Case study: Fast Lane

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This is the contribution for the Case study of Group 4 .


Introduction

This is the report of the case study performed by Group 4 for the course ‘Information Management and Organizational Change’ (www.adaptivecycle.nl), which is part of the Master of Science Degree in Business Information Systems at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The members of Group 4 are Adhil Parker, Bernhard Heyer, Chara Paschalidi, Susanne Brandjes-Primowees and Tycho Koning. In our case study we concentrated on the role of technology in a changing organization, in relation to the Adaptive Cycle.

FastLane

About the company

The case study was performed at Fast Lane. Fast Lane (http://www.flane.nl) is an IT education company that specializes in networking, storage and virtualization. They focus on offering training in advanced technologies for experienced engineers.

Fast Lane was founded in 1996 and has grown swiftly. Currently Fast Lane is represented across Europe, the United States, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. Fast Lane Benelux is represented across the Netherlands and Belgium with various offices and training locations. Because of the flexible approach, Fast Lane can deliver both public and private training courses at various locations all over the Benelux region.

Fast Lane offers authorized (technology)Cisco, NetApp, VMware and Symantec training. Fast Lane is a Cisco Learning Partner Specialist, a NetApp Authorized Learning Partner, a VMware Authorized Training Reseller and a Symantec Authorized Education Delivery Partner. Besides the fact that Fast Lane is an authorized training partner for various companies, Fast Lane has a wide portfolio, containing: Cisco Authorized Technology Provider (ATP) for Rich Media Communications, Wireless Mesh, Unified Contact Center Enterprise, Cisco Customer Voice Portal, Video Surveillance, Telepresence, IP Video Surveillance and Digital Media Signage.

Because of the close relationship with both Cisco and NetApp, Fast Lane is capable of offering training courses that incorporate the newest technologies and fulfill the current need of customers and also helps customers in the future. During the training courses students will receive the official authorized course material and will train their skills using professional lab equipment. Fast Lane works with certified instructors who have extensive real world experience.

About the interviewee, Kees Boot

Kees Boot Is the NetApp Business Manager at Fast Lane Benelux and also Managing director of LearnWise (http://www.learnwise.nl/). Learnwise is an Education Service Provider. He is also the chairman at stichting NASC (http://www.stichtingnasc.nl), which is the Netherlands Academy Support Centre for Cisco Network Academies.

Structure of the report

The aim of this case study is to try to get insight in the phases our case organization ‘Fast Lane’ is currently going through in the Adaptive Cycle. Besides this we also focused on our lecture topic in relation with the case organization, the role of technology in changing cooperation.

The first part of the report will be on the organization itself. First an introduction on the organization is given, the operations and the technology of the company will be discussed and then the focus will be on strategy. After discussing the strategy we will elaborate on two currect active change processes within Fast Lane and focus on the influence that these change process have on one of the local companies 'Fast Lane Benelux'. Furthermore we will try to link these processes with the Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) theory by identifying the phases of the adaptive cycle in relation to these change processes and look at the role that technology plays in these cycles. The final part of the report will contain a brief discussion and some conclusions and recommendations regarding the conducted interview and the role of technology within Fast Lane and in relation to the Adaptive Cycle.

Organization

Fast Lane is not going through any large changes in their organization structure at present and feels that they do not need to change their processes much. About a year ago, they formed an international organization with different independent companies in six countries. These included independent entrepreneurs from the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands and the US. What they are trying to achieve now is to build one big international company, but still keep the companies independent. Fast Lane international is a shareholder of Fast Lane Benelux.

The interesting thing about this is that they have to build new processes where all the existing other processes fit in. There are, for example, general registrations and world wide registrations of learners, where anyone from any part of the world can register for training. The registration system they originally built specifically for the Netherlands now has to be adapted to integrate with the world-wide model. Fast Lane has an indirect business model which means they don’t go to the end customer but rather sell their course via their partners. They are the only Fast Lane Company that has such a model and will have to change the tool somewhat because an indirect business model is in many ways rather different to a direct business model.

They are also integrating the financial systems which report on revenue and margins as well as overall customer information. One of the goals of Fast Lane is to build a worldwide company and to sell it as one international company. Thus procedures need to integrate the worldwide operation into a seamless model. This is done on a strategic level as each individual company has its own regulations and business arrays. This change will take some time to develop and implement.

