We live in a society obsessed with popular culture. From celebrity tabloid rags in the checkout aisles of grocery stores to the watercooler sitcoms and reality shows on TV networks to the latest summer blockbusters (and their box office returns), people spend loads of time and money consuming mass media.
Some training and development professionals view pop culture as an obstacle; that is, they think they’re competing with the vast array of entertainment multimedia offerings for the attention of learners. The truth is that if that’s the way they see it, they’re absolutely right. However, other learning experts have come to understand that pop culture can be co-opted and employed in educational efforts.
For example, Michele Cohen, director of HR and head of training and development programs at Allied Building Products, has found she can infuse various elements of pop culture into employee education experiences to drive engagement. Allied, an independent distributor of roofing, siding, windows and other structural products, has 400 management-level personnel out of a workforce of approximately 3,600, and Cohen makes clever use of pop culture to secure their interest in training.
For a recent management training program targeted at Allied’s regional managers, Cohen developed a curriculum that aligned to the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” which is based on a Tom Clancy book involving the defection of a Soviet Navy captain and the high-tech nuclear submarine he commands. “There are various competencies that we’re training people on, and we’re using segments of the movie to address issues like dealing with difficult people, problem-solving and decision-making skills, anger management, inventory management and advanced writing,” she explained. “All of those competencies are important to a regional manager position.”
In another course aimed at management, Cohen has styled the program after Donald Trump’s game show, “The Apprentice.” “We separate them into groups and have them run their own company. They have to hire a staff, step up as leaders, deal with change, manage conflict, make decisions to fire. In the end, it’s about which team comes out the strongest. A lot of the developmental areas that will come out of there are organization knowledge and negotiation skills, and we’ll have summary write-ups for each team to see what they’ve found.”
Cohen views this creative synergy between training and pop culture as a key technique for attracting, developing and retaining a high-quality workforce. For a company such as Allied, these are crucial objectives. “We don’t make anything,” she said. “We just resell, so we’re all about our relationships and our people. Our business is people. There is no limit to what we would do and no price we wouldn’t pay to do the best we can to motivate, train and coach our current employees so they can be our employees tomorrow.”