With more than 17,000 employees in multiple lines of business in 40
countries around the globe, Mercer approaches talent management
systematically in an effort to develop talented individuals to meet
current and future business needs. Deborah Wheelock, head of global
talent management for Mercer, spoke with Learning Executives
Learning Executives Briefing: Can you tell us a
bit about your career arc?
Deborah Wheelock: I have been with Mercer for a
long time - 18 years, which is a long time to be with one company
in this day and age. I started in corporate finance, but I came to
that job through a project management background. I moved into what
was then called professional development and conference planning. I
found that it was an area that I really enjoyed. We began looking
at using a learning management system, so I took responsibility for
that project. And, as is often said about managing a project like
that, you either get fired or you get promoted. I got promoted. It
started as a Mercer project, but it eventually expanded to our
sister companies in MMC.
While the LMS project was underway, we were globalizing the
learning function, and a global learning group was formed. I began
to focus on e-learning when it was a fairly new modality for most
companies. As part of an HR reorganization, we formed centers of
expertise around internal communication, reward, staffing, and
talent management. Every time I have wanted to try something
different at Mercer, I have raised my hand and Mercer has given me
that opportunity. I have worked in the same general area, but I
have had a lot of different challenges. It has been interesting,
and I have never felt like I needed to go somewhere else to get
that next experience or opportunity.
LXB: What is Mercer's overall learning philosophy?
Wheelock: When it comes to our overall approach,
we want to make sure we are giving people the right developmental
opportunities at the right time in their careers. That's not a
mission statement as much as it is a blinding flash of the obvious.
Creating and engaging a workforce to meet the objectives is what
talent management is about. I don't think you can make that
statement without looking at learning and development. And because
Mercer is a professional services firm, our only source of
competitive advantage is the quality of our people. I don't know if
you could call it a learning mission statement, but we often use
the tag line: "You are the business. Grow it."
To support this we have partnered with our own workforce sciences
and human capital business to conduct an internal labor market
review, which we have done periodically over the years. We are
currently awaiting the results and recommendations from that
review. The results of that analysis will provide metrics that will
guide our learning investments and choices. It is always difficult
in training to point to hard numbers - but we know this review will
demonstrate the impact of our talent policies and practices. It
will reveal what the impact of those polices have been on things
such as promotion, speed of career progress, and retention of high
performers. We wanted those hard numbers - to have our suppositions
borne out by data; and to use the data to make critical choices.
The last time we conducted this study, we didn't have our LMS
deployed globally, nor did we have a substantial amount of data in
the LMS. Now we have global, longitudinal data that will allow us
to look back over the past five to seven years, which will make
this a much more robust study for us.
LXB: Are you expecting any surprises?
Wheelock: This review will show which programs
have positively affected the workforce. With the economy being what
it is, we may have to make hard decisions about what learning and
talent management programs we develop and offer. The data will
allow us to make smarter decisions.
LXB: What key measurements will you look at as
being the most critical?
Wheelock: We are looking for the correlation
between how much training a person gets and how well they perform
and if certain programs are more impactful than others. If we have
put people through a particular category of training - project
management for example - do they advance through career levels in
the firm at a more rapid pace than people who didn't receive the
same training? Or do they tend to be rated higher in our
performance management system? We can't say that training is the
only reason why a person might progress or be more commercially
successful, but with this type of data, we can show it to be one of
LXB: Have those factors changed or been modified?
Are you measuring the same things today that you were a few years
Wheelock: They are pretty consistent. In a
professional services firm, client billings and profitability are
fairly standard measures. What has changed recently is we have
refreshed our behavioral competencies. The stated expectations we
have of our people are more in step with what the marketplace is
LXB: Are you talking about softer skills?
Wheelock: We are talking about both. We have a
core set of behavioral competencies that apply to everyone across
the business. Those are things such as communication skills,
adaptability, developing business, and managing others. Then there
are technical or business-specific competencies.
LXB: What has been your experience with your
learning management system?
Wheelock: We had primarily begun searching for an
LMS as a means to pro-vide better management reporting around
learning and we were just getting started with e-learning. Just the
ability to have this information in one place and not having to
cobble together a bunch of disparate Excel spreadsheets was great.
That sounds pretty basic now but almost 10 years ago that was the
way it worked. We successfully launched our LMS in 2000 and it now
is available in seven languages. In 2003 we added per-formance
management to the platform. Having synergy between our performance
and the learning systems is very helpful to managers and employees.
LXB: Can you describe succession planning at
Wheelock: Succession planning at Mercer is a
deliberate and systematic effort to ensure leadership continuity in
critical positions and encourage individual advancement. Succession
planning involves defining the needs for critical positions and
identifying which employees should be developed to fill these
positions in the future. To support this process, we use
proprietary enabling technology - Mercer Executive Talent
Management (ETM) - that helps us make data-driven talent decisions.
The technology integrates with all our systems - HRIS, LMS, and
Individual managers assess their direct reports against behavioral
competencies, a leadership profile (if applicable), and an
experience profile. This assessment is captured in ETM and used
during a talent review when the managers meet to review the
aggregated data. They debate the talent map, which gives them a
comparative view of people's potential. Typically, the focus is on
the people who we want to retain and grow, and the discussion is
about what we are going to do to develop them in role and
capability. Information about capability gaps, both individual and
organizational, are fed to our learning experts so they look at
trends and make informed decisions about future training needs.
During a talent review, retention risks are also identified, and
the management group, as a whole, assumes responsibility for
keeping those people engaged and retained.
Overall, the point is for a group of managers to be accountable for
helping their people progress in their careers and, in some cases,
to move up the leadership ladder. People will be in different
stages of development. Some are ready for promotion, while others
are in the right role for them, while others are showing promise
that needs to be tapped. We have to provide development and
learning for all of these groups. Even with the resource challenges
we may have this year, I think we're doing that effectively by
emphasizing the different learning channels - selfinitiated, from
others, on the job and in classroom, and by getting more deliberate
LXB: So cost is always an issue?
Wheelock: Yes, how we choose to invest must always
be a careful and (hopefully) a wise decision. This year presents
few challenges and I would expect that both time to participate in
formal development and actual training dollars will be debated. In
a few weeks I will be getting together with part of my team to
brainstorm and plan for the near and longer term. What learning can
we deliver at low cost, or no cost? What content can be converted
to virtual learning? How do we make the most of what we have and
make sure we're hitting the key needs? Are there new solutions we
should be developing?
We are a global team and so we have challenges ourselves. We can be
test pilots for new technologies that help the firm to operate in
new and more cost effective ways. For example, we have made good
use of wikis this year. We keep trying different methods to make
sure we harness our brainpower and then see how those methods might
be leveraged to the firm. My team has some really great ideas that
we plan to build upon.
LXB: What do you want to know about learning
organizations in other companies?
Wheelock: I am always interested to know what
other companies are doing to future - proof their organization. It
is easy to get focused on quarter-to-quarter results and make
decisions based on short-term budget requirements. Our clients need
us now and they will need us in the future. What knowledge and
skills are our people going to need to support our clients and
their career growth, and ensure shared success? I'm sure many of my
colleagues in other firms are wrestling with these questions as
well. It would nice for us all to be able to look into that crystal
ball today and create the learning strategies and approaches that
will be needed for tomorrow!