Handling change

Fast Lane was a small company when they started and thus optimized their processes before they did any training. They hired people who fitted into their flexible organization, making changes rather easy to implement in their organization. After their seven year existence, they now have a larger staff compliment and it has become more difficult to be flexible and handle change, however they still manage well. This makes their company more resilient to changes.

When asked how they can reflect on previous learning experiences from cycles that they might have gone through, the response was ‘What I always try to say to people is that you can do everything wrong, but only one time!’. Their company culture is to rely on people to signal when things go wrong. Then the first question asked is what they can do this time to prevent this happening for the next time. They have a culture where they try to learn immediately from the things that go wrong, making it easy to plan for changes in the future. In their case, their product is the learning market, which is a difficult market. Training is a product that their customers can very easily skip from their staff development programs, thus they cannot afford to make mistakes. For this reason they try to encourage staff to take on responsibility and act immediately to repair what they have done wrong.

Competition

The competition in general is very aggressive, with some big players who set pressure on price. On the Cisco training product, they have one big competitor where both of them have a fifty percent share of the market. On the NetAPP training product, they are the only player and thus have a monopoly in their favor. There is thus a fight to gain students based on price, which they feel is the wrong way to attract students as they feel more emphasis should be put on quality and not just price. They maintain high standards of training at all times.

Their business model is based on student numbers. They need at least four students per course to break even. With more than six students, they start showing profits, thus the importance to fill classes. This model would be relevant for every Fast Lane training institute.

Culture

Fast Lane has an open culture as they are a small company. They have three owners and twelve employees. There are no trainers on board, so when they sell training, they hire a trainer for a specific training. They also rely on trainers being loyal to their company. It is a culture where everybody has their own responsibility and they try to emphasize to everybody to do their own job and to make it possible for others to do their job. All positions are clearly defined and demarcated, making it quite clear to everybody what their job is and what the others’ jobs are. They don’t want somebody taking over or interfering in somebody else’s work. Staff is responsible for their own work and if they need help or assistance, they need to indicate where this is needed. The advantage of this is that people can rely on them.

As margins are very thin in the education market, staff must be aware that they should not make mistakes which could result in a course running at a loss. The other thing about their culture is that enrolled students are in their [Fast Lane’s] environment and thus every employee has one role in common, which is to be a host to the students. Hospitality for their customers/students is key for their business success. Students should feel comfortable and at ease in the learning environment.

Operations

The internal processes of the organization are highly standardized and efficient. It is extremely important for them to have both well defined procedures and also flexibility to act when things go wrong. When something unexpected happens, or when operations people think they can act differently in order to achieve a better result, they are free to do so and they have the responsibility to do their job well.

The most important thing in the operation level is that they had to change their registration system. They initially used to have a registration system that they built themselves, and now they have to use an international system which is not so user friendly as the previous one. What is more, this new registration system is not built according to the needs of the situation they have in the Netherlands. For instance they have an indirect business model, and as a result they do not go to the final customer. They sell their courses via partners instead, and they are the only company they use such a business model. So they have to change the tool, a bit, because, as they claim, an indirect model is very different in many ways than a direct one. They handle change by hiring people who fit in this flexible organization so that any change will be easy to implement in the organization. Although they are growing as a company and the more people there are, the less flexible they can be, they can still easily implement any change.

As far as the internal procedures used for operations is concerned, they are fixed, well defined and optimized. These clearly defined roles also have disadvantages, e.g. if one person fails/switches jobs then they really have a problem. The internal procedures are supported by a scheduling and registration system. Also by a financial system and a reporting system.

Fast Lane is in the process of moving premises. They plan to move into smaller premises and provide some of their courses via virtual presence. This allows them to provide training to more than one local and remote venue and make use of one trainer for these various venues. This saves costs of having to pay for instructors at the various venues. They can also combine classes that only have a few students, for example, they could run a class with three students in Utrecht and three students in Brussels and still make a profit. Normally these classes would have to be postponed until enough students enrolled to make the course commercially viable, or the course would have to be cancelled. The negative side of this is that students (customers) become impatient and consider enrolling with the opposition. As interactive virtual presence learning is new in the education field, appropriation of this new technology integrated with the comportment of presenter and learner needs to still be realised by Fast Lane. No doubt they will move through the phases of the adaptive cycle before a steady-state equilibrium is reached.

