It seems there's not a leading company around that doesn't attribute a measure of its success to the learning organization, and also supports those accolades with hard evidence. But at VF Asia Limited, a Hong Kong-based business unit of apparel giant VF Corporation, a successful reorganization of its learning and development operation has contributed to record revenues while showcasing the value of internal expertise.
VF Corporation is the world's largest apparel company, owner of 36 brands including Wrangler and Lee jeans, Eagle Creek, Nautica, Jansport, and North Face. Headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, it has 45,000 worldwide employees and produced record revenues in 2008 of $7.6 billion. VF Asia is a comparatively small and autonomous subsidiary that performs the sourcing and sales and marketing functions for the firm.
In 2004, VF Corporation launched an initiative to transform the company into a global lifestyle apparel firm, and identified six growth drivers crucial to its success. One of them was to build new growth "enablers," a direct challenge to its various learning organizations.
Tommy Lo, learning and development manager of VF Asia, says the directive meant nothing less than a rebuilding of the subsidiary's learning infrastructure around a progressive system of talent management that encompassed all levels of employees. "Previously, we had bits and pieces of this but no structure," he says. Elements including learning and development, goal and performance management, succession planning, and recruiting management would finally reside under a single umbrella.
Added to that was Lo's own strategy: to rely on internal expertise as much as possible, outsourcing learning-related services only when it made sense. He reasoned that doing so would not only save the company money, but would also exploit the vast knowledge base that resided within the business unit.
Hong Kong's two-person, regional training team started by creating a learning and development framework. It grouped the division's 780 employees into four learning and development categories: personal competencies, functional leadership, managerial leadership, and strategic leadership.
Each category focused on learning topics appropriate for its level of employee. Strategic leadership, for example, offered topics such as strategic thinking and financial management for directors and above. In addition, the topics were mapped with the company's core competencies of business sense, entrepreneurship, and strategic thinking.
For special employee groups such as high potentials, the team worked with line managers to customize individual development plans using tools such as 360 feedback exercises and an internally developed Manager Development Instrument. The team also nominated these individuals to attend corporate organized global development programs, such as VF Max, VF Leadership Institute, and VF Supply Chain University.
A searing focus on leadership prompted other organizational changes. The learning team developed a new talent management model in 2008, communicated it to stakeholders, and carefully executed and monitored the plan. For leadership development, several initiatives were introduced including senior executive development programs for directors or above, and a Middle Manager Curriculum for the manager and senior manager levels.
Talent retention also became a priority, spurred by exit interviews and employee engagement surveys that had found learning "opportunities" to be key motivators for staffers. Following an increase in training activities in 2008, an associate engagement survey found that 87 percent of associates agreed that training improved their job performance, up from 82 percent in 2007.
One talent management initiative implemented a directive to lower staff turnover rate by 5 percent in 2008. It focused on improving the interviewing skills of managers with hiring responsibility to help them recruit "suitable" job candidates. The move helped lower the staff turnover rate from 26.8 percent in 2007 to 19.3 percent in 2008, says Lo. Meanwhile, average lead time to fill vacant roles decreased from 26 to 22 days.
As the company began to develop and execute its talent management plan, the internal resources issue became a priority. In-house conducted tasks last year included training administration, needs analysis, evaluation of training service providers, and course evaluation. Delivery was also conducted internally for courses on staff orientation, technical training and other business skills, system application, process, and procedures.
Yet another important learning initiative is VF Asia's SELF Program (Self Enhancement Learning Fundamentals). It is an online customer-oriented training program that features instruction on topics that help company personnel better understand and communicate with individuals from the diverse cultures with whom they do business throughout Asia. Courses cover business etiquette, successful meetings, negotiation, and other topics in easy-to-digest formats for busy executives who have limited access to the Internet. "The in-house tutorials are extremely cost-effective to produce and can be viewed by company representatives at their leisure," says Lo.
VF Asia's learning team isn't completely isolated from its U.S. counterpart. Indeed, VF Asia training maintains a close partnership with the VF Corporation organization development team. Lo is a member of the "Global Learning Community," which allows him to participate in a monthly conference call and share news and best practices with his global teammates.
The VF training team actively contributes to the development and implementation of global organization development initiatives to ensure they are customized to local needs and requirements. Moreover, "we had the privilege to leverage the resources provided by the parent company such as e-learning, the executive book reading program, and three corporate development programs - VF Max, VF Leadership Institute, and VF Supply Chain University."
Not surprisingly, copious attention is also devoted to alignment. A monthly learning and development activities summary is sent to key executives highlighting training courses and hours, number of participants, and the training effectiveness index (consolidated from course-end training evaluation). In 2008, VF Asia associates received more than 14,200 training hours. In addition, the overall course-end evaluation index maintained more than four points (in a five-point rating scale), an impressive achievement for the team.
Links between individual learning, individual performance, and organization performance are also recorded. That includes pegging individual training plans to business needs and preparing for future career advancement, as well as making evaluations of staff performance based on a department's performance. Also, a training and performance management cycle offers a complete year-end goals review.
So what does Tom Nelson, managing director of VF Global Sourcing have to say about all this? "Learning and development makes a significant contribution to the company's ongoing success. For example, we are now promoting more associates internally, while our staff turnover rates have been reduced from 40 percent to less than 20 percent in less than three years; 91 percent of our Asia workforce agreed that the morale is high, and 87 percent of our associates agreed that the training received improved their job performance." T+D