Conrad Hilton once said, “To achieve great things, you must first dream great dreams.” With this idea in mind, Hilton University was launched in 2002 to support workforce development at the burgeoning global hotel chain. Hilton University’s primary charter was to transition training from classroom to e-learning.
For too long, the hospitality industry has relied upon traditional learning methods like classroom-based instruction, which is costly and time-consuming, and therefore can impact only a few employees. Learning was, in effect, rationed—a dangerous circumstance for a growing customer-service organization.
Prior to the launch of Hilton University, training at the company was primarily “residential,” meaning that each hotel in 70 countries took responsibility for providing training programs for its own employees. Not surprisingly, needs often went unmet, and the available training programs were purchased individually with varying standards for quality and cost-effectiveness.
Hilton is now trying to reshape the culture of the organization to align consistently and globally to the brand promise. The creation of Hilton University changed the learning environment by introducing new enabling technologies, and it accelerated the company’s progress toward becoming a truly global organization. Hilton International determined that online training was the best means for addressing its global learning needs because it was the only way to monitor who was being trained, what they were learning and the demonstrable impact training had on employees’ capabilities within the organization and across the network.
Hilton’s brand promise–“Hilton puts back a little of what life takes out”–means the company pledges to consistently deliver the highest level of customer service. Hilton is managed with a balanced scorecard, and the training mandate is a minimum of 40 hours of training, per person, per year. Hilton believes that as employees grow, their enthusiasm and talent will improve the company, enabling the development of new ideas and standards of excellence. Ultimately, Hilton believes that its highly skilled employees will provide its customers with even better service, making Hilton the benchmark in the industry.
Hilton University Success Story: Online English Training
Among the many programs that Hilton University deploys to address the company’s operational needs is an online English language training program. This program has met a key business need, which is mission-critical for achieving Hilton’s brand promise.
Hilton International’s global customer base is comprised primarily of highly educated, upper-income frequent travelers who demand the highest levels of quality and service. The vast majority of these customers speak English, so in 2002, Hilton International declared English to be its official business language. However, after surveying the employee population, human resource executives realized that the organization could not consistently support this business imperative. Some 97 percent of Hilton International employees reported that English skills were “required” or “important” for their current jobs. Only 7 percent, however, could claim that their current level of English proficiency was sufficient to do their jobs.
It was quickly apparent that the lack of consistent English skills across the organization was affecting Hilton’s entire operation. Hilton’s corporate intranet, policies, business conferences, etc. are all in English. When Hilton introduced e-learning to the global organization, there were problems with usage because most of the courseware was in English and thus not accessible to the great portion of the employee population who were not fluent.
This point about access is important because Hilton University was introduced in order to expand learning opportunities for the entire organization. Hilton invested in a technological infrastructure because it wanted to be able to provide the same high-quality training to every corner of the organization. The intention was for Hilton University to help the company become a more global organization. But if the university offers 300 courses, and only 50 of them in Japanese, for example, it is simply not providing Japanese employees with the same learning opportunity as their English-speaking colleagues. Hilton was facing a massive skill gap and urgently needed an English training program.
Strong communication skills are imperative for employees at Hilton International. Not only are English communication skills critical for delivering high-quality customer service, but English also is the language in which the company is managed and its employees are trained. English proficiency creates the opportunity for a broader range of people to contribute to the corporate debate and share ideas, perspectives and knowledge. Diversity strengthens the organization. By ensuring all of its employees have English communication skills, Hilton International could move from being a network of hotels with the same name to the world’s premier global hotel chain.
Online English Language Training: Results
The online English language training program results have been remarkable. Hilton conducted a survey at the end of the first year to measure the learning’s success. The company earned high satisfaction ratings for the GlobalEnglish Corporate Learning Service: 87 percent of learners rated the service “good, very good or excellent.” Some 92 percent of learners reported that they have already applied what they have learned to their jobs. Employees reported improved ability and time saved on tasks that are crucial for daily operation and superlative customer service, which included:
- 81 percent improved their ability to respond to questions/requests and offer assistance in English.
- 77 percent improved their ability to conduct one-on-one business phone calls in English.
- 78 percent improved their ability to participate in meetings in English.
- 68 percent improved their ability to participate in conferences or training in English.
The Big Picture
With the introduction of e-learning, Hilton University “turned reality upside down” and is now delivering online programs that have a measurable impact on performance, productivity and, most importantly, customer service in 70 countries.
Accessible, international and contemporary, Hilton University puts the development of Hilton employees at the heart of the business strategy. Advances in technology have provided the opportunity to portray learning in a much fresher, more accessible and innovative way. Hilton University’s greatest accomplishment to date has been transforming the learning experience around the world using technology, thereby ending the rationing that took place when learning was exclusively residential.
Hilton is a management company, meaning that the company often doesn’t own its hotels. Therefore, Hilton must attempt to influence—it cannot mandate—managers to invest in training. Generally, available funds are directed to the guest area before “back of house” improvements are made. Hilton University is proud of the fact that it has been able to influence the organization and individual owners of the hotels to spend money on training and development.
Overall, Hilton University can attribute its success to three factors:
- Hilton University programs received attention and support from members of the highest levels of the HR community, who then pushed it down to the entire organization.
- Front-line employees and managers showed a real hunger for training, such as the English language program, and they understood its value for themselves and for supporting the brand.
- Hilton’s culture and organization are inherently competitive. Hilton University provided a league table to regional vice presidents during their bimonthly meetings, and if their divisions were not near the top of the list, these executives–who value service excellence and winning over all else–would immediately prompt their HR staff and general managers to resolve the situation. Shortly thereafter, Hilton University would see a surge in utilization and results in that area.
Hilton University has placed a premium on results, and the numbers tell the story of the organization’s success: Around the world—in every hotel, in more than 70 countries—2,500 Hilton learners together have completed more than 30,000 e-learning programs in 2003, up from just 5,000 completed courses in 2002. The company uses a balanced scorecard, and at the beginning of each year, Hilton committed to 40 hours per year minimum training for every team member. In 2003, it beat that expectation for the first time by 20 percent, with a per-person annual average of 49.25 hours.
In 2002, the year Hilton University was launched, the average number of e-learning courses completed was three per license. Hilton was disappointed with those numbers, and was convinced that it could do better and garner more value from its investment in learning. In early 2003, Hilton set a new target: For every e-learning license, 20 courses had to be completed. Such levels had never been accomplished before, but by the middle of the year, it was clear that the target was not unreasonable. The organization’s competitiveness prevailed once again, and when Europe saw the results that MEAP was delivering, it dramatically increased its commitment to the learning and development program. By the end of 2003, Hilton accomplished its goal, with an average use of 20 courses per year per e-learning license.
The most important measure of success, however, is employee satisfaction. When Hilton surveyed its employees recently, it found that 80 percent believe Hilton is committed to training and developing its team members, up from dismal numbers on the same topic in prior years. Hilton now has a more dedicated employee population because these team members believe that how well they do their jobs affects how well the hotel performs. In only two short years, Hilton International has taken long strides toward its goal of creating a global service culture.
John Guthrie has led Hilton’s global learning management development strategy for three years. During the prior five years, he was Hilton’s vice president of human resources for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Prior to joining Hilton, John held senior HR roles with Cadbury Schweppes and Diageo. He is a former member of British Parliament. John can be reached at email@example.com.