Driving Behavior Change with Workflow Learning

This blog is excerpted from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Experience Matters | Sam’s Club” in which Bob Mosher interviews Jennifer Buchanan (Senior Director II, Field Learning & Development at Sam’s Club) about driving behavior change through a shop-floor workflow learning approach.

Bob Mosher (BM): We are honored to have a remarkable learning leader with us today, Jennifer Buchanan, who is the Senior Director of Field Learning and Development at Sam's Club (where I am a card-carrying member). It's a remarkable organization with great service, which is because of your good work, Jennifer.

You wrote a wonderful article for ATD, the Association for Talent Development, called “Training in the Flow of Work”, which is obviously a sweet spot for this podcast and for me. We'd like to dig a bit deeper into that during this session. The article pivots on this program you call “Manager in Training” (MIT is the acronym in the article). Give us an overview of the intent of the program and what motivated you to take this to the flow of work vs. a more traditional approach that is often used in classic manager training programs.

Jennifer Buchanan (JB): The Manager in Training program prepares our high-potential team leads for future careers in management with the company. The program takes them on a journey through the work groups in the club (Fresh, Members, Specialty, Merch, and Curbside). At the end of the program, through the flow of work training, they can receive up to a semester’s worth of college credit [through] our free tuition program at five different universities. 

What made us decide to do the program? When I first started, we began having conversations with different leaders and associates in the club (conducting focus groups). At the top of the list for everyone was the Manager in Training program. I heard things about it, but when we really started to dig in, we found about five or six different stop-and-start versions of the program. So, there was something making it unsustainable. The content itself was fine, but something wasn't sticking.

There was also the fact that it leveraged a 300-page binder and 170-page sponsor guide. We actually had (sitting beside my desk) all of the papers piled up. I'm five foot two, so not very tall, but that pile was taller than me. Wow. Right there, we knew we had to find a way to deliver it that was going to be more digitally enabled; something that was going to make the content more exciting and that was going to make it stick.

The turning point was realizing that it's very focused on tasks. It was almost like we weren't giving people credit: people can think critically, and we can open their minds. We could show this in a whole new light. That's when the content transformation started. Then, with the digital piece, it just seemed so obvious. We needed to integrate this into our existing digital ecosystem.

The key element in all of this is that we wanted associates to have an opportunity to immediately apply what they learned. That was really the gap with having that 300-page binder. I mean, those [binders] are in every company everywhere, in every role I've ever had. But really, the “click” is how do I create learning in a way that people can go out and practice it immediately and retain it?

BM: Love the “stickiness” aspect, and context is a huge pivot. We've talked to so many folks in this series who have said that content was almost never the gripe; rather, it was the lack of application and stickiness. To your point, I've walked through [Sam’s Club] stores and the digital footprint there is remarkable, so what seems intuitive to you makes it more interesting that we still haven't made that jump [to technology] in other areas.

You go into four guiding principles in your article, so would you take us a bit deeper into those? [Workflow learning] is such a transformational change for an L&D team or department.

JB: With the behavioral based learning framework and our view on learning:

  • We want it to be personalized.
  • We want it to be a journey.
  • We want it to be customized.
  • We want to bring the associates closer to work.

When you put it down on paper, it's so obvious: yes, of course we should be doing this. But I think as L&D folks, sometimes it tends to be more [request based]:

“We would like training.”

“Okay, please fill out this needs assessment form.”

And then we go off and make training, right? Six months later, the business has flown by us and we are delivering outdated training. We really wanted to reengineer a new way to think about it. We knew if we started with the behaviors that we wanted to change, then we could try from there. When we frame it up that way, it makes a lot more sense to the business, but also to the team. I said to the team, “We want to be enablers of the business, right? We don't just want to be order takers.” If we really want to drive change, we ultimately need to track the behavior. We need to have deep conversations with the business about what behavior we are trying to change, and then let's drive from that behavior. Then we can create the training or the experience. Sometimes when you have those conversations, you realize you actually don't need training. You realize it might be a different issue. I could create the best training program in the world, but if it's a performance or talent issue, my training is not going to solve that problem. So, it's really getting down to the core of what it is. That is basically how we started to think about all of this.

Also, why wouldn't we do that for our own L&D team? If that's what we're doing for our associates, meaning we're trying to open their minds and encourage curiosity and critical thinking, as an L&D team, we need to evolve our way of thinking as well.

BM: Brilliant. From behavior back! We talk about pivoting on “apply” here all the time. It's amazing how for years in L&D, we've focused on knowledge first, and then hope those binders and those amazing times in the classroom somehow transcend to the workflow.

This behavioral based learning framework—how does this work for you guys? Can you take us through sort of “a day in the life” for the learner?

JB: A couple things: first, we wanted to go from technical to more conceptual when we think about how we frame up the learning with this framework. Second, we wanted to first define the behavior we wanted to change, and then create a common language around that behavior. So, there was a lot of change management on the back end, before we ever got to creating any type of content. Our conversations with the business were along the lines of, “Put yourself in the future and nothing stands in your way. How is the world going to look different after they get this training, or they get this experience?” That's what enabled us to create the journey.

