Fortune magazine has again ranked QUALCOMM as one of the Best Companies to Work For. The company ranked 14 on the recently released 2007 list, improving on its no. 23 ranking a year ago. In 2005 and 2006, the company was recognized by ASTD as one of a handful of companies to have earned its BEST Award for those years. The company's

use of storytelling (as described below) was especially noted.

Whether your organization calls it "employee orientation," "onboarding," or something else, one of the universal challenges for corporate learning and development is acquainting new hires with the company: its policies, procedures, places, and people. Also crucial is communicating key concepts of corporate culture - a much more difficult task, but one that's worthwhile for giving new employees a true taste of the entity they've joined.

San Diego-based QUALCOMM has adopted an age-old technique of human communication - storytelling - and adapted it in a whole new way to serve the company, its culture, and its nearly 12,000 employees that brings everyone together in a joint sharing of experiences. That information is collected and then leveraged for the benefit of new hires to demonstrate, more poignantly than any training session ever could, what it's really like to work at QUALCOMM.

The initiative is called "52 Weeks," and QUALCOMM Learning Center employees feel that it's one of their most innovative programs. It's a compilation of 52 short stories, selected and written to share the company's history, the factors that make it successful, and the direction it's heading in the future. 52 Weeks is distributed weekly via email, starting when an employee joins the company and continuing throughout the first year. Each new employee receives one story per week. Organized chronologically, the stories begin with the company's founding and continue to present day.

Onboarding a key focus

"We have focused heavily on onboarding,"says Tamar Elkeles, vice president for learning and development. Since cost of turnover is high for new employees, we want to make sure that new hires have realistic expectations about what it takes to succeed at QUALCOMM."

The stories describe what it was like when resources were scarce, when pulling all-nighters was common, and when the company first deployed its technology. Each story retells not only a piece of company history, but demonstrates how the corporate culture was formed, with a strong focus on employee engagement and retention. Several of the stories cover the challenges of making the first cell phone call, the first all hands meetings in the parking lot, and the creation of the chip division.

Readers quickly learn that innovation, doing whatever it takes, and camaraderie are strong QUALCOMM values. Incumbent employees can also opt to receive the stories by registering on the 52 Weeks website.

Through the stories, they can relive exciting experiences, funny incidents, or critical corporate milestones to which they contributed. 52 Weeks not only communicates corporate culture and values, but reinforces and extends the excitement of working for a company that is always innovating.

QUALCOMM's turnover rate averages 4 percent, which is "unparalleled in this industry," according to Elkeles. As an entrepreneurial company populated by academics - mathematicians, and scientists with advanced degrees - QUALCOMM staunchly preserves a culture that is fluid, innovative, flexible, independent, and unbureaucratic. Indeed, one of the 52 Weeks stories related the genesis of the closest thing the company has to a dress code: the chief scientist's edict that there be "no shoes with ears." (He issued his dictum after seeing a QUALCOMM employee traipsing the halls in bunny slippers.)

Within that context, Elkeles says, employees are encouraged to create the jobs they want. In her 15 years at the company, Elkeles and her 30 Learning Center employees have worked hard to ensure not only that learning and development has a seat at the table, but also that "we are able to call the meeting," she says. Learning Center professionals are deployed as internal consultants, creating annual learning plans for each division that spell out in detail how business issues will be solved.

A Story to Tell

Experiences and information are collected and then leveraged for the benefit of new hires.

Learning Center representatives explored training options and evaluated other factors influencing the potential success of the initiative. The resulting intervention included the creation of a five-step process outlining customer expectations; clear, visual work instructions depicted graphically on wall charts; a two-day program featuring customized case studies and real-world examples; and a process that outlines information flow to ensure that problems are corrected efficiently. The results of the intervention included

  • decreased defects per million
  • increased customer satisfaction and retention
  • decreased test time and rework
  • increased use of Corrective Action reports within the division culture
  • improved root-cause analysis by integrating lessons learned from earlier situations.

QUALCOMM is a company without a lot of bureaucracy but with a lot of planning. Unlike many other award-winning organizations, QUALCOMM doesn't cascade goals or implement a Balanced Scorecard approach. (Those would be difficult to do in an organization without job descriptions.)

"Performance goals are linked to the business," says Elkeles. "We measure division performance and corporate performance." The company's highly academic management team understands the value of education and demonstrates a "tremendous commitment" to employee learning and development; Elkeles says she has never been asked to cut her budget or quantify return-on-investment. Even so, employee learning and development is managed with maximum efficiency, representing annual expenditures of approximately 1 percent of payroll. Elkeles outsources the majority of training delivery, content design, online learning, and facilitation.