To appreciate how central training and development are to the business at Barilla America, one need look no further than the five organizational goals set by the company and constantly monitored under its three-year plan. Alongside net sales and other financial priorities is "strengthen competitive advantage through talent, performance, and culture."
"The prominence of that goal sends a strong message about the importance of people to our success," says Wayne Bosch, vice president of human resources. "We cannot be indecisive in this area."
And they are not likely to. The performance-based culture instilled within every level of the operation stresses competitiveness, engagement, and leadership. "If you instill a culture of enabling people to excel at what they are good at and to trust their leaders, performance will follow," explains Bosch.
It's a strategy applied every day at the North American operation of the Barilla Group, one of Italy's top food corporations. Double-digit growth at two busy plants is prompting further expansion at the 11-year-old division, and a heavy emphasis on learning.
To give one example of that expansion, it is the division's learning organization that designs, develops, and facilitates the annual strategic planning sessions with top executives. The process begins with one-on-one interviews between the director of learning and talent development and key executives who partner to determine the session's objectives. A customized strategic planning session is then designed and facilitated at an off-site location.
The agenda of this year's session was the clarification of the 2010-2012 strategic goals, focusing on how to grow the business. Items included identifying key performance indicators for the six cross-functional business teams, discussing the business team's overall performance, and allocating resources (people, processes, and technology) to execute the strategy. A follow-up plan was developed and enacted to cascade the expectations to the key leadership members. Corporate strategic goals flow through the HR strategy plan to complement HR learning initiatives.
The mandate for Barilla's performance-based culture comes from the top and stresses a targeted approach to skills development, says Bosch. Individual development plans are pegged to each employee's strengths and aspirations, with input from managers to determine whether there is alignment. When employees are evaluated at the directorship level, each member of the leadership team provides input. Once the process is completed, high-potential individuals receive separate development plans created specifically for them.
Similar dedication is devoted to the recruitment of talent, says Bosch. Half of the exercise is about ensuring whether candidates possess the requisite skills and knowledge, and the other half assesses their behavior fit, such as whether they are truly interested in developing careers within the company, he says.
The learning team's fingerprints are all over these activities, just as they are with organizational development, Bosch states. For example, he says, its members are constantly looking at the onboarding strategy to ensure that new hires are given time to acclimate to the organization's culture and behavior, permitting them time to build meaningful business relationships. He says that is one reason that the group's turnover rate ranks at an astounding 6 percent, well below the 16 percent figure tracked by most companies in the field.
The learning organization's central role in change management is perhaps best demonstrated by its performance during the company's implementation of a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which was completed with fanfare in July 2009. Barilla America created a plan to ease the transition by employing the "high-touch low-tech" approach that was developed and executed by the learning department.
According to Bosch, "horror stories" that often accompany ERP conversion typically involve a failure to draw attention to, and create a full understanding of, the change within the company. So the company tackled that issue head-on by creating a multifaceted communications strategy to help employees understand the drivers of the change and to gain support for the strategic goal.
A small change management team was assigned to assist in the conversion. These individuals were tasked with communicating directly with employees and instilling a high level of transparency, while also building trust between employees and the leadership team, says Bosch. They held periodic focus groups called "water cooler" sessions, where views of affected employees were solicited and details were personally explained.
In addition, a visual timeline offered employees monthly views of the transition as well as progress-to-date highlighting key milestones. The learning material emphasized connections between the strategic big picture and the tactical daily work, from process change to team performance, and from leaders and managers to front-line employees. Barilla America engaged Root Learning Inc. to assist with the candid conversations and other aspects of the conversion process.
"It was the best learning change management experience I had ever been associated with," Bosch recalls. "The water cooler visual made it easy for people to voice their thoughts and opinions. People just opened up."
The learning campaign was not only effective, it was economical. A total of 397 employees attended water cooler events across Barilla America's three locations. The company spent approximately $67 per person for training, compared with its 2008 average cost-per-person of $376 per instructor-led training session.
Yet another success story involves collaboration with the group's Italian colleagues on a performance management initiative. A functional skills needs assessment facilitated by the learning organization identified performance management and performance consulting (PMPC) as a critically lacking HR technical skill. A solution was designed and developed to provide a consistent performance management definition and model, increase the HR consulting mindset, and introduce a standardized performance consulting model globally.
The PMPC model provides a framework to diagnose performance needs and recommend practical ways to enhance workplace performance to support business goals. The learning unit believes that enhancing the global HR team's skill in making better decisions about learning and performance was a very specific way to address this functional gap.
The comprehensive needs assessment also resulted in other initiatives, including determining which skills to develop by department, based on organizational priorities, department priorities, and gaps between current and desired skills. Barilla America says that while several functional skill needs were identified, prioritizing those needs into tangible yearly deliverables was often met with competing priorities.
Yet, data from the needs assessment has proven to be invaluable. For example, the learning organization realized that since the quality team is dispersed across multiple locations, its team-building activities on communication and interpersonal skills could be leveraged. As a result, the team scheduled and attended a Crucial Conversations workshop to help improve its communications.
Meanwhile, the needs assessment data is also being used strategically to determine tactics and direction for the three-year-old Barilla University. The university's increasingly robust calendar will soon see an expansion of classes supporting functional skills.
"It's all part of the company's culture of enabling people to excel at what they're good at," says Bosch. "A key to our success is our people. Our high-touch strategy propels us forward, one employee at a time." T+D