“In every man’s life, there lies latent energy. There is, however, a spark, [which] if kindled, will set the whole being afire, and he will become a human dynamo, capable of accomplishing almost anything to which he aspires,” said James Cash Penney, founder of J.C. Penney Co. Inc., in 1920 in The Dynamo, the first company newspaper.
On April 14, 2002, J.C. Penney celebrated its first 100 years of being in business. What began as a single Golden Rule Store in a mining town in Wyoming has blossomed into one of America’s largest department store, drugstore, catalog and e-commerce retailers, now employing around 249,000 associates. With operations in the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Brazil, Penney’s vision of developing the latent energy of his associates is now being realized on an international level.
Deborah Masten, vice president of HR communications and development director for J.C. Penney, is responsible for developing the spark of the 149,000 associates working for JCPenney Stores, the department store side of the business.
“Our goal is to ensure that everyone understands their role in driving sales and profits,” said Masten. “So we provide both what I call functional training, and that’s really our focus, but we also provide the softer side of training, interpersonal skills. We believe that there’s a nice blend between the softer skills for development and the functional training.”
Before 1996, when it implemented a distance learning solution, the biggest challenge in training JCPenney associates was overcoming geography. Before the switch to distance learning, JCPenney managers and supervisors had to travel to the home office in Plano, Texas. Unfortunately, the company was only able to bring in 2,000 of these professionals a year, less than 10 percent of the population, according to Masten.
“But in 1996,” she said, “we went to more of a distance learning model, and we used integrated technologies to provide a consistent training program so that we can meet everyone’s needs,” including the needs of the business.
JCPenney uses the OneTouch Knowledge System to deliver interactive training to satellite classrooms in almost all of its store locations. Masten calls this the more formalized training program, and she explains that it consists of a virtual classroom, where instructors are in control of the studio. “They turn on the lights, they turn on the cameras—they do everything,” she said. “It’s not a television production; it’s just a TV classroom.” Students in the satellite locations sign on via a keypad using their social security numbers, and the instructors in the studio know who’s in class for that session. Training programs last no longer than two hours, and the students get live, interactive training that includes pretests and post-class testing, helping Masten and her team analyze how much learning has occurred.
In addition to the OneTouch interactive learning, JCPenney uses FirstClass groupware to provide its management associates with communities of practice. These communities are accessible from any desktop in any JCPenney store. Management associates simply click on the knowledge management icon and sign on using their social security numbers. The system then knows what position the associate holds and shows the relevant online training and job-aid tools for that position. The communities of practice give management associates the ability to interact with and receive guidance from more seasoned peers, in addition to interacting on a daily basis with subject matter experts in the company, according to Masten.
“For example, we have a desktop for our visual managers,” said Masten. “Every visual manager in the company, by signing on with their social security number, the system recognizes they’re a visual manager, puts them into a desktop that gives them all the tools they need. If they’re brand-new to the position, it gives them their self-study type training and then also puts them in touch with the subject matter experts who are in our visual department here in the home office. So although we might monitor the desktop, it’s really the subject matter expert who has taken ownership of the community.”
JCPenney also uses online training, offering 35 general management online training courses to anyone who needs them, 24×7. Masten explained that while many Fortune 1000 companies boast that they offer thousands of online courses, she prefers to keep the number smaller.
“By keeping it to a small, manageable amount, we tie the courses to the business competencies that the company’s leaders have set for the business, and we know the quality that’s in that program,” she said.
Masten said that JCPenney also still provides market workshop scripts, and the field district people lead the workshops in the marketplace.
When Allen Questrom, an executive well known for his ability to turn around struggling retail companies, took over as CEO in late 2000, Masten and her team saw little change, but they did prepare a business plan to show Questrom how they were well positioned to help the company succeed.
“I think he was quite impressed with not only what we’ve been able to provide to the business, but also that we are a very lean organization in comparison to our competitors,” said Masten. “So we’re able to meet the needs of the business in a very centralized and consistent way, but we also do it with less people than any other retailer has. And every businessman understands the bottom line.”
And the bottom line is this: Since implementing the distance learning format in 1996, JCPenney has saved $1 million every year due to reduced travel costs and a reduction in other expenses, such as printing, warehousing and mailing training programs. Additional benefits come from the company’s ability to reach more associates with training and to train more consistently.
Masten explains that the company hires 500 college graduates every year and trains them to be managers of a department. “Prior to 1996, when we hired a college graduate into the management team we sent them a binder that was five inches wide,” she said. “We had 30 weeks, so 30 tabs, and there was a lesson behind each tab and additional reading material, exercises and activities that their store trainer would go over with them. At the conclusion of that 30-week program, we would schedule them for a week in Dallas, where we found we had to unlearn bad behaviors and re-educate them on their jobs because they had picked up bad habits that were in the store.”
Now these managers can go to their community of practice and work in small teams on a case study, said Masten. Then, through chat, they work through the case study, make recommendations and then go into the satellite classroom to discuss the results. The instructors see who the leaders are, as well as who hasn’t participated. The instructors can then follow up with those who haven’t participated to ensure they are reached by the training.
Masten and her team are able to measure the effectiveness of the training programs through various methods, including pre- and post-class assessments. “We can see the learning that has occurred,” said Masten, “but we can also get information from those stores to show that training made a difference to the bottom line.”
For example, to ensure that customers were paying accurate prices, the company changed its pricing strategy, then communicated and trained on the change, said Masten. After a month, they came back to a specified audience of pricing team leaders in the company. More than 1,200 attended the broadcast that day, and when Masten’s team asked how many were still using the old pricing strategy, 96 said they hadn’t made the change. Once the training program was complete, the attendees were asked whether they were going to continue using the outdated pricing strategy, and 49 said they would still use it.
“So we contacted those 49 stores to make sure that they understood they weren’t supposed to be doing it, and if they were doing it, how many hours they were going to save in the shoe stockroom by (adopting the new strategy),” said Masten. “And it turned out to be $24,000 annualized. So it’s a small insignificant number in the scheme of things, but that’s how we can get at some ROI for the company—just by asking a few critical questions and looking at the responses and contacting those associates after the learning event has occurred.”
In another example, said Masten, JCPenney was running a major marketing promotion for men’s suits, and they ran a product knowledge satellite training class. Only 200 of the sales associates attended the class. “At the end of the class, we looked at the stores that participated and what their sales had been up until the event started,” said Masten, “and then we measured their sales after the event ended and compared it to the company’s average. And in that particular sales event, the stores that participated in the training had an 11 percent gain as a whole—and that was against the company’s 2 percent loss as a whole.”
Masten’s team reported these results to the suit buyer, the general merchandising manager and the CEO of the company. “And our CEO sent back a challenge to our regional managers: Why did only 200 people participate?” said Masten. “So you can imagine next year when we roll around to the event, we’ll probably have a whole lot more in our audience than we did this time.”
The key to an effective training effort, according to Masten, is making sure that you continually align your goals with the goals of the business. “I think you really need to approach your training effort as if it were a business,” she explained. “So I make business plans and business presentations, and I want to make sure I’m at the table when other businesses are going through their plans so that I can align training. And as we’ve gone through senior management review, it’s been really wonderful to see my business partners and peers talk about how they’ve integrated training into their business plans. …It’s taken seven years to get to where we are, to be recognized as true business partners—to be recognized as people who can make a difference to the business’ bottom line.”