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Staples Business Depot: Blueprint for a Successful
Employee Learning and Development Program

Staples Business Depot has made it a priority to develop employees' skills and invest in their training. The company is Canada 's largest supplier of office materials, business machines, office furniture and business services to small business and home office customers. The company operates in every province and has over 14,000 employees in 300 work locations – 270 stores, 5 warehouses, 3 call centres, and one head office.

Joanne Taylor, Director, Corporate Human Resources and Organizational Development at Staples Business Depot explained how her company's learning and development strategy works to CPRN Senior Researcher Richard Brisbois.

RB: Can you tell me about the learning and development vision at Staples Business Depot? What objectives have you articulated related to this vision? Is this a recent focus of the organization?

JT: Our vision is “Learning and Development makes it easy for our associates to learn the knowledge, skills and personal motivation required to completely satisfy the needs of our customers”. We operate in all ten provinces and the two territories through our chain of over 270 stores, 5 fulfillment centres and three call centres. We have to provide a variety of learning experiences in order to successfully engage with over 14,000 associates in Canada in both official languages.

We have four main objectives in our learning and development department:

  1. Focus on the right learning approach and flawless execution. A well-balanced blend of e-learning, classroom and on the job training is used. Our market trainers are local market experts – trainers must be credible resources. Coaching is natural, happens daily, and is on the spot. The transfer and application of learning is measured.

  2. Make knowledge easy to acquire on a JIT (just-in-time) basis. All employees have access to an internal portal where information is easy to find, accurate and released timely. Our resource library is comprehensive and meets varying learning styles and our e-learning library is accessible.

  3. Build careers at Staples Business Depot. Associates know what their next career steps are and can pursue internal opportunities. Every position has a learning and development plan associated with it. Managers foster a culture of continuous learning and growth and we strive to have Staples seen as a destination employer for new hires.

  4. Be a business partner. Our learning strategy is linked to company priorities and learning and development plays an active consultative role.

Learning has always been an integral part of our Human Resources (HR) and Operational practices. Since we started the business in 1991, we have been challenged to attract, orient and develop talent at a rapid rate. For example, our retail managers undergo a six week training program when they are hired before being placed in one of our retail stores. Every retail associate has a training checklist which outlines every step in their orientation. It takes between 24 and 44 hours to completely train retail associates – from cashier, to copy associate to sales area representative.

We have also held six training symposiums on an annual basis where we fly in a representative from each location to meet our key vendors, discuss business direction for the coming year and learn new product or service information.

At our corporate office, our Buyer Development program has been key to building a strong merchandising department. We provide rotational job assignments so that our merchants develop strong general knowledge of the buying industry and get exposure to a minimum of two out of the three divisions of our business before they are promoted to a Manager.

This year, we also rolled out new programs to support leadership development for our senior management. Given the challenging recruiting environment, growing our talent is a key initiative for the future. We are continuing to refine our internal management development program as well as expand it into other divisions of the business such as our fulfillment centres and home office.

RB: How does Staples' learning and development strategy connect with its overall business strategy?

JT: I have found that the most successful way is to ensure that our learning and development strategy is linked to the overall business strategy and customer needs. Our company mission statement reinforces our commitment to providing an atmosphere of enthusiastic and knowledgeable customer care.

Through market research, our customers have told us that there are four triggers that make for a very satisfying shopping experience, and two of these are knowledgeable and helpful associates. These link in very nicely to learning and development. So we always link in our learning and development strategy to the business strategy, which is our course to have extremely satisfied customers. At the same time, it is easier to sell initiatives to the executives - if you need money, or you need resources, or you need commitments to a particular endeavour – it is vital for initiatives to be linked to the overall business strategy.

A few years ago, Staples also recognized the need to develop cross functional business acumen and teamwork. Our Learning and Development department developed a suite of training courses and tools to assist with this strategy. We now have "Smart EASY Teams" who tackle business challenges and special events to ensure flawless execution of major initiatives.

