Who hasn’t seen those funny Farmers Insurance commercials, like the one where the instructor dumps a celebratory beverage over the students after they shower him first. Then there’s the jingle: “We are Farmers. Bam pa rum pa rum pa rum.”
Aside from the catchy jingle, potential and existing customers may have noticed something else different about Farmers’ new advertising strategy: the fact that the company chose to place the University of Farmers in the spotlight.
“Advertising has created a much more competitive environment for insurance because consumers are more aware of the choices out there,” said Annette Thompson, senior vice president and chief learning officer at Farmers Insurance.
The company needed a unique value proposition to distinguish itself from competitors and put its brand front and center in the minds of potential consumers.
“As you think about [how] you’re trying to break through into that space, one of the values we think the university brings to our agents and ultimately to our customers is that we invest heavily in training and developing our agents and we think that’s a unique space in the market,” she said. “That’s what we’re trying to do with the ads — communicate that Farmers is a company that has well-trained agents because of the University of Farmers.”
That wasn’t always the case. Thompson played an integral role in building the learning organization from the ground up.
Broadening Learning’s Scope
Thompson got her feet wet in learning in the early 2000s, when she ran learning for a business unit of eight to provide learning and development for 14,000 exclusive agents.
“[Learning] worked well for me because I enjoyed it and I also had a very strong operational background, which — once I learned the learning discipline — allowed me to be effective,” she said. “I was able to deliver results because of my understanding of the business supported by a strong design and development strategy around business outcomes.”
Today, Thompson is responsible for 140 learning professionals who meet the needs of 26,000 employees, 36,000 independent agents and 14,000 exclusive agents.
“We’ve got about 1,491 instructor-led offerings and about 6,800 online offerings, and about 41 percent of what we do is cross-functional,” she said. That means the content is reusable for multiple functions.
The University of Farmers also has gone from having no physical presence to having two large corporate campuses. The learning organization has collected industry accolades as it has evolved into a strategic and tactical entity of the company. Still, as with most learning organizations, Farmers has faced its share of challenges.
For instance, despite significant growth in learning resources, Thompson said because the learning organization doesn’t touch all parts of the employee base, reach is still a growth opportunity.
“In today’s challenging economic times, capacity is still an issue — we’ve grown in reputation [as] the hub of learning, so we’ve got more demands on us than we’ve ever had,” she said. “The organization tries to, justifiably so, pull from the university, so that’s continuing to create capacity issues for us even with 140 people.”
Further, on a strategic level, managing knowledge can be challenging.
“We’ve grown, we’ve acquired organizations, and the amount of information that’s coming from the external part of the world as well as what’s being developed internally creates a challenge for us, as I think it does for every learning organization — how to get that information in our users’ hands at the most logical point in their daily work and to do it in a way that leverages technology and drives the cost out of business,” she said.
Delivering Business Value
“[The learning organization] exists for the business, and if we aren’t able to deliver then I wouldn’t consider what we do a success,” Thompson said. “We deliver for the business in a very objective, measurable way.”
Thompson said it’s of critical importance that the learning organization’s mission and vision be in alignment with the organizational strategy, which is tightly focused on product excellence, distribution excellence, competitive products, talent management, operational excellence and innovation.
“When our learning solutions are reported in our quarterly scorecard to all of our senior executives, it’s reported against the underlying pillars that support our strategy,” she said.
At Farmers, learning units are aligned by business units — that way, the learning unit lead and the business unit lead can connect regularly.
“By way of example, we have a unit that’s focused completely on our distribution; we have a unit that’s focused completely on our contact centers; we have a commercial unit, as well as a general employee development unit,” she said.
Further, Thompson said she and her team are paid on business results.
“We’re not paid on delivering a curriculum, although we certainly measure, ‘Did the solution get delivered on time and budget?’ But we’re paid on: ‘Does the learning solution deliver the desired business outcomes we’ve worked with our business unit to target?’” she said.
Take David Travers, for instance. The executive vice president of operations for Farmers relies on the university to expand the capabilities for his 3,000-plus employees and enable them to “wow” customers.
“At any given time we have a multitude of traditional learning initiatives in flight — things like new-hire programs, career path up-skilling and leadership development,” Travers said. “While all of this is important, what I really value from the university is the operational partnership. The ‘U’ is at the table with my team analyzing operations and processes, identifying improvement opportunities and then helping design solutions that are practical.
“That’s what sets [it] apart from ordinary corporate training organizations — we don’t just train; we ask: Why are we training this? Is there an easier way to do this? Can we eliminate this step? The ‘U’ is a full partner in the day-to-day business, and the employees and customers win with that approach.”
Delivery and Metrics Matter
Depending on the desired outcome, there are variations in how learning is delivered at Farmers.
“If it’s something [where] we’re trying to transfer knowledge, we try to do it either in an online environment or in a distance virtual environment — whether that’s paper, performance support, an online course [or] something as simple as a nugget that’s delivered in a push mechanism,” Thompson said.
“Any skill needs that come out of our design — such as sales, customer interactions, etc. — we try to do those either in a face-to-face environment [or] in an advanced simulation environment, if we do it online. Attitudinal types of outcomes that we need to have occur, we try to deliver face to face.”
Approximately half of all learning at Farmers is conducted online; about 45 percent is face to face; the remainder is delivered via online performance support or through new technologies such as the iPad.
Further, metrics matter at Farmers, which is why every learning program is measured based on one or a combination of measures: number of participants, reaction, skill and knowledge, behavior, actual business outcomes and return on investment.
Tangible metrics for specific learning programs show improvement in areas such as engagement and retention, Thompson said.
“We absolutely have to stay [in] pace with technology, and we have to get better at using technology to put learning in our learners’ hands when they need it,” she said.
Thompson said how learning nuggets are delivered through technology is of pivotal importance. Hence the company’s increasing use of video, along with smartphones and iPads to deliver point-in-time learning.
“We’re trying to do more in performance support so we can deliver what our users need when they’re in the moment on the job — whether that job is in working in an application or on a sales call.”
For example, Farmers has developed a smartphone application for its agents that enables them to access point-in-time resources and aids for use in the moment of a sale, marketing or service interaction.
Leveraging social media effectively is also top of mind for the learning organization.
“My vision would be that we find a way to gain content from our learners through social media and reuse that content,” Thompson said. This way, the content would be generated by the learner and not always the learning organization. “It [would be] reusable and delivered in short nuggets either through social media or pushed back in another medium.”
Other areas of focus for the company going forward include knowledge management and wellness.
“New people coming into our business are focused on wellness, and as an organization we’re going to be pressed to do a better job in focusing on that for our employees — both from managing our own health care cost as an organization and for the desire of our employees,” she said.
Deanna Hartley is an associate editor of MediaTec Publishing. She can be reached at dhartley@CLOMedia.com.