by Polly Schneider Traylor

Online Management Simulation at Motorola

Jun 15, 20019 mins
IT Leadership

ZENGLO CHEN REPORTS TO WORK, EAGER to begin his first day on the job as a product manager at GlobalCom, an electronic games manufacturer. He logs on to his computer, sips his coffee and?wham! In the first five minutes at his desk, Chen receives eight e-mails marked urgent: one from his boss and the rest from other senior managers in the hardware peripherals group. While he’s diving into the first assignment, an operational review of his department, the phone rings. It’s the receptionist wanting to patch through an irate customer demanding to know why his product delivery is late. After calming the customer’s nerves, Chen looks back at the computer where another 10 e-mails and a video-mail from HR asking him to screen and recommend internal candidates for a key IT position await his reply. What to do first? Follow up on a product glitch or get moving on his supervisor’s request to meet with another business unit about sharing their new wireless technology? Before he can even pick up the phone to call his boss, it rings?this time it’s one of his employees. Her long-simmering dispute with a manager in the Asia office has blown up and she wants Chen’s backing. A few hours later, Chen fires off one last e-mail before lunch. He stands up and with a sigh of relief thinks, It’s just a game, thank God.

In real life, Chen is a manager in the office of leadership at Motorola’s headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill. His hectic “first day on the job” was a four-hour multimedia management simulation that Motorola uses to assess and develop its middle managers across the globe. The struggling communications giant hopes its new Web-based skills assessment tool, Aon Consulting Worldwide’s Catalyst software, will help managers change with the times and become the company’s future leaders.

Like many large manufacturing companies, Motorola has been blindsided by the ruthless pace of its global competitors?Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm?and a marketplace that requires agility, customer focus, and leaders who know how to collaborate and can thrive in chaos. Online management simulation holds promise for companies that need an accurate and efficient way to hone managers’ skills. E-learning can also save companies a lot of money in travel costs and instructor fees. But the programs aren’t perfect, and they will never substitute for the human touch of coaching.

Change the Management

For Motorola, speed is the missing ingredient. After several quarters of declining market share in the mobile phone industry, the company has embarked on a gargantuan restructuring and reorganization project, closing plants and laying off 22,000 workers (15 percent of its workforce) since last December. Motorola executives came to the stark realization that the company’s managers did not have the fast-company skills necessary to win in the global marketplace. “In a lot of our markets there is no management talent, period,” says Kelly Brookhouse, a director in the company’s office of leadership and organization effectiveness. Motorola’s plan to correct that is twofold: managers in Asia and Eastern Europe need basic management-skills training, while managers in the United States and Western Europe need to learn how to move faster and adopt a global perspective. “We’re really trying to get people to think of the big picture for the company and what consumers need,” Brookhouse says.

Because Motorola’s approximately 30,000 middle managers are spread all over the world, online training is a natural fit. In September 2000, the company’s China office served as the pilot site for Catalyst, an application developed for Motorola by Chicago-based HR consultancy Aon as a version of its Leader product. So far, 50 managers have gone through the simulation. By the end of the year, the China office plans to assess up to 250 managers who previously have demonstrated above-average performance. “What we’re measuring is how well the employee is able to solve management problems, customer issues, staff issues and collaborate with other departments,” Brookhouse explains. Down the road, she would like Catalyst to play a hand in determining promotions. It is still too early for hard results from the China experiment, but Brookhouse says the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive: “The depth of insight to the manager is amazing.”

Mandy Chooi, a Singapore-based regional manager in Motorola’s executive assessment and development programs department, says the simulation helped her learn how to tailor her decision-making approach to the situation, rather than getting stuck in her usual pattern of analyzing data first. Chooi also realized the importance of managing priorities: “It’s better to get a few important things done and not stress about getting everything done.”

Management simulations and assessment programs have been around for 30 years. Increasingly, these tools and courses are going online in applications developed by boutique consultancies such as Aon or large companies such as IBM. The appeal of e-training goes beyond cost-effectiveness, says Kirk Rogg, a senior vice president at Aon who spearheaded the Leader project. Managers can’t or won’t take three days out of a workweek to go to training centers, nor can the traditional training classes replicate real-life management problems as well as Catalyst can, he says.

