This post is based on a conversation with four people at HSO: Henk-Jan Brommer, Manager HSO Academy, which is Netherlands-based with a global reach; Rebecca Fox, Learning and Development Manager, HSO UK; Kristen Ramerini, Vice President, Human Resources, HSO US; and Kevin Moore, Human Resources Director, HSO Germany. In a spirit of collaboration, they stepped out of their daily tasks to reflect together on the challenges and achievements of the company’s journey to making training and certification integral to its organization, and they blended their voices into one representing the company’s passion and commitment.
Upskilling workers for the digital transformation of business is a necessity today. HSO, a global solution integrator with a hands-on attitude that facilitates companies’ digital transformation, knows this well, and it has established programs and processes to encourage and support tech learning. Training and certification in tech skills are integral to its success strategy—for its customers, its employees, and itself.
Founded in 1989, HSO built a track record helping enterprise systems adopt and use smart technology systems to empower their employees and become more efficient. In 2002, it moved to Microsoft Business Applications, first as a Dynamics ERP implementation partner and then adding Dynamics CRM, Analytics, Azure, Modern Workplace, Dynamics 365, and Microsoft Power Platform. Over the years, it has earned many gold and silver Microsoft awards, and it’s been an Inner Circle Partner for more than 10 years. In 2020, HSO won the Microsoft Partner of the Year award in the “Modernize Finance and Operations” category, and it was a finalist for Microsoft Partner of the Year in “Connected Field Service.”
To provide its customers with the best service, the company is committed to a “hands-on attitude.” Its consultants, who operate out of 27 offices around the world, are experienced solution architects and trusted advisors for enterprise clients across Dynamics 365 and other Microsoft platform technologies. Experts who specialize in global implementations, they work “up close and personal” with companies in a year-long dynamic process of analysis and design, matching the company’s business processes to Microsoft technologies, training the company to use the technologies, and supporting the implementation. That means HSO consultants need to know not just the customer but also which technologies will help that customer. In other words, they need soft skills and hard (or application) skills. “That’s why the company is committed to effective training and certification for all its consultants,” HSO managers say, “why we’re so passionate about it. By training our people effectively and supporting their technical knowledge with soft skills, we ensure that we have the best people to help our customers.”
That commitment to training and certification is real. The company has always had a strong culture of learning and development. But, although its consultants always had the technical knowledge they needed for their work, they didn’t always get officially certified. Over the years, however, more and more customers requested that the HSO consultants working with them be certified. So, in 2019, when Microsoft initiated role-based certifications, HSO started a program to get every employee certified in Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Power Platform. Before this, many HSO consultants were getting certified in Dynamics 365, but there was no company policy supporting certification. After 2019, the company added certification as a primary focus alongside training. This is supported by its own corporate academy, HSO Academy, which was established in 2014, providing all employees with training and support for certification so they “are able to work for HSO with pleasure and with the right knowledge.”
The program and Academy started with the Dynamics 365 Fundamentals certification. The biggest challenge with that first wave of company-wide fundamentals certification, the managers say, was streamlining the training and certification for such a large number of people—more than a thousand. At one point, HSO Academy was delivering a Dynamics 365 Fundamentals training nearly every day of the week.
As Microsoft continued to update and add new certifications in Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Power Platform, HSO followed suit. For example, the company will be supporting the two new Dynamics 365 fundamentals certifications that in February 2021 will replace the Dynamics 365 Fundamentals certification it taught in its first certification push: one in Customer Engagement Apps (CRM) and one in Finance and Operations Apps (ERP). For all of its training, it uses the learning material on Microsoft Learn, plus Microsoft Official Curriculum. To this it adds its own training in soft business skills, including communication, handling different situations, and being a role model.
HSO intentionally incorporates training and support for certification for all its employees—all the way from consultants to noncustomer-facing employees and from new hires to experienced consultants.
