The events of Sept. 11 rocked the airline industry to its core. To an enterprise that had weathered the storms of fuel embargos, mergers, devastating air disasters and labor unrest, there was simply no precedent for the impact of an event of this magnitude. In response to decreased passenger loads and the related revenue loss, routes were cut, flights reduced and the labor force trimmed.
As the world’s fourth largest airline, Northwest Airlines (NWA) was no exception to this economic reality. In October 2001, NWA asked its managers for across-the-board labor cuts of up to 30 percent. One of these groups was NWA’s Information Systems (IS) located in Minneapolis, Minn., NWA’s corporate headquarters. What was unusual was that this group was better prepared than many to meet the challenges of a reduction in force of this size.
This is the story of how NWA’s Information Services group and its training department faced this challenge, armed with a Skills Management System that helped them move through the aftermath of the reduction, while preserving key skills necessary to maintain the core business.
“I think it has always been the goal to align learning to the core competencies of an organization,” said Joe Tria, program director for the Center for Talent, Movement and Development Systems, Hewitt Associates. “But what Northwest has done is also create a line of sight for employees to clearly see the path of expectation in current and future roles.”
That line of sight wasn’t always on Northwest’s horizon. Prior to implementing its Skills Management System, only 10 percent of the requested training was satisfied, and the company was reliant on instructor-led approaches. What’s more, managers competed for training funds. And what’s worst, Northwest was spending a lot of money on training that wasn’t matched to skills gaps, competencies or strategies. In other words, Northwest wasn’t training the right employees, and its training needs weren’t being satisfied.
“We knew we had to provide the tools to gain that competitive edge,” said Tom Vande Hei, director of Northwest’s Information Services Security and Control Services, including the Education group. “Training needed to concentrate on skills gaps, be aligned with company strategies and provide just-in-time solutions on multiple platforms to help both the company and its workforce advance. Prior to the Skills Management System, we turned to Human Resources, which used exit interviews to tell us shocking news: Employees were saying they had to leave Northwest to get the training on newer technologies they needed.”
That changed in 1998. NWA’s training group was going to link Information Service’s job competencies to the training programs that taught those competencies. This would allow NWA’s training to be more targeted to the competencies required by the specific job and would form the base of a just-in-time training system. The employee’s training plan would be established through a structured process in which employees and their manager would assess any “gaps” between competencies that learners already had and those competencies they needed to improve upon or gain.
Once this gap was discovered, the manager and the employee would agree to an individualized development plan (IDP) containing the necessary training for the learner to traverse the gap. After employees had taken a post-assessment to demonstrate that they had achieved the necessary competencies, the information would be recorded in NWA’s Learner Management System (LMS). The end result would not only be the recording of progress against the IDP, but the LMS would also contain a “skill inventory” for each employee.
This was a simple enough concept, but the execution revealed there were many problems to overcome.
Back in 1998, not all LMS systems had a gap-analysis feature, and those that did had another problem. The process of making the link between job competencies and the competencies contained in the organization’s training interventions was manual. This meant that to create a database of matched training interventions to job competencies for the LMS’s gap-analysis feature, NWA’s training department would have to look at more than 1,800 training interventions and determine which taught the 3,500 competencies needed by the IS group. Mathematically, this task had a permutation of more than 6.3 million possible linkages. When NWA asked the LMS vendor community for an automated solution to this problem, many laughed. This led NWA to create its own Skills Management System.
“The success of Northwest Airlines Information Services relies on its people and the skills that they bring to their jobs,” said Theresa Wise, vice president of information services for Northwest. “Our Skills Management System gives us an inventory of our employee’s skills and allows us to focus our training on specific competencies that are necessary to meet our rapidly changing business goals.”
Searching for Answers
At the heart of NWA’s early Skills Management System was a search capability. When an employee and a manager engaged in a gap analysis discussion and a needed competency emerged, the manager could search a training intervention database to come up with training resources that satisfied the competency requirement. If the employee’s gap indicated he needed additional training in Microsoft’s Visio charting software, the manager would enter the search term “Visio” and would get a list of related training resources. This list would include all Visio courses, as well as courses such as “Creating a Vision for Your Team” and “Visionary Leadership.” The manager would have to eliminate these “red herrings” and settle on the most appropriate course. Because it still required manual intervention, it was not an ideal solution. But it was a start in the right direction, with full automation still being the goal.
In early 2000, representatives from NWA’s training organization attended a strategic partner program meeting sponsored by one of its training vendors. A presentation of a prototype software system that automated the matching of job competencies to training interventions was followed by an invitation to participate in beta trials for this new technology. NWA was the first organization to volunteer, as it appeared that this technology could be the solution they were seeking.