For management simulations to work they must accurately portray the manager’s job and business environment, says John Ivancevich, a management professor at the University of Houston who does research on organizational behavior. “If the average manager receives 45 e-mails a day that require immediate responses, and a simulation gives you 150 e-mails a day, that’s not realistic,” explains Ivancevich, who’s also an e-learning consultant and board member of e-learning company High Tech Campus.

Chooi and Chen think the simulation is on target. “[Managers’] days are that hectic,” Chooi says. The system was designed to force employees to make decisions with incomplete information and prioritize multiple tasks and interruptions. After the simulation, Chen recalls, “I was exhausted. The time went by very fast, and you’re in high reactive mode.”

Catalyst runs on Motorola’s intranet, so it’s easily accessible to managers anywhere, anytime. But the system requires facilitation by a trained “assessor” who works closely with employees, interviewing them before the simulation, participating in telephone role-plays, analyzing and tweaking the employee profile that the software generates, and discussing the results with the manager. Aon built a report generator that can integrate data from the simulation with third-party assessment tools, such as 360-degree surveys, personality tests and leadership inventories, into a profile of the manager’s strengths and skill gaps. The manager and his supervisor then create a long-term development plan. Brookhouse hopes that Catalyst will become an integral part of the company’s management education program offered through Motorola University.

Assess the Assessment Tools

There are many management assessment tools on the market, and companies must know how to select one and use it properly. Ivancevich advises companies to develop a profile of their typical manager as a prototype for modeling the simulation. Companies should also have a psychologist review the normative data of the test and the credentials of the testing partner, he suggests. Then there is the problem of accuracy. Verbal and quantitative skills are fairly easy to measure, but beyond that it gets murky. For instance, an aspiring manager could fake her interests or leadership style in order to get a promotion, Ivancevich says. Stereotyping is another issue. “People go through the assessment and walk away with their ’type,’ and then they put a label on themselves and other people,” says Jim Masciarelli, CEO of Archer Development, a change management and executive coaching consultancy in Gloucester, Mass. For this reason, Masciarelli has scaled back the use of assessment tools in his practice in favor of on-the-job coaching and other hands-on approaches.

The bigger issue, perhaps, is motivating managers to use the tools and devote the time. “Managers are still squeamish about going through the four-hour process,” Brookhouse says. And if the multimedia software is sluggish and the system has poor navigation, employees will quickly lose patience. Chooi found some annoying glitches with Catalyst’s e-mail simulation. To head off some of these problems, users need access to a live instructor during the training, says Masciarelli. Motorola employs onsite test administrators for this purpose.

There are larger concerns with training managers online. Masciarelli, for one, does not believe e-tools are effective unless combined with the classroom. Managers and executives respond more to face-to-face interaction than to a computer program, he says. “[Managers] know that the training is a second order of magnitude, and the first is to get their people aligned and talking with each other.”

Even so, Brookhouse remains upbeat about the tool’s long-term impact at Motorola. She believes that Motorola’s careful design of the system and the eventual plan to institutionalize skills development of managers and tie rewards to performance will ensure the program’s success. Her biggest hurdle now is funding. Hiring and training the assessors is a costly exercise, and the slowing economy is preventing Motorola from quickly expanding the project. “I’m frustrated that we have to scale back now,” she says.

Finally, the success of Motorola’s leadership development program rides on the thorny yet age-old training problem of skills retention. Too often, employees leave the learning in the classroom. Even Chen, a career development manager no less, did not create a development plan after going through the simulation. Why not? “My own laziness,” he says.

Experts seem to agree that a follow-up process is crucial. Masciarelli insists that participants should receive rewards and recognition for performance improvement. Senior managers should use the employee profiles in a controlled and confidential way to make decisions, Ivancevich adds. Otherwise, the fancy reports get stuffed into a drawer, just like any other training information?online or not.