Many CLOs and other learning executives are walking with a bit more spring in their steps these days, and perhaps smiling a bit more often. They are coming out of budget meetings feeling less like “executioners” ready to cut payroll and more like “executors,” ready to execute learning and knowledge management strategies in support of growth. Although financial scrutiny remains, an executive mindset focused on both operational rigor in learning and ROI is part of the “new normal,” and many learning executives are reinvigorated about their jobs and the contribution their learning organizations can make to their companies’ efforts to increase market share and shareholder value.
Growth can mean many different things, of course, depending on industry segment and an organization’s current market position. Growth companies are not just throwing money at various opportunities, but must pay close attention to margins and maximizing the return on every bit of their investments in learning. Here are a few examples of how learning executives at major companies have responded to one or more facets of an overall growth strategy for their organizations.
Ramping Up for Organic Growth
The best organic growth strategies can falter if the people are not in place within the company to execute them, so getting people into the organization and performing productively is essential. The role of learning in supporting rapid organic growth can be seen in several initiatives being taken by Mike Barger, CLO of JetBlue Airways.
Growing at approximately 30 percent to 40 percent annually, the company faces the enviable challenge each month of bringing on board hundreds of new employees, or what JetBlue calls “crewmembers.” Given the company’s distinctive and engaging brand of customer service, that intense resource need means finding the right people and giving them the kind of training that ramps them up to productive levels as rapidly as possible. “Our sustainable competitive edge in the coming years will result from the customer experiences delivered by our front-line crewmembers,” Barger said. “To meet our current growth plans, we need to hire 10 new people every day for the next 11 years. How we equip, prepare and support these people is a key factor in our ability to offer a service experience that is so superior to the competition that it generates a greater yield.”
Barger’s interesting, and even somewhat controversial, stance about the company’s customer service crewmembers involves viewing these employees not as service agents, but as knowledge workers. It makes sense. For an industry competing in large measure based on the quality of the customer experience, the best ways to handle some specific customer needs are invented each day at ticket counters, gates and baggage areas. Consequently, Barger is focusing his learning team not only on traditional kinds of new-hire training, though that is important. In addition, he is looking at knowledge sharing and continuous learning strategies to provide real-time educational opportunities to ensure front-line effectiveness.
Consider the possibility of doing real-time knowledge sharing through PDAs or podcasting that would take a successful customer solution in, say, Boston and disseminate it to crewmembers in every airport. These kinds of solutions are definitely on the table for JetBlue, as are incentive and recognition programs that would help ensure that crewmembers actually participate in those kinds of collaborative learning and knowledge-sharing experiences.
Growth Through Mergers and Acquisitions
In some industries or segments, the growth that is so important to high performance often comes through mergers and acquisitions because there might be fewer opportunities to increase shareholder value organically or through increased operational efficiencies. “Post-merger integration” has been the rallying cry for many years to realize the full value of mergers, but a post-merger focus has been joined in recent years by a number of pre-merger activities, including learning programs. By ensuring that workforces are trained early on in the new processes and systems of the merged entity, companies reduce their risk of consequences after the merger, such as diminished employee performance and loss of customers.
This was the experience of Regions Financial Corp.—a top-15 U.S. bank headquartered in Birmingham, Ala.—when it acquired Union Planters in early 2004. The business goals of the merger depended in part on reducing time to proficiency for the workforce and improving overall organizational performance while holding down costs. A partnering strategy between the bank’s lines of business and its organizational development and learning function resulted in an extremely successful workforce enablement strategy solution, at the heart of which was a major learning effort: about 22,000 hours of development time and more than 130 different learning titles, almost all of which were custom-developed. The e-learning program was augmented by a coaching model to solidify skills. Learning levels were measured objectively through online assessments and also followed by observation mastery assessments so that at conversion, the new Regions organization had a ready and performing workforce.
“Deploying hundreds of trainers to the field might have been wonderful, but it would have undermined the very business case for the merger that we were working to support,” said Mike Pollard, director of organizational development and learning for Regions Financial Corp.
