Learning and development organizations generally face similar challenges, regardless of the size and scope of their businesses. However, those challenges slightly intensify when referring to mid-market companies. Specifically, mid-market organizations—with approximately 5,000 or fewer employees—sometimes struggle to establish learning and development strategies that align to the overall strategic objectives due to limited communications with senior leadership, IT-infrastructure confines and budget constraints. Despite these common challenges, many mid-market organizations have followed the footsteps of blue-chip organizations that have successfully realized the overall value and competitive advantage of learning and development.
According to Gregory Fairchild, assistant professor of business administration of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, the recent corporate movement to employ chief learning officers is an example of how organizations, at all levels, are embracing learning and development. “(Chief learning officer) is a fairly recent senior-level appointment in companies, and the title doesn’t exist in a lot of companies,” Fairchild explained. “Some of the existence of CLO positions is due to the recognition by a number of CEOs and senior executives of the importance of the learning and development function to the success of the company and the need to add legitimacy and focus to the learning and development function.”
Aligning with Company Goals
For some mid-market organizations, the challenge of aligning learning and development with strategic goals often stems from the fact that learning and development is not considered a key objective for recruiting or retaining top talent. Fairchild said that mid-market organizations often view training and development as a choice. “Mid-market organizations are really in a position where they ask the fundamental question of whether they want to provide training at the entry point or hire individuals who already possess the talent, skills and experience required to perform the job,” he said. “The latter, however, means that these organizations must pay more for talent. The alternative is that firms not spend money for more seasoned, talented professionals and hire individuals with fewer credentials and provide them with the training and development they need.”
At HomeBanc Mortgage Corp., a Southeast mortgage-banking company, its learning mission is to hire the best, train them exceptionally well, help assimilate them and give them the tools to develop and grow. To achieve this mission, the company provides extensive training to grow its new hires from the very beginning of their employment. HomeBanc Senior Vice President and Director of Training Nick Mantia said, “We really have a philosophy that we hire people with very little experience in our production and operations area, which is sales, sales-support processing, etc. We teach them what it takes to be successful not only in this industry, but in our company. We then provide them continuous education through development programs and other training so they can be life-long learners.”
In fact, once new hires join the HomeBanc team, they go through a rigorous nine-week boot camp coined Professional Sales Development, which covers everything from basic mortgage banking knowledge to sales skills to professional development to industry- and company-specific knowledge. “It’s a very unique program. It is a nine-week course and starts every morning at 7 a.m. and runs to at least 5 p.m., if not 7 p.m. There are tests everyday, homework every night and there are opportunities for them to start to pull the knowledge together when they go out in the field. So they actually shadow successful loan officers and sit with the processing team to ensure that the knowledge is being applied,” Mantia said. “During that period of time not everyone graduates, that’s why we refer to it as a boot camp because only the strongest will survive.”
According to Mantia, learners are required to earn at least an 80 percent average in order to graduate. He said, “We have been able to see the better people do in the boot camp, the more successful they typically are in the real world. We found in the past, before we raised the average to 80, that people who tested between 75 and 80 were typically one-third less productive and they turned over five times higher then the people at the top of the class. So our goal is to make everybody graduate at the top of the class.”
At Robert W. Baird & Co., an international wealth-management firm, its learning philosophy is to provide curriculum and support that creates professional competent associates who are the champions of the company’s culture. The company executes this, according to Elizabeth Kavelaris, director of Baird University, by offering comprehensive, continuous learning initiatives as well as by having complete support from senior leadership. “We have been blessed having the top leaders of the firm whole-heartedly believe in training and development. They don’t just give it lip service; they truly believe that it is paramount to our success that people are equipped with the tools they need to serve our clients,” she said. “Our president comes to every one of our orientation programs and spends at least an hour with the new associates talking to them, giving them the strategic overview, answering their questions. He sits and has lunch with them too.”
Taking Learning Online
Bringing learning to the Web represents a huge opportunity for mid-market learning and development organizations to expand their reach across the nation, deliver learning activities directly to individuals throughout a company at the same time as well as decrease training expenditures over time. For many mid-market organizations, embracing e-learning is brought about by a specific challenge.
At Gilbane Inc., the parent organization of two operating companies, Gilbane Building Co. and Gilbane Development Co., e-learning gained momentum after California and Connecticut implemented laws that require all public or private employers that regularly employ 50 or more individuals to provide sexual harassment training every two years. “At that point, our CEO said, ‘Sexual harassment awareness is more than a mandate in two states: I want to require the course to ensure that every single employee at Gilbane is not creating a hostile work environment.’ So he took the step of mandating this two-hour online course to upgrade everyone’s awareness of sexual harassment,” explained Diane Fasching, vice president of enterprise learning and development. “By driving employees to take the course online, people discovered what Gilbane University offers: We have 50 interpersonal SkillSoft courses, we have the entire Microsoft Office suite, we also have a large number of safety courses that all can be accessed 24×7 from their homes or with the company’s intranet.”
