Standards of Excellence

Challenges -- Standard of Excellence

What is it?

An On Demand Learning Challenge is an immersive learning experience that takes place over one or more weeks in a highly realistic model of the work environment. The learning is:
  • Team-based
  • Performance-based
  • Guided by a Facilitator

Team based

In IBM, most of our work is done in teams — frequently in virtual teams. To reflect and develop a collaborative approach, Challenges are set for and met by self-organizing teams who do most of their work virtually.

Performance based

Challenges are Performance-based learning where the focus is on do better not know more. The team’s performance is assessed, not its knowledge.

In fact, a Challenge is underpinned by Performance Objectives rather than Learning Objectives.

Usually determined through interviews and ethnographic research, Performance Differentiators document how the behaviors of high performers differ from those of core performers in the same role.

Surveys are not a reliable way to establish Performance Differentiators. Experience has shown than most high-performers are not conscious of what sets their work apart.

Ethnography and research aims to answer these questions: What do high-performers do more of? Less of? What are their levers? What barriers have they overcome? How?

The output is a set of Performance Differentiators from which Performance Objectives can be developed. Once you know what differentiates a high-performer, you can design a Challenge that will drive learners to proven high-performance behaviors.

The roots of Performance-based learning lie in Problem-based learning is sometimes described as an apprenticeship for real-life problem solving that helps learners acquire the skills and knowledge required in the workplace. Problem-based learning has its origin in medical universities where it has been successfully deployed.


In a Harvard Business Review article titled Deep Smarts, Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap place Guided Problem-Solving and Guided Experimentation at the top end of the learning effectiveness continuum. “Guided experimentation—learning by doing, with feedback from a knowledgeable coach—creates deep understanding …”.

This could describe a Challenge. Note that the Challenge Facilitator is a critical element of the learning experience.

Distinguishing features


Every Challenge begins with an authentic work “situation”, like this example from IBM Global Sales School:

Steps, Sub-steps, Instructions, Resources

The learner works through a situation in a series of pre-defined Steps and Sub Steps which are supported by Instructions and Resources. Challenges should be difficult to resolve—but should not mislead the learner. If a Challenge requires a learner to execute an action or use a tool, clear instructions—and supporting learning, if required—should be provided.


The architecture of a Challenge looks like this:


In designing a Challenge, it is important to build-in forward motion—so, for example, the output of one Step becomes the Trigger or input for the next Step.

The forward movement needs to be authentic. Think of authentic Triggers that motivate the learner forward, the clients circumstances keep changing while their business objective remains constant. That’s the reality of IBM’s business today.

Of course, at other times the goal might change, too—and the Challenge teams need to adjust their approaches to compensate.

You can be as challenging as you like in your design—providing you are also transparent and supportive.

This need for forward movement means designing a Challenge is closely related to developing story. The Challenge Team’s journey from Situation to Challenge resolution needs to be compelling and motivating as well as authentic.

This journey is not easy to design. You must juggle Performance Objectives, authentic business Situation and culture, forward movement, assessable Deliverables, engagement and motivation. But it can be done—and when you succeed, your Teams will experience engaging, rewarding and effective learning.


Deliverables assessment lies on the critical path in a Performance Based approach.

Performance is assessed through authentic Deliverables—never a learning test—something Teams will have to deliver in the normal course of their work.

Deliverables can be events or documents—for example, a sales call (an event) or a sales call plan (a document)—or both. If your Deliverable is an event, you need a face to face meeting or, at least, some real-time human interaction, for example, a conference call or Centra collaboration.

It’s critical to identify and validate Deliverables early. Ensure they are aligned with Performance Objectives. Ensure Assessment scoring is validated by your Subject Matter Experts.

In the business, what differentiates an exemplary deliverable from a mid-range or inadequate effort? You need to articulate these differences for both assessors (the Facilitator) and learners.

An important aspect of the Challenge approach is making the Assessment scoring criteria available to learners from the outset.

Tell Teams what they need to do to succeed. Provide Instructions and Resources. With that in place, the quality/effectiveness of the learners’ performance is in their own hands. Which is where meaningful learning should be.


A Challenge has a highly-specified flow which is based on the principles of Performance Based learning. The graphic below sets out the flow of a Global Sales School Challenge.

Each Challenge is bookended by a Kick Off Meeting and a Wrap Up Meeting. During the Kick Off, the Facilitator introduces the Challenge. In the Wrap Up, the Facilitator and Teams review their deliverables. (Until the Wrap Up, Teams work independent of each other.) These two meetings can take place virtually in Centra, a Sametime meeting, or conference call—or face-to-face.

Between these two meetings, Teams access the Challenge site on w3 and run a series of Team Meetings. These lie at the heart of the learning experience.

The Facilitator leads the first Team Meeting. During this meeting, Team Roles are established:

  • Leader
  • Scribe
  • Presenter
  • Member(s)

If there is a sequence of Challenges, these roles should change from Challenge to Challenge in order to share the work load. In the first Team Meeting, the Facilitator models Leader behavior.

The team decides the number of Team Meetings.The structure of the meetings is critical. The Team brainstorms the Step it is addressing by answering these questions:
  • What does the Team already know about this Step?
  • What has the Team done that could be applied to this Step?
  • What does the Team still need to know and do to complete the Step?

Based on the answers, the Team Leader assigns actions and schedules the next meeting.

When the Team meets again, it shares what was learned as a result of its actions. Then it brainstorms again, asking the same questions. The Team knows more now—but does it know enough to complete the Step/Sub step? This cycle continue until the Team is able to complete the Step/Sub step and move on.

Between meetings the Team leverages all the collaboration platforms IBMers use everyday:
  • phone calls
  • conference calls
  • Notes mail
  • Notes TeamRoom
  • Sametime
  • Sametime meetings
  • Face-to-face meetings

The Team also leverages the Resources provided in the Challenge. Throughout this cycle, the Team’s work is guided by its Facilitator.

When use it?

A Challenge is the closest Work Apart Learning (learning outside the workflow) can get to Work Based Learning (learning inside the workflow).

Use a Challenge when you want a Work Based learning experience but it is not practical to deliver one. Consider a typical audience of sales New Hires. They need to acquire the high performance behaviors that underpin their role but they are not yet qualified to execute their role—especially if it is client-facing.

By providing a no-risk environment where high-performance behavior can be acquired and applied, the Challenge prepares a learner to become an effective, productive IBM leader or team member faster.

Why use it?

A Challenge is the best learning sandbox there is.

Learners work with real tools and apply proven high-performance behaviors to resolve authentic business Challenges.

A Challenge can move a learner from Level 0: No Knowledge to Level 1: Acquired Knowledge, then on to Level 2: Applied Knowledge.

Where's it being used?

The Challenge was developed to meet a critical business requirement in the new Global Sales School. So far, that is the only place where the approach has been deployed.

You can review the five Global Sales School Challenges here.

Remember, what you see on w3 is only the online element of these Challenges. In addition, Teams spend between one and two weeks resolving these Challenges by developing face to face and document Deliverables—a process which is explained in Flow above.

While this new On Demand Learning construct was developed to meet a specific sales learning need— to prepare sales University Hires and Experienced Professional Hires to achieve average productivity in an accelerated time frame—going forward, Challenges provide a rich platform on which to develop effective learning for IBM leaders, consultants, sellers, delivery teams, researchers, and technologists.

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