Since its founding in 1907, Appleton, a producer of carbonless, thermal, security, inkjet and performance packing products, has been considered an innovator in the marketplace. Headquartered in Appleton, Wisc., Appleton has been 100 percent employee-owned since November 2001, when the employees purchased the company from a foreign-owned holding company. Recently, Appleton has completed several acquisitions, including the purchase of U.K.-based Bemrose Booth, a provider of secure and specialized print services with 850 employees.
Since the company was purchased by the employees from its foreign owners in November 2001, Appleton has faced numerous large-scale changes and has changed its theme to transformation. According to Peter Reese, director of strategic initiatives for Appleton, the approach the company takes toward learning focuses on empowering individual employees in the company to become transformers and build their influence within the company. “Our approach is that the individual is at the center of change as a company,” said Reese. “There’s individual responsibility, but also there should be recognition and rewards for people. But at every point, we should be giving them personal development and learning that they can apply where they are, but that is portable.”
What that means, Reese said, is that instead of creating company-specific learning that applies only to job roles at Appleton, his team works with adult learners to provide learning that is valuable in their lives on a long-term basis. This individual and personal focus leads to more effective teams—and a more successful company. “A lot of our people have come from places where it’s ‘the ACME way,’” said Reese. “Rather than saying you are here because you represent unique capabilities and skills and a worldview and we’re going to help you first, those setting tend to say we’re going to squeeze you into the mold, and we’re only going to tell you something if you can use it right now, and it’s something that you really probably won’t be able to use anywhere else.”
He added, “It’s treating adults like adults, and they are really responding.” This more personal view of development applies throughout the organization, all the way to the executive level. “Part of transformation and looking for transformers is recognizing that they are everywhere in the company, at all levels,” said Reese. “Transformers occur everywhere and at all levels and walks of life, and transformers lead us toward greater and greater diversity in who is making a difference in the business. That includes people who are not just in the mill environment, but in different locations and now in companies that we’ve acquired globally.”
To ensure that transformers emerge in all parts of the organization, Appleton has moved from providing optional training to looking at what is most helpful for employees and the company and making learning required. Reese explained that this has been a major change in the learning and development philosophy of the company, and it is leading to a common culture and language across the organization. “We’re trying to establish a foundational culture of learning and development, so that when people do have outside learning experiences, they’re more effective at coming back in and plugging it into the organization in the language that we have,” Reese said.
By taking this approach, Reese said he and his team can avoid latching onto the concept of the month, what he called “learning du jour” or “the learning-by-best-seller approach. “We’re trying to develop our own transforming culture with our own language that fits our people and where we want to go, and then we can more effectively grab onto other ideas and put them to work,” Reese said.
The major revelation Reese and his team had was that they were being hindered in helping Appleton’s workforce transform itself due to resistance to change. “We realized that we weren’t addressing the root cause of a lot of people’s struggle, which was dealing with change, and making change itself a focal point and working with people on change very specifically,” Reese said. In response, Appleton adopted a change curriculum, which is being added to its required training.
Combining the change curriculum with a personal approach to learning and development led Reese and his team to focus on more than change within job roles and the company. “It’s about change in your life and in the world,” he explained. “It’s got to speak to that individual as an individual beyond just what they’re doing and, in fact, in their whole life.” By focusing on the effects of change in life, rather than narrowing the focus to the Appleton environment, Reese and his team have been able to get more employees involved on a deeper level. Appleton’s approach to learning about change will also be a benefit as the company integrates its recent acquisitions. Appleton’s view that the individual matters will be a major part of the learning it takes forward, Reese said.
One of the major challenges of learning about change is dealing with people who have different levels of tolerance for change, Reese said. To help reconcile this, he said Appleton teaches that change is unavoidable, that it is hard and that each employee must decide. “What we’re trying to do is open up people’s minds and the dialogue to saying it’s not about ‘Do we have to change?’ It’s more about how far, how fast, and a lot of that comes down to your decision,” said Reese. “The people that are more willing to change will likely have more influence and responsibility in change. The people that are unwilling to change or that have a low tolerance for change probably won’t have as much influence on the direction. …Once people understand what change is about—those three messages—they are more willing to be a part of it, and if they have a greater desire to be part of it, then what happens is the pace increases.”
Willingness to transform is one key to competitiveness in the global economy. Also important, said Reese, is performance. Aligned with the other changes being made at Appleton is a change in the process for performance measurement, moving from a focus on activity to a focus on results and performance. “That’s not unique to us,” said Reese. “That’s really part of a shift in the United States and globally to focus on being more of a performance culture.”
Focusing on performance is the only way for any company to compete in a global market, Reese said. A lot of Appleton’s global competitors benefit from a difference in values that helps them produce at lower costs. “Their view of labor and how labor is managed is different,” said Reese. “So we have to say that’s the environment we’re operating in. We have to be performance-minded to compete globally.”
Moving forward, Reese said Appleton plans to roll its transformation-focused learning from its headquarters in Appleton, Wisc., and its salaried workforce to its hourly, union workforce in other locations. “Any time you work with other locations, they have very different cultures in many ways,” Reese said. “The companies we’ve acquired have very different cultures, so how can we help them as individuals first, knowing that they are different people in different places? That’s a huge challenge, and I don’t want to underestimate that challenge. I also don’t want to underestimate their ability to help us transform.”
Ultimately, Reese said that this is not about change management, which implies control over change. “One of our key points is that to be a transformer, you must be willing to trade control with influence,” Reese said. He compared the process to whitewater rafting. “If you go at the rate the river goes, the river will take you where it will, and you have no ability to affect your destiny. So you either have to backpaddle in the river or you have to paddle faster than the current,” he explained. “Ultimately the river is still going a place or several places, and if you don’t want to go where the river is going—in other words, if you don’t want to participate in the global economy, that’s really the river we’re talking about—then don’t get in the river. Once you get in the river, the river is taking people a certain direction—you have to paddle faster or slower to have any influence on how you get there and how many people are going to be in the boat when you get there and whether the journey is going to be rewarding or it’s going to be ‘Deliverance.’”
Emily Hollis is managing editor for Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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