What STEP is all about
STEP is a small consortium of executives and senior practitioners in training, organizational development, and business performance improvement disciplines. Members generally represent large corporations recognized for their excellence in development and performance support. The group is intentionally small in order to remain collegial, and crosses industry sectors in order to minimize concerns about what can be shared (though a founding principle of the group is that we only share non-proprietary information). As one member put it, the idea is to replicate the kind of discussions that go on around a kitchen table. In other words, STEP offers its members a chance to "cut to the chase" and discuss issues that affect their success.
For some years, I was Aetna's STEP representative. I now act as the group's coordinator. My role is to keep the group on-track, meeting and communicating regularly, while not imposing too large a presence myself.
Here are a few current and former STEP members who you might contact for their impressions of the group:
And you can contact me, Stan Malcolm, at 860-295-9711
The following article describes STEP in much greater detail.
Stanley E. Malcolm, Ph.D.
(Published in ISPI's Performance Improvement, October 1996)
Certainly you are familiar with the "not invented here" syndrome, that unfortunate tendency to assume that pressing business issues are uniquely "our own" and require our own unique solutions. The fact is that our problems are often very similar to those that others are facing or have faced. We could go a long way towards finding solutions if only we asked others, or partnered with others to jointly solve problems.
That is the reasoning behind "S.T.E.P." (Systems for Training, Evaluation, and Performance), a small consortium of senior training professionals. As Aetna's representative for five years, I found S.T.E.P. to be incredibly rewarding -- both for my personal development and for the information I was able to bring back to my organization. It's a model well worth emulating. Following is a description of S.T.E.P. and some thoughts about how the model might be replicated or adapted.
S.T.E.P. was formed roughly nine years ago, partly out of frustration with other methods of peer networking. It seemed to many of S.T.E.P.'s founders that when they attended conferences, they ended up giving much more than they got in return. They sought a forum where they could converse with peers who, like them, had "been there, done that" and who would readily share non-proprietary information to further the "cause" of performance improvement. Neither their own organizations nor conferences adequately filled the gap.
The founders of S.T.E.P. had worked together on a sub-team of a large consortium. As their project ended, they decided that they worked so well together, and found so much value in each other's information, that it would be a shame to part completely.
Systems for Training, Evaluation, and Performance: the words represent the main interests of its member companies' representatives. While all representatives share a broad interest in performance improvement and its many sub-disciplines, individuals are often specialists in one area or another. Learning technologies broadly, and performance support systems specifically, have been an area of strong interest and expertise for several representatives. Others have brought expertise in evaluation, management development, organizational development, and other disciplines.
Over its history, S.T.E.P. has met roughly twice each year, communicated frequently between face-to-face meetings, and jointly sponsored three major projects.
S.T.E.P. member companies are leaders across a broad range of business sectors -- financial services, communications, electronics, transportation, and consumer products. This minimizes concern for sharing information that might benefit direct competitors. It also helps representatives get "out of the box" by seeing approaches taken by companies that think differently from their own.
Member companies' representatives tend to be leaders as well. Representatives tend to be active in one or more professional organizations, have published in professional journals, and/or have been frequently queried for information on best-practice initiatives they have led. For example, among the S.T.E.P. representatives today are a former ISPI President and several members of ASTD's Board of Directors. Several S.T.E.P. representatives are recognized for their pioneering work in the field of electronic performance support systems. Others are well known for their successes in development of corporate universities, executive programs, assessment initiatives, distance learning, or other training-related specialties.
Typically, each member company is represented by one or two people -- though there is no limit other than the group's desire to stay at a size where meaningful interaction can take place. Likewise, S.T.E.P. has agreed to stay small -- under 20 companies at any given time -- so that the atmosphere is more of a group of friends, not that of a conference or other more impersonal venue.
From time to time, S.T.E.P. members drop out, as when individuals retire or change jobs and new representatives cannot be found, or when a company is so stressed by reorganization or financial concerns that their focus turns inward. At such times, S.T.E.P. seeks new members by matching perceived industry gaps in its representation with companies that have a strong reputation as leaders in training or performance support. In selecting candidate companies, S.T.E.P. tends to shy away from companies in the training industry who might use S.T.E.P. participation to market their services.
S.T.E.P. activities fall into two primary areas: networking and projects.
Networking: S.T.E.P. meets face-to-face twice each year. Member companies volunteer to act as hosts on an informal rotational basis. Each meeting lasts less than two days, allowing return travel time on the second day. Representatives who arrive early enough on the evening prior to the meeting often get together informally for dinner. Meeting agendas are a blend of semi-formal presentations and roundtable discussions in which people tend to share tidbits of current activities or ask for advice on problems they are facing. The host company usually includes a facility tour or some other activity spotlighting something of which they are especially proud. The atmosphere throughout is "business casual" and collegial. Subsequent to the meetings, detailed minutes are shared with all representatives, whether they were in attendance or not.
In the early years of S.T.E.P., there was a tendency to leave the meetings excited and filled up with new information, only to fall out of contact with other representatives until planning for the next meeting got underway. (A major exception was the project work described below.) This tendency has been countered recently by bringing the members into e-mail contact with each other. Now when a member has a question, it is an easy matter to post it to the entire group. For example, recently a member asked if anyone had experience putting their training catalog on-line. Within days, he had responses from half a dozen companies willing to share their experiences -- perhaps even their code! Looking towards the future, a secured S.T.E.P. web site for the use of members is under consideration. The site would serve as a repository for shared information.
