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Sloan e-learning course goes the distance for Merrill Lynch employees


As part of an ongoing partnership, the Sloan School of Management and Merrill Lynch successfully adapted a popular MBA investments course for electronic "e-learning" delivery to financial professionals worldwide.

Twenty-eight Merrill Lynch directors, vice presidents, analysts and associates from offices in Japan, Hong Kong and Australia came together virtually and face-to-face over 14 weeks in the spring to take an investments course taught by Andrew Lo, the Harris and Harris Group Professor at Sloan.

The course provided an analytical framework for designing financial products and solutions in a variety of contexts. Participants applied the ideas to team projects that resulted in innovative solutions to actual client problems. The program was developed with the Otter Group, Inc., an e-learning consulting firm, and was designed for ultra-busy professionals who had to shoehorn their learning into demanding work schedules.

Despite the challenge, participants gave the course high grades. Only one did not complete the course (based on client priorities)--remarkable in light of the fact that attrition rates for e-learning courses run as high as 80 percent.

Unlike many distance education efforts, the course used only well-tested systems that let participants work on their own time and at their own pace. With Lo's lectures on CD-ROM and discussions conducted asynchronously online, time and space constraints were lifted.
Support from Merrill Lynch and Sloan teaching assistant Wes Chan was integral to the program's success. The two answered questions, provoked discussion and tracked participants' progress by phone, e-mail and SloanSpace, a web-based course management platform designed and tested at Sloan. Lo also offered online office hours at strategic times.

"For this course to work, the technology had to be invisible," he said. "The participants are not all technophiles and most don't have the time or patience to deal with complex technology."

"I thought it was very effective," said Dino DeAngelis, vice president for global debt markets for Merrill Lynch in New York. "There was no classroom scheduling constraint. Professor Lo was essentially there to lecture whenever you had the time. I watched several of his lectures on plane trips. I could also go back and review lectures a second time. It was very convenient, and since Professor Lo is a captivating speaker, I didn't require a classroom environment to stay focused."

The student selection process was also designed to recognize top performers--another reason for its success. "This assignment was viewed as a plum and although the participants were signing up for 14 weeks of very hard work, I think in retrospect they all agreed that it was highly valuable and well worth the effort," Lo said.

The sophistication of the content was another departure, said Toby Woll, Sloan's director of learning technology initiatives. "Many e-learning efforts elsewhere have focused on giving people a working knowledge of entry-level material. Our goal was to learn whether e-learning could work with very high-level content," she said.

To demonstrate how well they had absorbed the course theories, participants worked in six teams on projects that applied the material to problems they were dealing with in their jobs. Merrill Lynch senior management members acted as sponsors and reviewers.

"At the start of the course, I said this unique venture would be a great success if at the end, when confronted with a particular challenge as part of their daily business, the participants would be able to reframe that challenge and think about it more systematically using the tools presented in the course," Lo said. "Their final projects demonstrated pretty conclusively that this objective was met, far beyond everyone's expectations."

"The course changed my view on how I look at these investment problems," said Monique Yu, vice president for global debt markets for Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong. "It's refreshing when you're in the business to take a step back and look at the problems on a macro basis."

While the virtual world can be convenient, it can also be lonely and less dynamic than face-to-face interaction. To address this issue, the course opened and closed with live sessions in New York, bringing the participants together with Lo and Merrill Lynch executives.

"The class was a great way to interact across Merrill functional groups in an environment of intellectual honesty geared toward real solutions. If we had a constructive insight or an interesting idea that we were unsure of, we were comfortable sharing it with our classmates," DeAngelis said.
Given its success, Merrill Lynch and Sloan plan to repeat the technology-powered course this year.

"People have already said to me, 'what do I need to do to get asked next year?'" said Tom Wilson, Merrill Lynch director and head of global resource management for debt markets.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 15, 2001.

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