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Profile of a learning architect: Bill Sawyer

Bill Sawyer

Bill Sawyer, who works in curriculum development within the highly-technical and fast-moving environment of Oracle. As you’ll see, what might seem at first like a simple case of course-building, actually extends to the provision of a comprehensive technical support service, with major non-formal and on-demand elements.


Bill is currently Senior Manager of Applications Technology Curriculum for Oracle, based in Orlando, Florida. He leads a small team responsible for designing and developing highly-technical training programmes for IT professionals among both Oracle’s employees and their customers. The work of Bill’s team results in some $12m of course sales for Oracle.

Bill has been working on curriculum development for Oracle for some 15 years, but much has changed in that time. A rapidly-changing technical environment, with less than a year between major software releases, means that design times are highly constrained and that the courses themselves have a short shelf life. As Bill says, “You need to be brutal in decision-making and priority setting.”

Instructor-led training
Although it might seem that Bill’s work is entirely oriented towards the development of formal courses, he explains that the ratio is actually 2:1 in favour of the informal. Let’s take the formal first. Oracle University delivers instructor-led courses designed by Bill’s team. These can be delivered face-to-face, typically in 5-day chunks, as ‘Live Virtual Classes’, using web conferencing, or sometimes a hybrid of the two, where some students are there in person and some remote. Such long courses might seem a distant memory for many l&d departments but, as Bill says, “These are the folks that have to be trained.” The economic constraints suffered by many organisations are not affecting sales of these courses.

The instructor-led elements are supported by Oracle eKits, which replace traditional printed student guides. These are available a week before the course and then afterwards.

Flexible learning materials
Bill’s team has started to use an Oracle product called the ‘User Productivity Kit’, a development environment which simplifies the process of creating course materials, software simulations, assessments and job aids. Customers, particularly end users, are making use of the software simulations for short bursts of highly-focused formal training, as well as for performance support. The team also produces a wide range of other materials which help IT professionals to develop their knowledge and skills with new software:

  • Code examples
  • Online labs, which provide a ‘sandbox’ environment in which developers can test their code
  • Comprehensive development guides
  • Model implementations, providing examples of what can be achieved with the software and explaining how the results were accomplished

Just-in-time performance support
In the early stages of the development of a new software product, when the software is being modified and rebuilt daily, formal course materials and documentation are simply not available, so a much more responsive approach is required. Bill’s team meet the needs of IT professionals at this early stage using a combination of forums and wikis. The forums allow questions to be answered rapidly and for expertise to be shared. They allow a community to be built around all those people in Oracle who are responsible for getting the product online. The forums provide valuable insights to Bill’s team as they start to develop more formal materials which will ultimately be used with Oracle’s customers.

The wikis allow documentation to be created at a time when there is no one person with all the answers. The development community as a whole collaborates to make sure that everyone has the best information available at any given point.

Bill’s work at Oracle is an exemplar of the ways in which formal, non-formal and on-demand learning can be effectively integrated into an overall strategy which supports the learner at every stage of their journey without ever acting as a brake on what is an exceptionally fast-moving business.

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