Our global and Canadian goals for 2007 include an emphasis on continuous learning and developing future leaders. We believe that in order to successfully develop a community of learners, you have to provide a compelling reason to learn. In our business, many of our customers are well educated before they even come through the doors. They surf the internet, shop competitors and are generally well versed. This results in the need for us to have knowledgeable sales associates, not only in the products, but in sales and service skills.

RB: How does your learning strategy connect with your efforts to recruit and retain employees?

JT: Each year we conduct an annual opinion survey of all of our associates to measure the engagement of our associates. This survey provides key indicators of whether or not we are meeting the needs of our associates in the areas of learning and development.

We are also doing a lot of research on different populations of potential employees. For example, we are increasingly hiring new immigrants and youth as part of our workforce. What are these populations looking for in a job? What are their training needs? Are their needs different than our current employees? In order to get answer for some of these questions, we have partnered with a research firm to better understand their unique needs in order to be able to produce learning and development solutions for these learners.

RB: How is training offered to your employees?

JT: A blend of all training is offered. For our hourly associates, we focus on e-learning and on-the-job training. For managers, we typically use e-learning blended with classroom training. Our e-learning modules are customized to meet the needs of our learners and to reinforce our company culture. We have not purchased any off-the-shelf e-learning programs as we prefer to develop our own content where we can weave in our company values and important messages.

We are piloting pod-cast training this year as well as more active use of webinars to address some of the difficulties with having such a distributed workforce. E-learning is rarely used as a stand-alone solution for addressing a particular need. We prefer to blend in on-the-job coaching or a classroom session where we can reinforce the concepts through the use of role playing, case study and activities.

RB: What specific kind of learning and development programs do you offer employees? Is the focus more on job specific training (e.g. product training, sales training) or are more general skills upgrading initiatives also offered?

JT: E-learning is available to all our employees. We also offer training around some softer skills such as planning work, decision making, and other key competencies linked to the requirements of their position.

Some of the specific training offered includes:

Sales Associates and Consultants
• E-learning modules on product knowledge
• Service and Sales training to reinforce our Easy Brand promise
• On-the-job coaching from their manager
• Management Development Program
• Resource library
• National Training Symposiums
• Personal Health and Wellness Information Sessions

Supervisors and Managers

• E-learning modules on product knowledge
• Service and Sales training to reinforce our Easy Brand promise
• On-the-job coaching from their manager
• Leadership Development Program based on our competency program
• Resource library
• Tuition reimbursement for job-related post-secondary courses
• Annual General Manager Meeting – for General Manager of each store
• District Meetings for various levels of management
• Business Planning to drive Store Scorecard results
• Various programs on recruiting, orienting and developing others
• Personal Health and Wellness Information Sessions

RB: Who is eligible to participate in your learning and development initiatives (programs)? Are all employees eligible? Is some training mandatory (e.g. health and safety)?

JT: Every associate is eligible to participate in learning and development initiatives. Retail associates are assigned to a specific learning plan based on their position. All of these courses are mandatory – such as orientation, WHMIS, first aid, preventing harassment and violence in the workplace as well as some base e-learning modules we feel provide every associate with the standard requirements needed to work on the sales floor. Other training modules are available on an on demand basis.

RB: When is training offered (during work hours, after work hours, on-demand)? Is there a formal company policy for time to attend any learning and development initiatives?

JT: Our goal is to provide just-in-time training. Our e-learning Learning Management System (LMS) is used 24/7 by our associates. It always amazes me when I review our LMS utilization reports and see associates on the system even when our facilities are closed. Our associates are paid for taking e-learning courses regardless of whether they are taken during work hours or on demand. Each store has a dedicated training labour budget which is tracked so that we can evaluate what is being trained. We also are committed to professional development and encourage associates to attend job related development through local colleges and universities. Associates can claim these training expenses through our tuition reimbursement program which reimburses associates based on their tenure with the company. Each department also budgets for workshops, special certifications and association fees for their staff.

