Building a learning function from scratch for a 50-year-old-startup is like turning Harmony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship. It’s more than a business maneuver; it’s setting a direction for an entirely new learning culture within a company.

Let’s examine how Master Electronics built a successful learning culture from both pitfalls and triumphs.

The Beginning

Master Electronics, founded in 1967 by Syrian immigrant Ike Nizam, consistently outperforms its competitors in the electromechanical parts distribution industry. The company has won numerous awards over the years from suppliers and end-customers alike while increasing company profits yearly.

Like many companies, Master had a colloquial learning culture. This is an important note because saying there was no learning culture is a misconception.

Master’s president, Riad Nizam understands that people are one of the company’s chief assets. In 2013, he began imagining how Master could become a Best Places to Work organization with a world-class learning and development (L&D) department. Two years later, he hired a talent development specialist (Thomas Harrell) to make his vision a reality.

The new specialist immediately began visiting sales branches to get his finger on the pulse of the company and to build relationships. Harrell noted firsthand how the new culture could be implemented, but also invited branch managers, frontline salespeople and warehouse team members to share their ideas on establishing a learning function.

Two months after being hired, Harrell targeted the sales team as the first population for the effort.  At that point, Nizam and Harrell developed a committee comprised of branch and operations sales managers that later included frontline salespeople and the HR director.

The next partnership milestone Master tackled was external. Since they had already experimented internally with a learning management system (LMS) and it had fallen flat, the new marching orders were to find a modern LMS that made learning easier to engage with and fun. That meant partnerships with other organizations.

Partnerships are Key

After months of research, the talent development department decided to use Adobe’s new LMS, off-the-shelf (OTS) learning content and the services of a learning consultant. Without the following partnerships in place, progress may have stalled at Master, or even halted indefinitely, especially since their talent development department consisted of only one person.

  • Adobe Corporation via their Adobe Captivate Prime LMS
  • BizLibrary, a learning content provider, offers more than 6,000 video courses
  • Envisionary Development Consulting (EDC) for learning and organization strategy and custom e-learning development

What is a “Build, Borrow, Buy” Approach?

Master Electronics used a build, borrow and buy (BBB) approach to make learning content available to team members.

BUILD: Master’s leveraged partnerships to build e-learning. EDC began laying the groundwork for L&D governance and workflow documentation. They also helped guide long-term strategy ideas and timelines. EDC built custom e-learning for the Master sales team.

BUY: Master’s agreement to buy licenses with learning content provider, BizLibrary, immediately extended the learning content they could offer team members. This included diverse topics from Excel courses to managing team member disagreements to creating healthy office environments and building leadership skills.

BORROW: The borrow concept included sourcing free content available online via YouTube, blogs, white papers, etc.

Build it, then market it.

Learning Leaders are Marketers

New marketing efforts like these were used to generate excitement about the learning opportunities available in the newly minted Master Electronics Training Academy (META):

  • Bi-monthly articles in the company newsletter prior to the LMS launch.
  • Four-week sales department email campaign explaining the BBB approach, what to expect in META and live workshops.
  • Scavenger hunt based in association with the campaign (winner receives $100 cash).
  • Reiterated during live workshops at sales branches.

Less than a year later, the next step was to roll out the program to nearly 40 percent of the company’s team members across various departments. However, usage remained flat.

But, here’s the kicker – it wasn’t enough. Even though the platform, communication and marketing were in place, staff were still not availing themselves of the opportunity to learn.

It was obvious the return on investment (ROI) for the company was less than optimal. Lesson learned: If you build it, people do not always come.

The next challenge was to implement vigorous marketing and consistently communicate the availability of the learning system to team members. This also included coaching executives on the criticality of continued communication directly from them.

Marketing and communication elements embraced by the SVP:

  • During bi-weekly calls with direct reports, discuss key talent development department events and efforts and what learners can expect.
  • During bi-annual company-wide virtual town hall meetings, discuss the importance of the learning function and stress how vital it was to participate.

Marketing and communication elements carried out by the talent development department:

  • Announce courses using META’s announcement feature to pique learners interest in courses appropriate to their position.
  • Assign courses monthly and based on learners’ position.
  • Advertise by running ad broadcasts to the entire company in other learning delivery modalities.
  • Implement recognition by periodically recognizing and awarding the top three learners with the most number of completed modules.

To other learning leaders in a similar state as Master, the lessons of partnership and marketing offer insights to our third and final point.

Building a learning culture is a marathon, not a sprint. Buckle up for an exciting trek.

Having a Marathon Mentality is Healthy

When this journey began, in many respects, it was approached as a project having a definite beginning and end. However, Master’s learning leaders discovered that building a learning culture with that mentality is a disservice to all interested parties.

When the new LMS system approached its first birthday, sprint-running and project-level thinking were abolished and the learning function reset with a three to five year view in mind.

Doing so relieved pressure to deliver a final product now.

Conclusion

In 2017, because of the vigorous marketing and communication plan implemented, Master Electronics saw a 138 percent increase in learning modules completed from January to May (with 882 modules completed), and from June to September (with 4,791 modules completed).

Lessons learned:

  • Forge both internal and external partnerships early as you begin to formulate your learning function.
  • Over-communicate using a variety of communication channels and ensure staff knows executive management is leading the
  • Boost your sanity, energy levels and enthusiasm by looking at the long game.
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