Along with the advent of the new company came the advent of a new company strategy, according to Preston Johnson, senior vice president, Human Resources & Shared Services at CenterPoint, and this represented a unique training challenge. “On a go-forward basis, we’re going to operate as one company, so that requires us to go through a real intense cultural reintegration process,” said Johnson.
In addition to changing the culture of the company, difficult enough with a 130-year-old paradigm, Johnson said that CenterPoint is concentrating more heavily on technical competence. “We call it operational excellence,” he said. “Everything we do is going to be done well. It’s going to be done right the first time. So we’re going to build technical competence and make sure everybody has that skill set in place.”
Finally, CenterPoint is focusing its training on growth, building business acumen in all of its employees to help grow the company.
CenterPoint Energy has around 12,000 employees, and according to Johnson, a minimum of 50 percent of CenterPoint’s workforce goes through training in any given year. “So 5,000 to 6,000 people per year have some type of training, whether it be technical skills, soft skills” or otherwise, said Johnson.”
In addition to addressing a new company culture through training, Johnson said CenterPoint is challenged by resource constraints and geographical challenges. “We’ve had to downsize over the last several years, so having enough people to go out and train and deliver our platform has been difficult for us,” said Johnson. “We are also geographically constrained. Today we are in nine to 10 states throughout the U.S. with our employees spread all over that area, and many of the places that we live and work in are small, rural towns that don’t have access to a lot of the electronic mediums that we would use here in Houston.”
By partnering with Centra Corp. to deliver training on an electronic basis, Johnson said that CenterPoint has been able to connect multiple locations into one training session, essentially reaching more employees with fewer resources. CenterPoint calls its e-learning system “REALM,” which stands for Real-Time Enterprise Adaptive Learning Media. “People can actually talk and speak and interact via the software that we use in that program, so we can cover a larger group of our employees,” said Johnson.
Johnson said that the e-learning works best when delivering very standardized training or fact-based training. For example, Johnson said that when CenterPoint rolled out new company policies, the standardized training associated with that was best delivered in the electronic format. But CenterPoint still uses classroom training when it is more suited to the type of training being delivered, particularly technical skill-building.
CenterPoint has several ways of determining whether its training is successful. First, Johnson said, the company uses the standard survey instruments, getting students reactions to training through evaluations immediately following the session. He added that when it comes to skill-based training, students have to take the skills learned and apply them on the job. “So you’ll know pretty quick whether or not somebody has got it actually applied in their work setting,” Johnson said. CenterPoint also uses a mentor process, which helps the company understand whether or not training is making an impact on its employees work.
The REALM system has allowed CenterPoint to reduce training costs by decreasing travel expenses while increasing productivity, said Johnson. “We also train people, especially those who work in shifts, we train those individuals during their regular shift with a lot of this electronic technology that we’ve got,” said Johnson, “so we don’t have to pay overtime like we did in the past.”
But as always, many of the benefits of the new system are not tangible. “We’re able to deliver a single message through multiple locations,” said Johnson. He explained that with instructor-led classroom training, the instructor travels from one location to the next, potentially garbling the message or giving it a different slant from one location to another. “Using the Centra system, everyone hears the same message,” said Johnson.
CenterPoint is now working on a leadership development program, which it recently put into place. In addition, the company has started consortiums with Rice University, the University of Houston, the University of Indiana and the University of Texas. “People can go off an get mini-MBAs,” said Johnson. “We call that executive education.”
Johnson added that CenterPoint will continue to use the Centra platform to try to reach a broader audience and help its employees develop business acumen. “Our people have to understand how the business runs, how we make money and, on an individual basis, how they contribute to the bottom line on a day-in and day-out basis,” said Johnson. He added, “It’s not going to happen overnight. A lot of the processes that we’ve put into place are new. We’re beginning to see payback on those things. But if you’re thinking you’ll see immediate results that happen overnight, you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s going to take some time to get everybody on the system, especially if you’ve got an old company and your changing paradigms from 130 years. It takes time to get people engaged, but we’re making progress.”