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Guide to Education

Corporate training's new look

Bank of Montreal is giving meaning to lifelong
learning for its 33,000 employees

Monday, March 5, 2001

From across a field in Scarborough, Ont., the building looks nothing like a bank. Nor, for that matter, does it resemble a school.

Bank of Montreal's Institute for Learning could easily pass for one of the high-tech research centres that have sprung up in this Toronto suburb. Inside, architect Raymond Moriyama has managed to blend a big, airy atmosphere with an uncanny sense of intimacy.

But there's a lot more to it than bricks and glass.

"What makes this facility unique is it was purpose-built. It was built for learning from the get-go," explains Corey Jack, the institute's vice-president and head.

BMO has taken corporate training to a higher level through its $50-million, seven-year-old Institute for Learning, one of the few stand-alone, dedicated corporate training facilities in the country. And, by pushing the boundaries of high-tech teaching tools, it has given new meaning to lifelong learning for its 33,000 employees.

The facility is a legacy of former BMO chairman Matthew Barrett. It is now being championed by current chairman Tony Compers, who sees it not only as a place for cultivating the talent pool, but as a vehicle for "getting us thinking about things that we as an organization need to be thinking about, especially the ones that lie beyond the 'predictable horizons.' "

Through the hotel-style lounge, with pool tables, tête-à-tête tub chairs and an adjoining pool and gymnasium, and beyond the courtyard, is the 150-room dormitory where between 5,000 and 6,000 employees a year stay for a week or two while attending the institute.

On the other side of the building, through the grand, bow-shaped atrium, past the Knowledge Café and upstairs through museum-like hallways decorated with the bank artifacts, employees from across Canada and the United States learn about marketing, sales and service and risk management.

Corporate training, which is considered vital for companies competing in a global marketplace, comes in several guises -- such as apprenticeships, on-the-job learning, mentoring and self-study.

BMO spends $60-million a year on corporate training, of which 25 per cent is operating costs associated with the institute. That works out to about $1,800 per employee and, by one study at least, is double what other Canadian companies spend. According to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), the 32 Canadian companies it surveyed in 1999 spent $971 per employee a year on corporate training.

By far, the most common method is in a classroom setting, said Lynn Johnston, executive-director of the Ontario Society for Training & Development. She cites the ASTD survey, which found 78 per cent of training is delivered in a classroom.

Not all companies have gone to BMO's effort -- most workplace training is held in a company board room or at a hotel conference room.

Increasingly, there has been a high-tech component to corporate training, Johnston said. Almost 10 per cent of training is delivered through "learning technologies," such as CD-ROMs or on-line, according to the ASTD, and this is expected to grow significantly over the long term, Johnston added.

This is proving the case at BMO's institute. Just 15 per cent of the bank's staff training is conducted at the Scarborough facility's classrooms; some is held at satellite campuses in Vancouver, Montreal and Chicago, where the bank's Harris Bankcorp Inc. is based.

The bulk of the institute's work is in developing programs that can be delivered to employees at BMO's 2,000 workplace sites across Canada and the United States.

"We try to incorporate some sort of technology in every course we offer," said Ellen Bear, senior manager of learning solutions.

The centrepiece of the high-tech effort is the Knowledge Café. Part library, part coffee bar, part multimedia centre -- with computers, televisions, flat-screen technology (along with books and newspapers) -- it gives new meaning to Internet café. It also serves as a hub for the classroom and on-line, distance learning.

"Not everything we do here is born on Monday and dies on Friday," said Jack, the institute head, referring to the notion of an employee spending a week in a corporate classroom only to see the new skill wither once back on the job.

"The knowledge stays alive," he said. "They can create their own . . . software package that they use in the class and that they can use in the field."

Jack calls it putting learning in the hands of the employees. "The whole idea here is to give people the capability that they need -- give them access to the learning, give them access to the technology and keep them connected in ways that makes sense to them."

For Bruce Gibb, a BMO "relationship manager" for small business and agriculture in Tillsonburg, Ont., this is light years removed from the training he recalls receiving years ago in "draughty, old buildings."

"I do remember when the places just weren't conducive to learning. It wasn't structured and set up properly," said Gibb, who was taking a week-long course on credit analysis at the institute.

The training helps him brush up on the tools and methodologies that can help him make decisions, he said.

"I've been in lending for 15 years and there's a lot of hands-on experience, but it's always good to back up and take a more disciplined look at things."

The institute has a staff of between 85 and 120 people; about two-thirds of the teachers are professional educators, professors or consultants; the other third are "high-potential" bank staff, Jack said, who have been seconded for a couple of years from their line jobs. "It's seen as a good career move to be at the institute because you see the panorama of the bank."

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