We are also very excited about a tuition savings plan program that we are piloting in Alberta and Montreal . Depending on their tenure with us, we will put aside a certain amount of money for any eligible employee that is attending any post secondary institution full-time. When the employee returns to school in September, we release the money to the university or college. So if they stay with Staples for one full-year, they get $500 towards their tuition.

RB: What has the take-up been on these pilots?

JT: We have been extremely surprised by the number of employees that have registered for the program by the deadline. We will have a better sense of how successful these pilots have been in September when the students return to school. In the highly competitive Alberta labour market, the tuition savings plan is seen as a retention tool to keep existing employees. In Montreal , the plan is used more as an attraction tool for potential new employees. In either case, the program also encourages our employees to continue their education, whether it is college or university.

RB: Who pays for the cost of training? (Are employees expected to contribute? Are suppliers expected to help with the cost of training people about their products?)

JT: Learning and Development is a shared expense. We are very fortunate to have a vendor community which is aligned with our learning and development strategy. Our vendors provide financing for product training. They believe that educated associates will better satisfy our customers and ensure that they leave with the right products every time – decreasing returns, warranty issues etc.

Some of our programs do require an investment on behalf of the associate. Some courses, like college and university classes are generally taken on non-working time. Others like professional development and workshops are done on company time.

RB: Is there any training offered around basic skills (e.g. ESL, literacy)?

JT: Yes, we do offer some learning around English as a second language (ESL) at our head office. We are also looking into offering learning in literacy, numeracy, and basic computer use. For example, in our warehouses, we are looking at going to a paperless system. But we are dealing with a population of employees that may have not ever touched a computer, English may not be their first language, and literacy and numeracy levels may be lower. We can't put someone who has never used a computer on an e-learning course. So we are learning to adapt our learning and development initiatives to the employee population that we have.

RB: What have been some of the greatest challenges in providing learning and development initiatives to your workforce?

JT: Where to start? One challenge has been in meeting the diverse needs for different generations of employees. We started to research the different generations of our workforce several years ago through our annual opinion survey. The results are sorted by generation to help us better understand and target individual needs and learning styles. Let's face it, we train associates who range in age from 15 to 72, some of whom have never touched a computer before or heard of e-learning.

We also have the challenge of meeting the needs of our diverse client groups. My team services three major client groups – our Corporate, Retail and Delivery teams. Corporate associate learning and development needs vary from those in a retail store, warehouse or call centre. So we are trying to look at the unique training needs from the associate to the VP level. Our success is dependent on building solutions which meet a broad range of expectations through a variety of delivery methods. We deal with two official languages – French and English programs are developed for every solution.

In some markets, turnover is extremely high due to the lack of available staff, such as the current situation in Alberta . This means that we need to provide just-in-time solutions to bring a new hire up to speed and productive in the quickest time frame, but at the same time ensuring they have the skills needed to serve our customers. In other markets, turnover is relatively low, but this doesn't eliminate the need to keep training fresh and exciting.

While maintaining a community of learning culture, lack of time, resources and commitment can continuously erode efforts and execution. This means that we have to provide solutions which are simple and easy to execute, are credible and drive meaningful results. Linking training efforts to business strategy is really the key here, otherwise we'd end up working counter productive to ourselves.

RB: Are there any major obstacles to offering more learning and development initiatives (e.g. cost of training, time to train, etc.)?

JT: Certainly I'd love to have a limitless budget, filled to capacity classrooms and demand for learning to outpace supply. But, this isn't the case. My team is responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of our initiatives – funding is available, but we need to provide thorough business cases to justify the expenses. This is why alignment to business strategy and being viewed as a key business partner is vital to any learning and development team's success.

Managers are busy running stores, so getting them into classrooms is tough. We are working to reverse this trend so that managers are eager to attend training and see the value of the time commitment required. This is why we are looking to find new ways to deliver training so that training isn't seen as competing with other business objectives. This means finding ways to weave small bite size pieces of learning into every opportunity – intranet messages, meetings, podcasts, chats, webinars – these all need to be integrated and seamless.

