enable all L&D technologies to work seamlessly together.
"What we're working on now is how we can make learning more simplistic—how we can give efficiency back to the business while being more effective in the learning solutions that we deliver," says Soehren. Stay tuned.
Facing Challenges Makes You Stronger
Comcast University’s talent development skills were stretched dramatically during the company’s 2014 merger attempt with Time Warner Cable. CU personnel were dispatched to identify top talent within Time Warner for possible reassignment into new roles within the merged company.
As Chief Talent Development Officer Martha Soehren explains it: "For about six months, I along with my team were on planes, trains, and autos every day to visit Time Warner markets, getting to know their talent and working with leaders to learn who were high potentials, and figuring out what this new organization would look like. I helped to design the new organization from a talent perspective."
Comcast withdrew the proposal in April 2015 after the U.S. Justice Department announced its opposition to the deal. But for Soehren and her colleagues, the exercise paid big dividends. "We got to know our own talent even better because we learned that our people can be stretched to do more." She says Comcast has "a much stronger organization today because we got to know our own talent even better during the process."
Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.