Technology

The focus of the application of technology within Fast Lane we think is on supporting the (internal) standardized and optimized business processes. The internal processes are supported by a scheduling and registration system, a financial system and a reporting system. Fast Lane does not currently work under information architecture. This would be nice to establish in the future though, as this would for example make it easier for the technicians to work with the information systems.

There are islands of information spread throughout the organization. However, some integration takes place. The (training/course) registration and invoice system are linked via an import/export file. Some reporting is done on various Access databases. To support internal and external communication, instant messaging software is being used; also TelePresence software (Skype and WebEx) is being used. Fast Lane started using social media 6/7 months ago with the aim to give Fast Lane a face to the students and outside world. Twitter and LinkedIn are for example used by the management team. Instant Messaging is also used within the organization. It is not appreciated when employees talk about the company via informal communication channels/social media without first informing marketing.

Technology is currently not being used to scan the environment or to look for new ideas and business opportunities. Specific technology to stimulate innovation (e.g. manage knowledge or facilitate the generation of new ideas) is not being used. Since the company is not so big (12 employees, 3 owners) and internal communication is semi informal, all employees can talk to each other during lunch etc. to exchange ideas and knowledge.

Providing virtual presence training is dependent on remote training technology that needs to be implemented. The technology to be used is Cisco’s Telepresence and WebEx suites. Telepresence allows an instructor to present remotely and share their desktop. The instructor also has live interaction with the students in the remote classroom. With Cisco’s WebEx tool, the students could even partake in the class from home.

Strategy

Strategic management process

For Fast Lane, its strategic management process is a top down approach. They have two big business lines in their company namely Cisco and NetApp, as well as smaller lines consisting of VMware, Symantec and IBM-N series training. The Cisco training focuses on computer networking, in which the company Cisco is a market leader and famous for. Cisco has a multitude of certifications for their niche markets and these are the training modules that are presented by Fast Lane and other training providers. The NetApp training focuses on storage and data management. Cooperation between the companies is very good.

For both vendors, they have a business manager who is responsible for the business plan and by this also the strategy for the vendor. So there is one business manager for Cisco and one business manager for NetApp, and they are responsible for the overall strategy of the business. The overall strategy is manned by the management team, or in fact by the owners. The change in the business plan for Fast Lane has been to move to slightly smaller premises and also to merge operations with Fast Lane international. They work in a dynamic environment and the business strategy is refined every year with emphasis on adapting to new course material.

Internal processes

For Fast Lane, internal, processes are very optimized and people are very dependent on each other. This is the disadvantage of clearly defined roles. If one person in the chains fails they can have real problems. According to Fast Lane one of their excellent support employees recently received an offer to do a consulting job. They gave him this possibility but were not able to fill in the gap he left, which in turn had a big impact on the organization. They realised that they had taken the decision too hastily, which had placed them in a mini crisis phase. This resulted in them change their process and prepare for future eventualities.

External environment

They sees themselves as being extremely flexible to changes in the external environment and adapt easily. They believe that they have a lot of creative minds within their organization. “What I also say to customers is what the difference between another institution and us is? Is that we are faster in our reaction and are smarter in our solutions”. (Boot K, 2012). The margins are so thin and the competition is so aggressive that you must have a smart solution to survive.

Fast Lane is recognized for being a training institution and often what you find in training institutions is that we don’t train our own people. They stimulate people to do external training, especially on management training or skills training or for the technical training. They try to stimulate employees to look at the processes and look at products and find ways to do things in more than one ways. The paradigm must shift. On the other hand if you push this too much, the effect might be negative. So it’s a trick to give employees the opportunity that’s fine for them and it is happening a lot in the Cisco area, so there are many opportunities for them.

Training and innovation

There are many different ways of training for instance the video training. Boot (2012) drew attention to encourage employees to be innovative in many ways but also notes that too much in innovation could have a negative effect. Innovation is seen well at a certain level. At this moment in time Fast Lane has not participated in any spiral dynamics courses but view it as interesting to know more about. Spiral dynamics is a psychometric testing tool used to form cohesion between team members.

