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Optimas Health Partners Delivers Training that Works

October 23, 2002
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Service, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
It was October 1999, and inside the offices of Health Partners, the360-person workforce was anxious. The nonprofit organization, which administersMedicaid and Medicare coverage for 130,000 patients in the Philadelphia area,had spent two and a half years and $3 million building and installing a majorupgrade to its data-processing system. Technicians finally were poised to flipthe switch.

To the company, the new system was a godsend--a software tool sophisticatedenough to cope with the mountains of data on doctor visits, wheelchairauthorizations, and other services that Health Partners had to make sense of. Toemployees, however, the unfamiliar program, with its complicated commands andmultiple windows, was a monster waiting on their desktops to devour them.

There was a certain bitter irony to this, because Health Partners had paidtens of thousands of dollars to outside training consultants. However, becauseof delays in the installation of the system, those lessons now were a distantmemory in most employees’ minds. Obviously, a second round of instruction andfollow-up support was needed, in addition to a motivational campaign to boostslumping corporate morale.

But how could the HR department provide all that without burning a hole inthe company’s tight budget? And how could the workforce find the time to takemore instruction without losing days of work time and dangerously disrupting thecompany’s business?

Fortunately, Vicki Sessoms, Health Partners’ vice president for humanresources, had somewhere to turn for help. She called upon the HR department’sOrganizational Learning Center, a three-person team that she had created just afew months earlier to beef up the company’s in-house training and supportcapabilities. OLC’s leader, HR professional Bill Austin, analyzed the problemand then rolled out an innovative, multi-faceted initiative that relied oningenuity rather than more spending.

Instead of outsourcing the training, OLC identified a handful of employeeswho’d been top performers in the initial training course and persuaded them tobecome part-time instructors and support resources for the rest of the staff.Instead of presenting grueling daylong crash courses, OLC broke the traininginto a longer series of 45-minute sessions that employees could fit into theirwork schedules, and offered plenty of chances for employees to retake thetraining and reinforce their skills.

Rather than organize the curriculum by tasks, OLC organized it by department,and invited staffers from other departments to attend, too, so that they couldget a better understanding of how the entire company utilized the system. Lastbut hardly least, OLC devoted a portion of the training time to talking withemployees about the inevitable stress of going through changes in the workplace--andthe benefits that might be gained from successfully weathering it.

It worked. Within weeks, managers reported that their staffers, who had beenstuck pondering screen menus for 10 minutes at a time on day one, were able toclick through in a third of the time after taking the courses. The initial waveof complaints from client hospitals and administrators about logjams just asquickly dropped to virtually nil. And the palpable sense of dread among theworkforce had been replaced by an eagerness to sign up for refresher courses.

Given such a smashing initial success, it’s little wonder that HealthPartners kept turning the OLC loose on other corporate challenges. And in thethree years since its launching, the program has proven to be invaluable. OLChas enabled the company to provide extensive training to its workforce in a widerange of areas, from the basics of giving a PowerPoint presentation to theintricate nuances of patient-privacy regulations.

By recruiting instructors from its own workforce, OLC is able to deliver training for a typical cost of just $50 per student, less than half of what it might spend for outside trainers.

Although the company hasn’t attempted to calculate OLC’s complete impacton the bottom line, it’s clearly a money-saver. By recruiting instructors fromits own workforce, OLC is able to deliver training for a typical cost of just$50 per student, less than half of what it might spend for outside trainers. Byproviding short on-site sessions that fit comfortably into employees’workdays, OLC minimizes the distraction from work at hand that often is thedownside of training initiatives.

In the information-systems conversion, for example, Austin estimates that thelearning center saved the company $25,000 in lost productivity. And although OLCgets the job done cheaply, it still provides effective high-quality instruction.In post-training surveys, more than 90 percent of the employees who’ve takencourses rate their own knowledge of the subject material as good or excellent.

Beyond that, the program has contributed to making the Health Partnersworkforce happier and more cohesive. Turnover, once a worrisome 19 percent, hasdropped to just 8 percent, and employees often mention OLC’s training coursesas a key reason for their improved job satisfaction. In addition to providingemployees with new skills and the chance to develop contacts with experts inother departments, OLC helps employees to perceive the corporate culture asteamwork-oriented, supportive rather than critical, and responsive to theirneeds.

Health Partners’ OLC program provides a salient example of how a companycan reach out to its employees and raise their skill levels while lowering theiranxiety--and at minimal cost. For that reason, Health Partners receives thisyear’s Optimas Award for Service.

Gathering internal intelligence and keeping in touch
    In the case of the data-management system upgrade, OLC was able to step inand stave off what could have been a corporate disaster. In large part, this wasaccomplished because Austin and his team previously had been assigned bymanagement to monitor the workforce’s initial training by outside instructors.Not only did they possess firsthand knowledge of the software interface, butthey also had met extensively with the instructors and had access to employees’training results. They understood the potential problems that employees faced,and also could identify individuals within the workforce who’d achieved somemastery of the new system. OLC’s resulting success impressed upon Austin thevalue of good internal intelligence.

