December 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

Truth from the Trenches

For sales training that scores with sales associates, Best Buy looks to the web—and sales associates

Some of the most enthusiastic fans of the latest consumer electronics gadgetry can be found in the aisles of consumer electronics stores-talking to customers and wearing a badge that says “associate.” Many are electronics enthusiasts who are all over new developments and technology advances and have an answer to every question, even calling out product features that customers hadn’t thought to ask about.

Their appetite for the category may be hard-wired-but thanks to the Internet, their knowledge about products can be shared with fellow associates. The staffer who loves photography, for example, can communicate what he knows about how to avoid getting red eyes in photos snapped with the latest Nikon camera. And, through sharing, it’s possible to multiply the impact of that knowledge on camera sales.

Retailer Best Buy Co. Inc. is in the forefront of putting the cumulative product knowledge of store employees to work in training other associates. It’s systemized that spread of information in a customized online training program: the online Learning Lounge, a web-enabled portal that’s accessible to all Best Buy retail associates.

“Our main goal was to meet our employees where they needed to be met,” says Laura Torok, Best Buy’s training director. “To attract and retain top talent we needed to dramatically change the way we train our employees. It was our goal to create a learning community and not just another learning management system.”

Best Buy launched this online community in September 2008, and experts say the timing was good because many store employees by then were familiar with other online communities-such as Facebook. But since a retailer-sponsored community is not the place for eyebrow-raising photos of weekend revels, Best Buy has established procedures to make sure the community is used for its intended purpose.

Learning online

Best Buy’s Learning Lounge built on Learning Center, a more traditional knowledge base it had used for five years. Learning Lounge is a customized version of CyberScholar, a web site operated by Creative Channel Services that offers interactive sales and technology training and product information from consumer electronics and appliance manufacturers. The content, sponsored by manufacturers, is accessible free to associates at any retailer in the category.

Best Buy’s Learning Lounge offers something more: a peer-to-peer component. If online community participation has become a big part of the social lives of Facebook-generation consumers, it stands to reason that community can be a driver in their work lives as well. The Learning Lounge seeks to harness that familiarity with web communities by allowing Best Buy store associates to upload training materials they have created to share with colleagues around the country.

“Peer to peer is very important because this is the way young people communicate today,” says Claire Schooley, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. “Workers today want learning they can apply immediately to their work. They also want to drive their own learning.”

Peer-to-peer online learning gives the material presented instant credibility among associates, Torok says, as employees are getting advice from someone, as she puts it, “in the trenches” with them. “We are a culture of collaboration, with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube,” Torok says. “We have got to use the same types of tools in our training that employees are using in every other facet of their lives.”

Yet Best Buy is one of only a few big retailers that enables employees to share the training material they develop online, Schooley says. “The main drawback I see is that the culture is not ready for it,” Schooley says, noting that successful implementation of peer-to-peer online training requires a culture of cooperation and assistance.

She adds that such communities must be managed. “Employees must know the rules,” Schooley says. “What are the guidelines and what are the consequences of knowingly going outside the rules?”

Towards that end, the company does not preview comments and ratings employees submit before posting them, but the greater Best Buy learning community and the retail training and development team flag inappropriate comments.

Original training content uploaded by employees is put temporarily on hold before it goes live to be reviewed and, importantly, to be tagged with keywords so the material can be found easily by others using the search tool on Learning Lounge.

Multiple sources

The Learning Lounge online portal is where all Best Buy’s U.S. retail associates go for their training material. It is hosted outside Best Buy’s firewall by Creative Channel Services; employees authenticate themselves with an employee ID number and password.

In addition to associate-generated content, the web site pulls training materials from three sources. First, Creative Channel Services supplies training materials it’s created for sponsoring vendors, the same material that appears on its CyberScholar site.

Second, participating manufacturers can post product training material directly on their own vendor pages on Learning Lounge. Finally, Best Buy’s retail training and development team creates and posts material that covers product, process and system training. The system can accept and display content in multiple formats such as video, audio and text.

Best Buy pays employees at their regular rate for spending one to two hours of training time in the Learning Lounge each month. They can access the site and use their training time from work or from home. They also have access to the company wiki, a database of product and company information that they can contribute to or edit, and to WaterCooler, a companywide employee discussion forum.

But it’s the sharing of associate-generated content that pushes Learning Lounge into new training territory. Not only can associates upload training content they’ve created, but they can rate content created by their peers or from other sources, using a five-star system.

Associates can leave written feedback using a comment feature and they can flag errors, needed updates or any other aspect of the material requiring attention. They also can recommend any content on the system to other employees, with this material then referenced in a “recommended” section of the Learning Lounge home page employees see when they log in.

The costs

Best Buy won’t say what it paid for the customized system. But to the extent that Learning Lounge contains materials supplied by product manufacturers it’s the suppliers that bear the cost.

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