The Learning System at IBM: A Case Study

There is widespread recognition that changing technologies and ways of working are increasing the importance of workforce skills and the need for skill upgrading. Yet despite a long history of research on training in the fields of organizational psychology, human resources, and labor economics, little is known about the state‐of‐the‐art in training practices offered by employers, use of training opportunities by employees, or the effects of training and upskilling on critical outcomes for workers or employers.

This report by Fei Qin, an Associate Professor in Management at the University of Bath, and Thomas A. Kochan, the George M. Bunker Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, seeks to start filling this void by describing  what the authors believe is a state‐of‐the‐art learning system at IBM Corporation and tracing the effects of learning on job performance and career advancement. In this report, the authors first describe the overall learning system and its multiple components and then trace the use of the system by incumbents in several key technical sales occupations between 2014 and 2019. Their analysis draws from combined personnel, learning, and performance data about IBM's technical sales population along with interviews with multiple stakeholders in the company’s learning and training ecosystem. The results show that time spent on learning and achievement of internal learning credentials that the company calls “badges” is positively associated with (1) achievement of sales targets, a key measure of performance for sales staff, and (2) career advancement as measured by movement up levels in the salary bands governing these occupations.