March 31, 2003, 12:00 AM

After success in stores, retailers take e-learning up the corporate ladder

With success in stores, some retailers are taking e-learning to corporate managers and customer service technicians.

Even though retailers have yet to adopt e-learning widely, some pioneers in e-learning are getting ready to take it to the next level. “We are expanding beyond the store base to the store support group,” says John McKeever, director of superstore training for Circuit City Stores Inc. “We want to expand and leverage this type of learning into the corporate office, including service and distribution.”

Similarly, Staples Business Depot of Canada is adding management training to its e-learning offering. Staples dipped into e-learning two and a half years ago with web-based product briefings for store associates. It since has added eight management courses and plans to add seven more this year. “E-learning was working so well with the product briefings that we wanted to introduce management courses,” says Joanne Taylor, senior manager of corporate human resources and development with Staples Canada.

Circuit City has offered e-learning courses for two and a half years. What started as a basic tutorial on products and store procedures with 45 courses has blossomed into more than 120 courses that now include education for store managers as well as sales associates and certification programs in selling certain products. Circuit City reaped the benefits of e-learning for store managers almost immediately, McKeever says. Store managers now complete their training in five weeks vs. 12 weeks previously, he reports. Classroom training to supplement the web-based training is now down to five days from 10. New employees are up to speed after 64 hours of training vs. 200 before. At the same time, employees are demonstrating greater proficiency because training is more effective over the web, he says.

A blended approach

With a blended e-learning/classroom approach, Circuit City uses web-based tutorials to teach such basics as how to read a P&L statement, how to manage the different elements of a store and how to manage inventory, while the classroom is responsible for more sophisticated training. “Since they’re already getting the basics from the store-based e-learning, the performance bar at the classroom level has been raised,” McKeever says. “The classroom now is more about leadership, more about how to motivate and develop associates, how to leverage the workforce.”

Staples Canada takes a similar approach. “We wanted to make sure that when people came to the classroom, they had the basic knowledge,” Taylor says. “But before e-learning there was no way for us to know the level of people’s knowledge base.” E-learning solves that problem by testing at every step and reporting the results to managers.

On an e-learning basis, Staples offers such classes as performance management, communications, personnel review, coaching, recruiting and hiring, and a module called “Building Excellence,” which Taylor describes as “all a manager needs to know when joining Staples.” Classroom training now seeks to combine the different e-learning modules to help managers understand how they work together. For instance, a class might focus on how to conduct a performance review and how to handle feedback from an employee under review. Classroom training emphasizes role playing and case studies. “We can make better use of the classroom time that way,” she says.

Besides offering e-learning to corporate support staffers, Circuit City is making e-learning available to technicians who install products for Circuit City customers and to logistics and distribution center personnel.

Although not yet widely deployed-the proportion of retailers engaging in e-learning is estimated as low as 10%-most retailers recognize the benefits of web-based learning and are preparing to implement it at some point, says Jeff Roster, senior retail analyst for Gartner DataQuest. “There haven’t been offerings in this area until recently,” he says. “I expect the number of retailers using e-learning to grow fairly dramatically over the next five years. It’s becoming a requirement in retailers’ infrastructure plans because it makes so much sense.”

In addition, the fact that it’s moved to a new level is further indication of its wide acceptance-at least in principle. “That’s a good example of the rapid maturation of this process,” Roster says. “At the corporate level or with product installation, they’re talking about pretty sophisticated material.”

Weak negatives

Retailers have been encouraged to take e-learning to the next level by the success of store-based training. At Staples, that started with electronic briefings on specific products. Previously, education on particular products would involve training one person per store, then counting on that person to accurately communicate product benefits and features to the rest of the staff. But the company believed that associates would be able to sell better if they all received the same kind of training. From there, the company extended the training to Staples-specific content, such as training in sales techniques, store procedures and use of store technology. “We’ve been able to increase the quality of the training and bring everybody to the same knowledge base,” Taylor says.

The negatives to e-learning are, in Roster’s words, “pretty weak.” For one thing, in-store training probably will require broadband Internet access from the store. While many stores do not have broadband, the technology needed to run stores these days will almost dictate broadband in the near future, analysts say. Others raise the issue of language barriers, but then note that an efficient e-learning program may be a good way to identify those who need additional English skills. Same for technology: Employees not comfortable using e-learning may also not be comfortable using store technology and identifying them early in the training process is a benefit.

Creating a training module through the InsightU product of Staples’ education vendor The Insight Group Inc. costs about $10,000, Taylor says. Those costs will be mostly recovered through reduced travel and out-of-store time. In addition, Staples maintains a course-development staff of three, who create the content. InsightU formats it and creates the presentation.

While Taylor says it is still too early to compute ROI on the e-learning investments, the company has noticed some obvious benefits. “The number of cases that lead to termination has declined,” she says. And she believes that employee retention has improved.

Quicker learning curve

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