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Businesses can learn from the military about training success.

Businesses can learn from the military about training success

When a company needs to teach the principles of lean manufacturing fast, what better way can there be than through agile learning design?

That is what information-technology giant IBM decided when it needed to design a teaching programme in agile software-development processes in only three weeks.

In the March 2012 issue of T&D, Amy Groves, Catherine Rickelman, Connie Cassarino and M.J. Hallof IBM's Center for Advanced Learning, describe how they created [email protected] - an instruction programme for software developers, engineers, testers and leaders.

'The twin constraints that we encountered-ever-changing requirements and short delivery schedules-are becoming increasingly common,' say the authors. 'At IBM, our frequent focus on technology topics decreases the shelf-life of our learning content. Then, as learning content changes, so does our roster of content experts.'

There were further reasons for IBM to accelerate its learning design. The company's acquisitions created changes in the make-up of the workforce as well as in the cultural expectations of learners. Employees needed work-embedded, social and informal learning delivered at the point of need in various flexible platforms to accommodate travel schedules and time-zone differences. And learners were being asked to be as flexible in their learning habits as in their work habits.

Such factors meant that the traditional approach to learning design - analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate, performed in sequence - was no longer sufficiently nimble, flexible or lean.

Instead, the learning-development team drew on practices from systems and software engineering, manufacturing and product development to form agile learning design. For example, from manufacturing, agile emphasizes the elimination of waste. From product development, agile inherits short, daily 'scrum' update meetings that facilitate collaboration and keep teams focused.

These processes enable the training-design team to adapt to changing requirements, reduce the project risk, increase the visibility of team progress, involve learners from the beginning and speed up the value that the team makes to the business.

IBM's learning-design team drew upon models published by the US Army, among others. This approach is strongly favoured by Elliott R. Peterson in the March 2012 issue of T&D a captain in the US Marine Corps Reserves and former academic. He argues that, as business leaders seek to create leadership-development programmes in-house, they should look more often to the US military for inspiration.

One reason is that the demands placed on military leaders are unusually high. 'Platoon commanders are typically out of college for less than one year when they are given responsibility for every facet of performance and discipline for 30 soldiers,' Elliott R. Peterson explains. 'Generally, a company commander is only six to eight years senior to a platoon commander and is responsible for 200 soldiers.'

The author argues that almost anyone can be an effective leader and manager, provided he or she has supportive subordinates and clear and delineated tasks. 'Too often people focus on the outward signs of leadership-bearing, confidence and assertiveness-and not softer metrics such as the ability to inspire and collaborate' says Elliot R. Peterson.

He stresses the need for a leadership-reaction course, which purports to measure raw leadership potential.

'Usually leadership-reaction courses are imposing physical structures filled with difficult problem sets and administered in such a manner to allow only minimal time for planning and execution,' he comments. 'They are developed this way because the military needs to know that its leaders will continue to try to solve a problem even in the face of certain failure.'

Future military officers are selected for their character, intellect, and initiative. 'Most other qualities are trainable, but these three are essential for success,' the author concludes.