Wal-Mart is most often associated with low prices and a yellow smiley face, but for John DiBenedetto, vice president, talent planning and development, learning is the best value: His goal is to build a world-class corporate university without walls.
September 26, 2006
In “retail speak,” a big-box equals big store responsibility. Now imagine being one of the biggest boxes of them all, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., a veritable giant with 3,700 U.S. stores and 1.3 million associates to support. This is the world of John DiBenedetto, vice president, talent planning and development, Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
With more than 25 years of corporate experience in operations, sales management, human resources and education for companies such as AT&T, Prudential Securities and Limited Brands, DiBenedetto is qualified to lead the Wal-Mart learning organization into the future. He’s only been at Wal-Mart a little more than a year, but he has positioned learning at the forefront of an overall rebuilding of the entire retail organization, setting a battery of programs in motion he says will build a world-class corporate university without walls with the purpose of driving business performance.
“I had to come in and totally transform the training function,” DiBenedetto said. “It took nine months, and we launched Wal-Mart University in February. We had a very painful process prior to that, going through a full transformation where 70 percent of the people in the organization moved on to different things. We’ve moved past that pain. We’ve hired the best and the brightest talent from many pedigreed companies and retailers, as well as consulting firms, and we’ve married that with internal operations people, so we have a 60-40 split — 60 percent operations business (subject-matter experts) and 40 percent external talent, learning/ (human resource development) SMEs.
“Now that we’ve staffed the organization and launched it, the challenge is to deliver results. Our task is to map all of our talent solutions to the transformation from building training programs that are not competency-based to introduce science to learning. We’re taking down every program that we have today, and we’re rebuilding it with this new team.”
The new Wal-Mart learning organization began with freshly minted competency models and will stretch “to bake ROI metrics into those learning solutions so that we can actually use a scorecard to record it,” DiBenedetto said. “The challenge is to continue to deliver business critical training and change the function at the same time. It’s like doing brain surgery on a living patient, which is very tedious because we don’t want the patient to die. We’re delivering needed programs that are required for compliance purposes for safety, etc., but at the same time, taking all of our programs down and rebuilding them, killing them or introducing new programs that map to our corporate objectives. If there’s anything on the books today in our organization that doesn’t map to the business objectives of Wal-Mart stores, we’re not going to touch it.”
Since DiBenedetto joined Wal-Mart, he has brought in Cornell and Duke universities to do business planning and training for senior executives. The team is exploring the use of handheld learning devices and podcasting to aid learning on the sales floor, and it is also rebuilding the company’s management training program, which about 10,000 people attend annually.
Focus groups and past trainee insights suggested leadership learning gaps, as well as a flawed selection process and learning delivery system, were undermining the quality of the 17-week program. One potential problem was identified as the learning sponsor, a dual role in each of Wal-Mart’s designated learning stores.
“We have a training sponsor designated to each of those learning stores, and that individual has another full-time job as an assistant manager, as well as being the steward of learning for all of these new folks,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s almost impossible for that person to do two jobs. When I did the focus groups, there was 50 percent of trainees that had a wonderful experience in the program and were very engaged, and 50 percent that did not. The data points back to that training sponsor, the support that he or she did or did not provide.
“We know the management program is broken because we engaged in a test when I first came on board, and it had two parts. There was an anecdotal part, where we used a survey analysis with trainees to see what their responses were based on programs the training sponsors support, but we also had one division where we had pilot stores that were measured differently that we looked at post-training to see if their performance improved.
“We did this because we had our annual evaluations in January and had all the data, and there was a double-digit increase in individual performance. There was a double-digit increase in retention. There was no promotability because it was too early. The pilot group in that division had a dedicated learning coach, whereas the control group had a designated one with a full-time job, doing something different. There was a correlation, and that’s why we’re testing the feasibility of different options, including regional training centers with dedicated facilitators. We will also introduce a new store management assessment instrument in 2007 to help improve selection.”
Wal-Mart is a $230 billion business, but DiBenedetto is not exempt from the struggles many CLOs encounter while gathering funds for learning.