As part of HSO Academy, HSO offers a five-week training program for every young professional who is new to HSO: the Masterclass. The Masterclass, led by Henk-Jan Brommer, a Microsoft Certified Trainer (MCT), quickly prepares trainees for their role at HSO—from consultancy skills to application skills in the context of the digital transformation of business. "Even if they don't have an IT background,” Brommer says, “we make sure they're prepped for their first assignment with the customer in five weeks. Specifically, we train them in our HSO-led Dynamics 365 and HSO-led Power BI courses, with the goal of earning Microsoft Certification in Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations or Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement by the end of the class. After a year, they’ve often earned two or more additional certifications.”
The practical examples and situations of the Masterclass keep the training hands-on rather than theoretical, and they help stimulate group dynamics. An added value to the Masterclass, Brommer notes, is that participants come from all over the world. In the process of learning together, they form “friendships for life” that carry over into their later work for the company’s customers, because they can more easily share their knowledge and experience with one another. This bond is nurtured after the Masterclass ends, when participants are placed on a team that works with a mentor or senior consultant on a client project, with the aim of running a client project as an independent junior consultant by the end of one year.
All new hires—junior or senior, tech-experienced or not—are encouraged and supported to get trained and certified. “In Germany, for example,” Moore explains, “HSO has an onboarding program in which we look at new hires’ career level and experience and determine with them which certifications they have to do, at which level.” Then, in the first six months, in addition to having a mentor, they have two or three meetings with HR to make sure they’re getting what they need, to see whether there are any roadblocks. “We want to make sure the people we hire are successful, that they’re growing, not stagnating,” the managers point out. “Competence leads to confidence. When people have knowledge, the skills they need, they’re better able to work independently and think outside the box. They can be creative and ask, How can I use Microsoft Power Platform to solve this problem? How can I make this solution work better? They have fun in their projects, and when you have fun, you have more success.”
The company’s commitment to training and certification is appreciated by HSO’s customers, and it has also resulted in greater acknowledgement and deeper partnership with Microsoft. But it’s much more than that, these managers say. For HSO, training and certification are “a way of investing in people.” When a person leaves the company, they take their knowledge, experience, and certifications with them. This doesn’t hold HSO back, however, because “the skills and knowledge of our employees are what differentiate us from the competition.”
“For our HSO employees, as well as for candidates during the recruiting process, one of the major factors in choosing HSO and remaining loyal to the company is our continuous learning and development culture. We see it this way: if we can enable our colleagues through trainings and certifications, they will be successful. And when they are successful, HSO is successful. This is a win-win-win situation for the employee, for HSO, and for our customers!”
When asked, “What is the value of training and certification for your company?,” the group shared this story that “says it all”: “A CFO says to a CEO: ‘I see that many people are being trained. Do you have any clue what that costs? What if they leave?’ To which the CEO replies: ‘Imagine not training them and they stay…’”
This investment in people is built into the structure of the company. Certification is a fully integrated part of the company’s Career and Performance Development Plan and each employee’s Personal Development Plan. In fact, it’s at the top of the list. Every year, managers work with each employee to choose which certification best suits them and together they make a plan to train for and earn that certification. They then follow up with regular conversations throughout the year to help them achieve their goals. “There’s a direct correlation between the level and type of certification and the career level of our people to fulfill their respective roles,” the managers note.
The fact that more and more Microsoft Certifications are becoming available makes it easier to tailor certification for employees. “That’s what we’re most enthusiastic about—the move to role-based certifications, the addition of so many more certifications, and the massive improvements in Microsoft Learn to support those certifications. Our options are no longer limited. It’s like we now have this candy store to pick and choose from. And Microsoft Learn is now an efficient one-stop shop for learning, whereas before we had to scrape together bits and pieces to get adequate training.”
This encouragement and support to learn and grow extends to employees who work in noncustomer-facing areas, such as Rebecca Fox, who works in Learning and Development, and Kristen Ramerini and Kevin Moore, who work in Human Resources. Ramerini and Moore are planning to work toward one of the new Dynamics 365 fundamentals certifications soon. Fox just passed Exam MB-901: Microsoft Dynamics 365 Fundamentals to earn her first certification. “If I can do it, anyone can!” she says. ”After I passed, I got lots of emails saying ‘Well done! You inspired me to get going on one.’”