When you think about the journey itself on the floor, an associate will have in their handheld a landing page that recognizes them as an MIT associate. It's going to frame up their learning. It's going to track where they are in the program. It's going to show what type of activity they have: do they have an immersion, do they have an activity with their handheld, do they have a debrief, do they have a reflection? A concrete example would be that we have a digital voice response assistant called “Ask Sam”. To put the learning in the context of the Club, it might say, “Use Ask Sam to get a spec sheet on a product.” The associate would then have to pull up that spec sheet and evaluate it for accuracy. Perhaps they would have to show another associate how to do that, and then there would be a debrief and reflection at the end. They're basically mirroring—in the context of the Club—what their work would look like day to day.

Another example would be at the jewelry counter. We’re trying to do things to make learning more interactive and fun, right? If you work at the jewelry counter, you need to know the gemstones. Instead of just having five paragraphs about the different gemstones, how about we have a gemstone matching game? That's a lot more fun, and that's something that they can do right there in the flow of work to learn the information. So that's really how we brought it to life.

I think the other piece that I would say on this, and people can slap my L&D hand, is community over content. If you're able to create the community, the SMEs come along, the content will flow in, and you create that current community of learners. That's what creates the buzz around the training. You really have to be able to do that to drive the behavior change.

BM: Yes, relevance and application. In my career, we used to have to beg SMEs for time to help us do our job and get our training built. But when you make this shift, there's buy-in. They understand the relevance. It's what they do every day and helping others do what they do, including themselves. Their desire to want to help and be a part of this is just a dramatically different thing.

So, getting people up to speed is one thing (on the gemstones and other things), but remaining competent in the world we live in today is crazy. The rate of change is exponential, especially in retail with supply chain issues. Given all the challenges they're faced with today, for employees to come into work every day on the shop floor and do what we call Apply, Solve, and Change (vs. New and More) is the hardest and most difficult work it's ever been in my recollection. How does your solution flow into that part of the world and their work?

JB: First, it's integrated into the flow of work and into the digital ecosystem. Training is not a separate siloed area: it's part of the experience. Also, our framework is very similar to yours (maybe our words are a little bit different). We like to say Activate, Apply, Demonstrate, and Integrate throughout the journey and throughout the behavioral learning framework. The way that is organized on the back end is where that contextualization and curation of all the content comes into play, because that's how you keep that content organized and relevant. You don't want an ecosystem of content that you can't keep track of, and we try to think of that within the context of the Club, within all the work groups of the Club. The connectivity of those pieces allows us to keep content up to date. I would also say, just walk the floor with your SME, so they have the same experience [as learners] and really put themselves in the shoes of the associate, because that's how you really see the impact of what you create. 

BM: Let’s go a bit deeper. You used two great words: curation and maintenance. When it comes to traditional instruction, we've got almost a waterfall design. We have iterations of our content (e.g., versions 1/2/3, alpha/beta, 100/200/300—all this kind of stuff). It's almost an academic model, frankly. But we're talking about a whole different world here. We're talking about things at the moment of need in the immediacy of the day. How did you help your L&D department and those you engaged in this journey keep content current in your organization? It's a very different way of thinking and it blindsides most L&D folks when they cross into workflow learning because of the immediacy with which a lot of this content needs to be kept. It almost swamps their ship in maintenance alone. How did you do this differently?

JB: You can't own everything within the actual content. Instead, what you own is how you evolve that [content] into a training and make that a great experience on the floor for the associate—in partnership with the SME. I think of that game “telephone” where one person says something, and then it goes down the line to others, and when the last person says it, it's not the same thing anymore. That's what happens if you don’t have a partnership.

Also, with the SME part of it, it's back to that piece around keeping things within the context of the Club. All of that training needs to fit within those work groups of the Club, and that enables the associate to cross train into those other areas of the Club—because we have all that connectivity between the content, and we can see where all the pieces fit together.

In L&D right now, because of what's happening in the outside world, we are having to immediately pivot and create content. I didn't have a crystal ball, so I didn't know about COVID. What was interesting is that it changed the way members wanted to shop: they didn't want to come into the Club. So then curbside pickup was created, and we needed training for that, which needed to be integrated into our digital tools. I think no matter how quick you are on your content development models, you still really have to pay attention to what's happening outside in the environment around you to pick up on the signals and have the strategic foresight to plan. You may not know exactly what you're going to create, but you need to know that you're going to need that bandwidth in the future.

BM: You know Jennifer, there are so many things you did right here that set you up for success. When we’ve talked to other leaders since COVID, the ones that have done really well were doing workflow learning beforehand (like you). That shift to immediacy and the way you're so in tune with the flow of the business, plus your ability to adapt and go with it in a more agile (if I may use that word) way, I think puts you way ahead of the game.

Listen to the full episode for Bob and Jennifer’s complete conversation!

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