Creating one worldwide Fast Lane organization

In this section we will elaborate on the current active change process within Fast Lane of merging local company processes of the entire Fast Lane organization into shared standardized international processes with the aim to create one worldwide organization. We will focus on the influence that this change process has on one of the local companies ‘Fast Lane Benelux’. We will try to identify the phases of the adaptive cycle in relation to this change process and look at the role of technology in changing cooperation in this regard.

Description of change process

About one year ago, Fast Lane formed an international organization with different independent companies in 6 countries. These were independent entrepreneurs from the UK, Sweden, Netherlands and the US. The aim is to build one big worldwide company, and also sell the company as one international company, while at the same time keeping the ‘local’ companies independent. Thus, business processes and procedures need to be integrated to fit within the worldwide organization model. This is done on a strategic level as each individual company has its own regulations and business processes. This change will take some time to develop and implement. New standardized international processes have to be built where existing other processes will fit in.

There are, for example, general registrations and worldwide registrations of learners. In the case of the worldwide registrations, anyone from any part of the world can register for training. The local ‘general’ registration process developed specifically for the Netherlands now has to be changed to integrate with the world-wide model. However, Fast Lane Netherlands is the only Fast Lane company that uses an indirect business model which means they don’t go to the end customer but rather sell their course via their partners. So they need to take this different business model into account when integrating the processes. Also, changing the business processes implies changes for the underlying (registration) ICT-system. Financial processes need to be integrated as well. This also means the financial systems which report on revenue and margins and overall customer information need to be changed

The process of creating a worldwide company from a CAS perspective

We will try to look at this change process from a complex adaptive systems perspective to see if we can align the theory with this practice situation. We will use the adaptive cycle to illustrate the different phases that the company goes through in this process.

From equilibrium
A kind of franchise model is being used, where Fast Lane International is a shareholder in the local, independent companies. Independent companies in 6 different countries have their own independent processes.


To chaos
In light of the current economic crisis and strong competition, Fast Lane is looking for opportunities to improve. The franchise model is not making use of the resources in an optimal way; creating one worldwide company with shared processes is seen as a possibility to create benefits, for instance a more efficient organization and improving value and options (e.g. international registration) for the customer.


To new combinations
Out of the many ways to give form to a worldwide company, the focus is on creating the most optimal and feasible way. Among other things, the exact working out of what processes need to be integrated in which ways to create one worldwide organization needs to be done. Various pilots and experiments have been conducted with integrating processes on a small scale.


To entrepreneurship
In the new combinations phase consensus has been reached on the ways to start giving form to a worldwide company. By conducting various pilots and experiment projects, successful methods have been established on a small scale. New developed international standards are now being implemented at a larger scale in the different local companies. This is the phase where Fast Lane is currently in.


To conservation
Probably another year is needed to establish a new equilibrium as one worldwide company. This has also to do with the fact that the current economic situation is very unpredictable.

Role of technology
Fast Lane will need to adapt their Learner Management System (LMS) to be compatible with the international operation.This is mostly in the form of keeping track of students and their qualifications obtained. Although no direct feedback is obtained of which students write and pass the international certification exams, the demand for their courses is a form of feedback for them. Although it is not known what form customer relationship software is used by Fast Lane, a good CRM package such as SalesForce might be beneficial for them. This would also enhance their resilience when the next adaptive cycle occurs as they will have a ‘memory’ of their clients in their database.If they were to link all the subsidiaries to this it would add to their international information system. Fast Lane makes use of virtual presence tools such as Cisco’s Telepresence and WebEx. This is used for meetings as well as the planned remote training classes.

Moving to smaller premises

Fast Lane is to move premises soon and they are considering smaller premises with added financial benefits to their operations. To do this would mean focusing more on blended distance learning or/and complete remote teaching. They have numerous questions about the business, social and technical impact of remote training The question of the business model, finances, efficiency and social impact are of interest to them as well as the potential cost savings that might result in remote training.
To avoid a crisis, they are planning for this move. However, as this is a new way of delivering courses, they will only find out if the new way of teaching will work in some time in the future when the classes have been set up. the technology that makes this possible is the Cisco Telepresence equipment and Cisco’s WebEx suite. Telepresence allows presenters to present AND interact with a remote class in real-time, transporting the feeling of ‘presence’ between the two groups. Questions that need to be addressed are listed below.

Business

  • How can hi-end courses delivered to smaller groups of people?
  • Can the company reduce the size and number of the classrooms needed to provide training?
  • What is the financial impact?


