Cultivating In-House Expertise for Staff-Wide Professional Development

Marketing firm Oxford Communications designed a multifaceted, homegrown professional development program that uses an “employee as educator” approach to foster a culture built on ingenuity, collaboration, and mentorship.

While professional development is essential to optimal employee retention, productivity, morale, and performance, most small businesses lack the budget to invest in their most valuable assets. Companies spent $814 per employee in 2016 on professional development, according to the 2016 Training Industry Report. So what’s a small business to do? For New Jersey-based marketing firm Oxford Communications, the answer came from within. The firm looked under its own roof to design an innovative, multifaceted, homegrown professional development program that uses an “employee as educator” approach to foster a culture built on ingenuity, collaboration, and mentorship.
“Conferences, workshops, and online Webinars can be hit or miss,” notes Oxford Communications President John Martorana. “Sometimes you’re paying for a rock star presenter or the curriculum is so top-level that participants come away with more questions than answers. Off-site development programs can be expensive and come with the cost of having the employee out of the office for a day.”

For these reasons, Webinars have become increasingly popular for educators, as well as companies seeking personal and professional development. The downside, though, is the inability to establish interpersonal connection between educator and student in an online format.

“The big insight for us was realizing that we already had rich resources for training right under our own roof,” explains Martorana.
Agency-Wide Sharing

Born out of this realization was Oxford Communications University (OCU), an ongoing initiative that cultivates the agency-wide sharing of knowledge from staff members, as well as select agency partners and vendors. Subject matter can be specialized such as a primer on search engine optimization (SEO), or more general business topics such as how to run more effective meetings, or subjects of personal interest such as office recycling.

OCU classes are held on Wednesday afternoons, and all agency employees are incentivized to attend through quizzes that reinforce the learning of key material. Participation counts positively toward each employee’s annual review and development goals for the year.
Communications Content Specialist Colleen Morrison orchestrates the OCU curriculum, vetting class topics with agency management and ensuring that outside partners come to educate, not merely sell. All presenters are required to put together a PowerPoint in advance and provide a short quiz after the class, which Morrison distributes to the staff.

“We felt the best way to share know-how and encourage employees to recognize themselves as potential subject matter experts was to give them the opportunity to share their unique POV with a familiar and interested audience,” Morrison says.

Oxford launched OCU with a degree of uncertainty as to how it would be received. Those concerns have proved to be unfounded as there is currently a two-month waiting list for employees and partners wanting to become presenters. Every class has been met with enthusiastic turnout. Most importantly, the initiative is succeeding in meeting the overarching goal of cultivating cross-department knowledge. It certainly helps that presenters and those in attendance share a common understanding of the agency’s culture, clients, challenges, and opportunities.

“Marketing today is equal parts communication and technology,” Martorana notes. “It’s a challenge for our SMEs to stay on the cutting edge on a daily basis, let alone disseminate their expertise to their colleagues. OCU is helping to ensure that we maintain quality communication and build an overall culture of knowledge-sharing.”

Leadership Development Program

In a similar spirit of in-house development, Oxford launched its Leadership Development Program (LDP) in 2015. More structured than its OCU counterpart, LDP immerses small cohorts of 8 to 10 employees in a limited run of weekly classes. Core topics of LDP are designed to help employees discover, embrace, and employ their speaking and management style. The course utilizes interactive public speaking activities, two personality assessments, and leadership training exercises to enhance self-confidence, mindful communication, and a service-oriented work ethic.

LDP was conceived and implemented by Communications Strategist Sean O’Grady, who synthesized ideas and techniques from authors Dale Carnegie, Stephen Covey, Norman Vincent Peale, Don Riso, and Don Miguel Ruiz, as well as TED Talks, Toastmasters, and the Myers-Brigg and Enneagram Assessments. With cohorts drawn from every corner of the agency, LDP has proven to be a lightning rod for agency engagement and ideation.

On the surface, LDP participants learn the finer points of public speaking, communication, conflict resolution, and collaboration. The underlying mantra of LDP is that everyone has a voice and deserves a respectful audience.

“We firmly believe each person in the agency can be the catalyst for the Big Idea,” explains O’Grady. “Anyone can emerge a SME and leader at any given moment, regardless of where they sit on an org chart.”

Between the OCU group presentations and LDP small cohorts, Oxford staff members are seeing dramatic results.

“Our company trades on communication,” Martorana says. “We have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership, and quality communication certainly pays dividends each and every day. The fact that we recognized we already have the talent to further our development is empowering for all of us.”

Co-founder of Oxford Communications in 1986, Chuck Whitmore integrates written and visual content to drive meaningful consumer connections. For 25 years, Whitmore authored all advertising content originating within the agency while also contributing to Oxford’s rise as one of the region’s most acclaimed creative shops. In 2008, he developed “Truth, Turf & Energy,” the proprietary methodology Oxford employs to clearly differentiate and activate brands in the marketplace. Today, as Chief Creative Officer, Whitmore leads the agency’s charge in the marketing renaissance at the intersection of digital technology, holistic communications, and—more so than ever before—content that successfully resonates with and engages its audience.



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