According to Fasching, the increased awareness that was achieved through mandating the online sexual harassment education led the organization to realize an 81 percent increase in the use of online learning courses. This year, Gilbane mandated another online course as a result of the increased acceptance by the company’s 1,700-plus employees and success of the previous online course requirement. “When I started here six years ago, one of the initial surveys was about how employees enjoyed learning and which methods they preferred. Everyone said, ‘We only like classroom learning. Don’t even bother us with online or any of the other new-fangled learning methods,’” she said. “So the success of our previous online education translated into this year mandating an OSHA-30 class. Everyone in the operations side of the business has to take the 30-hour OSHA class as a standard, and many employees in our regions have opted to take it online.”
Baird’s strategy for delivering learning to its more than 2,200 employees is to decipher the best method for the job, but never scrimping on training, Kavelaris said. “We try to figure out the best method for learning. We ask, ‘Is it something that they could learn via an e-session, face-to-face sessions, etc.?” she explained. “However, if it’s a more complex subject where they need the ability to discuss the information, we’ll fly employees in for training or we will go to them.”
However, at HomeBanc Mortgage Corp., the organization’s online curricula reside under the umbrella of HomeBanc University, which was implemented by Isabelle Schneidman, associate vice president and director of learning management. She is responsible for developing distance learning for the corporation’s 1,300-plus employees. “One of the reasons that we hired Isabelle was because she brought a considerable discipline around distance learning. She has extensive experience in converting classes and putting them online, and she was instrumental in getting HomeBanc University up and running,” Mantia said.
HomeBanc University was established not only to control the costs of training, but also to extend its reach outside of the Georgia headquarters to the company’s other locations in Florida and North Carolina. “Previously, for our boot camp training we had to either send our trainers to lead the Professional Sales Development classes or bring employees into headquarters, which has some costs,” Mantia said. “So by converting the classes and putting them online, it certainly has helped control costs.”
“We are going to continue to do what we are doing and do more of it and add more curriculum to our online courseware, create more internally developed courses, try to find software that helps in the rapid e-learning development,” Schneidman said. “We are currently using recorded Web conferences, which isn’t really ideal for creating e-learning in terms of speed of production and getting it out there quickly. So I would love for us to build more dynamic and robust e-learning using tools that will allow us to do that.”
Lessons from Mid-Market Organizations
Throughout the implementation process, Baird, Gilbane and HomeBanc’s learning leaders have learned some valuable lessons. Fasching, Kavelaris, Mantia and Schneidman all agree that aligning with the organization is crucial to the success of learning initiatives and that learning executives must develop strategic partnerships with senior leaders before diving headfirst into an implementation.
“We always start with the end in mind and ask ourselves, ‘What are we trying to get out of this? How does this match to the strategy of the firm?’” Kavelaris explained. To figure answers to those strategic questions, Kavelaris employs metrics that correlate with the learning and organizational objectives. “For instance, if the objective is to increase service, we actually survey internal clients to see if there is a change in their satisfaction. Or, if the objective is to increase production, we try to track employees’ production before the class, after the class, and then, maybe six months and 12 months after the class.”
“Certainly alignment is very important, but so is support from the top. Our leaders talk about the learning and development function, they are proud of it, they take part in it either as attendee or as instructors. It has to be imbedded in the fabric of the organization as an expectation. If that philosophy is imbedded in the organization, it makes for a much easier process,” Fasching explained. “I think that learning and development — even though we have required curricula and courses — has to go beyond the requirements. It has to be part of the company philosophy to really work and not be seen as a burden, but rather to be seen as an opportunity for growth.”
In terms of the e-learning perspective, Schneidman said, “By all means, the biggest advice I would give would be to consult with your IT organization. The IT organization needs to be a critical partner as you go from initial steps and stages from e-learning all the way through the more complicated. Those infrastructure issues are critical to your success.”
Overall, the success of learning and development — no matter how big or small the organization — requires senior leadership support, alignment with strategic organizational objectives, collaboration with IT, as well as continued measurement. “I think it is important for learning organizations to show how they contribute to the strategy and the end result so that they can become partners with those business-unit leaders — especially if they are trying to get an initiative off the ground,” Kavelaris said. “As a learning leader, show that learning and development can add value, improve the performance of employees and will impact bottom-line results.”
–Cari McLean, email@example.com