Four years ago XEL Communications started training employees to meet the demands of a quality-obsessed company. To design lessons employees would really learn, managers asked them what they needed. Now XEL management does that every time it expands the curriculum.

Bill Sanko, CEO of the $52-million Aurora, Colo., manufacturer of communications equipment, wanted XEL to become a model of workplace efficiency, dedicated to quality and teamwork. But high school hadn't prepared employees for "Workforce 2000"; some had difficulties with English and math, and peer appraisals and statistical process control (SPC) techniques were beyond them.

To get help setting up a training program, XEL contacted Colorado's Community College of Aurora. A task force, comprising college representative Malcolm Shaw and 12 XEL employees from every level, surveyed workers' needs before designing the curriculum. The group developed the survey with information from the Department of Labor's report on SCANS, the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. The survey reveals general areas in need of improvement and indicates how subjects prefer to learn -- in XEL's case, by asking and reading, rather than by being told.

Individual instruction plans helped XEL further pinpoint educational needs. Instructors sit down with employees before drawing up a syllabus, to ask what they want to learn and how it relates to their careers. Because XEL has no more than six in a class, teachers can address each student's needs.

XEL also has employees evaluate their classes when training ends. The results go to the institution responsible for the program -- either XEL or the university. After an off-the-shelf course in SPC got bad reviews, XEL staff members rewrote it themselves.

All that involvement ensures that employees buy into the program, Shaw says. Team leaders who helped design the program make attendance a priority for their crews. More than half the workforce -- then 105 strong -- voluntarily participated in the first program. Now, with 230 on the payroll, XEL has hired Shaw away from the college to set up a complete "XEL University." The curriculum includes 30 classes, on topics from soldering to problem solving. XEL's total outlay to date: about $200,000. On average, each worker spends five hours a month in class, and XEL is becoming the workplace it imagined, Shaw says. "We own 12 patents that came out of workers' participation."