By Margery Weinstein
Farmers Insurance prides itself on the service it provides to customers. The nature of the company’s business is to be there when the going gets tough, so creating a workforce that can withstand that stress is essential. Farmers excels at finding people with the potential to provide superior customer service and then placing those people in the ideal job roles and nurturing them for the long term. From engaging employees to empowering them to move into its leadership ranks, it’s no wonder Farmers Insurance has made a name for itself in the training world—and will be inducted in 2014 into the Top 10 Hall of Fame after ranking in the Top 10 of the Training Top 125 for four consecutive years.
Engagement Via Learning Portal
“Over the last few years, we’ve focused on employee engagement, including fairly deep annual engagement measurements,” says Director of Employee Development Steve Mulder. “We dialed up our analysis even further a year ago by partnering with McKinsey to benchmark our organizational health using an Organizational Health Index. We had a gap in early employee development, so we turned our attention to closing that gap.”
Recognizing the need for greater development opportunities, the company looked at how to structure, position, and deliver the right learning options stored in its vast library to employees, regardless of role, tenure, or proficiency level. “This effort resulted in a robust learning portal that goes well beyond just providing access to courses,” says Mulder. “We developed a way to build a bridge from personal competency assessments and career guidance all the way through targeted development resources to help everyone in our organization.”
The new portal helped Farmers achieve multiple outcomes. The company has a deep training library, but employees felt frustrated trying to find the best learning when a specific search might reveal dozens of choices. “Working with SkillSoft, we dialed in the top two or three options by modality for all key organizational competencies,” Mulder explains. “Today, people can say, ‘I’m at a novice level on competency X, and I need to get to the next level.’ We, in turn, provide access to the top learning options to get them moving on their way in just a few mouse clicks. Consumption of online learning is up nearly 10 percent year-over-year in our latest measure.”
Online book utilization at Farmers also increased 96 percent year-over-year. “We offer SkillSoft’s Books 24x7 to our employees with mapping of books to targeted competency development and career guidance,” says Mulder.
In addition, the new portal disseminates leadership perspectives through videos featuring top executives who converse via blogs with employees. With such innovations, it is not surprising that video delivery overall has improved significantly. “We launched the University of Farmers Network within this portal last year. This new feature is a YouTube-like interface that has greatly improved video delivery. Consumption of video is up more than 15 percent year-over-year,” Mulder notes.
Meanwhile, career guidance has become more practical. “One particularly effective feature of the new portal is a career advisement section that lets people choose how they want to maneuver their career based on the type of work they’d like to do, what they’re good at, or geographic preferences,” says Mulder. “When employees select from options in these categories, the database not only delivers potential next jobs for individuals, but also the learning to help them close any gaps they have today, to get to the next career step they aspire to.”
Along with a refined career development program, the company launched a new leadership model. The project, which began in Farmers’ Claims division, is known as the Farmers Leadership Model (FLM). “The project began with the evaluation of senior leadership first, and a custom 360-degree evaluation that then was cascaded down through the organization,” says Head of Claims Training Ilene Haber.
Principally based on five clusters, 14 sub-competencies, and 57 skills and behaviors, FLM enables the Claims organization to:
The Claims division’s FLM is driven by an executive summary of key strengths and opportunities, which is developed from all available feedback, including the 360-degree evaluation, performance information, and engagement surveys. Employees use the survey to create their individual development plans. A highlight of the system is its ability to identify mentors across the Claims organization by matching the individual’s specific skill opportunity with a list of people who have strength in that skill. The system then produces a list of possible mentors for each employee, allowing employees to select their own mentors.
“This collaborative initiative represents a major cultural shift in the people development process,” says Haber, “and relies heavily on peer group feedback, triads, and the company’s social platform.”
To date, Haber and her team have completed the evaluation process for 1,200 Claims managers, with 1,500 supervisors scheduled to engage in the program in 2013. All participating Claims employees will be reevaluated every 18 months if they remain in their current role or within six months of taking a new assignment.
