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Informal learning platform strikes a chord at Guitar Center

Although Guitar Center automated employee training years ago, the system didn't support informal learning. Learn how the retailer achieved harmony with Saba.

In the music world, informal learning reigns supreme. Instead of reading a book or taking lessons, many people learn an instrument by simply picking one up and jamming with friends. Consider that Jimi Hendrix, the greatest guitarist of all time according to Rolling Stone, never took a single lesson.

So why should learning how to sell guitars be any different? Until Guitar Center adopted learning software from Saba in 2008, new employees were trained using paper manuals and manager anecdotes. According to Chris Salles, director of eLearning, this model wasn't as problematic when the company was still relatively small and managers were trained at corporate headquarters in Westlake Village, California, before taking the reins at a store. But as the chain expanded, not every manager started from home base, and trickle-down training became inconsistent.

"We had approximately 200 stores, and that's a lot to be relying on paper manuals and campfire stories," Salles said. "The technology wasn't there yet to get people the same message."

And this wasn't the only problem. With the paper-based regimen, there was no way to prove training had been administered or determine the efficacy of the program. In addition, staff shortages meant that new employees often had to hit the sales floor before they had finished the manual.

After opening almost 80 stores in three years, the company decided to standardize and automate training with Saba's hosted learning management system (LMS). "It engaged people better, and they had [more of a] fun time training," Salles said.

Over the next five years, more and more courses were added to the library, including HR compliance training. And instead of transitioning from a bulky manual to long courses, Guitar Center broke up content into snippets of five to 10 minutes.

But while the new technology was a vast improvement from the days of paper, Salles still felt one area was underserved: informal learning. Using the 70-20-10 training model as a reference point, which dictates that 70% of training should be on the job, 20% informal and 10% formal, Salles determined a reallocation was in order.

"We spent 90% of our dollars on 10% of the learning," he said. "I wanted to take some of that budget and spend it on more of the informal learning."

It wasn't an easy sell, but Salles got approval to upgrade to Saba Cloud last year, which has enabled approximately 12,000 employees to share information with each other outside of courses.

Informal learning technology facilitates peer knowledge sharing

Salles struggled to rationalize the shift from formal courses with detectable results to a more elusive approach when presenting the business case to Guitar Center's executive team.

"I had to sell on the basis that we all agreed a smarter employee is better for the organization, and if I could build up a foundation to support informal learning, that's going to help people learn from each other," Salles said. "If we could go from 25 subject matter experts to 12,000, how you can you put a value on that?"

Because Guitar Center's contract with Saba was due to expire in 2014, Salles took the opportunity to reassess the LMS market through online research. Besides the ability to support informal learning, Salles also wanted a system that could handle the retailer's large employee population.

Vendors considered included Cornerstone OnDemand, SAP SuccessFactors, Callidus Cloud, Latitude Learning and a handful of open source platforms. In the end, Salles decided to stick with Saba and upgrade from the hosted version to Saba Cloud, the Software as a Service option.

"We had the familiarity of the system for the users and that just sealed the deal," he said.

Implementation began in October 2013 and the system went live in January 2014. Despite being an early adopter in the retail industry, Salles said the process was smooth thanks to a solid migration plan and a skilled business consultant. 

Salles' team created seven short introductory videos and put them on the homepage to explain the system's new features, and users caught on quickly. Today, employees have access to discussion boards and blogs, and can comment on and "like" colleagues' posts on multiuser portals in the stores. Distribution center workers are the only segment of Guitar Center's employee population that doesn't have access as frequently to the system, Salles said.

Hopefully, this will change when mobile access gets rolled out in coming months. The topic is currently being discussed by Guitar Center's legal team, as the company has to ensure that workers are paid for time spent learning on personal mobile devices.

Workforce management software capabilities such as requesting time off or viewing a schedule "are well-established to be OK off-the-clock activity," Salles said. "But with learning -- whether formal or informal -- there isn't a good precedent yet."

Don't hold back when launching employee-facing tech

Saba Cloud has also made training more interactive, Salles said. New hires working through their new-employee checklists not only have to take courses, but they also have to complete exercises with their managers, such as practicing selling a guitar. The manager can then rate the employee's effort, which helps the HR team correlate training performance to ongoing performance.

Salles could only name a few small wish list items for the system, such as the ability to feature specific items on certain landing pages and display company Facebook and Twitter feeds.

His advice for HR managers deploying new learning software? Don't hold back. In the initial rollout of Saba Cloud, a handful of features weren't activated so as not to overwhelm users, yet Salles quickly realized that his concern was unfounded. "I didn't trust my users enough when they see the word 'video channel' they're going to know what it means," he said.

But trusting users' ability to adopt technology is important.

"If you're designing for the 10-20% of your organization that isn't an adopter of technology, you're hurting your other 80%," Salles said. "Don't worry about the feature set. If you've picked a solid product, just dive all the way in. You can always turn something off later."

Emma Snider is the associate editor for SearchFinancialApplications. Follow her on Twitter @emmajs24 and the site @SearchFinApps.

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Does your company offer informal learning?
I think informal learning is a key part of our day-to-day work, and I see it in action every day. At my previous job, we instituted informal learning sessions focused around specific skills that weren't part of our colleagues' job descriptions but which they were being asked to do on a more regular basis (i.e. web content management); we found that hosting these sessions outside of the traditional training process was very successful for all involved because employees could shape it more to what they were interested in.
I think one of the important takeaways here is to trust your employees to understand new tools and use them to further their own learning (though of course some level of training will be required). The fear of training and integration headaches has probably held some companies back from introducing new technology that could be very helpful.

That said, I also would be curious to know how much user testing Guitar Center did in advance of rolling this out, to make sure it would be useful for employees.