In addition to the learning strategy, Pollard and other Regions executives also helped coordinate a successful change strategy addressing the cultural issues of the merger. This helped create momentum by embedding positive cultural attributes into organizational and leadership development, learning, performance management and talent management. The overall learning and change management program was so successful that, on conversion weekend, when the new Regions cut over to new systems and processes, it experienced little to no diminishment of performance to its customers.
Entering New Markets
Global growth and expansion can severely test the ability of a company to hold its culture together and coordinate the work of people in different nations in quest of a common goal. Consider GE Consumer Finance, for example. Over the past 13 years the company has purchased about 70 businesses, and all but four have been outside the United States. It’s an interesting situation—although GE itself is almost 130 years old, with a well-established corporate culture, a huge portion of the company now is only 13 years old, and it is operating across 41 countries and in 20 languages.
As a result, Ginny Ertl, vice president of training and development for GE Consumer Finance, is heavily focused on ramping up seasoned learning professionals in new regions of the world to support overall corporate growth. “In the U.S., we have what has always been considered to be one of the most seasoned training organizations in all of GE,” Ertl said. “But only 25 percent of our workforce is now in the U.S. So around the world, when I look at GE Consumer Finance in totality, we are actually in build mode when it comes to the training organization in totality. And we’re pursuing learning outsourcing where it makes the most sense to provide key elements of our learning capabilities to our consumer finance business.”
One of the important lessons Ertl has learned about global growth can be summarized using a popular slogan from the environmental movement: “Think globally, act locally.” “The importance of both global reach and local capability has really become clear to me,” Ertl said. “We have strong central leadership, and having a business leader who believes in learning is absolutely essential if you’re going to be successful on a global scale. At the same time, we have terrific people in every local area. When you’re working globally, you simply must have top-notch people at the local levels. You can’t drive everything with a central team. Learning leaders have to be groomed locally. They have to be able to get the resources and to work effectively in the local regions. That means understanding the business, but also understanding the culture.”
Transforming an Existing Sales Organization for Growth
After years of investments and a growth strategy founded on generating demand for next-generation products and services through marketing, many companies now focus more intensely on their sales organizations. It’s the sales people who must convert the interest created from marketing into the demand that will drive revenue growth.
But selling has become immensely more complicated in recent years, in part because of the move away from selling individual products and services toward selling “bundled” solutions to meet a unique customer need. Selling also now often involves coordination with partner channels, so the performance of both the internal sales force and the partner force are concerns.
One important trend that addresses these new selling performance challenges is the “sales academy,” which goes beyond point training solutions to take a more comprehensive approach to developing the knowledge and skills required by people in different sales roles as they progress in their careers. From selling fundamentals to consultative or solution selling to account management to sales leadership, an academy approach can help a company execute training based on a more coherent and logical curriculum, mapped to overall sales strategies.
The Vodafone Sales Academy, which won a national training award in the United Kingdom, is a series of different training modules focused on improving sales competencies in areas such as business analysis, account management and boardroom presentation. Students receive frequent feedback and measurement with regard to their performance within the modules. They are also paired with a buddy or mentor to ensure the training is personalized and contextualized.
A sales academy approach also can be an effective way for organizations to create meaningful certification programs that establish standards of competence and then measure performance against those standards. When dealing with a widely distributed sales force across partner channels, for example, certification programs can have a dramatic effect on sales performance.
For example, the Avaya Professional Certification program, developed and managed by Avaya University, enhances the ability of Avaya channel partners to deliver on customer expectations, from IP telephony and messaging solutions to integrated contact center applications that enable world-class customer support. The certification program also has strengthened the Avaya brand globally.
New sales tools also are emerging that can provide real-time learning and performance support for the sales force. Sales professionals have often been dubious about information systems, because many tools often have been more focused on the data input requirements from the sales person than on the active support the tool can provide. However, as sophisticated analytics become increasingly embedded in sales tools, many sales professionals are coming around. In call centers, for example, a sales support tool that presents selling options based on actual statistics about a particular customer’s propensity to buy can have a noticeable effect on sales and therefore, on an agent’s confidence in the tool.
