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May 2011
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TD Magazine

Learning Linked To Success

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Learning Linked to Success

People watch 2 billion YouTube videos every day.

Google searches occur at the rate of 2 million per minute.

96.8 billion text messages were sent in 2009.

By 2014, the worldwide mobile data traffic will reach 40 exabytes per year. That's 40 billion gigabytes or 40 quintillion bytes.

For network equipment provider Ciena, that amount of network traffic is nothing but good news. Its expertise in optical transport, optical switching, and Carrier Ethernet technologies helps it deliver equipment, software, and services that simplify and improve the automation, capacity, resiliency, and speed of networks for clients around the world. The company's products are used in communications networks operated by global service providers, cable operators, enterprises, government agencies, and research and education institutions. Ciena helps its clients handle increasingly complex traffic demands on their networks as it looks to deliver a new mix of high-bandwidth communications services.

While many companies talk about integrating learning and development into the business, Ciena shines in its use of learning professionals at the front end of new product development and long-range planning. And the learning function was closely involved in creating cultural norms when Ciena acquired a portion of Nortel's Metro Ethernet Networks business in 2010, doubling its workforce and significantly broadening its worldwide reach.

We spoke with CEO Gary Smith at the company's headquarters in Linthicum, Maryland.

Q| When you consider learning as a whole at Ciena, how do you see it contributing to the organization's success? How does learning and development support the company's growth?

A|Over the years, training and development has become more integrated into our corporate strategy. Our heritage is rooted in technology innovation - we grew up as a shooting star technology company - but as our business matured, it became apparent that to sustain growth we had to make an investment in not only our technology development, but in our people as well.

Today, training and development at Ciena is not just an organization in the company - it's also an integral part of our corporate culture as we are focused on the professional development and enhancement of all employees. And I think that growth needs to start at the top. As an executive, you need to keep learning because the world's moving very quickly.

Q| Competition for sales of communications networking equipment is dominated by a small number of very large multinational companies such as Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, and Fujitsu. These competitors have substantially greater financial, operational, and marketing resources than Ciena. How have you used employee development to create a human capital advantage?

A| We've been able to maintain a competitive advantage through learning and training in a multitude of ways. We do compete with much larger companies, so part of our value proposition is about being more agile, innovative, and faster than they are. We're a very focused player compared to a lot of our competitors and strive to have better relationships with our customers. To that end, we collaborate with our customers at a deeper level than generalist network suppliers, so that they trust and respect our people, their knowledge, their ability to add value, and their integrity. Therefore, the quality of our people is critical to us.

In addition, especially after our recent acquisition, it is increasingly important for us to use training and development to help us be consistent with our strategic positioning and messaging across the organization and across the global sphere.

Q| In 2009, Ciena was the winning bidder in the Nortel bankruptcy auction. In early 2010, the company completed the acquisition of the optical networking and Carrier Ethernet assets of Nortel's Metro Ethernet Networks (MEN) and took on 2,000 additional employees. How did you build an integrated culture?

A| We made a very conscious effort to learn from other companies because the technology space is not exactly full of successful integrations and mergers. We sat down with a bunch of experts who'd done similar kinds of large-scale integrations to discuss what they'd learned. A lot of senior people were very gracious with their time and very candid about what went well and what didn't go well. That investigative exercise was hugely valuable to us.

One piece of advice we received was to be very conscious of the cultures of each company, and don't take things for granted. Accordingly, we were very deliberate in creating a set of behaviors that we thought were appropriate for the business and were what our customers, suppliers, and partners would expect. But culture is not about coming up with a list of behaviors: It's about living them. So that's why we don't have ours on a placard. Instead, we deliberately call attention to great examples of a behavior among employees when we see them and when we don't see them. And those living examples have to come right from the top because people are looking every minute to make sure that the leaders in the company are really walking the talk, too. The moment people think this is just a list on the wall, then you lose it. As a result, people feel like they really own the culture and it's real.

Q| The values and behaviors were set early in the integration of the two companies. How did that influence the integration?

A| The values were developed by employees from both companies. On day one of the integration of the two organizations, the values were in place, which set the tone about what attributes and ideals would be important going forward. I think a CEO fulfills multiple roles, not the least of which is embodying those principles and values, so I did my best to teach by example from the beginning.

Q| And what role do you play in developing leaders and fostering innovation?

A| One of my roles is to create an environment where people see the value of learning and also are prepared to take on necessary risks. In other words, if you have an organization where people are so scared of failing that they won't take the risk of learning something new, I think that inclines them to remain in their comfort zone, and therefore, you don't get the innovation that's required to grow. You've got to create an environment where it's okay to have some failures - to take calculated risks within the constraints of law. If we don't have some failures, we're not pushing enough boundaries. I think that ideology helps create vibrancy and energy in the organization.

One of the challenges we have is encouraging innovation in areas apart from engineering. Ciena is very focused on technical breakthroughs and developments, but we want to innovate in other ways, too, such as how we interact with the customer. Therefore, our culture encourages collaboration and innovation in all disciplines.

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Q| A little over a year ago, Ciena began to offer Ethernet certification to its customers. Can you tell us how that extends the value chain?

A| Our technology certification program, which now includes both optical and Carrier Ethernet curriculums, is a natural extension of the training and development that is so valuable to our organization. Our reasoning behind its development was that we had some very specific knowledge within the company that was unique and valuable to the larger technology community, and we wanted to share that with our customers and peers. So we set about to formalize that knowledge-sharing idea with a certification program, which helps foster thought leadership within the company, with the potential for customer partnership and loyalty.

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It's going extremely well with some very large customers. More than 70 companies now have Ciena-certified employees. The challenge of the moment is in trying to keep up with the scalability.

