When searching for evidence of Farmers Insurance’s commitment to learning, look no further than its national advertising strategy: “We are Farmers. Bam pa rum pa rum pa rum,” the jingle goes. Many have seen the commercial, which touts the company’s learning organization, the University of Farmers.
“When you talk about commitment to learning, it’s hard not to think about the senior executives being committed to learning when our national advertising strategy is the University of Farmers,” said Annette Thompson, senior vice president and chief learning officer at Farmers Insurance.
Farmers’ commitment to learning has been clear since 2008, when the insurance brokerage created the CLO position and linked it with a reporting structure directly tied to its chief executive. Farmers executives are constantly participating in the university’s learning events, Thompson said.
For instance, the company pays a 10-member outside board of regents to help align Farmers’ learning organization with its overall business strategy. Thompson also participates in the company’s board of governors meetings and is a member of the executive-level office of general management. Her office reports its learning results quarterly, adjusting the learning strategy to meet the varying needs of the business.
“We tie business outcomes to our learning programs, and we’re very aligned with the business,” she said. “And when you look at [other] organizations, that’s somewhat of a rarity in our business.”
The primary element that drives Farmers’ ability to connect learning to the business strategy is its metrics. University of Farmers measures nearly 25 percent of its learning programs on a Level 4 model based on the Kirkpatrick scale of metrics.
“Measurement has been part of our discipline since day one as a university,” said Art Dobrucki, University of Farmers director of learning strategy and performance. “Since the scope of the university has expanded, and we’ve integrated more learning units, the expectation and the practice of measuring across the Kirkpatrick framework is something that we’ve implemented deeply. No matter what learning unit we have in the learning organization, everybody is measuring deeply across the board from Level 1 to business outcomes. This allows us to internally demonstrate to our stakeholders the value that learning is bringing to the table.”
To stay ahead of the curve in learning program development — this ranges from traditional, classroom-based learning to virtual webinar training — Thompson said a heavy emphasis is placed on benchmarking. Putting its learning efforts on display — through Corporate University Exchange, Chief Learning Officer’s LearningElite and others — for others in the industry helps Farmers gauge its progress in the space and continuously evaluate how its learning strategy is structured.
“Different organizations think about learning differently,” Thompson said. “And even if you don’t place, it puts your organization in a position to really think about your strategy.”
Moving forward, aside from continuing to evaluate and experiment with new practices and technologies in the learning space, University of Farmers will capitalize on its ongoing leadership investment. Recently the company built a second learning campus, a 50,000-square-foot center in Grand Rapids, Mich., which opened in June 2011.
With a budget of roughly $121 million for the latest fiscal year, University of Farmers will continue to drive development and effectiveness for its leaders and agents, who in turn drive insurance sales and the business’ bottom line.
“We measure almost all of our sales curriculum in new business on the increase of new business sales pre- and post- [training],” Thompson said. “And most of our curriculum delivers, on average, about a 9.8 percent increase of new business sales post-participation.”
“We’ve made an investment in our folks in building a process that is the Farmers way of learning,” Dobrucki said.
“As budgets have gotten thinner, the university hasn’t taken any additional hits that any other function in the organization has taken,” Thompson said. “In fact, we’ve probably gotten more investment.”