RB: What are employees telling you about the learning and development initiatives at Staples? How have they reacted?

JT: Our associates told us in our recent annual opinion survey that they have the training and tools to do their jobs. However, they need more on-the-job coaching and development from their managers. Developing strong coaching and leaders within our organization will be a key part of objectives for 2007.

RB: How has industry reacted to your learning and development initiatives?

JT: We were excited to have been awarded “The Innovative Retailer of the Year” award by the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) in 2002 for the development of our e-learning program. The award is given for demonstrating outstanding market leadership and innovative approaches to customer and employee relations.

We have just submitted three applications to the RCC for our recent initiatives on Performance and Development Review (PDR), Store Scorecard and an on-line Loss Prevention Audit tool which ties back to training and development tools and resources. Last year, I spoke at the RCC HR Conference highlighting many of our accomplishments. But, we concentrate more on whether we are meeting the needs of our associates than being recognized outside of the organization.

RB: Is there a concern about employee poaching or that the training you offer employees will simply walk out the door and benefit another retailer/business?

JT: Poaching is always a risk, but the bigger risk is turning off a customer because your staff can't completely meet their expectations and they leave empty handed. My vision of the future includes being recognized as a destination employer because Staples offers an environment where every member of our team has an opportunity to learn and grow. I envision a day where parents encourage their children to apply for their first job at Staples because it is the place to learn life long business and personal skills.

RB: How do you measure success of your employee learning and development?

JT: Historically, this has been one of our biggest challenges. We do course evaluations at the end of every classroom session. However, smiley sheets tell our facilitators what they want to hear but aren't effective for showing return on investment (ROI) to executives.

We are now conducting pre-post testing for each of our e-learning modules to help measure understanding of the content. For classroom training, we use some pre-post testing, but many workshops rely on behavioural observation by the facilitator – looking for participant understanding and observing application of new knowledge and skills (i.e. through role-plays).

The challenge for us will be to test application and transfer back to the job. We are assessing various methods to better evaluate application and transfer of learning.

We also measure participation rates and course completion for our retail managers and associate training plans. Last year, we surpassed our goal of achieving 80 percent completion in every associate's training plan.

One of our goals for 2007 is to create a new process for measuring results of various training programs/initiatives on the business, focusing on the correlation between our Customer Service Opinion Survey scores and training programs offered.

RB: Are there any new initiatives being planned by your organization around employee learning and development?

JT: We recently launched an on-line Performance and Development Review (PDR) system which is aligned with assessing our associates' competencies and accomplishment of their individual objectives. We have also just developed an on-line scorecard system to assist our retail managers with driving business results and aligning manager action plans. These two systems will be integrated over the next three months so that Performance and Development for every retail and delivery manager and corporate associate is measured. This includes having an Individual Development Plan to demonstrate a personal commitment to developing or strengthening soft skills.

Through this tool, we will, for the first time really, have the ability to take a snap shot of our workforce and fully understand performance and development needs beyond basic technical skill gaps.

RB: What advice would you give to other organizations looking to develop their own learning and development strategy?

JT: My biggest advice is to start small and find part of your company strategy that your business is passionate about to hook your learning and development strategy to. For example, our e-learning library is not huge, but it is customized for our needs and reinforces our corporate values. It's not an off the shelf solution.

Show that your team can add value and is a valuable business partner by demonstrating that learning can be key to achieving business results. You always need to link learning and development to business results.

We have gone through some of our own growing pains. At first we thought “if you build it, they will come”, but that is not the case. You need to listen attentively and find stakeholders who can champion your ideas with your business partners. You need to be a business partner. Learning is not an HR issue, it's a business issue and can be a key differentiator to attract and retain employees, customers and even suppliers.

You also need support from the top. We are fortunate to have a training steering committee that consists of senior management, including the VP of Merchandising, VP of Operations, VP of Human Resources, and the Learning and Development Team. The importance of learning and development at Staples is demonstrated by the commitment of this group to our initiatives.

RB: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

JT: My pleasure.

Staples Business Depot Canada website -