Adecco Trains Through the Downturn

By Garry Kranz

Nov. 21, 2008

Withering economic conditions may once again pose a threat to employee learning and development. In an effort to slash discretionary spending, nearly half of U.S. firms plan to cut their training budgets in 2009, according to a November report by professional services firm Towers Perrin.

But while many companies see only crises ahead, Adecco Group North America is taking a more optimistic view. It sees the current financial turmoil as a prime opportunity to beef up the skills of its 6,000 permanent employees and position itself to “catch the first wave” of new business when conditions improve, says Rich Thompson, the Melville, New York-based staffing firm’s vice president of training and staff development. (The training is not intended for Adecco’s contingency staff that it finds for its corporate clients.)

Adecco Group North America is part of Adecco SA, a Fortune 500 company with headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. It bills itself as the largest supplier of temporary workers in the world. Overall, the Swiss company generated revenue of $33 billion in 2007. In addition to the 6,000 people directly employed by the North American operation, it has about 120,000 temporary workers, and accounts for roughly 15 percent of the company’s revenue overall.

The global staffing company is feeling the impact of the financial crisis that is spreading like a virus to other sectors. Adecco’s revenue in the U.S. and Canada declined 8 percent, the company said in a financial report in November. But rather than curtailing development programs, Adecco North America is going ahead with a plan launched in 2006 that requires every new employee to complete a customized online learning program.

The intention is to centralize learning across Adecco’s 1,200 North American branches, which previously was “at best ad hoc, cost-prohibitive and inconsistent,” Thompson says. In addition, he says the on-demand system enables employees to learn in their offices during the workday when it is convenient for them.

Newly hired Adecco employees are expected to complete at least one or two courses per day during their first 90 days, and completing the program is a prerequisite to taking more advanced exercises.

Employees are lining up behind the mandate. Since its inception, Adecco says the number of courses completed online soared from 78 in 2006 to nearly 60,000 thus far in 2008.

That number includes courses taken by longtime Adecco employees, although Thompson attributes most of the uptick to newer employees. He says 86 percent of newcomers thus far have fulfilled all the requirements of their individual learning agendas.

“We know those people hear the same message in the same way,” Thompson says.

The company took its existing classroom material and broke it into bite-size chunks that employees could complete online in about 15 minutes. It uses a learning management system created by GeoLearning Inc. in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Adecco-specific learning requirements are divided according to geographic region, lines of business or job function. For example, the skills expected of recruiters who place financial professionals are different from those who recruit and place clerical or support staff.

Adecco hasn’t eliminated instructor-led classes. Instead, the company uses them as a reward. Only employees who fully complete their online learning requirements are eligible to participate in Adecco’s instructor-led “High-Impact Training” courses.

The arrangement not only helps cut back on airfare, lodging and related travel expenses, but also lets Adecco classroom instructors focus on strategy and execution, Thompson says.

Each class participant is given a coaching guide that outlines specific steps they need to take to be successful in their job. Classes revolve not around lectures, but instead thrust learners into group settings and role-playing exercises that foster teamwork and communication. “We’re using the classroom now for building confidence, not for introducing content,” Thompson says.

Nearly one-third of corporate training in the U.S. occurs online, and the percentage will grow as companies hasten to further reduce costs, says Josh Bersin, whose Oakland, California, research firm, Bersin & Associates, tracks trends in corporate training.

Large companies in particular are turning to e-learning to get more bang for their training dollar, Bersin says.

“The content-development process forces companies to think about their core competency models ahead of time, instead of just having an instructor stand up and start talking,” Bersin says.

Some of Adecco’s newcomers are farther along the development path than others. Jacqueline Chen joined the company in 2007 as vice president of public relations and communications and had previously represented Adecco when the company was a client of a PR firm for which she worked.

As part of the required corporate training, Chen has completed courses in diversity training and preventing sexual harassment. More significantly, Chen is among a select group of human resources professionals at Adecco to receive specialized training pertaining to an “internal reorganization.”

“It helped me understand why we’re making the changes, in layman’s terms and not corporate-speak. It also helped me understand how I could potentially play a role in ensuring the success of these changes,” Chen says.

In developing her personal learning agenda, Chen is considering courses to strengthen her grasp of business and financial knowledge.

“Some companies have the methodology for mapping out a career path but then never give any follow-up. Being a human resources company, I imagine that’s not going to be the case here,” Chen says.

Meanwhile, Adecco plans to continue using the classroom not only to practice execution, but also to monitor people’s progress. Students are given surveys before and after completing the class work. The surveys shed light on whether employees are using what they have learned, Thompson says.

Although Thompson declined to be specific, he says the program has exerted a “moderate effect” on Adecco’s overall turnover. “We know if we get people through our program, we have a better chance of retaining them than [those employees] that don’t go through it.”

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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