HD Supply Utilities is a major business for HD Supply, a multibillion-dollar wholesale distribution company providing a range of products and services to professional customers in the infrastructure, energy, maintenance, repair, improvement and specialty construction markets through 10 lines of business. HD Supply Utilities was one of the last to be hit by the recession, but in mid-2008, the effects were obvious. By November 2008, all classroom training was postponed, and the Utilities Learning Team (ULT) had to come up with a solution.
The ULT responded by capitalizing on HD Supply’s doing, learning, winning culture to build a competitive, differentiating learning structure leveraging talent to strongly position the company against its competitors. In August 2010, when a potential supplier stated during a webinar session that every program it offered had shifted from classroom to virtual in 18 months, ULT members looked at each other and gave the proverbial wink; they had executed the exact same project in less than nine months.
The economy tightened resources and staff, but learning did not diminish in importance — it simply evolved, as it has done since the ULT came into its own.
Learning Before the Recession
In late 2007, HD Supply Utilities had nearly 1,000 associates and no training program. President Rick McClure heard the counsel of Robert Joseph, vice president of HR, and others and built a learning team that would identify and train the skills needed to drive growth. “It’s not that I don’t believe in learning. I do. People I trust are telling me we need this. I’ve never needed a learning team to get it done before,” McClure said.
Over the next 24 months, the ULT grew. Each member had a combination of design, delivery and program management experience, and each had a primary focus — one on technology and operational excellence; one on sales and service; and one on leadership, team and organizational effectiveness.
To make a difference, the small team needed to reach associates located in more than 37 states, all of whom possessed varying degrees of willingness to learn. Then operations vice president Dean Witt’s suggestion to tap into field resources quickly developed into the Regional Learning Leads program — an internal, voluntary certification process associates can go through to become training liaisons.
Further, the team went from offering no training to offerings that include:
• Selling skills for outside sales paired with sales coaching skills for sales leaders and managers.
• Service skills for inside sales and branch operations.
• Technology skills.
• On-boarding and introduction to utilities.
• Business acumen programs, including finance, meeting effectiveness and project management.
The key to learning effectiveness was to identify the senior leaders who had a passion for learning and harness their field and functional talent. These leaders would support the learning team with design, subject-matter expertise, delivery, reinforcement, goal alignment and learning advocacy.
By August 2008, learning programs were in strong demand by the company. A learning management system was under consideration; McClure was speaking out often about the value of learning and development; and that year, the team won Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Learning In Practice Gold Award for Learning Team Partnership.
By November 2008, the impact of the recession had hit hard. Less than 60 days later, with hundreds of hours of training scheduled for delivery, all non-customer-facing travel budgets were reduced. It was a defining moment for swift, decisive action and a workable solution: Create a virtual delivery system to replace classroom training and do it within 12 months.
The virtual solution had considerable value. It would enable continued delivery of training that, when combined with strong leadership support, alignment with key initiatives and a cadre of field-based associates who doubled as learning leaders, truly made a difference in driving results and associate engagement.
Making It Work
The team conducted a rapid deep-dive analysis focused on people, process and technology. Internet searching, networking and brainstorming with suppliers was the focus, with a goal to guide the team on how to continually deliver training in new, innovative ways. The analysis went as follows:
People: ULT assessed learner readiness for virtual learning, and it was dauntingly clear that most learners had never taken a virtual class and most preferred classroom training.
Process: A review of existing best practices and supplier partnerships brought more questions than answers: How would the company’s before, during and after implementation approach be affected if it were to switch to virtual training? How would existing suppliers respond?
Technology: A quick needs assessment using best practices criteria made it clear that the team didn’t have what the experts suggested was necessary — including an LMS — but it had enough to get started, including programs such as AdobeConnect and Sametime.
The ULT had earned the trust and support of senior leaders and had the vision and passion to succeed in making the shift from 90 percent classroom training to 90 percent Web-based delivery in a short period of time. The learners were in full support, too, and willing to learn the clicks and more needed to engage in virtual delivery.
In March 2009, HD Supply Utilities’ first full-day session was delivered virtually from Orlando, Fla., to participants at two major branch locations in Wake Forest, N.C., and Mattoon, Ill. The group’s engagement was as strong at the end of the day as it was in the beginning because of planning done before the delivery — communication, logistics, establishing an on-site producer — and during the session — the use of no-cost repurposed laptops pilfered from IT, inexpensive webcams and engaging instructors who had read up on virtual delivery best practices. The virtual program immediately became a draw for sales, field operations and functional leaders who saw learners emerge from training with an understanding of utilities key metrics and how to use them to make sound business decisions. As one senior sales leader said, “I’m called on less frequently now to make decisions because the team understands the impact of approving a nonbudgeted expense.”
The research from training industry experts indicated that only highly experienced trainers should deliver virtual training and that they would need formal training to do so. Out of necessity, HD Supply Utilities’ approach defied this. Further, during the cuts, ULT had lost its sales trainer, so the company sought field sales leaders to share the responsibility. The four who took charge of this responsibility had never been trainers and lived in four geographically dispersed locations. However, they all shared a passion for learning, and each committed to and passed the certification process, all virtually delivered, to become AchieveGlobal sales trainers.
Today, the four sales trainers within HD Supply Utilities — Rob Adams, Greg Conte, Bill Lawyer and Shane Thompson — split the quarterly 18 hours of virtual delivery lessons on professional selling skills. Adult learning techniques are maximized for virtual delivery, including polling, chat, subconferencing and whiteboarding. This is supported with a learning structure that includes an aggressive attendance policy, learning pods — teams of three to four who support each other with coaching and feedback outside of formal learning — and a makeup process designed for user ease and efficiency. All of these elements have created a positive buzz about executing programs for a large audience with a small team.
In 2010, HD Supply Utilities reached a longtime goal of including customers, suppliers and alliance partners in its training. Although the learning management system (LMS) doesn’t readily support this, virtual delivery — combined with 5 percent classroom delivery — has made this possible. The benefits include alignment with the company’s doing, learning, winning culture and having a consistent language and approach to leadership, sales, service and partnerships.
In less than two years, HD Supply Utilities has seen its LMS become a more robust solution for scheduling, tracking and reinforcement. The collaborative partnership with the HD Supply Corporate Learning Team is helping to meet the goal of breaking down content into just-in-time chunks and to input and output decades of institutional knowledge, allowing the company’s learning strategy to grow.
HD Supply has a lean learning organization, but the company believes in and invests in learning. Dozens of associates across HD Supply are willing and passionately encouraged to provide learning subject-matter expertise, delivery and reinforcement. To support these, in 2010, the company implemented key metrics tracking the ongoing effects of selling skills training and margin improvement to ensure that learning is making a difference. A long-term study, which also began in 2010, is trending to show that many of those who complete the training are driving stronger gains in margin and revenue when compared to a control group.
Every class HD Supply Utilities delivers includes a Metrics that Matter evaluation using SurveyMonkey. On a 4.0 overall scale, Utilities Learning comes in at 3.7, with lower scores in the area of management support. The ULT has set its sights on raising that number in 2011 with a concerted effort — via a virtually delivered session — outfitting all managers on best practices to support and sustain learning effectiveness before, during and after training.
Victoria Ryan is senior manager of learning and organizational effectiveness for HD Supply. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.