Q&A: Microsoft Learning Program Reflects the Changing Face of IT

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 14, 2005 – In the 13 years since Microsoft Learning was founded, the technology landscape has changed dramatically. Companies have a much broader, deeper and strategic use of systems to improve business operations, which has accelerated deployment cycles and increased the expectations of the return on IT investments. This, in turn, requires much more advanced and specialized skill sets in the people whose job it is to develop, design, deploy and manage them.

Consequently, the demand for innovative learning and certification programs that are in tune with new technologies has never been greater. But just as the IT landscape has changed, so too has the face of certification. Microsoft Learning has spent the past two years assessing the changes in the marketplace and has created new programs to meet the varied learning requirements and certification needs of IT professionals.

PressPass asked Lutz Ziob, general manager of Microsoft Learning, to discuss how the Learning organization aligns with today’s IT needs.

PressPass: Considering that Microsoft Learning has been very successful over the past 13 years, training over 9.6 million individuals and certifying 1.8 million, what prompted you to reassess your learning and certification programs?

Lutz Ziob: A core value of Microsoft Learning has been to stay ahead of the needs of our customers and the changes in the learning landscape. We’ve been observing fundamental shifts in technology, the roles in IT departments and the way people want to learn. We decided to assess our programs to ensure we were offering the most relevant learning and certification programs on the market.

PressPass: What trends did you identify?

Lutz Ziob, General Manager, Microsoft Learning

Ziob: From a technology standpoint, the broader, more interdependent nature of today’s systems requires broad-based abilities as well as more specialized skills. The greatest challenge to adopting new technology is having the right level of skills and knowledge at the right point in time. It starts with understanding what IT professionals don’t know versus what they already know and designing learning solutions that cost-effectively tackle the skills gaps.

The role of the IT professional has shifted from that of a broad generalist to being much more specialized. Certification programs are one of the most effective ways for customers and partners to identify what training they need and to assess their skills improvement. Logically, our certification programs have to reflect the changing needs, combining clearly defined job-role-based certificates with more specialized certification tracks focused on core technology areas. In addition, since one of the benefits of certification is to clearly demonstrate your specific areas of knowledge and skills, a clearer naming and branding approach in our certification programs is needed more than ever.

The ways people learn — need to learn — have dramatically changed as well. They need a lot of flexibility in how, where and when they learn. Some people prefer more traditional classroom settings, others prefer to self-study using online solutions as well as books and other off-line tools. And we see an increasing amount of peer-to-peer mentoring and coaching taking place. Microsoft Learning’s blended learning solutions approach allows people to combine the methods and form factors that are best suited to their learning styles and current life circumstances.

By evolving Microsoft’s trusted certification programs, we ensure the ongoing relevance of assessments and certifications to IT professionals and employers alike.

Let me share with you a few results from our own ongoing research: Burlington Consultants conducted a survey (“Value of Microsoft Training and Certification,” 2003) for Microsoft to quantify the value of having certified IT professionals on staff. What they found was that companies with a 25-percent or greater certified-staff level are realizing on average a 15-percent increase in projects being deployed on time and on budget, an 8-percent decrease in downtime and a 17-percent decrease in spending on ad-hoc external IT support. Plus overall productivity has increased by 28-percent. The real value of certifications extends from the test takers all the way to the employers.

PressPass: What has Microsoft Learning done to address the new IT needs?

Ziob: We describe our approach simply as “assess, learn and apply.”

The process starts with individual and organizational assessments, which measure technology readiness and prescribe a well define learning path. The individual learning plans are the foundation for a blended learning solution, which combines different learning styles and at the same time ensures that the technical content is optimally aligned with the technology product lifecycle. Your individual learning plan can, for example, include different forms of classroom training, such as workshops, clinics and hand-on labs, several methods of online training like premium e-Learning courses, virtual labs, e-reference titles, and additional reading, studying and reference materials, like MS Press books and white papers.

