Training: Corporate needs go to university: Motorola's long-term view has lifted skills development into the realm of higher education

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The Independent Online
IN BUSINESS today, training has a status like motherhood: every company would have you believe that it holds it dear.

However, the statistics suggest that, for all the rhetoric, few companies are prepared to translate words into action. One notable exception is Motorola, the US-based electronics company, which has even established its own university as part of a commitment to spend dollars 120m a year on training and education. (The actual cost is twice that figure when the lost productivity of the person being trained is taken into account.)

This is a heavy investment, when one considers that Motorola already spends dollars 1.4bn on research and development and dollars 1.2bn on capital projects. But Bill Wiggenhorn, vice-president for training and education, and president of the university, says it has been worked out carefully.

'On a purely cost basis, it is cheaper to hire and throw away than to hire and develop,' he said, adding that the company felt the commitment was worth it over the long term. He supports this by saying that productivity has doubled in the five years during which the system has been fully operational.

Mr Wiggenhorn said experience cast doubt on the theory that a company need not develop its own specialists because it could easily poach from another firm. He also had encouragement for managers who have reached a certain age, saying that many of the company's breakthroughs were the work of people generally considered to be in their dotage.

'They were people who had been there long enough to know the needs and who were creative enough to come up with the ideas.'

It adds up to a ringing endorsement of the maxim: 'If you think this is expensive, try ignorance' - which was what started Motorola on this road.

As Mr Wiggenhorn said in an often-reprinted Harvard Business Review article of three years ago, the company originally had a much more modest training programme in mind. It was begun in 1979, when Bob Galvin, then chief executive, now chairman, gave orders for a five-year training plan.

Having made its name in car radios, the company was in the process of transforming itself - in the face of competition from the Japanese - and heading in the direction of hi-tech electronics, producing cellular phones, portable radios and semiconductors. Mr Galvin believed the company would not survive unless all employees upgraded their skills.

Studies found that many of the people Motorola had been happy to employ couldn't read, write or do basic maths. (Consultants in the UK have similar horror stories to tell.) So Motorola was led into 'areas of education we had never meant to enter, and into budgetary realms we would have found unthinkable 10 years earlier'.

It was originally thought the exercise would cost dollars 35m over five years, but from an annual budget of dollars 7m - considered excessive by many at the time - the company moved towards spending more than dollars 100m a year. And, said Mr Wiggenhorn, 'everyone thought it was money well invested'.

He admitted, however, that those lower down the ladder - who would be going back to school in their fifties to do their maths - were less impressed. The answer to the morale problem was to get Mr Galvin to respond personally to every complaint with an explanation of why it was important for the company and the individual.

From here, it was only a small step to getting involved in local colleges, and from there to establishing one of its own.

The university's main location is near the company's headquarters in Chicago. It has three other locations in the US, one in Singapore, and satellite offices in Edinburgh and Slough, where the company has substantial facilities.

Described by Mr Wiggenhorn as 'a worldwide service organisation', the university analyses what the company's workforce needs to know and designs programmes that will transfer the resulting education into its research laboratories and work sites - where all the company's 104,000 employees receive a minimum of five days' training every year.

With 200 full-time staff and 400 contract associates, it is not difficult to see how the institution accounts for 40 per cent of the hefty training expenditure. But Mr Wiggenhorn is adamant it has helped to change the culture of the company into one where knowledge is valued.

Employees are also given help to manage their children's education, and Motorola has formed links with colleges around the world (not necessarily the best-known) that produce the people it needs.

Few are recruited from Britain, because its university engineering courses are considered too theoretical. At the same time, however, Motorola has taken note of the growing concern on this side of the Atlantic about basic learning standards in deciding where to position its sites, which employ 4,000 people. For instance, East Kilbride in Scotland was deliberately chosen for a semiconductor operation because of its well-educated local workforce.

As Mr Wiggenhorn said: 'If you're building a dollars 100bn capital plant, you don't want to throw that away by not having properly trained people. They can do a lot of damage.'

(Photograph omitted)