One needs to look no further than Orkin’s marketing campaigns to understand the importance the pest control services provider places on its workforce. The company’s television commercials highlight the Orkin Man, a confident, can-do individual who can eliminate virtually any insect or related problem. To ensure the expectations of customers who have seen these advertisements correspond to their experiences with actual Orkin men (and women), David Lamb, vice president of learning and media services at Orkin University, and his team put in substantial time and effort to educate employees on both the technical and business sides of the services they offer.
The majority of Orkin’s training deals with the highly specialized knowledge required to eradicate pests in both residential and commercial environments.
“This is a highly regulated industry, as you might imagine,” Lamb said. “Also, I’ve been in a number of industries and haven’t been in one — nor can I think of another one — wherein providing the service, somebody goes into your home when you’re not there. There’s a lot of care and attention to the selection of the right caliber of people that go into providing that service. This company really pays a lot of attention to getting the right people on board and then giving them the right knowledge and skills so they can provide safe service and keep our customers happy.”
In his role, Lamb is responsible for instructing more than 7,500 employees on the regulations that govern the industry. This is highly problematic, however, as the company’s 400-plus locations are distributed across several states, each of which has different standards regarding pest control and training for professionals in the field.
“We need to be careful that we’re providing the right knowledge and skills,” Lamb said. “We’re preparing our people to go in to sit for state exams, so they have to be very knowledgeable in the service they’re providing, or they won’t be licensed and certified to provide those services.
“For every one of the products we use in our service protocols, there are specific rules and laws as to how much to apply, how it can be applied, whether it can be applied, how it’s applied indoors, whether it can be applied in the wind and so forth. We have to do that carefully and correctly every time. Those are all the technical aspects, though. This is primarily a service industry. We also have to train on how to sell the business and how to interface and interact with the customers. These are route managers who are out servicing customers and establishing and maintaining those relationships. It’s almost like running their own small business.”
To familiarize workers with the hard and soft sides of their jobs, Orkin rolled out two educational platforms. The first is Orkin University, a $3 million, 30,000-square-foot learning center fewer than five miles away from the company’s corporate headquarters in Atlanta. About 4,000 employees — more than half of Orkin’s workforce — went through on-site training at the university in 2005, said Craig Goodwin, director of training at Orkin University. What’s unique about the facility is the fact that it contains several simulated customer environments such as a dining area, bar, commercial kitchen, bakery, hospital room, hotel room and a 2,100-square-foot house. Lamb said Orkin University’s learning center had lowered the costs of travel associated with training, and it has given employees a better setting to practice for the real thing.
“Initially, we were providing our learning at 10 to 12 training sites around the country, primarily hotels, with very knowledgeable people who led our technicians through what they needed to know to provide good service,” he said. “But that was a very expensive proposition. We built this facility six or seven years ago and designed it very specifically to be hands-on and representative of the kinds of facilities we service. We taught our people best practices for going in and servicing those customers.”
The other recently added modality was Orkin’s satellite television-based, interactive distributed learning network. The main advantage of this platform is its facilitation of education via two-way communication, Lamb said.
“We’ve designed our content to be very interactive,” he said. “Our on-camera instructors are presenting materials that require frequent interactivity with the students. We can tell whether (employees) understand it by asking questions. Everyone hears the question and answers it live. We can see immediately how they have responded to it. Students can also press a button and ask a question of the instructor.”
Additionally, the content from satellite broadcasts is captured and archived for later consumption by learners.
“We take those video files, edit them a little bit and push them out to the receiver boxes at each of those locations,” Lamb said. “Our students can access those materials 24×7, and as they’re sitting there, and those questions come up, they’re required to answer them. Our system captures those answers and feeds that into our learning management system. It has the same feel of live interactivity with the exception being that they can’t ask a question.”
Although the bases of these satellite broadcasts initially were high-volume, high-impact courses designed primarily for new technicians, Lamb said more specialized curricula would be added for veteran employees who worked in areas such as commercial accounts, residential accounts or termite services. Yet the company also can quickly turn around requests for a broadcast on a time-sensitive topic.
“Interestingly, within a couple of weeks of our first learning broadcast, we had a particular business issue that our president and CEO wanted us to address,” he said. “We pulled a broadcast together in a matter of a couple of days and broadcasted that out to every location. It was mandatory that people attended, and we could track that they had attended and understood what the message was. So on top of all the return on investment calculations we had for the learning piece, we’re finding that this is a tool that allows us to send messages that have business impact out to our people very quickly.”
The satellite television initiative was a resounding success for the company in terms of learning expenditures. The hardware, software and people resources for the project cost $5 million, but Lamb said it would pay for itself within the first three years of operation.
“The model we had prior to that was so heavily weighted toward instructor-led training,” he said. “We had all the costs associated with food, travel and lodging. It was easy for us to build a business case for that just on cost avoidance and cost savings associated with not delivering training in the classroom. We brought this project in on time and under budget, and savings have been better than advertised. But there’s all kinds of additional value in terms of productivity improvements, customer retention and employee retention.”
Goodwin cited other examples of how the initiative has benefited the company.
“There are two ways that it’s contributed to the success of the enterprise,” Goodwin said. “One way is through the use of learning technologies. Over the years we’ve been able to lower the cost of the delivery of training. We look at that in terms of the number of hours delivered, the number of employees trained and the costs associated with that. But that’s not our primary mission — our primary mission is to improve the performance of employees on the job and prepare them for future job opportunities in the organization. We’ve done a lot of work to ensure that our training is performance-based and that it’s aligned with our business objectives.”
Because of the clear gains from employing technical learning modalities when and where appropriate, Orkin is exploring new ways to use technology in education such as simulations and games delivered through the Web.
“The satellite system we’ve put in place is actually a platform for e-learning going forward,” Lamb said. “Right now, we’re just dropping a video signal down to our locations, but every one of those receivers has 120-gigahertz drive and IP (Internet protocol), so we can actually deliver our e-learning through the satellite down into the branch and then distribute it to any device that’s attached to that network.”
Lamb and his colleagues plan to leverage these innovative learning methodologies to drive organizational change. For instance, he’s been at the forefront of an important transition to electronic handheld devices that will give technicians in the field information on their routes to help them schedule their appointments and hold electronic service tickets.
“We’re beginning that journey,” he said. “My organization is in every one of these strategy-formulation and business-process reengineering committees. We’re invited in from day one. We try to think and act as if we’re a professional services organization, so we’re very consultative in nature. We have the opportunity to plug into the strategic thinking and where we’re going with it very early.”
Because of its obvious contribution to the success of the business, learning is highly esteemed at Orkin, Lamb said.
“Without exception, the senior executive team really understands the value of investing in our people through learning solutions. Of course, they’re looking for a good business case for any of those investments, but if we can document and articulate that well, then there’s a readiness to invest.”
— Brian Summerfield, email@example.com