Fox particularly appreciated the blended approach to learning of the virtual instructor-led training (VILT) that prepared her to take her certification exam. An instructor can talk people through the content, apply it to a specific area, and respond to questions. That’s what made it so exciting for her. The combination of Microsoft Learn content with engaging virtual instruction from a trainer is a winning one, Brommer agrees. Microsoft is on the right track with instructor-led training for exam preparation, he says, because it enables instructors—like those at HSO Academy—to take the Microsoft Learn building blocks and provide that “last mile” of a practical approach, tailoring the instruction to very specific areas, such as finance for retail or finance for the public sector. Not all companies can invest in their own in-house instructors and training like HSO, however, and that’s where Microsoft Learning Partners come in. Learning Partners offer exam prep courses led by MCTs. Companies can support individual employees in taking VILT training from Learning Partners and even arrange for custom trainings for their teams or groups.
With the support of the Academy, HSO also runs two-day regional training conferences for its employees. In the United Kingdom, for example, it runs a conference every 18 months for all employees in the region, consultant or not, so everyone has access to the Academy. Trainers teach the soft skills and bring in Brommer and others to help people learn the skills needed to pass certification exams, especially in Dynamics 365 or Microsoft Power Platform fundamentals. Another advantage of the Academy is that as an entity independent of a region it can bring together people from the company’s different regions and build learning communities in which people can share their knowledge, support one another in earning certifications, and nurture close bonds. “Creating learning communities,” these managers say, “is one of the things we’d advise other partners to consider.”
Currently, the vast majority of HSO employees are certified in Dynamics 365, and the number certified in Microsoft Power Platform is increasing fast, especially because Microsoft Power Platform is one of the company’s main areas of investment for 2021 and beyond. Before, when doing its fit-gap analysis, the organization would offer customization as an option. With Microsoft Power Platform, customization has become the last option, because it offers so many more possibilities to fit business processes into the applications that the company recommends. Fortunately, this group says, HSO employees feel not only challenged but also encouraged and supported by this emphasis on certification. “Because our company culture is so focused on learning and development,” Ramerini explains, “we tend to attract people who are also invested in learning and growing. So there’s a natural flow. Our employees are proactive, and they work independently toward their goals, with our support.”
The company does try to add an element of fun to upskilling and certification by making it a friendly game. It sponsors games like “Who will be the first person with four different Dynamics 365 Fundamentals certificates?” or “Who will be the first person to get certified in two different areas?” Recently, it held a competition to use Microsoft Power Platform to create an app that would be useful in the HSO organization, with a prize of £5,000. “People took the initiative to upskill themselves using Microsoft Learn just to be able to participate,” the managers report. A number of the apps that employees created for the company are being used for HSO’s customers too, such as the Workplace Wizard, which creates a map of a workplace that calculates and displays social-distancing possibilities for COVID-19 on any particular day.
Clearly HSO has created a corporate culture and structured its organization to enhance learning and development. When asked what advice they would give other Microsoft partners about helping their employees get trained and certified in Dynamics 365 and Microsoft Power Platform, these managers replied: “Rewarding and recognizing employees for their efforts in getting trained on new technologies and obtaining the corresponding certifications is very important. We’ve found that rewarding team members with exam bonuses helps, as does recognizing people’s efforts multiple times and in many ways, for instance by posting announcements on Yammer, offering congratulations on earning certification in team and company meetings, and displaying achievements on an internal dashboard so everyone is aware of it. We recommend that other partners consider doing these things—and coming up with more ways.”
HSO’s commitment to training and certification is part of its strategy to help businesses future-proof themselves by digital transformation and to help their employees future-proof their careers by acquiring and validating the latest tech skills for business. So what is HSO planning for its own future? “We aim to be the leading global provider of technology-driven business solutions that improve the performance and results of our clients.” How does it plan to get there? “We plan to accelerate what we’re doing to keep up with and keep ahead of rapid changes. We want to keep moving forward and quickly adopt new Microsoft Certifications as soon as they become available. We’ve even offered to assist Microsoft in setting up additional certifications and helping to create content for that. Partnership in learning is the way forward.”
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