Common Language, Common Learning

By Garry Kranz

Apr. 22, 2008

When they get busy earning money, organizations sometimes forget to pay due attention to employee development. The problem is compounded in companies that expand rapidly through acquisitions and need to integrate myriad workplace cultures.

    Before things got to that point, Laird Technologies Inc. decided to put in place an internal learning initiative, Laird Technologies University, to give sales, marketing and financial employees a common language and common set of business methods.

    Headquartered near St. Louis, Laird Technologies operates 41 facilities in 13 countries. The company designs and supplies components and equipment used in cell phones, computers, plasma TVs and other consumer electronics. The products prevent electromagnetic interference and shield heat-intensive electronics from damage. The company is a unit of the Laird Group, a publicly traded British company that posted combined revenue of $1.2 billion in 2007. The company’s origins date back to the 1880s, when it designed warships for the British navy.

    With help from Washington University in St. Louis, Laird’s internal experts are devising learning resources for three modules, each one targeting a successively narrower grouping of employees. The first series of foundational classes began in March 2008, targeting 400 key employees who work in finance, sales and marketing.

    It includes intensive learning sessions on basic skills: product training, developing market-focused pricing, problem-solving, communication and supporting customers. Participants also get to hone skills in selling, financial analysis and product management.

    The in-house learning is akin to climbing a staircase. Employees enrolled in the first level, known as Foundations, must complete the necessary training to be able to pursue the Development and Executive modules, which will be introduced in subsequent years.

    Sean Harrigan, Laird’s senior vice president of sales and business development, says the program enables high performers to achieve “professional” status, signifying that they are experts in their field.

    It won’t be available to every employee, but only to those “who are rated for development across a spectrum of behaviors and achievements” by Laird’s managers, Harrigan says.

    Laird has been changing course in the past decade, divesting certain assets to concentrate solely on its core businesses. Meanwhile, it has been acquiring other companies, which has swelled its workforce to about 15,000 people.

    Harrigan says the new training is an important component to maintaining annual growth of about 30 percent.

    “The larger recognition is that for us to remain competitive, we have to invest in continually upgrading people’s skills,” particularly as newly acquired companies become part of the Laird portfolio.

    Washington University was a natural fit to help design the content and provide advice and guidance, Harrigan says. Laird previously has used university students to work on special projects, including a branding effort last year.

    Specially chosen subject-matter experts within Laird are working with Washington University faculty to devise proprietary case studies and learning exercises drawn from actual situations. Laird’s learning team trainers will use the instruction guides to deliver internal training.

    The arrangement should result in rich content that continually sparks employees to learn, says Samuel Chun, a professor with Washington University’s Olin Business School.

    The effort will help Laird create a talent pool and promote ongoing development, Chun says. “This year’s batch of people who get developed will become next year’s developers.”

    Each of the modules builds on the others. The foundational training zeroes in on tactical day-to-day tasks. Of the 400 employees eligible for the foundational training, Harrigan estimates roughly half are expected to complete the training requirements by the end of 2008.

    Perhaps two-thirds of them will advance to the Development module. An even smaller number, 30 to 40 people, will progress to the Executive module, Harrigan says.

    Laird already has a process in which top executives establish yearly goals and push them down to line managers, who ultimately are responsible for communicating those goals to their employees.

    Depending on which job they have, Laird employees are assessed on a series of key performance indicators that highlight their individual performance against corporate goals, which include revenue growth, new business development and operational excellence.

    Despite the clarity on goals, however, employees were asking for more precise knowledge development. Up to now, Laird responded by referring employees to courses provided by external training groups such as the American Management Association.

    “It wasn’t very formal and it wasn’t well-defined,” Harrigan says. But the new training should broaden people’s understanding of how their individual job specifically maps to Laird’s larger corporate objectives. It also ensures that all employees receive the same training.

    Laird believes it will be able to improve both recruitment of new employees and the ability to grow its own talent. Headhunters have been hovering, seeking to poach Laird’s top talent, Harrigan says.

    Additionally, Laird is ratcheting up its campus recruiting. The company plans to hire more college graduates, bringing them through stepped learning programs that include Laird Technologies University and functional assignments to quickly bring them up to speed.

    Laird is employing a practice once widely used by companies like IBM Corp. and Xerox, but which increasingly is going out of fashion, says David Brock, a performance consultant who provides coaching to Laird’s sales managers.

    “Not many companies invest at this level in their people anymore. What Sean and his team are doing at Laird is a cool idea: showing people they have a career path with the company,” says Brock, who is president of Partners in Excellence in Mission Viejo, California.

    Harrigan says specialized learning is under development for other employee groups, including a track for people in technical positions.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor.

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