JoAnn Shaw, vice president and chief learning officer at BJC HealthCare, has a personal dedication to the field of medicine that comes with survival.
At age 19, Shaw was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. “I’ve subsequently had three additional diagnoses, so I’m proof that it doesn’t mean a death sentence,” she said, adding that the experience made her want to contribute to the health care field. “I can remember thinking at the young age of 19, ‘I don’t think I have it in me to be a nurse, but at some point I want to be able to give back.’”
After initially pursuing a career path at a Fortune 500 company, which exposed her to different areas of HR, Shaw got her start in health care when she ran into the then-CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital, Chicago, at a social event.
According to Shaw, he said to her, “We are looking for someone who comes to us not from health care, but brings more of that business acumen into our environment, and we need some help with positive, proactive employee relations.” He brought Shaw on board shortly thereafter in a director role and she subsequently moved up to a vice president role.
Shaw’s career in health care HR continued to advance, with her experience growing as she proceeded. Two decades ago, Shaw was hired as the vice president of HR at the University of Chicago Hospitals and Health System. According to Shaw, the then-CEO said to her, “We have a real issue with our culture. It’s one of entitlement; employees just aren’t motivated.”
It was evident to Shaw that the culture of the organization was in dire straits and needed resuscitation. She recalled colleagues suggesting seemingly ineffectual solutions such as buying “cute pens” for the staff or leading them in a sing-along.
Shaw knew she had to do better than this, so she turned to the corporate world, conducting site visits at companies such as Motorola and McDonald’s that were ranked among the best places to work. Here, not surprisingly, she encountered an emphasis on learning.
“The common theme among all [those] organizations was the attention to educating their workforce,” Shaw said. “I came back and said to the CEO, ‘I think we need to create an internal university.’” The vision turned into reality with the founding of the University of Chicago Hospitals Academy.
According to Shaw, University of Chicago Hospitals was one of the first health care organizations in the country to devote so much time to learning, and over time the academy received national recognition, with hospitals across the country visiting to see the university in action.
One of the key metrics Shaw and her team used was patient satisfaction, which improved by large strides once the learning program was in place.
“When employees understand that what they do [has] an impact on the patient — whether you’re at the bedside or you’re sweeping the lobbies — that’s powerful and people feel engaged,” she said. “It really changes the culture.”
A Healthy Dose of Learning
Shaw joined BJC HealthCare as vice president and chief HR officer in 2001. A few years later, when the nonprofit decided to unbundle learning as a separate division from HR, she became instrumental in creating the BJC Center for Lifelong Learning (CLL).
In 2009, nearly 24,000 BJC employees participated in learning programs. CLL employs a variety of training delivery methods, including instructor-led classes, e-learning, mobile learning, blended learning, and video and Web conferencing.
Shaw explained that all the instructional design and content development is done internally for the 800-plus classes offered to employees.
“Sometimes we’ll use cartoon characters that we create because, as you might imagine, some of the mandatory courses that are required of health care folks can be pretty boring — there’s not a lot exciting about latex allergy,” Shaw said. The instructional designers on Shaw’s learning team worked with BJC’s graphic designers to create a character named “Professor Lester” — now the common character in all of its required environmental health and safety courses.
“It’s really fun [and] interactive,” Shaw said. “There are pre-tests and post-tests. We manage the learning management system for the entire organization, so we’re able to see how people are testing, how long they’re retaining the information, etc.”
With more than 26,000 employees, 13 hospitals and other business units such as home health care and behavioral health, BJC is a large and diverse system that requires special care.
“We have a number of community hospitals; we have rural hospitals; we have a hospital that has less than 30 beds, but then we have a hospital with over 1,200,” Shaw said. “So it’s quite a spectrum, and that brings with it [some] challenges because the delivery of learning has to be very different in such a diverse organization.”
This is a key reason BJC takes such a blended approach to training. “[Learning] is not just stand and deliver, but it’s blended; it’s mobile; it’s online; it’s 24/7,” Shaw said, adding this is of particular importance in training employees for whom working hours are a matter of life or death. “In health care, you can’t pull nurses off a unit and say, ‘Today you’re all going to class,’ because they’ve got patients to take care of. So we have to think of ways to deliver learning that [are] fast [and] flexible, just like our business.”
In addition, BJC HealthCare also fosters a number of academic partnerships, which considerably reduce the cost for employees to earn degrees. Currently more than 1,000 BJC employees are enrolled in courses — from the high school completion program all the way up to the MBA cohorts — that are taught by academic institutions’ faculty but are offered at the BJC facility.
The journey toward creating and sustaining a reputable learning academy inevitably led Shaw and her team to encounter some roadblocks, including some initial resistance from trusted colleagues.
“There was a little pushback. One of my colleagues said to me one day, ‘We don’t need any of your stupid learning,’” she said, noting that they changed the outlook of quite a few skeptics once the value of the learning programs became evident. “That person is now one of the most successful executives on my faculty.”
One of the more pressing challenges BJC faces today is keeping up with the demand for learning while maintaining a level of quality that the organization has come to expect. In addition, keeping abreast of constantly evolving technologies will no doubt always remain challenging, Shaw said.
To Your Health
A major undertaking in BJC’s pipeline for 2010 is to create and roll out what’s known as a personal development learning map — a print and interactive online tool that will be made available through the learning management system to aid all levels of employees seeking relevant learning opportunities.
For example, as part of the regular review cycle, a manager may suggest an employee concentrate on a particular area for personal development, said Jeanne Bonzon, director of learning and development at BJC. The manager and employee could then look at the map together and identify the appropriate class for the employee to take to reach the specified goal.
“The objectives are to provide an easy and intuitive method for employees and their managers to connect to what’s out there in the way of learning opportunities, [while] at the same time giving them an idea of what BJC believes are the elements of excellence,” Bonzon said.
Another objective is to catalog all the learning opportunities in one spot to make it easy for employees to find.
“[It also] helps us identify the gaps that might exist in our offerings and have our governance council prioritize the development of filling those gaps,” Bonzon said.
Taking the Pulse
Retention of employees is a key indicator of the success of the learning programs at BJC. Other metrics include employee satisfaction, patient satisfaction, and cycle time for reduction or improvement of an issue in productivity.
“[Learning] contributes to the overall success of our health system — all you have to do is look at our rankings, patient satisfaction [and] employee satisfaction,” Shaw said. “Our learning is aligned with whatever our business goals and objectives are, and [if] we can teach our employees about what they do and how it ultimately impacts making medicine and the patient experience better, it’s a guarantee for success.”
Shaw said this facilitates empowerment of the overall workforce, which is essential. Since the world of health care is continually changing, employers like BJC HealthCare are obliged to offer tools to help employees hone their skills, but ultimately the onus lies with the employee to be proactive in leveraging the various learning tools made available to them.
“Our employees are given the option to choose, to learn, to succeed,” Shaw said. “We say to our employees all the time: ‘You’ve always had the potential. We’re just helping you unleash [that] potential by learning. Learning is very powerful. All you have to do is choose something, learn from that experience [and] succeed.’”