By Linda Lockhart
One week ago, as thousands of students were pouring onto campus for fall quarter, 30 were packing up to head home to the Netherlands. The group had just completed three intense weeks that many of their work colleagues -- more than 1,350 in all -- simply refer to as the Ohio Experience.
It's the experience of a lifetime, some would say. And that's just what the leaders of Sogeti Netherlands are banking on.
The company -- pronounced So-ji-tee -- and its predecessor, IQUIP, have sent 50 groups of young professionals through what is now known as the Sogeti/Ohio program. Ohio University Without Boundaries offers the unique professional development and growth program specifically for Sogiti, an IT service provider with more than 3,500 employees.
"We are investing in our people," said Rogier De Kroon, Sogeti's manager of recruitment-HR Central, who has attended the program as both a young professional and a coach. "We want them to feel part of the company and give them an instant network in the company."
Do the math: More than one-third of the company's employees have made the trip through the Sogeti/Ohio program. That's a significant investment for Sogeti, a wholly owned subsidiary of the international Capgemini SA organization, which reported revenue totaling more than $12.3 billion in 2007.
Finding the solution
The program was developed in 1999 after IQUIP leadership identified the need for a distance-delivered master of business administration program; Ohio University's MBA Without Boundaries was one of the premier programs in the country. After discussions with OUWB staff, it became clear that IQUIP was looking for was the MBA program's action- and project-based team approach to learning.
The company wanted to increase employee retention, especially of newly hired employees; increase company loyalty; decrease the time from hiring to functioning consultant; increase knowledge of business practices and operations; improve communication skills; and raise employees' ability to work as a team.
Sogeti and OUWB worked collaboratively to develop a program around the company's needs, using a learning model that relies on "just-in-time learning" instead of traditional lectures.
"This approach to learning removes the obstacles of time, location and, often, cultural barriers," OUWB Director Muriel Ballou said. "It allows for a truly collaborative and engaging learning experience."
Over the years, the program direction has continued to be a joint effort between OUWB and Sogeti, with adjustments reflecting the business' changing focus and needs.
Learning the business
The young professionals who attend the program are new Sogeti employees. De Kroon said most have recently finished their university degrees and are highly skilled and talented technical experts, but they lack formal business training that is critical for interacting with customers. The young professionals learn content through seven modules that focus on areas such as learning more about their company, trends in Europe, innovation and high-performance teaming.
"What does high performance teaming mean?" a group of 26 Sogetists -- as the company refers to employees -- was asked on their second day in Athens this summer. Dressed casually, all had laptops in front of them and the look of typical students. Volunteers around the room answered the question in Dutch-accented English.
"More work done." "Inspire each other." "Just-in-time learning."
"It means all of us are smarter than one of us," instructor Bill Steinman said. "Any team can outperform an individual."
Steinman then had group members prove that to themselves, declaring, "This is team time!"
The large group quickly split into teams of five. Each was given an assignment and 15 minutes to research and complete five questions about how to solve a business problem. Teams -- most with members who had met for the first time only days before -- put their heads together while the instructor roamed the room reminding them of principles shared earlier: everyone work toward one goal; ask for help; trust one another; talk less and do more.
After each group presented its findings, Steinman gave the real assignment: Figure out how the team worked.
This early lesson is an important one. Most of the learning process in the program takes place outside of any traditional classroom setting, and most of the work on the program's three project assignments is done in teams. Team membership changes throughout the three-week period, so young professionals work with a new team on each project: creating a new business, consulting and creating a new service for Sogeti.
"They get to work together in a way that is intensive, and the play acting gives them a big frame of reference in what to expect (working with clients)," De Kroon said, noting that he still uses the modes of giving and receiving feedback that he learned as a program participant.
De Kroon's program experience was a bit different than most. His group was scheduled to travel to Ohio in fall 2001, but as a result of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and the difficulty in international travel, the group did not come to Ohio. The program went on, however, with the group and Ohio coaches meeting via Web conference and working around the six-hour time difference.
Shaping the consultants
During the program, Ohio faculty work alongside Sogeti coaches such as De Kroon to help the young professionals learn, develop and, as De Kroon says, "go through personal borders."
"I help them find things in themselves they did not know they could do," he said. "I learn a lot myself, probably more than when I went through the program."
Sogeti coach Martin van den Berg, geographic vice president of Sogeti USA, holds the record of having traveled with nine groups to Ohio. He has coached more than 200 participants.
"Everything we do is to enhance them," van den Berg said. "It's not to test them, it's to shape them."
Steinman has worked with most of the groups. From their first days in Ohio, when members are learning to work as a team, to the final days, when they are making professional-level presentations, he sees a transformation.
"Every time it's more or less the same program, but the people are different every time and the group dynamic is different every time," Steinman said.
But the outcome is similar.
"They grow a lot," he said. "By the third week, they're confident, standing up straight, looking good. They have learned a lot about themselves. They've developed what they want to develop."
Participants also are developing just what their employer is looking for -- skills and loyalty. Assessments have helped Sogeti document and validate the success of the program in terms of improved employee retention and reduced time from hiring to consultancy. And "alumni" tout the effectiveness of the training.
"There is almost no choice of resources, definitely no choice of assignment and (no) choice of setting up your own final end date," said Steven de Grunt, a participant in "Sogeti15" -- each group is numbered -- who came to Ohio in 2006. "Those facts have all been determined for you and are not negotiable. If I look back, I realize that those situations are actually just like a lot of real business assignments you will encounter at Sogeti. During the weeks with the program, I learned to cope with the information overload by prioritizing, dividing and trusting."
Of course, there's fun involved, too. Photos -- one of each group -- line the hallways of the OUWB's work area in Bromley Hall, while more informal posters and artifacts from past groups decorate the group classroom. Young professionals use their weekend "free time" to visit other parts of the U.S., and many a weeknight is spent enjoying Athens' attractions.
And next weekend, Sogeti44 (actually the 51st group, as there were seven IQUIP groups prior to Sogeti1) will arrive in Athens to begin another three weeks of the Ohio Experience.