October 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

Head of the Class

E-learning systems are learning new tricks for keeping up with workforce demands on retailers.

When Cingular Wireless acquired AT&T; Wireless in 2004, Cingular’s Jim Bowles, vice president of workforce development, had 30 days to train an army of people on how to sell the suddenly merged product lines of two major retailers of wireless phones and services.

“We went from the close of the merger agreement to operating as one company within 30 days and we had 100,000 employee-customer touch points across thousands of stores that had to be aligned as one selling team with products and services,” says Bowles, the top executive in charge of hiring as well as training.

Already in place
Luckily for Bowles, Cingular had already gone through other major changes since it had been formed in 2000 as a joint venture by SBC Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. By 2001, the new wireless phone and carrier services provider had deployed a web-based learning management system from SumTotal Systems Inc. as a key part of its overall training system that helped to boost sales while lowering the cost of training.

“This was a perfect illustration of the power of a web-based learning management system,” Bowles says. “Were it not for this technology, we couldn’t have done it in 30 days.”

Mergers and acquisitions among retailers always place big demands on employee training programs. Managers and frontline salespeople must learn an expanded product line as well as new corporate policies on everything from how to greet ­customers to how to adhere to updated fire-safety procedures. But M&A; activity is hardly the only thing creating new pressures on retail personnel and the executives like Bowles charged with training them.

Retailers are well known for high employee turnover, as stores often rely on part-time and ­seasonal help and attract short-term workers, many of whom jump ship for higher pay. At the same time, merchants face constantly changing product lines as well as competition in providing a high level of customer service. And there are endless internally as well as externally set mandates-for example, deadlines handed down by the CFO to learn a new price optimization system or how to account for sales and inventory, and new government regulations on maintaining employee safety in warehouses buzzing with forklifts.

At retailers like Cingular, the rate of change itself continues to quicken and makes keeping up even more difficult, Bowles says. “In the old days, telephone companies sold a landline service and two types of phones, one that hung on the wall and one for a desk,” he says. Now, wireless carriers offer numerous combinations of features and styles among phones that take pictures and can be used to shop the web, with service options also more complicated than ever. “Everything changes so rapidly, because it’s a very competitive business and wireless technology continues to evolve,” Bowles says. “Every time we turn around there’s a new application.”

‘Is anyone paying attention?’
With so many things to teach a constantly changing workforce across a distributed network of tens, hundreds or thousands of stores, headquarters-based retail executives have often been left in the dark about the effectiveness of their traditional training programs that have relied on the distribution of paper manuals, workbooks and computer discs, experts say. “Retailers often struggle with training programs, asking, ‘Is anyone looking at the stuff we gave them?’” says Sunita Gupta, executive vice president of retail consultants LakeWest Group in Cleveland. “They need a way to know if training was effective, or when to change a training course if too many employees did poorly on the test.”

In recent years, web-based ­computer-based training or e-learning management systems have begun to answer that call, Gupta and other experts say. With web-technology-based integration among multiple applications, it has become easier for human resources managers and other non-tech managers to build customized training programs with audio and video tools, spreadsheets, and graphical displays, then ­distribute them across the public Internet or a corporate intranet for browser access on a web-based platform from companies like GeoLearning Inc., Plateau Systems, Saba, Learn.com, ACS-Intellinex, Cornerstone on Demand, Element K LLC, InsightU and SumTotal Systems.

Not only does that make it easier for retailers to deploy e-learning systems, but it also makes the systems more interactive for employees and, hence, more effective in teaching skills. “We’re seeing more training that is more interactive, especially among retail companies,” says Waldir Arevolo, research director in the collaboration group at research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. “The more interactive the courseware, the more retention employers get from employees in the e-learning program.”

Training costs at Cingular now range from $8 to $9 per hour per person, far off the average industrywide costs in the high teens and low twenties, Bowles says.

Boosting the cross-sell
At Toys ‘R’ Us Inc., which three years ago deployed an Aspen e-learning system across more than 800 stores in the U.S. under the Toys ‘R’ Us and Babies ‘R’ Us brands, the retailer has seen a positive correlation between the completion of e-learning programs by store salespeople and sales of profitable product protection plans, says Frank Zahn, manager of talent development. Its Aspen platform is now part of the SumTotal Enterprise Suite version 7.

While retailers and analysts laud the ability of e-learning systems to teach skills efficiently and consistently to a distributed workforce, they also note that the systems work best when offered as part of what Arevolo calls a “learning ecosystem”-one that combines web-based learning tools with instructor-led training and performance management applications. The overall goal, experts say, is to provide the right level of training to different groups of personnel based on their levels of experience, knowledge and responsibility.

“A learning system is not just e-learning, but a learning ecosystem that includes formal classroom ­training and additional materials to make sure the program is addressing cultural issues and the needs of each group in training,” Arevolo says.

By leveraging built-in ­analytics and performance management tools in e-learning platforms, retail managers can view on computer screen dashboards the performance of individuals and departments in completing courses, then compare that information with other metrics, such as sales goals for the same individuals and departments.

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