If there is such a thing as being primed for online learning, Payless ShoeSource Inc. is. With this family footwear retailer's more than 4,900 stores dispersed among each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, Guam, Saipan, the U.S. Virgin Islands and several countries in South America, it is tailor-made for a New Economy learning strategy.
At the heart of the strategy sits the Retail Performance Support System, a hybrid learning and performance management system, part dynamic online content and part media-rich training delivered via cd-rom. The rpss enables Payless to leverage significant gains in efficiency while, at the same time, accommodating the learning needs of more than 27,000 associates.
"We built the rpss with a cross-functional team to improve communications, help us grow into new ventures, domestically and internationally, and to put what's unique about Payless in a box so that we can easily execute it anywhere," says Tamara Jarrow, director of retail performance support and development.
The rpss offers associates myriad learning methodologies and support features accessible both during the orientation period and beyond. They range in complexity from sophisticated video modeling—stored on cd-rom to conserve bandwidth, but built Internet-ready for when the pipes open up—to knowledge objects that take just seconds to absorb.
"The rpss team examined every piece of information that exists for our stores," says Jarrow, "and asked: 'How do people use this information on the job? Is it something they just occasionally need to go look up, such as the company's policy on jury duty, or is it something that they can print and take out on the floor, like how to set up a display.'"
"Look-up" information was compiled into a reference library. Product knowledge, on the other hand, lends itself to job aides, explains Jarrow. For example, if associates want advice on setting up a display, there's a rip and read option that allows them take the aide with them to the sales floor. Something that is uniquely "Payless" or that everyone must know was designed into a computer-based-learning module.
Most of the pure computer-based training within the rpss is based on Payless' best practices. These are harnessed and made available through the rpss to the entire chain. Because the rpss team captured what it calls a "perfect model," associates, through interaction with the system and expert coaching from store managers, will be much more competent than before.
Seemore, an intelligent sock puppet, guides associates through the rpss. "We built Seemore to act as the basic search and help host," says Jarrow. For instance, if an associate wants to find out about the Stanley Boot, one of Payless' most popular styles, he or she can enlist Seemore's help by simply entering the appropriate keyword. Seemore then returns a list of everything that's on the system related to Stanley Boot.
Associates are generally free to explore and access information that Seemore presents, explains Jarrow, although new associates may be prompted with a "You really need to learn this" message if it's something the associate hasn't yet covered or falls within the "uniquely Payless" category.
Before work began on the system, the Payless rpss team undertook a thorough analysis of the company's work practices. "We looked for ways to change the work pattern so there was more opportunity for customer engagement in the stores," explains Jarrow. By eliminating "dumb work"—work that isn't contributing directly to sales—Payless associates can devote more time to sales-driving behaviors. The payoff benefits everyone, and especially store managers.
Prior to the rpss, store managers handled all associates' training needs, Jarrow says. Now that the rpss is meeting most of associates' ongoing information and training needs, store managers can devote more time to the coaching activities and be the all-important role-model. This is an important role change for store managers, says Jarrow. "The store manager is critical to the learning process. What the rpss has done is organize the learning activities around their strengths."
Part of the business driver behind the rpss was to take as much direct instructional training as possible out of the hands of people and filter it into job aides, references and computer-based learning. "We expect to reclaim up to 50 percent of managers' training time with this system," says Jarrow. "We also expect to reduce trainees' time by up to 30 percent."
The rpss helps Payless breed consistency in its development activities. "Today we're asking every manager to be a trainer," Jarrow says, "and some are clearly better trainers than others." By modeling best practices, everyone who goes through the system is exposed to the "perfect" role model.
Jarrow points out that once rpss was built and implemented, encouraging its use among the troops became paramount. "We introduced the system by talking about how it's just-in-time or the moment-of-need information," explains Jarrow. "It's prerequisite learning, and we tried to set that baseline."
For the actual computer-based learning component, the term "iLearn" was coined and a communication campaign was devised around it to explain the strategy. "We talk about moving from training as an event to continuous learning and self-directed learning," says Jarrow. "We provided everyone with a personal learning device, an "iLearn" tracker, so they can track their own progress. It helps people get started and makes them feel comfortable with the whole thought of directing their own learning."
Jarrow admits that the rpss is a less than ideal solution but acknowledges that it does what the business needs it to do. "What we didn't do was wait until we had all the answers as far as the dial-up and second phone line [into the stores] was concerned," she says, referring to the hybrid nature of the system. "We said, 'Hey, we're gonna try to figure out how to build this so it will work.'"
Jarrow also wanted a system that would help Payless grow into the future rather than box it into a corner; one that didn't require the company to make huge capital outlays beyond what was right for the business. "That's been our goal in all of this," she says. "Capital is hard to get, even harder now that the economy has softened. We're trying to keep this tied to the business and benefiting the business all along the way." —M.D.