Global consulting firm Mercer has turned to a learning platform to better manage workforce performance, deliver employee development programs and capture knowledge worldwide.
When asked what their most important asset is, most companies will respond that it’s their people. And accordingly, these companies invest hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars into learning, performance management and talent management programs to nurture and develop the employee expertise that ultimately leads to competitive advantage.
When a company specializes in consulting, among other things, the pressure is on to use the same tactics, programs and initiatives internally that it advocates to its customers.
That’s exactly the challenge that Mercer, a leading global provider of consulting, outsourcing and investment services, encounters on a daily basis. With more than 17,000 employees in multiple lines of business located in 40 countries around the world, Mercer’s global talent management organization is responsible for promoting consistency through a single way of doing things and supporting behavioral competencies across their core disciplines and across the world.
In 2000, Mercer implemented Mzinga’s KnowledgePlanet global learning management platform. That enabled the company to launch Partnering for Success (PfS), Mercer’s worldwide performance and development program. PfS provides one way to help Mercer employees around the world set goals, receive feedback, plan their careers, identify learning and development opportunities and achieve appropriate rewards.
“We had a global learning group for a number of years, along with a global approach to performance management, but having it and having people use it are two different things,” said Deborah Wheelock, leader of Mercer’s Global Talent Management Center of Expertise (COE). “Having a global learning and performance infrastructure in place has enabled us to reach a wider audience with consistent learning, messaging and processes. We became truly global with the advent of PfS online, and we now have an enterprise-wide process and approach to performance management that enables us to report across all global businesses.”
As a company that is dispersed both geographically and functionally, Mercer needed a learning platform as flexible as it was robust to accommodate its global delivery requirements and the subsequent challenges associated with implementing a talent and performance management initiative.
“Talent management is about creating and engaging the right workforce to meet business objectives and is centered on workforce capabilities. Performance management is making sure we have the right processes in place to build high performance so development can be targeted to areas where there are gaps in capabilities,” Wheelock explained.
“We have global programs that are tactile, such as sales skills, presentation skills and an array of subjects to support the various competencies,” said Louise Gale, the technology manager in charge of Mercer’s learning and performance platforms. “We use the LMS to advertise the programs and determine who they’re targeted to. We don’t take away the emphasis on the importance of face-to-face meetings and instructor-led training, but we want the programs to be globally consistent. Often, we have prerequisites and follow-up activities as part of the global face-to-face meetings. The KnowledgePlanet infrastructure helps with that, as well as the registrations and the different tasks needed to deliver such programs.”
“We have a set of competencies that cross the business and cross the world; we’re able to align the development we offer people globally so these are consistent,” Wheelock added. “It’s very helpful to be able to roll out a new program in a variety of languages and then report on the activity. This speeds the knowledge to our consultants. It’s efficient, and this is key for us.”
Part of the team’s challenge is blurring the line between learning and work through seamless integration, including linking to development materials through Mercer’s intranet and IT group.
“We don’t want employees to have to make a conscious decision to stop working and start learning,” Wheelock said.
Enabling employees to artfully blend learning and work is becoming increasingly relevant as workplace demographics begin shifting. Like most companies, Mercer faces the challenges associated with retiring baby boomers and the resulting anticipated workforce shortages. Mercer recognizes it has to address the issue of an aging workforce, and with many senior employees approaching retirement, that’s shaping the company’s road map for learning delivery and performance.
The company’s strategy, according to Wheelock, is two-pronged. “We want to be smart about how we leverage retiring employees’ knowledge and how we do that creatively. On the other end, we’re recognizing that younger people will force us to change our approaches. We feel we need to push our company, IT and management to think differently about how we invest in technology and the ways we traditionally move people through their careers.”
“My passion is how we use technology to facilitate this,” she said. “We’re trying to start a dialogue before employees leave: How can we put young grads in touch with retirees and assist employees who haven’t spoken to these experts in extracting their knowledge?”
The answer, according to Gale, may lie in the Mercer community itself, which could potentially expand to include a Learning 2.0 vision for the KnowledgePlanet learning management system.
“We are continuing to create a holistic experience around learning,” Gale said. “We’re looking at new ways of connecting employees to advance our learning goals, such as social networking and community. We’re such a virtual company, so how can we connect those people to each other to share knowledge and learning experiences? We’re talking about using social media to attract the right people before we even recruit them. Then we’ll have the infrastructure to enable those connections even though these people might never meet the people they work with on projects.”
With social media, the team hopes to attract new talent, as well as welcome alumni back to the fold. The focus, Gale said, ultimately is on engaging people.
“Engaged employees are more productive and deliver higher-quality results for our clients. We want to encourage them to meet others in other businesses and locations. People coming into the firm are used to organizing their social lives this way. It’s part of their makeup, so we want to ensure that part of the infrastructure is present for them.”
According to Wheelock, however, implementing social learning comes with its own set of challenges, including possible prejudices.
“Part of the way you secure investment for anything new in learning is to build the business case,” she explained. “We plan to show how the benefits of extending learning in the long term will impact performance and be worth that investment. We’re trying to come up with a moniker that aptly describes the extended learning experience. We all know that formal classroom training isn’t the way people learn the most. But if you use a term like ‘social networking,’ right or wrong, some people may think you’re only talking about teenagers on MySpace.”
Gale agreed that combining social learning with formal learning has the potential to have a much greater impact on employee development than formal classroom training alone.
“Social networking is getting employees to be open to learning all the time, and their managers to be open to it, too. This helps with succession planning internally and for client relationships. All of it fits together.”
So what is the Global Talent Management COE’s major initiative for 2008 and beyond?
“Building talent,” Wheelock said. “McKinsey’s famous report several years ago called it a ‘war’ for talent. But we think that isn’t the best word to use: Wars end, and this challenge of putting the right people in the right job at the right time is never going to end. Talent is our most important asset, and if we don’t continually invest in our talent efforts, we won’t be able to meet our clients’ needs.”
For now, with a defined talent management strategy and the infrastructure in place to deliver, manage and track all of Mercer’s learning and performance initiatives, Wheelock is optimistic about the future.
“We reorganized separate HR departments about 18 months ago and expanded our learning and development group into a broader Talent Management Center of Expertise,” she explained. “In doing so, we started down the path to really knit together the connections between performance, development and, for the first time, a systematic review of talent to do succession planning in a meaningful way. We feel we’re on the right track, and it’s very exciting for us.”
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