Social

  • Social acceptance
  • Pedagogical impact
  • Impact on students and trainers
  • Impact on the course as a whole


Technical
How can collaboration tools be used to provide training?

The company will need to experiment with the new technologies and form new combinations of classes and instructors before finding a balance between the in-person classes and the blended learning solutions. Presenters will need some training on how to use the equipment as well as interact seamlessly with the remote group of students. The quality and reliability of the technology is tantamount in provisioning good user experiences. Connectivity is crucial and needs to be high enough to provide seamless voice and video streaming.

The benefit to participants is that they save on travel and accommodation costs by attending remote classes. The benefit to Fast Lane is that one instructor could present to more than one remote class concurrently. Another opportunity for them is that they would be able to rent out the remote training facilities to generate additional income.

It will take a while with this new technology for Fast Lane to find a balance and move to a new equilibrium.

Discussion

Although the Netherlands operations are currently in equilibrium or business as usual, the process of internationalization and integration with the other Fast Lane companies we think is currently placing Fast Lane into the entrepreneurship phase at an organizational level.

Because the process of internationalization and integration with the other Fast Lane companies will probably take another year to finish, probably another year is needed to establish a new equilibrium. This has also to do with the current economic situation (crisis) which is very unpredictable.

At the individual level focus is on creating a balance between stability and change. Employees are encouraged to develop themselves and to look at how processes and products could be improved. However, the focus should not be too much on innovation, the balance needs to be right for the specific individual.

With Fast Lane’s move to smaller premises and them presenting some of their training remotely, they might move into a slight chaos phase until the new technology and teaching style has been integrated into their normal mode of operation. So they are busy reorganising.

Conclusion and recommendations

Because of globalization and the rapid advances in technology, we think Fast Lane will continuously be confronted with changing and adapting its processes. They might always find themselves in the entrepreneurship phase at an organizational level but they will continuously strive for new combinations. From the interview it seems as though Fast Lane is highly concerned with the growing competition, Fast Lane has tended to embrace change incrementally because the market conditions are shifting so quickly. They have to act accordingly to stay ahead in their field.

Fast Lane would be well advised to develop a capacity to change within a permanent state of fluctuation and be able to tackle change head on. Whether it is entering new markets, expanding products or expanding on its existing service lines, merging with competitors or implementing technologies across the global enterprise, Fast Lane should be able to successfully launch fundamental change within their organizations.

We foresee that Fast Lane will not totally reinvent its business often but should continually adjust to changing conditions. They seem to be a fairly resilient company apt at adopting to change.

References

Boot, K. 2012. Interview with Kees Boot of Fast Lane on 16 May 2012, Audio recording, Amsterdam Netherlands

Questionnaire

Organization

  1. Is your organization currently going through any change processes / reorganizations?
  2. Do you expect to initiate change processes in the near future?
  3. How do you think your company handles changes?
  4. How did you reflect previous learning experiences? And how are you using them in the future?
  5. Are you actively looking for new opportunities for creating business at the moment? (for example: R&D activities)



Operations

  1. Are there currently any highly standardized (factory like) processes implemented and being exploited in your organization?
  2. Do you register and keep track of changes on your operational business?
  3. Are there specialists involved within your daily operational business process?
  4. Are all operational processes described in work-instructions or procedures?
  5. Are there legacy systems in operation?



Technology

  1. Does the organisation use social media for formal communication?
  2. What informal communication channels are you aware of that are used by employees to vent frustrations? (blogs, twitter, facebook, sms, 'borrels', etc)
  3. Do you use technology to facilitate an external search process for new business opportunities? (E.g. social media, search engines, etc).
  4. Do you use technology to support innovation? (e.g. by supporting rapid experimentation)



Strategy

  1. How is strategy defined in your organization? (strategic management process) e.g. top down or more bottom up/emergent.
  2. Have there been any recent changes in your strategy?
  3. How does your organization respond to changes in its environment? i.e. emerging trends or innovative practices in the external environment?
  4. Does your organisation encourage employees to be innovative? In what way?
  5. Does your organisation use any form of Psychometric testing to align employee strengths to the organisations vision and mission? (Spiral Dynamics, etc)



Adaptive Cycle

  1. Which part of the Adaptive Cycle are you currently in?
  2. How long do you foresee before Equilibrium is reached?