Over the past few years, American Express has embarked on an ambitious plan to implement enterprise-wide blended leadership development. While CEO Ken Chenault streamlines the company’s core operating businesses, reducing costs and headcount, he also has called on the Talent Acquisition & Development organization to strengthen its high-potential and leadership ranks. Fortunately for Chenault, Katharine Nisbet, director of leadership learning and development at American Express, is answering that challenge. By leveraging technology and a handful of strategic partners, her team is now deploying thousands of online and blended leadership development courses at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional classroom training.
After designing a comprehensive and integrated development curriculum, Nisbet had to navigate through the company’s state-of-the-art security policies and outsourced IT resources to deliver premium courses through a centralized global learning management system. To further complicate matters, American Express distributes control of most employee training budgets out to its lines of business, and Nisbet had to rely on internal marketing and demand to ensure employees enrolled voluntarily. To ensure that the training was not only well received but also resulted in measurable behavioral change, Nisbet turned to key team member Paul Leone, Ph.D., to study the preliminary results and recommend optimal delivery alternatives.
“Our findings clearly indicate that just moving employees through a training program will not ensure a significant business impact,” Leone wrote. “Rather, the level of positive behavior change and resultant productivity increases are almost entirely dependent on the sustainability climates to which the learners return. In fact, we found that those participants who had some form of structured follow-up and revisited the learning experienced overall productivity jumps of 44 percent compared to jumps of only 18 percent by those who had limited sustainability processes in place.”
Furthermore, 71 percent of all study participants at American Express identified “time to apply” and the “lack of follow-up” as the biggest obstacles to practicing what they learned. When participants completed the training at American Express, they cited the top five obstacles to applying what they learned as:
- Time constraints and how to balance business demands (42 percent).
- No follow-up to incorporate into daily routine (29 percent).
- No incentive to change old behaviors (10 percent).
- Skeptical about how theory applies to real-life job situations (6 percent).
- Lack of support from leader and team (6 percent).
As a result of these findings, American Express has modified learning delivery to include several reinforcement mechanisms, such as requiring pre-course goal-setting discussions between learners and their managers. Additionally, many of the courses in the curriculum now come bundled with a series of three-minute video-based modules that learners can access as reinforcement in the months following completion of a course.
These short dramatizations and on-demand advice help learners connect the theory of the classroom to real-world examples on a daily basis.
The ongoing studies, products and techniques used by American Express have value for all organizations that seek to implement a sustainable blended learning initiative. Nisbet and Leone not only identified potential obstacles, but also defined criteria most likely to ensure their success: The greatest predictor of sustained performance improvement is a matter of the management climate in which learners receive the training.
At American Express, the top four factors in a climate that sustains learning and employee development are:
- One-on-one meetings with the learner’s manager to discuss application of learning to the job.
- Manager’s support of training and belief in its positive impact on performance.
- Learner’s belief in training’s positive impact on performance.
- Learner’s belief that performance improvement will be recognized and rewarded.
“As evidenced by the great variability of results among participants, there are certain transfer and sustainability factors in ones’ immediate work context that will either help or hinder the demonstration of learning on the job,” Leone said, “At American Express, it has become obvious that the greatest ROI will be realized via an increased emphasis on sustainability climates and their support tools.”
Jeff Snipes is the CEO and founder of Ninth House Inc. He can be reached at email@example.com.