HR in practice: Off-the-shelf learning

The business

Superquinn is an Irish supermarket chain, founded by entrepreneur Fergal Quinn. It has 23 stores, mainly in the Dublin area, and more than 3,500 staff. In early 2005, the chain was sold to a group of Irish investors, Select Retail Holdings.

The challenge

After the purchase, Superquinn went through a great deal of change, according to Rosaleen Perry, training and development manager. “We had to achieve consistency in standards in our stores. We needed to find a product that would enable us to deliver that and e-learning emerged as something we were interested in, but how we were going to do it was the difficulty.”

Each store’s management team took full responsibility for developing their staff – something that had previously been handled by head office – and that included managing the content and timing of each employee’s training.

“Our main challenge was that our colleagues work on the shop floor so they don’t sit in front of a PC,” explains Perry. “Also we didn’t want our colleagues to be away from the shop floor for ages. They have a huge tradition of classroom training through Superquinn and that was what they were familiar with.”

To make matters more complicated, many of the staff work part time or night shifts, many of the workers are from Eastern Europe, some of whom have a poor grasp of English, and there was no obvious in-store location for the training computers.

The solution

Superquinn approached e-learning consultant Information Transfer to use its product i-Learn, which delivers bespoke e-learning content, to create more than 25 online modules and assessments that were made avail­able to more than 4,000 staff.

“[The content] was like an extension of our training department,” says Perry. “We knew nothing about e-learning when we started.”

Information Transfer interviewed key employees before it launched the project and Superquinn’s

HR director Robert Hutchinson launched the pilot training to demonstrate that the project was being backed at a high level.

“We launched five stores, initially in April 2007,” says Perry, “then the remaining stores in July. We went live with three stores a week. We trained seven people from the business to conduct the launch training and support, then replicated our pilot training.”

The module user interface was designed to be as straightforward and intuitive as possible, which met the needs of anyone with low PC literacy.

A specific ‘how to use e-learning’ module was created aimed specifically at novice computer users. And Information Transfer developed courses to provide no more than 30 minutes learning time to minimise the level of staff absence from the shop floor.

The programme also used practical examples from real-workplace situations and the end of each module featured an offline learning task and an assessment.

Administrators could monitor course completions, check that people booked in for e-learning had been released from the shop floor, and ensure that the training PCs were used to maximum capacity. And courses are ‘bookmarked’, so if the learner has to return to the shop floor unexpectedly, they can re-start from where they left off.

The outcome

There was some initial resistance, Perry admits. “One of our store managers ranted to me for 15 minutes about how e-learning would not work, and we laugh about it now because he was so supportive by the end.”

In some stores uptake topped 90% within three months of going live. Information Transfer and Superquinn were awardedan award for ‘Best Project Securing Widespread Adoption’ by E-learning Age magazine.

Another benefit was that staff were able to gain knowledge of other departments so they could easily stand in for colleagues, and induction costs reduced as this used to require several long sessions away from the store. The chain’s most successful store managed to achieve 100% compliance as every staff member has been through every training module.

Information Transfer is training Superquinn’s trainers so that they can write up their own modules in the future. But even the most successful roll-out will always be subject to the vagaries of human nature.

“We still have to keep reminding people about their training,” says Perry. “If we take our eye off the ball people stop doing it. We monitor it weekly and have a training update memo to name and shame the stores that have not logged on.”

If I could do it again…

Rosaleen Perry, Superquinn’s training and development manager, managed the rollout. She says: “When we did the pilot we implemented the system in three different ways. One had full support from the training department, with someone there in the store the whole time, the second had 50/50 support and the third one had minimal support.

“When the results came in the one with the most support had the best results and the store with minimal support hadn’t really got to grips with the training at all. We had to go back and do additional support. The difficulty we had was a very small central team. We have 3,500 staff members and three people in the training team. If we’d had more resources then we would have given full support everywhere.”

Employee perspective

Joan King who works in the coffee shop says that she “loves a challenge” of e-learning. “When I heard it was e-learning I just thought go for it. I had never had any training or used a computer before. One of the HR people started me off on it and then I said ‘now leave me because I need to do it by myself’.”

She became such a convert that Joan now organises other people to do their training. “I am learning every single day. A lot of women on the service area were a bit wary of the computer, like I was, and when they realise you have to get 80% to pass, they panic. So I sit with them and reassure them.”

“We had a computer in the attic at home and I never touched it and now I am using it and showing my husband and everyone else how to do it. I’ve even booked my holiday online.”

Guide to making e-learning a success in 10 steps

  1. Understand your business objectives and what you are trying to achieve with e-learning

  2. Listen to staff and managers and secure the support of your IT department

  3. Write a communications plan showing how messages might be co-ordinated to gain stakeholder support

  4. Run a short pilot to find out what works best and make sure users are supported

  5. Create a working party from key areas of the business to bring knowledge of user needs, and to act as champions

  6. Build a strong brand identity for the learning programme and align it closely with culture and values 

  7. Make the e-learning relevant by incorporating localised elements, and make it personal by including company-specific content

  8. Embed the e-learning in other online systems, such as the company intranet, or in regular processes, such as induction

  9. Release ambassadors to raise the profile of, and support for, the e-learning scheme

  10. Address any issues immediately and report on results to reinforce positive messages to senior leaders.

Source: Information Transfer

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