A new comprehensive sales tool developed by MCI—now part of Verizon Business—helps its sales force perform at higher levels in the more complex world of solution selling, which often requires coordination of multiple functions across geographies. This sales tool integrates sales, sales support, marketing, information technology and legal and contractual guidelines, enabling all functions to work collaboratively to understand the unique needs of customers, develop distinctive solutions to meet those needs and support the extended sales team through the entire sales process.
This solution has resulted in faster time to competency for new sales representatives and has also had many other positive influences on the business. These include better sales forecasting and planning capabilities with advanced reporting and analytics capabilities, reduced sales administrative time and improved processes for contract generation, quoting and pricing.
Learning Services as an Engine of Growth
Many innovative companies are leveraging the success of their internal learning programs and transforming them into revenue-generating opportunities with customers. At Cerner Corp., for example, a culture of innovation has resulted in a decade of growth, fueled in part by the movement of learning from an internal function only to one that also generates revenue through client-facing learning services.
Rob Campbell, vice president of learning for Cerner KnowledgeWorks, is taking the company’s learning services a step further by reinventing medical education for doctors and nurses. Partnering with a few innovative medical schools and nursing programs, Campbell believes Cerner can help dramatically improve the speed to competency in critical health care professions.
“In response to the well-publicized nursing shortage a few years ago, applications to schools skyrocketed,” Campbell said. “But because the schools could not ramp up quickly enough to meet the larger applicant pool, all that really happened was that the schools raised the bar for admission. That doesn’t solve the problem. It just means you’ll have smarter people coming out of the system at the same rate. We believe we can help create a revenue-generating model for nursing schools that not only turns out better-qualified, higher-performing nurses, but does so at a dramatically faster rate.”
In a recovering economy, executives are daring to speak of growth through innovation again, and they are turning to learning executives for assistance in transforming ideas into products and services to fuel revenue growth. The best organizations do not leave innovation to chance, nor do they presume that ideas only come from experienced managers and executives. At BP, for example, the Mid Continent Business in the United States realized that its growth targets would require innovative ways of working. Among the programs BP established to spur innovation was a series of action learning events.
The action learning process created a series of cross-functional teams, focused on solving a complex business problem. Once the challenges were identified, 10 to 15 employees with diverse perspectives and experiences were chosen to serve as the action learning team for that challenge. Leadership played a role by communicating key messages about the program and then relieving the selected employees from their day-to-day activities so they could focus on the action learning process.
The action learning teams gathered data and assessed their business challenges from various viewpoints using data-analysis methods such as root-cause analysis and dynamic modeling. The team then came up with proposed solutions through brainstorming and other inventive problem-solving methods. Once the team agreed on a feasible solution, they created a business case to support their recommendations and then tested and modified the proposed solution. The final proposal was then presented to the business unit’s leadership team. In the end, by helping employees take responsibility for solving long-standing business challenges, BP helped create a more pervasive culture of innovation.
Finally, learning professionals have a general but highly important role to play for companies pursuing growth. The fact is, many companies now turn to their workforces in pursuit of innovation and growth, but they are getting a disengaged and apathetic response. From one point of view, it’s hard to blame them. One research study conducted in the midst of the global economic downturn found that in the United States alone, there were 20,000 instances of companies responding to adversity by workforce cuts averaging 100 workers or more.
Well-designed and highly relevant learning programs and curricula can be a critical part of re-engaging the workforce in pursuit of organizational growth. By creating engagement in learning on the part of employees, companies also can support better engagement with the entire company. And that translates into additional ROI not only by improving workforce performance, but also by increasing the retention rate of the best and most productive employees.
John G. Higgins is senior director of solution strategy and innovation for Accenture Learning. Chris Draper is a partner with Accenture specializing in human performance solutions for communications and high-tech clients in North America. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.