With such a focus on developing leaders, the company’s succession plans are hearty. “Farmers has a comprehensive succession management system in place,” says Head of Emerging Talent Development Alysia Vanitzian. “All officers are required to have in place a succession plan and a nine-box grid. These succession tools help us conduct talent reviews. Farmers has a history of ensuring that line leaders are involved in scouting top talent and know who those people are in their own line of business or function. We revisit and revise our screening criteria yearly to ensure currency and relevance to the organization’s needs.”
Turning to Tablets
The company also saw a technology improvement this year in its use of electronic tablets in learning. “We invested in hundreds of tablets for use throughout multiple classrooms in our learning organization,” says Director of Learning Strategy and Performance Art Dobrucki. “We encouraged our people to get familiar with the devices, take them home, experiment, and become partners in developing solutions to effectively deploy them in the classroom.”
While taking University of Farmers courses, participants use tablets that allow them to annotate directly on each digital document. When a course ends, they can e-mail these documents to their own computers, so they’re waiting for them when they return from class.
Participants also use tablets as research tools during classes, looking up Websites, accessing articles, and viewing videos. Farmers’ training designers use iBrainstorm to facilitate collaboration sessions. Instructors use the tablets’ video recording capabilities in the classroom to capture skill practices and facilitate group coaching. And they create iBooks with embedded videos as learning tools.
This shift to tablets enabled Farmers to reduce operational costs by nearly $800,000 in 2012, according to Dobrucki.
Along with tablets, new electronic platforms are making employee-to-employee communication easier. “We provide a robust alternative platform for our sales agents by leveraging Jive technology,” says Head of Field Training Dave Nystrom. “This technology has been instrumental in connecting nearly 15,000 exclusive agents across the country to programs and practices of interest to them, with peer-to-peer communications fostering an environment where this audience can easily access best practices, not from the organization, but directly from their peers in the field, who are dealing with and overcoming operational and business challenges every day.”
Recruitment and Retention
With recruitment a competitive and often challenging process, Farmers relies on more than its own prowess—it also partners with colleges and universities. “We recently began building relationships with higher education facilities whose MBA programs align with our needs,” says Chief People Officer Deb Aldredge. “We are not alone in our talent search, so we have been partnering with these universities on integrating their young talent into Farmers business projects. This strengthens our relationship while also providing upcoming graduates the opportunity for some ‘real-world’ experience.”
In another example, the company uses its partnership with a local university to educate young people about the work opportunities for students pursuing technical majors. “We have expanded our recruiting net, and, working with the university, we’ve started a risk management and insurance specialty program—like a minor—within its management degree program,” says Head of Independent Agent Training Mark T. Cusack. “This is a precursor to having a defined major in the insurance field. Some courses are taught by our own staff, and they’re designed to meet not only our own business needs but those of our industry as a whole. This program already is bringing us qualified candidates for internships and jobs.”
With so much effort focused on recruitment, it makes sense that retention measures begin on day one. “It starts with our new hires,” says Chief Learning Officer Annette Thompson. “We place a lot of attention on familiarizing our newest employees with the company via our PowerUp! Program. With more than 3,800 participants since the program’s inception in 2009, we are running new hire retention at a rate of 97.4 percent against a 90 percent goal. We also measure the strength of the relationship between new hires and their supervisors as many people are more apt to depart a job because of their boss versus the company itself.”
With such lofty goals and initiatives, implementation is enhanced by the company’s deeply integrated learning culture. “We refer to it as beginning with the end in mind, as we start out knowing and having stakeholder consensus around the business problem we are trying to solve,” says Head of Service/Field Training Jim Harwood. “The process also maps out the Kirkpatrick Level 2 to 4 assessment framework before a pen ever hits a page to design the learning strategy or content. Putting all of these pieces together creates a powerful approach to aligning with and delivering on the business’ strategy.”