En­lighten Your Work Force

Ditch those cheesy videos and em­brace a new crop of high-tech train­ing tools


IN 2014, HOME DECOR re­tailer Gar­den Ridge spent more than $20 mil­lion to re­brand it­self—a new logo, new store lay­outs, and a new name, At Home. But giv­ing the 35-year-old Plano, Texas–based chain’s staff a re­boot was a chal­lenge. “We had fairly jaded work­ers who’d been with the old regime,” says Va­lerie Davis­son, chief peo­ple of­fi­cer of At Home, which was turn­ing over the en­tire sales floor four times a year.

Then she in­tro­duced her 2,000 em­ploy­ees to Ax­onify, an adap­tive mi­crolearn­ing plat­form. Corny videos and em­ployee-shad­ow­ing pro­grams were re­placed with Ax­onify’s per­son­al­ized game-based train­ing. Now the staff can spend 10 min­utes every shift on their phones, learn­ing about new prod­uct lines or how to spot coun­ter­feit cur­rency. “For us, it’s big that train­ing doesn’t take sales peo­ple off the floor,” says Davis­son.

Ax­onify is one of sev­eral star­tups ap­ply­ing web-based tools to work-force train­ing. “We achieve the old economies of scale, but it’s more per­son­al­ized, higher qual­ity, and bet­ter de­signed,” says Dani John­son, leader of learn­ing and de­vel­op­ment re­search at Deloitte. Here’s how to trade in an ana­log ed­u­ca­tion for a dig­i­tally pow­ered one.

Privacy is a perk

You can ask em­ploy­ees what train­ing they need un­til you’re blue in the face— but “no one wants to ad­mit that the area they’re sup­posed to be an ex­pert in is some­thing they need help with,” says Ken­dal Wil­lis, who un­til re­cently was di­rec­tor of em­ployee ex­pe­ri­ence at Fond, a San Fran­cisco–based em­ployee-en­gage­ment startup. Since dig­i­tal tools are more pri­vate than staff sem­i­nars, em­ploy­ees are like­lier to make them­selves vul­ner­a­ble and ac­tu­ally learn.

Fol­low the data

Ask em­ploy­ees what ar­eas they want to im­prove in, and they’ll likely say hard skills—but data might tell you oth­er­wise. When Fond in­tro­duced Udemy for Busi­ness—a video teach­ing plat­form— Wil­lis saw that em­ploy­ees were spend­ing the most time on com­mu­ni­ca­tion cour­ses and top­ics like de­liv­er­ing per­for­mance re­views, giv­ing dif­fi­cult feed­back, and man­ag­ing teams. “A lot of them have never man­aged be­fore, and what they’re learn­ing about in pri­vate is what they’re re­ally in­ter­ested in,” she

says. With that data in mind, the startup lay­ered in more one-on-one sup­port for new man­agers and cranked the flow of feed­back.

Gam­ing self-im­prove­ment

Purch, a dig­i­tal pub­lish­ing and mar­ket­place plat­form based in New York City, re­cently started us­ing De­greed, an on­line ser­vice that lets em­ploy­ees dig­i­tally track all of their desk-based self-guided train­ing—such as watching a YouTube video on brand iden­tity or tak­ing a Khan Academy cod­ing course. They can see how their skills stack up against oth­ers at their level or what they might need to learn to gain a pro­mo­tion. Juli We­ber, Purch or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment man­ager, says let­ting em­ploy­ees chase their own in­ter­ests has goosed en­gage­ment among her com­pany’s 380 em­ploy­ees and has driven more face-to-face meet­ings. “Pair­ing peo­ple up for a men­tor­ship pro­gram is so old school,” she says. “This lets us leave it open source. Peo­ple can see who has the skills they need and who’s will­ing to men­tor, and they’re more com­fort­able reach­ing out di­rectly and hav­ing mul­ti­ple men­tors for mul­ti­ple ar­eas.”

Get out of the way

Tra­di­tional train­ing cre­ates a lot of gate­keep­ing, but with per­son­al­ized tech tools, em­ploy­ees can fol­low their cu­rios­ity with­out wast­ing a ton of com­pany time or money—for ex­am­ple, by let­ting the PR lead learn about Java or the store man­ager learn about pub­lic speak­ing. “It can feel like a leap of faith, but you truly ben­e­fit when your staff is re­ally en­gaged around learn­ing,” says De­greed co-founder and CEO David Blake. At Home—which now has 131 stores—finds that us­ing Ax­onify has pre­pared the com­pany for its rapidly scal­ing work force. “We had new peo­ple train­ing new peo­ple on new skills and pro­ce­dures,” says Davis­son. “That wouldn’t be pos­si­ble with­out adap­tive train­ing. And we’ve seen that the stores where peo­ple are do­ing the most train­ing also have the largest in­creases in traf­fic and sales.”

BINDERS FULL OF ... Old train­ing ma­te­ri­als? Re­tire them for game­pow­ered teach­ing tools.

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