“I love the potential of the industry,” says Schacht. “There’s no more fundamental unifying principle across any organization than the development and the continuing improvement of the knowledge and skills of its people.”
Schacht is president and chief operating officer of 32-year-old Learning Tree International, a $151.6 million provider of education and training to IT professionals and managers. Schacht spoke with Smart Business about where to find new ideas, how to share them with employees and how to measure success.
On finding new ideas:
We have a product development group that is, among other things, responsible for keeping abreast of technologies they learn about in the marketplace as they go to conferences or they talk with customers or they talk with instructors. There are a lot of people that are plugged into different things.
From talking with customers, you get interesting ideas. Not necessarily from customers just saying, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ but from customers saying, ‘Here’s a need I have, I wish I could fill it,’ which sometimes give you an idea that this would be interesting or that would be interesting.
You look at your competitors and identify what your competitors are doing, and if it’s worthwhile, maybe it’s worthwhile copying it. You don’t want to violate laws, obviously, from the standpoint of intellectual property, but so much of what we do to improve is based on imitation as opposed to invention.
I advise my people and advise my managers is to read outside of your area, to read about things that have absolutely nothing to do with training or nothing to do with IT or management. Read generally about what different companies do at different points in time. Sometimes you get remarkable ideas sparked. You look at stuff and think, ‘How can this apply to my business, even when, on first blush, it might not appear to?’
On finding new markets:
One of the challenges over the last couple of years and I’m pleased that we’ve been able to achieve this and make it work and see results, even if we’re not yet where I want to be is the introduction and building of a curriculum area of management courses where we aren’t a secondary provider but a primary provider.
If you want to be successful in business, you have to be a primary provider. You can’t be dependent on others to shape your own destiny. How do we shape our own destiny? We have to be able to put a product out on the market and then sell that product that doesn’t depend on the next Microsoft release.
What are we good at? We’re good at training and development. We’re as good as or better than anybody else in the field.
Changing the emphasis, in terms of the (product) mix, doesn’t mean abandoning IT training. It means growing other areas. Part of it also has to do with innovation in a couple of different ways. One is innovation in product. Management courses, historically, they’ve all been pretty much the same.
Part of what I’m trying to develop is, what is the better mousetrap for management courses? How do we offer a product that helps people learn better, relates more directly to their real-world environment and is more fun? If we can do that, then all of a sudden we have a market differentiator, which can be a real market buster.
On the biggest challenge for businesses:
As we see an increasing proliferation of technology in the workplace and society, all of a sudden we’ve got this huge amount of knowledge and information that becomes available to people. And the biggest challenge in making any organization work effectively isn’t the application of the technology, it is how do you make knowledge and information available to people so that they can then work smarter in terms of meeting their customers’ needs? That, fundamentally, is what training and development are all about.
On measuring success:
Bottom line is certainly a key way. From the very big picture the business of business is business. We’re here to make money for our shareholders. If you just focus on the bottom line, you’re still driving blind. You need to look at, what is it about this company that causes us to be successful? What are the key differentiators and drivers for our clients?
If you look at why they buy, they buy because of our quality. I look at, very heavily, our quality ratings. How do our customers rate the quality of our courses? There are many ways to look at the data, but if you look at the data consistently, you do things well and you do things poorly. And you focus on doing things better.
Profitability is another metric that is very important. You can look at aspects of profitability from the standpoint of, how much are you spending to accomplish your current tasks? The answer should never be, ‘We’re doing fine.’ The answer should be, ‘We’re doing OK here, here and here, but we can improve there.’ You always want to look for the areas where you can improve.
Somebody once said, ‘You can’t save your way to greatness.’ You can only save so much, and then you stop seeing your gain. The other question is, what do we look at to believe we’re going to be driving revenue in the right way? The metrics that you look at there are sales volumes and sales activity, which drives sales volumes. There’s a time relationship between making the sales activity, whether it is for somebody on the phone the number of calls in a day, the number of calls in a week, in a month then translate that to the number of orders over a period of time, which ultimately translates into people attending courses or revenue in the door.
By managing some of the upstream metrics, we can begin to get a very good feel as for how effective our efforts are and how well the downstream metrics are going to turn out.
On communicating the vision:
Just saying, ‘There’s the vision, go to it,’ is sort of an anarchist’s approach to improvement. Organizations aren’t anarchies; they’re not really even democracies. One of the functions of leadership is to provide that direction while availing yourself of all the information and the knowledge of as many of the people in the organization as possible.
On his role as a leader:
As the leader, I have the luxury and the responsibility, more than anybody else in the organization, of being able to look up and out of the business as opposed to down and back at the current operation and past history. That’s really what my role is, to be looking forward.
HOW TO REACH: Learning Tree International, (800) 843-8733 or www.learningtree.com