Cliff Purington: Education Blasts Off at Rockwell Collins

Spend a few minutes with Cliff Purington, director of learning and development for Rockwell Collins, and you’ll meet a different kind of chief learning officer. Purington’s got the right pedigree—reared in organizational development—and demonstrable talen

Name: Cliff Purington

Title: Director of Learning and Development

Company: Rockwell Collins


  • Transitioned from an environment where 100 percent of the learning was instructor-led to a blended learning structure with 80 percent of the opportunities available worldwide 24×7.
  • Developed learning systems/processes capable of delivering quality training that reduces time to learn by 65 percent.
  • Developed the first self-paced, highly interactive leadership program for individual contributors.
  • Offered 400 percent more learning than three years ago, with less budget.

Learning Philosophy: “Organizational learning/training should be tied directly to the vision and goals of the business. Linking learning to business objectives provides the context for learning, which is important to the adult learner. Learning and Development is responsible for identifying the requisite skills, knowledge and abilities required to meet the organization’s business objectives and then ensuring we have designed and developed appropriate content/tools/processes for employee development. Employees are ultimately responsible for their individual development/learning and typically respond well to this approach.

“Adult learners are just that, adults, and should be treated as such. Our experience has shown that employees want control over when and how they learn. It’s our job to design and develop the infrastructure and programs that are accessible to all employees whenever and wherever they need learning or training. We also believe that training and learning programs should be tied to specific business objectives providing the enterprise context for learning. This is a global economy and learning needs to be agile and immediate to stay competitive.”

Spend a few minutes with Cliff Purington, director of learning and development for Rockwell Collins, and you’ll meet a different kind of chief learning officer. Purington’s got the right pedigree—reared in organizational development—and demonstrable talents, including authoring “Built to Learn,” a book on corporate education that hit the stands successfully in April 2003.

But what he’s also got is strong opinions that may run contrary to others, a respect for technology that doesn’t require a love of it and prior experience as a learning-systems vendor that’s left him knowing the view on both sides of the fence.

In other words, Purington is a well-rounded executive, maybe even a Renaissance man, with a corporate title and a Harley-Davidson in the garage.

Typifying all that is the story of his joining Rockwell Collins, the Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based leader in manufacturing aviation electronics and communications. It was 1998, and Purington had just sold his share of Generation21, a vendor of a learning management system that Purington co-designed and co-founded in a hotel room in Denver six years earlier.

As chief learning officers yourselves, you won’t be surprised to hear that Purington came to Rockwell Collins and was immediately inundated with calls from vendors looking to do business. Drawing on his vendor background, Purington postponed any meetings until he’d developed a four-year learning strategy for the company.

“Once I got that plan crafted, then I met with the vendors,” Purington said. “I invited all the vendors that had called me to the same meeting. There had to have been 40 to 50 different vendors. The way I teed it up was, ‘This is going to be different from anything you’ve experienced in the past. I’m not going to sit and listen to all these presentations about all the things you can provide us. I’m going to share with you what our strategy and business requirements are, then we can explore how you fit into that equation.’”

Then he dropped the other shoe. He wasn’t interested in managing a large number of independent vendor relationships. He expected them to work together, with competitors if necessary, to give him a system that worked the way he wanted, and from the first time out.

“Then I told them, ‘We’ll take a 15-minute break, and those of you who don’t want to play, you’re free to go.’ About half the group got up and left,” Purington said. “The ones who stayed are still with us. If you talk to them, I think you’ll find it’s been very beneficial to them also. I think they’ve been able to leapfrog their technology, and in some cases there has been business advantages for them as well. It was a different game for them.”

A different game, of course, is just what Purington wanted to play. Prior to co-founding Generation21, he’d worked for Martin Marietta at Cape Canaveral, Fla., in the days before it merged with Lockheed to form Lockheed Martin. With experience in the U.S. Air Force and working on the space shuttle program, he knew technology was basically just a tool to get from one place to another.

“Most people get enamored of the technology around training and e-learning and that kind of stuff,” he said. “What I always say is it’s not about technology, it’s about culture. Technology’s an enabler.”

Surprisingly, too much technology wasn’t a problem at Rockwell Collins. When he joined the company, employee learning and development happened entirely in classrooms on the Cedar Rapids campus. About 60 percent of the approximately 15,000 employees were dispersed around the globe, but all training happened in Iowa. Purington knew that had to change.

It did change. Today, about 70 percent of Rockwell learning is available electronically or online 24×7. The other 30 percent or so is still in classroom settings, primarily for more complex courses.

Drawing on his background and other valuable resources, Purington and his team have also worked on an integrated learning system, combining an infrastructure of learning technologies, performance management and competency management. It’s a work in progress, and Purington expects an important element—profiling skills and identifying competency gaps for 2,000 different job functions—to wrap up this year. Next year, Purington’s team will be able to map education very specifically to those gaps in knowledge.

Purington is also proud of “QuickLearns,” a training system of learning objects no longer than 20 minutes, addressing key learning areas. The QuickLearn modules take no more than 12 hours to create and cost less than $2,000, making them a quick and cost-effective way of capturing “tribal knowledge,” or the knowledge base of senior employees the company would not want to lose.

“These QuickLearns have reduced the training in time anywhere from a third to a half of what it would take,” Purington said. “They’re so inexpensive and so fast, we just shoot them once. If there’s a change in the process, we just throw them in the trash and shoot another one. It’s not even worth the money to go in and edit them. You actually have to see these things. I’ve shown them to other companies, and they just go ape over them. They’re really, really high quality.”

Purington tested the QuickLearn modules with 220 Rockwell employees in a learning lab. He divided the employees into smaller groups, with some using QuickLearn modules while others worked on the same materials with a live instructor. When all the dust had settled, the instructor-led group and the QuickLearn group scored within a hundredth of a point of each other.

“That tells me the training teaches what it’s supposed to teach,” Purington said. “Because it was performance-based, you had to demonstrate your ability to perform and pass the test.”

For Purington, the work at Rockwell Collins continues. He’s happy to point to successes like the launch of QuickLearn, but he’s still creating the culture of learning he wants to see. Not only is he working successfully to get employees to take a stake in their own development, but he’s making sure what he does ties to company missions.

So with training costs reduced by 40 percent already, Purington has plenty to look forward to. He sees a very challenging two years looming as they finish the skills inventory and begin developing career paths for every Rockwell role.

“If you have a deficiency, have a gap, there will be a path that you can take to fill those competencies. So we can go in and query a system and say, ‘Show me the gaps in the competency levels,’ and we can go see if they’re all being met via our offerings, and if not we’ll make sure they are. It gets very scientific,” Purington said. “That way it’s not just throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall and seeing if something sticks.”

November 2003 Table of Contents