Microsoft’s “Mobile First, Cloud First” strategy, adopted in 2013, presented a major professional challenge to its global sales force. As one manager explained, “It’s not just about what we sell. It’s to whom we sell. And that means a radical change in how we sell.” It was time to approach the world’s most international business school for a solution…
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The technology behind the challenge
At the heart of the challenge was the paradigm shift to cloud computing, also known as “on-demand computing”. Instead of purchasing software and licences, corporate “cloud” customers pay as they go for mobile applications, scaling up or down their usage as needs fluctuate.
As a result, they avoid upfront investments in both hardware and software.
Worldwide cloud-computing sales are estimated to be growing at 50% a year, which is great news for Microsoft, probably the biggest player “in the cloud”. However, when companies opt for on-demand computing, their internal processes change. Purchasing decisions that were traditionally taken by IT managers are devolved to managers throughout the business – who now simply have to work out where and how to subscribe.
Budgets have moved accordingly, with IT departments increasingly taking on an advisory role. In short, the business manager has taken over from the IT manager as the Microsoft customer. Microsoft sales teams have to negotiate directly with executives from departments such as finance, accounting, marketing and even the C-suite. Microsoft & INSEAD Exclusivity at scale and speed: a Microsoft–INSEAD online innovation GOLD Excellence in Practice 2016
These new customers speak a completely different language from IT professionals. Discussions focus on concepts like “Value Creation”, “ROI” (return on investment), “NPV” (net present value), “DCF” (discounted cash flow), OPEX (operating expenditure) and CAPEX (capital expenditure). In short, the sales negotiation process is centred on business as well as technological know-how.
The learning technology behind the solution
By the spring of 2014, World-Wide Readiness had decided that its sales staff needed an injection of business education on a global scale – and they needed it fast. They approached INSEAD, an institution as global as Microsoft itself, and Intrepid Learning, a US learning technology specialist, with a seemingly impossible request. Could INSEAD custom-design a highly specific business curriculum and deliver it to 500 sellers worldwide within five months via Intrepid’s user-friendly platform?
The obvious approach was to use the increasingly popular MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) model. However, the format needed to be adapted in a highly tailored and targeted manner for the audience. Even more importantly, it had to be adjusted to motivate learners. To date, low completion rates and “false starters” have been among the major shortcomings of large-scale online learning initiatives.
Engaging, educating and motivating a mass audience
Undaunted, INSEAD faculty set about developing courses based on real-life Microsoft sales situations. They used examples from many sectors, geographies and company sizes – and integrated project work directly linked to the participants’ roles and responsibilities. “The professors’ enthusiasm was infectious,” recalls a member of the World-Wide Readiness team.
Top-quality lectures were filmed on campus, complete with real Microsoft participants to capture the dynamism of a live classroom experience. Crucially, however, sessions were structured for editing into shorter clips. “The idea was to deliver learning in bite-sized chunks of five to 15 minutes that a Microsoft seller could digest while waiting for a plane or between meetings,” explains Professor Chengyi Lin, INSEAD’s Director of Strategic Innovations and Online Programmes. In total, these segments added up to three hours of learning a week – a commitment that few busy sales managers would normally have time for.
To promote active and enthusiastic learning INSEAD faculty also curated an engaging blend of lectures, quizzes, simulated exercises, online discussions, personal reflections, case studies and peer-to-peer feedback. Most importantly, guided “real-world assignments” encouraged learners to apply their newly acquired skills within the context of their job – and then upload a “field report” to share with other learners.
Ultimately, the flexible pace, varied content and interactive platform were designed to keep participants motivated, while the shared weekly schedule ensured that they moved through the programme as a single cohort. As one US territory manager later remarked, “The balance between making sure the content was engaging, relevant and detailed enough versus the time invested while trying to do a day job was nailed!”
Building momentum, creating a community
When the time came for enrolment, an “exclusivity” approach was adopted, with individuals nominated for the course based on quotas for regions and countries.
Thanks to early buzz and the involvement of senior executives, the pilot programme was oversubscribed. And the long waiting list only served to increase demand. Microsoft decided to double the size of the first cohort to 1,000 participants.
Accepted students received a course overview and then signed a “Code of Honor” to demonstrate their commitment. Those who did not participate as expected during the first week were “dropped” from the course. The impact on completion rates for the following weeks was immediate. Discussion forums were also abuzz with activity, as people closely monitored their scores in order to get to the top of the “leaderboard”. Meanwhile, local face-to-face meetings between participants started to gain momentum organically.
In addition to the prepared curriculum, “just-in-time” content was rolled out regularly. INSEAD professors offered video responses to questions that had arisen in discussion forums, many based on participants’ real-life applications of the learning. In short, the initial impacts of learning were rolled back into the educational experience – with a view to creating even greater overall impact at the end of the programme.
There was also extensive communication with regional managers and executives. At the end of each week, learners were informed of the next milestone and their managers updated on their progress. Finally, all those who completed the course satisfactorily received an INSEAD “digital badge” to display on their LinkedIn profile.
Exceeding expectations of quality and quantity
Around 85% of the first cohort became proud recipients of the digital badge, a pass rate that exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Even the busiest salespeople turned in exceptional assignments. Peer engagement was also phenomenal with 31,320 messages posted in the discussion forums over the eight-week course. Post-programme surveys showed higher levels of satisfaction scores than almost any of Microsoft’s previous sales training. There was no hesitation in running the programme again… and again. To date it has been rolled out to more than 5,000 executives worldwide with similarly impressive pass rates. And Microsoft has just embarked on creating a third online programme in partnership with INSEAD.
Even though the numbers speak for themselves, the final word about impact should go to the participants. “With the knowledge gained from the INSEAD business model innovation training, we have successfully closed two cloud deals with traditional customers, which resulted in approximately $150K of cloud revenue in Q2,” says a Slovenian manager. “The application of the financial acumen articulated in the course was what made the difference in closing the sale,” agrees a Russian Account Director, whose team struck a deal of $24.2 million. Or as a Global Product Lead based in the UK asked: “Do you know when we might run this course again, as I want to think about having some of our other top talent attend?”
- Exclusivity at scale and speed: A Microsoft-INSEAD online innovation - October 11, 2016