“We have to justify every dollar that we spend on the learning function,” he said. “I have a corporate budget and a head count, but we also have a contribution system. Each store pays a percentage of their sales revenue into a training account that predominantly funds the management training program and all of the resources that we put in there. When management trainees come on the program, they’re on a training payroll basically for 17 weeks, which is funded through this training account. If you’re a learning store, you get a 50 percent discount to try and entice you to run a great store and qualify to be a learning store.
“We also initiated an enterprise-wide learning council that each of the learning leaders sits on, on a quarterly basis. We share what we’re working on, what our best practices are, vendors we may be engaged with, etc. There’s communication that was not there prior to my arrival.”
With the pressure on to deliver results and justify spending even in the middle of an enterprise-wide reorganization movement, DiBenedetto has placed faith in the value of metrics to further his cause. Here again, he finds himself starting from the ground floor.
“There were very few metrics, just as there were very few competency models prior to my arrival,” he said. “One of the (new) teams built into Wal-Mart University focuses on the human impact of learning evaluation and measurement and the business impact of ROI. We met with the ROI Institute to get up to speed on what we need to do, and I honestly believe and feel very confident that learning and talent solutions that we build can be measured. Our target this year is to select 10 to 15 percent of our talent solutions and measure through Level 5. We are in the process of doing that for our management-trainee program. We’re looking at experimental groups and comparing them against control groups to see where there are performance improvements, retention increases, promotability enhancements, etc.”
Additionally, DiBenedetto said he has a great deal of confidence in the metrics.
“I also think that we can map to business impact or look at our customer metrics and our service metrics and measure everything,” he said. “Retail is detail — it’s a data-driven business, and we measure what our customers think of our service levels, what our associates believe in terms of engagement scores, and all of these things — if we do them right — will map to those and have bottom line improvements. We should see overtime improvements in our sales revenue and our profitability. Those are the areas that my team is going to focus on measuring. We’re going to build them into specific programs, measure them throughout the year and report on a quarterly scorecard.” DiBenedetto also emphasized the importance of seeing the effect of raining, as well as overall consistency.
“It’s time to show some results,” he said. “The pressure is on this year to be able to take everything apart, rebuild it and launch it, as well as deliver on a huge training obligation, as we rebuild all of our operations and processes. There are inconsistencies in our business — I can’t deny that. If you were to go in one store in Bentonville and then three miles down the road go into another store, you may have a different experience, and that’s not what we want. Our strategy calls for consistent customer experiences.
“There are tons of efficiencies to be gained in the system. We have a big project we’re calling ‘Flights’ — that’s ‘consulting speak’ for ‘projects.’ We have engineers, operations, merchandising and learning professionals studying every facet of our business from how merchandise flows into the store to how it’s stocked on the shelves to how our sales associates service customers. All of those processes will be improved in 2006-2007. I have a huge team of people that are going to have to deliver operational process change training.
Pat Curran, executive vice president, Wal-Mart Inc., U.S. Operations, lauded DiBenedetto’s experience and what he has done — and aims to do — at the company.
“John is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the training and development aspect of the business,” Curran said. “He came into the organization, quickly evaluated where we were at and where we needed to be as a world-class retailer, got the team together and really showed the vision of Wal-Mart and where he thought it should be versus where it’s at today or was when he came into the organization.
“He understands our associates, regardless of what position they’re in, and really continues to focus on that. He has a strong ability to build talent, and once we complete the business strategies, he works with us on the people strategies to get all of that aligned. The other thing that’s really cool is he looks at and measures the return on investment for each of the solutions that we put out, which — when you look at it from a business strategy standpoint — that has to be a part. He offers that to us, and that is much needed for the future.”
–Kellye Whitney, email@example.com
Name: John E. DiBenedetto, Ph.D.
Title: Vice President, Talent Planning and Development
Company: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (U.S. Division)
Learning Philosophy: Learning drives individual and organizational performance. Leaders must understand that hiring mistakes can’t be offset by “butts in seats” or sophisticated, electronic training programs. Learning should be continuous throughout the associate life cycle and based on the science of competencies rather than speculation or supposition. Learning solutions should be proven and tested and mapped to business strategy and objectives. Learning solutions should be learner-centric and use a blended-delivery methodology fashioned around business nuances. At the end of the day, each of us is responsible for our own learning and professional development, and we should subscribe to the philosophy “learning doesn’t stop until the day you take a ‘dirt nap.’”