Projects: To date, S.T.E.P. has sponsored three major projects. These have all been best-practice studies. Topics have been "Linking Training to Corporate Strategy", "The Effective Use of Management Development and Organizational Development in Achieving Global Strategic Goals", and "Innovative Practices in Executive Development and Performance Support".
Each project was sponsored by roughly a third of the S.T.E.P. members. A project originates when one member's representative proposes a topic. If enough other members are interested in sharing the costs and/or the work, the study is conducted. When the work is done, sponsoring members get copies of the full report, which they are free to distribute widely within their company (but no further). Other S.T.E.P. members get the Executive Summary only.
Because sponsoring members have full-time responsibilities within their organizations, they have hired vendor firms to manage the studies. S.T.E.P. representatives' levels of participation have varied. In the first two studies, the firm provided structure, and teams of S.T.E.P. representatives conducted site visits and wrote case studies and conclusions. Most recently, S.T.E.P. used a design where sponsors influenced the questions and the companies studied, but did not conduct the research themselves. As you can imagine, each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
So far, S.T.E.P. has not undertaken a project that resulted in a shared "product" -- for example, a training program or performance support system that might serve a common need within several member companies. Members have talked about such projects, but so far have not found a project compelling enough to cause them to answer the inevitable questions of ownership that would arise.
One of the chief benefits of S.T.E.P. membership has been its low cost. Until recently, there has been no membership fee. Now, there is a very modest annual fee per company, used to cover the expenses of a part-time coordinator (see below, under Management). Member companies pay travel for their representatives to attend meetings twice a year.
Occasionally, each company should volunteer to host a meeting -- which means providing a meeting room and some meals for between 20 and 30 people. With close to 20 companies belonging to S.T.E.P., you can see that this duty does not come around too frequently. In fact, it is common for several companies to volunteer to host the same meeting. Companies may wish to host in order to have more people attend, or because they have something to share with S.T.E.P. that is not easily "transportable" -- for example, a facility or technology that demonstrates their philosophy towards human performance improvement in the workplace.
When members agree to sponsor a project, they share its costs. Typically, the cost per company has been in the $7,000-$10,000 range -- very low considering the wealth of information received, and roughly one sixth of what sole sponsorship would cost.
There are no officers or other formal positions within S.T.E.P. Decision-making is by consensus when it affects the whole group. However, the ability for sub-groups to form for the purpose of sponsoring projects allows enormous flexibility -- members do not all have to agree in order to act! On reflection, there seems to be no other way to manage the group without compromising the autonomy of the member companies.
Although the group remains primarily self-managed, S.T.E.P. has implemented a part-time coordinator role this year. The coordinator role adds continuity, as well as performing routine tasks like maintaining membership rosters, compiling minutes, and generally acting as a "nudge". Even the most self-evidently valuable organization needs a certain amount of push to keep it from being swallowed up in the pressure of our "real" jobs. The need for at least a minimal central focus seems more evident in an organization that prides itself for self-management.
It is important to note that the coordinator of S.T.E.P. is not a member -- and it is the members who make decisions about what S.T.E.P. will do and what it will be. An illustration might help explain the way the role plays out: The coordinator alerts the group that a member has had to drop out and asks for suggestions for a replacement company. Suggestions are shared across S.T.E.P. and after informal discussions by phone or e-mail, consensus is achieved.
The coordinator then acts on the member's decision and extends an invitation to a new company. Decisions on projects are handled in a similar manner, with the coordinator soliciting input and otherwise managing the decision-making process -- without a personal stake in the decision itself. The coordinator is not the only means by which S.T.E.P. manages itself. Much of the responsibility for S.T.E.P. rotates with the hosting role. Thus, the host is responsible for establishing an agenda (with the coordinator's help), publishing meeting logistics, acting as host during the meeting, and distributing minutes afterwards.
Those are the facts of S.T.E.P. To convey the spirit of the group requires adjectives like responsive, supportive, empathetic, stimulating, influential, and collegial.
There is not a lot of formality in S.T.E.P., period. One representative described the meetings as feeling like a family gathered around the kitchen table, discussing the day's events and offering suggestions and support. Everyone knows each other, and more importantly, all respect each other's professionalism. While social, the group is clearly business focused: S.T.E.P. exists to share non-proprietary information for the benefit of member organizations and their representatives' personal, professional development.
S.T.E.P. activities are an oasis from the office politics so prevalent in our everyday jobs. In S.T.E.P. the focus is on mutual sharing. There is no hierarchy, so there is no inclination to "climb". If S.T.E.P. has a fault, it is a tendency of its members to want to outdo each other in their graciousness -- but the members seem to be able to live with that.
Finally, S.T.E.P. sustains high ethical standards. Representatives avoid divisive actions, respect confidentiality, and most importantly, value the diversity of the member companies and their representatives.
Replicating the Model
Replicating the model requires an understanding of its essential features, plus the energy to bring together and maintain the momentum of a group of interested companies. As a rule of thumb, the amount of energy you need to apply is inversely proportional to the perceived value -- so assure value and save energy!
It is hard to suggest rules for success in establishing such a consortium -- with one exception: the consortium must be what its members wish it to be. Beyond that, allow me to suggest some guidelines based on my S.T.E.P. experience:
Author Information: Stan Malcolm is Principal of Performance Vision and coaches companies on strategies for Learning Technologies and Electronic Performance Support. Formerly Aetna's S.T.E.P. representative, he now serves as the group's coordinator.