One of our new training formats, which we call “clinics,” are an excellent way to stay up-to-date on emerging products and technologies and how these technologies solve specific business problems. These half-to-one-day training events provide detailed “how-to” presentations of technical information on existing or new Microsoft products or technologies, including descriptions of the features and functionality, and product demonstrations.

Another new learning format in our blended learning offering are the lab-intensive, scenario-based “workshops” for the experienced IT professional. For individuals who want to enhance their career and build on already existing skills, the workshops provide a more self-guided learning environment, built around scenarios and troubleshooting in hands-on labs, targeted reviews, information resources and analysis of best practices.

These new learning formats allow individuals to gain new skills quickly, enabling them to apply that knowledge in the workplace much more rapidly than before.

And just as the technology landscape is constantly changing, “assess, learn and apply” is built on the fundamental understanding that keeping your IT skills up-to-date is a reoccurring, ongoing process. Only by continuously reinvesting into skills and capabilities can individuals and teams meet the expectations of their companies, which are eager to maximize their return on IT investments.

PressPass: What else is Microsoft Learning doing to prepare developers for the new challenges IT is facing?

Ziob: In the case of IT, proper learning tools give people the ability to quickly adopt new technologies and better reap the benefits of that investment, which in turn drives business success. So we made a commitment, which we call the “customer readiness promise.” What that means is we as a company are committed to providing the right level and mix of knowledge resources to support our customers—and partners—from the early stages of the product life cycle through the design, building, deployment and management phases. Microsoft Learning’s role is to have the right training and certification programs in alignment with Microsoft technologies.

PressPass: How are you evolving the certification program?

Ziob: There are several key areas we changed, based on the feedback we received. First, we created certifications that map directly to specific job roles and created credentials and certifications that more clearly identify an individual’s specific skill sets. This allows individuals to amplify their abilities in a way that is more closely related to their jobs and to more easily demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Second, IT managers want to be able to verify real-world skills, while individuals want to be more confident in their skills. As a result the new certification programs employ simulation and case study testing technologies to validate skills.

Third, there was a desire to verify more than just technology skills—for example, deployment management and operational procedures. So the new professional-level exams verify the job skills relevant to their roles.

Finally, we made the certification process more efficient and less expensive. There are specific, straightforward exam paths—with fewer exams than before—for each technology and job role, so certifications can be completed more quickly and those new skills applied at the workplace even sooner.

PressPass: How will partners enrolled in the Microsoft Partner Program benefit from the new certification structure?

Ziob: Through the resources of Microsoft Learning and its new generation of certifications announced at the Worldwide Partner Conference, Microsoft’s industry partners will have access to a simplified membership management experience, including enhanced online tools and a wealth of support and training resources to help partners reduce their cost of doing business and increase their market reach and profitability.

New integration between Microsoft Learning and the Microsoft Partner Program enables Microsoft Certified Professional certifications to be applied toward multiple Microsoft Solution Competencies, which allow partners to clearly define their areas of expertise in specific solutions that reflect their business model. By providing certifications that map to job roles and by improving testing methodologies, partners are assured that their staff is qualified and their skills are accurately measured. With the new Microsoft certifications, partners can demonstrate to their customers that credentialed staff is skilled to implement and support the latest technologies. 

PressPass: When will you be rolling out the new program?

Ziob: Over the next few weeks, we’ll be discussing more details about the new certification program.

PressPass: What are the long-term benefits to the new certification program?

Ziob: The long-term value is based on the more holistic look that we take at a lifetime of learning and professional development. We know and understand that at the end of the day it’s people who drive business success. Learning and the verification of a person’s knowledge and capabilities through certification are a continuous process that delivers tangible benefits to individuals building their careers over time. It delivers tangible benefits to IT organizations by having better trained, more productive teams and to companies through costs reductions and more effective systems.

As Microsoft rolls out the new certification and learning tools over the next few weeks, both Microsoft customer and partners will get a chance to learn how these programs can help them realize their full potential.

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