Business Impact

Making Job-Training Software People Actually Want to Use

Salesforce will start selling its online learning platform, which has helped its own employees change roles and get promotions.

Companies will be able to customize the content offered on their versions of the Trailhead software platform.

After two years working as a recruiter at the cloud computing and software provider Salesforce.com, Greg Wasowski wanted to move into an engineering role with the company. The problem: he wasn’t proficient in computer programming. “I’d always been interested in technology, but my degree was in linguistics and business studies; I had no technical skills,” he says.

Wasowski’s chances of making such a transition seemed unlikely—until he began spending several hours a week (in the office and on nights and weekends) on Salesforce’s online learning platform, Trailhead. Within a year, he learned two programming languages, earned certification as a Salesforce application developer, and got a job configuring Salesforce software for customers.

A number of workers face the same situation: they’d like to boost their salaries and improve their career prospects by working in technology, but they lack technical skills and don’t know how to acquire them. There are, of course, conventional ways to pick up that knowledge, including reading textbooks, watching educational videos, taking in-person classes, and finding industry mentors. But San Francisco–based Salesforce—one of the world’s largest software companies, with $8.4 billion in annual sales—has found that self-guided, online, interactive training is an effective way to teach skills to its 26,000 employees worldwide.

Its main tool is Trailhead, which the company developed in 2014 and began deploying for internal training in 2016. Today, all Salesforce employees are encouraged to use the platform.

Soon, other companies will be able to follow the same model. Salesforce announced today it will start selling a new version of its learning platform (called myTrailhead). Companies can customize it and use it internally to train their own workers. “We want to enable businesses to reinvent corporate learning just like we’ve done, [rather than] depend on antiquated solutions like PowerPoint decks and webinars,” says Sarah Franklin, a Salesforce executive who oversees the Trailhead program.

Trailhead users create profiles that show badges, points, and skills they’ve acquired by completing online lessons.

Trailhead deviates from traditional corporate education tools like Lynda.com, Codecademy, Khan Academy, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Udacity. It combines interactive challenges with bite-size tutorials, game-like elements, intuitive design, and a playful tone—and it’s entirely customizable for the corporate owner. Most lessons and projects take an hour or two to finish. The system is equipped to check users’ work and tell them if they’ve completed the exercises correctly. It also awards them points and virtual badges that they can display on their Trailhead or LinkedIn online profiles.

Salesforce workers who spoke to MIT Technology Review say Trailhead’s lessons helped them change departments and earn promotions. After learning how to code on Trailhead, Dwayne Dixon moved from a sales job to an engineering role, similar to Greg Wasowski. “It’s been a gateway to a career I’d otherwise not be able to break into,” says Dixon.

Martina Gambretti used Trailhead to catch up on technology changes that occurred during her yearlong maternity leave. Once she felt confident about her skills, she applied for—and got—a product-marketing job within Salesforce that fit her interests better than her previous role training salespeople.

Thomas H. Davenport, a Babson College professor who writes about information technology and management, says companies that design their own curriculum tend to be more effective than those that expect their workers to cobble together disparate resources and learn on their own. He says Trailhead stands out for being “relatively fun to use … within a category of software not noted for its fun quotient.” Still, it’s too early to gauge how many companies will adopt Trailhead when it becomes available in 2018, and whether they will reap similar benefits.

The platform is a good fit for Salesforce, which sells a number of complex software products (some updated multiple times a year), uses proprietary programming languages to create them, and employs tens of thousands of people around the world. “Salesforce is adding a lot of AI and analytics capabilities to its products, and always increasing the breadth and depth of its software, so a lot of training is needed,” says Davenport. Other organizations may have less need for a tool that can train masses of people efficiently and motivate them to continually refresh their job skills. Small firms may also lack the resources to produce lessons and projects for such a system.

But as companies realize they need to modernize their workforces to compete in the digital economy, they may increasingly find online learning platforms to be essential resources—particularly if they are fun to use, interactive, and easily accessible on the go.