With two days of training on the system, it took an individual from NWA’s training department only two weeks to come up with a database of job competencies matched to training interventions. In other words, the problem of manually matching 6.3 million possible combinations of 1,800 training interventions to 3,500 job competencies was solved. Another and unanticipated benefit also surfaced. Because of the speed of this automated matching technology, it became easy to update the matched database. Consequently, when new competencies were required or new training interventions were acquired, updating became a simple matter.
Throughout 2000, NWA’s IS training organization used its database of job and training intervention competencies not only to create precise IDPs, but also to cut unnecessary costs. For example, they received a request to have a group of IS employees attend a three-day, off-site conflict resolution seminar. After looking at the competency requirements of the seminar, they found the same competencies in their database. They used the Skills Management System to identify the specific skill gaps, primarily related to listening and communication skills. Those skill gaps were then linked to training resources, but this time they were associated with a four-hour computer-based training (CBT) course. This was a double savings, as it meant a less expensive course that also saved time spent away from the job.
Probably the most dramatic example of how this database was used to reduce costs was how it was used to “cull out” redundant courses. Because all of NWA’s courses were mapped to specific job competencies, it became obvious that multiple courses had the same competencies. Rather than have four to five courses mapped to the same competency set, the training group was able to select the top two or three courses, eliminating the redundant courses and reaping the associated budget savings.
As the result of the new education strategy, Northwest saw associates spend less time in training and therefore invested less, even keeping the same budget for three years running while training an increasing number of workers. Northwest transitioned its training from 80 percent instructor-led and 20 percent self-paced, essentially reversing those figures to where self-paced makes up 80 percent of Northwest training.
Cost savings was not the only benefit. As more employees used NWA’s Skills Management System, it amassed a growing skill inventory for each employee in the IS group. Not only could you find out what courses employees had taken, but you could also see the competencies achieved and at what level of proficiency they were attained. This data could be used to build new teams, fill new positions, match employees to special projects, etc., all competency-driven.
The real test of NWA’s Skills Management System came with the challenges posed by the post-Sept. 11 reductions. A prime example as to how that challenge was met concerns NWA’s use of Lotus Notes.
As a result of workforce reductions, it appeared that there were no longer any NWA’s Lotus Notes programmers and support staff. Compounding that problem were the limited resources available at NWA’s Help Desk attempting to address these Notes-related requests.
Who were the people left in NWA who had Lotus Notes competency? Using the skills management database, the training group was able to answer this question. Along with a record of competencies, the database also contained the employee’s level of proficiency for each competency in the form of a scale of 1 to 5- 1 being low proficiency and 5 being highly proficient.
Through an analysis of its database, the training group discovered that it had one employee left with a proficiency rating on Lotus Notes of 5 and a number of other employees with ratings of 3 and 4. The major problem was bringing up the proficiency level of the 3s and 4s so that the Lotus Notes users would be back to a normal level of support. The solution was to take the level-5 individual and make him a mentor who could assist with raising the proficency of the 3s and 4s.
With the help of the training group, courses were also identified that would quickly and effectively raise the skill levels of those individuals. The end result of this effort was employees who were newly skilled and able to continue the high level of support required for Lotus Notes.
As with so many companies in the travel industry, the tragedy of Sept. 11 and the resulting business loss forced layoffs at Northwest. Remaining employees had new responsibilities and less time for training, making it even more critical to match skills gaps with remaining resources.
“Business strategies are changing rapidly as we try to reinvent our business,” Vande Hei said. “Our employees need to be matched to training more quickly, and only specific, or unique, skills gaps are addressed. Using the Skills Management System, we can match resources to employees quickly and even identify workers with certain skill levels, so we can develop them and bring them to the level of mentor.”
NWA’s ability to respond to the needs of the organization with the right training at the right time would not have been possible had they given up the effort to make the important link between job competencies and the training interventions necessary to achieve those competencies. The challenges are not over, but NWA is armed with a powerful tool that will allow them to make informed strategic decisions on how to appreciate and reallocate human capital assets. When business does return and Northwest is ready to rehire, the Skills Management System will help managers identify the skills lacking in the workforce and hire specifically to fill those deficits.
As corporations move through economic uncertainties, some of the questions NWA had to ask itself are raised:
- Do we have an inventory of competencies?
- Have we made the link between job competencies and our training interventions?
- How will we know if we have retained the right people?
- How do we train the employees that are left?
- How do we know that we are training them on the right skills?
NWA has a history of promoting the improvement of its people through training. Because of the success of the Skills Management System in NWA’s IS group, discussions are underway to extend this valuable resource to other areas of the organization. By extending its resources, NWA will continue to answer these questions in the affirmative. How will you answer for your organization?
Dr. James L. Allier is chief learning officer and vice president, research and development, for NETg Thomson Learning. Jim has 29 years of product development experience in the training industry and is a pioneer in research, design, development and management of computer-based training, interactive video and multimedia projects. Colleen Fuhs is a manager for Northwest Airlines and has been with Northwest for 18 years. She leads the Project Management, Methodology, Development Support and Education groups.