I would not be the first person to observe that companies are often like families. Especially in organizations where employees stick around for a while, over time you begin to feel like you know the people in your workplace as well as you do your family members. You know their strengths, weaknesses and eccentricities. You know who has a wicked sense of humor and who has that annoying habit of bouncing their leg and shaking the conference room table (that would be me). And you share a history of success and failure that binds you together in a shared purpose.
One of the things that I find fascinating about SkillSoft is that this family feeling extends to our customers. This may sound like schmaltzy marketing talk, but I think you would hear the same thing if you talked to one of our long-time customers, and there are many of those. You would undoubtedly hear a mix of our strengths, weaknesses and our eccentricities, but in most cases, it would be wrapped in an overall tone of affection.
I’m thinking of these things because next week we’re holding Café, which is an event that really embodies SkillSoft and the bond we share with our customers. Café stands for Client Advisory Forum Event, but the word Café feels more accurate, with its overtone of a coffee klatch. Café has existed for about as long as SkillSoft has existed, and it has always played an extremely important role in driving the company’s direction and the products we bring to market. Every year we have a mix of first-timers and customers who are returning for their third or fourth or fifth time.
Café is like a big focus group in some respects. We divide customers into groups and discuss various topics. I happen to be a big believer in focus groups because I think there is no substitute for hearing from customers in their own words. So often companies become ensconced in their own jargon and it may be completely different from the language their customers speak. There is only one cure for that, and it’s getting out there and hearing what they have to say, directly from their very mouths.
When I started with SkillSoft six years ago, my first day was at a Café. I remember the day evolving the way large group events often do, with some awkward silence in the morning, and by the afternoon, opinions were flying and conversations were bubbling up on unplanned topics. Moderators were being challenged to keep discussions within time limits and people stuck around at the close of the event to talk to their colleagues about things that were important to them.
Over the years the format has evolved a bit, and the topics have also changed. Back then the clients were responsible for taking notes in the breakout sessions and reporting back to the larger group. The thought was that this gave them more buy-in. While this may have been true, some felt that it was kind of like inviting someone over to dinner and making them do the dishes. So now a SkillSoft person keeps the notes and delivers the PowerPoint, but the intent is still to reflect what the customers have said, in their own words.
The topics are much more far ranging as well. That first Café I attended revolved largely around which course topics SkillSoft should be developing. In next week’s meeting we’ll talk about the evolving role of courseware, but we’ll also discuss mobile learning, social learning and the future of games and simulations. And I’m sure there will be some topics no one anticipated.
What I remember most fondly about Cafés of the past are the evening events where we got to know each other on a more personal level. In 2004 the Yankees and Red Sox were locked in a heated post-season battle, and we were scheduled to board a dinner cruise in the San Francisco harbor. TVs were brought in to appease die-hard fans on both sides, and that may go down as the loudest dinner in Café history (the Red Sox broke their 86-year championship drought that year, but I’m not saying the two events are directly related).
Another memorable night was the songwriter’s dinner in Nashville, TN. I’m not a huge country music fan, but hearing about the inner workings of the music industry was fascinating. And after a couple of the songs touched on topics close to our hearts, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
So perhaps this is a fitting way to kick off SkillSoft’s entry into the world of blogging. Our hope is to extend the conversation to more people, and to keep it going throughout the year. I’m optimistic we can do this, but it will never replace the experience of gathering in a room and listening to what people have to say, in their own words.
By: Julie Ogilvie