Organizations across varied industries work consistently to align their learning and development efforts with bottom-line strategy and organizational goals. These organizations encourage, teach and coach employees, and the end is hopefully growth. Merkle is no different. An industry-leading database marketing agency with clients such as Nike, Geico and Dell, Merkle uses information to drive decisions and help its clients retain and maximize relationships with their customers.
In order to help clients use information to target consumer offers and media choices, president and CEO David Williams decided early that Merkle employees would have to be highly educated. “We’re in a business that is dynamic and changing rapidly, and to a large degree we feel like we’re trying to invent an industry,” he said. “Therefore, the desire to learn is highly valued at Merkle. It’s one of the things we think is sort of non-negotiable. Ultimately, we think that is our strategic advantage, our ability to build competencies more effectively than anyone else in the marketplace. Philosophically, as we look at learning and training, our real mission is not to create students—we’re interested in creating teachers. All of our education programs and the Merkle Institute of Technology (MIT) are really based upon Merkle’s ability to teach those capabilities to others.”
The ability to teach implies a level of expertise or mastery, and many learning organizations, including Merkle, agree that classroom instruction is the best way to teach expert-level competencies or skills. “We understand there’s a cost associated with that, but we firmly believe that the cost gives us a strategic advantage which has allowed our company to grow at a rate substantially faster than the rest of the market. We’re willing to make that investment,” Williams said.
There are some risks inherent in a primarily instructor-led learning platform. From an executive management perspective, one risk is potentially teaching the wrong things. In fact, learning at Merkle underwent a substantial change to combat this potential danger. “Originally our philosophy was, ‘We don’t really care what you learn,’” Williams explained. “All we wanted was a company filled with people who were interested in learning. That philosophy has had to adapt a little bit. In our value system, the desire to learn is still there, but we’re spending a lot more time and energy making sure resources are deployed against critical competencies.”
Those critical competencies relate to marketing services or database marketing and strategy, technological infrastructures and general management capabilities. All Merkle employees take courses, and based on their level in the organization, employees are required to complete a certain number of hours every year. If they don’t earn the learning credits, they’re not eligible for an annual bonus.
“As the CEO, I have to get 150 credits a year,” Williams said. “As an entry-level employee, you have to get 25. Credit is equal to one hour of learning, or one hour of teaching gets you five credits. For me to spend 150 hours in the learning environment is a substantial commitment, and I’ll never get there unless I’m teaching. As you move up the management ranks at Merkle, your credit hurdle keeps increasing, and that demand side facilitates teaching momentum.”
Competencies are reviewed quarterly, and Merkle offers a varied curriculum to address any gaps. Senior management also sets its priorities around competency development. “A good example right now is e-mail marketing. We’ve made it a corporate initiative to improve our corporate competencies in that area. We can either acquire those competencies in the marketplace, or we can teach and learn inside,” Williams said.
In addition to competency-targeted learning, MIT offers broad knowledge classes in employee development and specific job skills for client solutions that might, for instance, require a certain level of skill in a computer language.
“It starts in the new hire experience,” said Martha Spivey, director of workforce development. “The first full week of the month, we have a boot camp. It’s Monday through Friday, from 9 to 12:30, and it gives an overview of the organization. Our business leaders, from the CEO to others in the organization, give an overview of their area, how it fits and what kind of client solutions we provide. For our executive team, we’re working with a consultant and doing a lot of leadership training and coaching. We’re also taking it down to some of our business units. For our middle managers, we are currently on a yearlong program, Leading High Performance Teams, to go over their competencies. There’s a competency each month that we focus on, such as project management or client services. We do an e-learning class for them to prepare in advance. We go over that e-learning and we ‘Merkle-ize’ it. Then they can take another e-learning class as a follow-up to supplement what we talk about. We have a lot of talented people here with a lot of knowledge, and we’re constantly seeking knowledge. Then we have to train, share and understand best practices.”
–Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org