Q| You often talk about the "converged optical Ethernet" as the next major change that will drive growth in network applications. How do you prepare the company to scale for needed technology developments?

A| When we shift our research-and-development focus and come out with a new product or technology, we get the learning organization involved right from the start. For example, the optical switching platform that we just brought to market spent five years in development, cost tens of millions of dollars to develop, and is very software intensive. It will be the underpinning for some of the major carrier networks around the world in terms of Internet traffic and video and mobile. So it was appropriate to involve the learning folks from the beginning.

The team manages the documentation for new products such as these because they need to be extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the technology. By obtaining that expertise, it makes it easier to train the salesforce, our marketing people, and the engineers who have to install and maintain the new product.

This approach is a bit untraditional, because documentation is rarely part of the training organization. However, after some initial resistance, all teams have begun to see the benefits of that approach.

Q| What do you look for in leaders at Ciena?

A| We place particular emphasis on teamwork. We have a very candid culture that starts at the top of the leadership team and goes all the way through the organization. I think a strong measurement of the effectiveness of a leadership team is how much of the conversation is actually had in their meetings. We're probably at about 80 percent, which I think is pretty high. If you're having 80-plus percent of the conversations in the room, two things happen. The quality of the interchange is going to be much greater because people are getting their ideas and their differences out on the table. Secondarily, it magnifies the amount of trust within the team because they know that there won't be side conversations in which things are challenged after the fact. I think that's a simple measure around candor and effectiveness.

This year, for the first time, we conducted very extensive succession planning, taking into account feedback from other functions concerning which individuals we're putting forward as the leaders of the future. With this exercise, we get a good view across the organization of what kind of talent we have so we can make sure they are nurtured and developed properly.

In the past, we've been guilty of viewing people by the roles that they're in. We see summaries of people's backgrounds, and this has helped us learn a lot about what they did before they came to Ciena and about their skill sets. It's also helped us make customized development plans for succession candidates. We're at about 4,500 people now. We're at the size and scope at which we can give some people rotational roles so that they can round out their careers and their perspectives and develop as leaders. We've got some tremendous talent in the company, and we want to make sure that they're nurtured properly.

Q| Ciena experienced some layoffs during the recession but still continued to scale up for anticipated technology development needs. How did the company manage its investment in employee learning during that difficult period?

A| We had been through the nuclear winter of 2002 when our revenue fell from $1.6 billion in fiscal 2001 to $296 million the following year. Back then, we were a young company with a single product and two major customers. Now, we have a much broader base and much more agile operating model. When we came into the current recession, we committed to continue investing in research and development - in fact, we spent more in research and development during 2009 than we did in 2008. As part of that investment, we also consciously focused more in learning resources because, as with our technology, we believe we can gain competitive advantage out of it.

We've chosen to invest more in training and development now than ever before because of the criticality of having the best people, and also, having the scale to go do it. If you're going to play for the long term, you must invest heavily in your people. You can't pay lip service to it. You have to commit to it in the bad times as well as the good times. People know when you're not invested in them and you're not committed to them.

Q| We see training being used, particularly with the next generation entering the workforce, as a recruitment and retention tool. A lot of organizations are seeing these people leave if they don't feel they're being developed.

A| I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment. Today's new workforce is very dynamic and savvy to business and technology changes. While people want to be fairly compensated, they are putting more importance in being part of a collaborative and revolutionary environment where they can continue to develop their skill set. They also want to enjoy coming to work and to respect and admire the expertise of the people they work with, and learning and training is an integral part of enabling that business climate.

Q| Part of your role is leading the company to bet on the right new technologies. Which emerging network applications do you think will have the greatest impact on employee learning and development?

A| If there's an application that will dominate training, it's going to be video, because it will continue to support sophisticated interactive learning. The quality, accessibility, and mobility of video and the innovation of associated delivery devices have increased dramatically and will continue to evolve throughout the coming years. Gone are the days when you needed a large expensive computer with the latest software to support your learning development. Instead, knowledge can easily be accessed from devices such as mobile phones or tablets, enabling more collaboration among more people without geographic limits and a lower cost.

Q| As a CEO, what advice would you give to learning professionals to help them be successful in a fast-moving high-tech company?

A| My advice is to make sure that the learning function is totally aligned with the strategy of the company and that it's not just an afterthought. Any high-tech company that's not using training and development as a strategic tool is really missing a key element of its business program. Especially as you introduce new products and new technologies or look to expand to more geographies, it's important for learning professionals to get involved at the early stages so that they can facilitate and shape those plans.

At Ciena, Jim Caprara, our vice president of global human resource development, has made a tremendous difference in our thinking about learning, development, and training. Now it's much more natural for my leadership team to think very carefully about the role of training and development when they formulate strategic plans; there's a much greater consciousness than we had three years ago. As a result, we've gained enormous amounts of value and become a more effective organization, and I would encourage other organizations to follow suit.

About the Author

Pat Galagan is the former editor-at-large for ATD. She retired in 2019 after a long career as a writer and editor with the association. She has covered all aspects of talent development and interviewed many business leaders and the CEOs of numerous Fortune 500 companies.

About the Author

Tony Bingham is the president and CEO of the Association for Talent Development, formerly ASTD, the world’s largest professional association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. Tony works with a staff of 130, a Board of Directors, and a worldwide network of volunteers to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace. 

Tony believes in creating a culture of engaged, high-performing teams that deliver extraordinary results. Deeply passionate about change, technology, and the impact of talent development, his focus is on adding value to ATD members and the global community of talent development professionals. He believes that aligning talent development efforts to business strategy, while utilizing the power of social and mobile technology for learning, is a key differentiator in business today.  

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