Canon U.S.A. Inc., a leader in professional and consumer digital imaging solutions, sells its products through a wide network of retailers and dealers. The sales training division, within the Imaging Systems Group (ISG), delivers learning to this mix of external dealers and internal sales professionals. But keeping up with the rapid pace of change in the company’s products has been a challenge for the training division. To cope with this challenge, Canon ISG implemented a learning management system and e-learning portal, called the Learning Zone, which has helped the company roll out products more quickly while building a well-informed sales force.
According to Daniel Messick, strategic planning manager for the sales training division of the Imaging Systems Group at Canon U.S.A., the goal of the training division is to strengthen the company’s competitive advantage through education. There are 14,500 people in the Learning Zone database who access training on Canon’s new and existing products to help the company reach this goal. “Probably 90 percent of that number is dealer personnel and dealer salespeople,” said Mitch Bardwell, director and assistant general manager of sales training, Canon U.S.A. Imaging Systems Group. “The other 10 percent are Canon Imaging Systems Group employees.”
In the past, learning has been delivered through on-site instructor-led sessions at dealer locations or at Canon. The growing complexity of Canon’s products, though, means that more and more training is needed to keep the sales force up to speed. Canon’s products are multifunction devices involving numerous applications, output options and users who connect to the devices via networks. Canon’s sales force though, has not traditionally been technically savvy, so keeping up with changes to the product line is difficult. “Probably our biggest challenge is training salespeople on the underlying technology of the product and then the technology that the product plugs into, which is the world,” Bardwell said. “It’s really a digital communications hub, You’ve got to understand not only its underlying technologies—scanning, a controller and different types of engines—you’ve also got to understand at a pretty high level the world that it plugs into, and it plugs into everything.”
Another challenge lies in the nature of the learners. Because the majority of Canon’s distribution channel consists of employees of other companies, capturing mindshare presents a unique challenge, which can be addressed through the learning portal, Messick explained. “We found that the Learning Zone, as an e-learning portal, as a quick and efficient way to put the right content in front of the right people at the right time, has been an effective way to improve both the quality and the quantity of mindshare that we capture.”
According to Bardwell, the learning curve challenge for Canon’s sales force has had one great payoff. “As we said, a couple of years ago we went from selling tennis shoes to space shuttles. It’s a large curve to come up, so it’s a challenge for the training organization,” he said. “But we love it because it’s really brought training to a more important place at the executive table. That’s been a great byproduct of this challenge.”
Once the e-learning portal was launched, there were new challenges for Canon ISG’s training team. The audience of sales professionals, both internal and external, were not terribly technically savvy, and many of the external sales reps at the dealerships might not even have access to a computer to use for training. “They had not consumed learning online before,” said Bardwell. “So we were a little bit apprehensive about putting learning online for that community.” This apprehension was increased when Bardwell and his team saw the page-turner styles of e-learning on the market at the time. “That’s when we set out to figure out how we could provide a more robust learning environment than a page turner, and with low bandwidth for a medium to low-skilled computer user,” he added.
With technology from three companies, Canon U.S.A. implemented its Learning Zone, and started delivering blended solutions as opposed to strictly instructor-led training. By reducing the time spent in the classroom, Canon is able to use the same number of trainers to deliver far more learning. In addition, the system allows the company to do more testing of its learners. “We’re doing more internal testing for internal Canon employees, and we’re doing more external testing,” said Bardwell. “That’s what we’re trying to move toward: Here’s the competencies, here’s the performance standard for this area, here’s a test for it, here’s the training. Take the training, take the test, and look at the test results to see if remediation is required or anything else.”
In addition to allowing Canon U.S.A. to determine the success of its learning solutions, testing has allowed the company to build a database of learner information to work with. “As we begin to accumulate a better record of what’s taken place, we’ve got the opportunity now to better understand what the community of learners knows and how that maps against what they need to know,” said Messick. “Then we can serve up content that is suited to their needs and not another review and refresher of what they already know.”
Bardwell added, “With this portal, we can use all the learner data that we didn’t really collect or that was collected in four other places before, to start to build some really good learner profiles and the system can start to generate some business analytics that executives at the dealers, or even executives here at Canon, are starting to use to make better business decisions.”
Learning technology has also enabled Canon to deliver training on products at the time of launch—crucial to ensuring the success of new products. “A new product hits the dealer’s warehouse, the salespeople hit the URL, and there’s a very nice Web-based module that identifies the marketplace for the product. The last page of the Web-based course we use as a resource page with links to other information about the product,” Bardwell said. This is a vast improvement over the instructor-led training, which generally came a month to two months after the launch of a new product.
“The first 90 days of any new product is a critical time,” Bardwell added. “When Canon Inc. in Tokyo has got the boat loaded, we know we need to sell so many, we’ve got a forecast, so having the salespeople well informed right at launch is in step with our business objectives.”
For more complex subjects, technology-based training has allowed Canon to deliver a consistent message with plenty of support for learners who need more help understanding the topics. “We’ve got some great instructors, but now with the Web-based courseware, we can even go a little deeper where needed and be assured that it’s the same consistent training,” Bardwell said.
Bardwell said that while he would love to show training results compared with increases in sales results, this is complicated in Canon’s complex sales environment, where many companies’ employees are trained. What the sales training team can do is determine the necessary performance standards and then create training and testing to meet that standard. “I think that what happens over the years, especially for a manufacturer like Canon, is they just innately know that if the rep understands their products and technology, that’s half the battle,” Bardwell said.
Still, the Learning Zone has shown some obvious benefits and results. Through the Learning Zone, Canon has increased its course offerings by almost 500 percent, and has course completion ratios around 65 percent, higher than usual for e-learning solutions. In addition, Canon reaches twice as many people with training now.
“The reason we looked into this e-learning portal was we kept expanding our channel of distribution, and before we started that, some dealers already had to wait three or four weeks for a trainer to get there,” Bardwell said. “And there was just no way to continually add trainers to that solution. We had 20 trainers at the time; how many are you going to add? So the e-learning portal enabled us to increase the trainer bandwidth. Even though it might have been $1 million, you would have paid a lot more than that if you had to hire 20 more people.”
Canon ISG estimates that it has realized 27 percent cost savings using the blended learning approach, and the group was recognized by Canon U.S.A. through the 2003 Presidents Award for Innovation, which recognized the success of the Learning Zone. “The innovation coupled with the track record and business results that we were able to demonstrate allowed us to receive the Presidents Award as recognition both for the innovation itself and for the successful implementation,” Messick said.