For The Home Depot, Inc., in Atlanta, getting product knowledge to its 350,000 employees in more than 2,100 store locations is a top challenge, says Roger Anderson, director of store associate learning.
The company, which devotes approximately $600 million annually to learning and development, takes a multipronged approach to meeting that need. "We have a foundation of our product knowledge that's based in e-learning," Anderson explains, "but then we utilize lots of different means after that—everything from using our vendor community to different instructor-led courses, depending on the complexity of the content." The company hosts regional training "road shows" throughout the country that store employees attend to learn the details on new merchandise from the vendors The Home Depot purchased from, says Greg Stevens, manager of store associate learning. The shows cover the ways in which the products can be used, plus special features that might interest customers.
Most retailers have to keep employees up to date on rapid product change, but The Home Depot has an added challenge: Frontline workers also are expected to provide customers with information on how products can be used to complete home improvement projects. It's not surprising, then, that the company's 50 training content developers, and the 520 trainers who deliver that content, create as much hands-on learning for workers as possible. The coursework "has to have some components built into a blended approach where they're able to apply what they're learning," says Stevens, "because a lot of our knowledge is application in the sense of projects."
Along with this hands-on approach that allows workers to "actually touch, feel, and do things," the company livens up instruction with learning games, such as a board game it uses to teach in-store sales techniques. Sylvania, OH-based Root Learning, Inc., developed two map exercises for the company's new hire orientation. The "maps" are colorful diagrams printed on what resembles a game board to illustrate company and workflow structure. Gaming at The Home Depot also has gone high-tech, with another vendor tapped to develop an e-learning simulation to enhance project knowledge.
To speed up the delivery of training, The Home Depot uses what it calls "Rapid Web-Based Training." It is video-based e-learning in which the screen is divided into three sections. One part of the screen features a video, the second a PowerPoint presentation, the third a program options menu. Customer interaction is simulated with all the products. "The total learner time for these is about 15 minutes," says Anderson, "so it's very easy in our fast-paced retail world for learners to be scheduled to take that training before or after their shift."
To make sure all that product and project knowledge isn't squandered by a lack of in-store leadership, the company two years ago rolled out its Retail Leadership Development Program, says Anderson. The curriculum consists of separate suites of classes for department supervisors, store managers, assistant store managers, and district managers, along with new leader on-boarding classes.
With store employees ranging in age from 18 to 70, The Home Depot offers e-learning modules with both audio and text on screen. The ability to listen to key lessons, rather than read them, is helpful to all the generations, as well as the multiethnic groups the company employs. "We're probably heavier into audio than a lot of e-learning is," Stevens explains, "for people whose English skills aren't as strong as others, or those who find it more difficult as they get older to look at a screen for that long."
The Home Depot also has to consider the needs of learners in other countries. With outposts in countries such as Mexico and China, the retailer partners with its international stores to create relevant e-learning, says Anderson. The course may need to take into account a different merchandise mix, or the technology available to workers in the stores may differ. "We create the backbone of the training course here in the U.S.," he explains, "and then we work with learning teams in those countries to customize it."
In the future, Anderson says he'd love to see a hands-on learning lab in each store. "We have a training room in every store," he notes, "but [we'd like to] actually create a lab where associates could put their hands on product."