He has since taken that information-gathering to an even higher level. Hetries to pick up signs of future training needs even before OLC receives aformal request. "We don’t have the resources to spend a lot of timequantifying employees’ performance," he says. "So instead, I’ve made ahabit of walking around the organization every morning and talking to people,just trying to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on."

He and OLC staffers Bonnie Smyczek and Lisa Cosentino routinely sit in onvarious departments’ planning meetings, trying to maintain a continuouslyup-to-date sense of what different parts of the organization are up against--andhow the OLC might help. "It’s sort of like we’re training the trainers,"says Health Partners vice president Barbara Rebold. "They’re with us all thetime, working to understand what we do--listening to our ideas and trying tofigure out how to get them out to the employees."

That background knowledge gives Austin and his team a running start inresponding to departmental requests to create new training programs. Minimizinglead time is critical, Austin says, because one of the core tenets of OLC is "just-in-time"training.

He knows that when managers ask him to provide instruction to their staffers,they’re usually trying to deal with a looming problem or challenge rather thanpeering into the future. "They don’t want to hear something like, ‘Well,we can do some research, draw up a design, and then you’ll need to approve it,’"he says. "They won’t tolerate someone who’ll get back to them next month,because by then, their needs may have changed. What they want to hear is, ‘Wecan have something ready for you next week.’ We emphasize quick turnaround. Bydelivering on that consistently, we’ve been able to win managers’confidence."

That, in turn, has enabled OLC to obtain a high degree of cooperation frommanagers--in terms of both encouraging their staffs to participate in thecourses and making subject experts on their staffs available to the OLC when theneed arises.

Finding teaching talent and expertise internally
    While Austin does hire outside training consultants, he does so sparingly.Usually he develops expertise within the Health Partners ranks by turningtrained employees into volunteer instructors. "I found a business-writingconsultant within our price range," he says. "I used her six times to teachcourses. But we’ve got enough people who’ve mastered the material that fromnow on, we can teach it in-house."

"There’s more of a comfort level when you’re learning from someone you see every day. And you know that if you need help down the line with something, you can go up to that person in the hallway or the kitchen and casually get the advice you need."

One obvious reason that OLC relies on employees to teach courses is cost. Butin addition, Austin says, "there’s more of a comfort level when you’relearning from someone you see every day. And you know that if you need help downthe line with something, you can go up to that person in the hallway or thekitchen and casually get the advice you need." And because they understand thecompany’s business, employee-trainers tend to be able to make the knowledgethey impart directly applicable to their students’ work.

Austin says he has relatively little difficulty lining up in-house trainers,even though they are not paid more for the work. "One thing I try to do ismake it as easy as possible for someone to teach a course," he says. "Forexample, there was one guy I wanted, a manager who was perpetually busy and keptsaying that he didn’t have time. I said, ‘I’ll have one of my peopleinterview you, get inside your mind, and we’ll put together some slides basedon that.’ After he taught his first class, it turned out that he enjoyed it somuch that he came up and said, ‘If you need me again, just let me know.’"

Besides capitalizing on the satisfaction that comes from teaching, OLC worksto retain instructors by making sure that they are recognized within the companyfor their efforts. Austin and his staff have organized an annual appreciationday, at which time trainers are treated to dessert and presented with gifts.Beyond that, managers note that volunteer instructors’ performance andsatisfaction level in their regular jobs often seems to improve.

To fill the company’s training needs, Austin and his staff are always onthe lookout for quick learners who’ve mastered a skill that the rest of thestaff must learn. "One of Bill’s secrets is that he’s really persuasive,"says company VP Rebold, who herself has taught courses on data integrity andother subjects. "Once he’s got you to teach once, he keeps coming back withways to use you again, any way that he can." OLC’s staff works withprospective trainers, helping them to write their programs and critiquing theirpresentations in advance to give them more polish.

Providing learning that doesn’t clash with employees’ work obligations
    Instead of taking employees off-site for intense day- or weeklong courses,the OLC team prefers to deliver learning right at the company’s Philadelphiaheadquarters, and in shorter segments--never longer than an hour and a half,and often as brief as 45 minutes. "When you give information to people inlarge blocks, they tend not to retain that much," Austin says. "It’sbetter to give them a quick, digestible amount of information and then let themgo back to their desks and put it to use."

"When I sign up for a training course at 9 a.m., I know that by 10 a.m., I can be back at my desk," says quality management nurse Laura Brown. "The phone and e-mail messages aren’t going to be piled up when I get back."

By offering shorter classes, OLC also eases employees’ worries aboutcatching up with work they’ve missed. "When I sign up for a training courseat 9 a.m., I know that by 10 a.m., I can be back at my desk," says qualitymanagement nurse Laura Brown. "The phone and e-mail messages aren’t going tobe piled up when I get back."

Additionally, OLC likes to schedule numerous repeat classes, to giveemployees another chance to reinforce the material if they feel they need it.When OLC trained employees to use the new data-processing system in 1999, forexample, it offered them a chance to sit in on the course again when it wassubsequently offered to other departments. That not only helped employees todevelop more mastery, Austin says, but it also gave them a chance to meet peoplein other departments and learn about how they utilized the system in their jobs.As a result, day-to-day cooperation among workers in different parts of thecompany seems to have improved. "When you do training across departmentallines rather than keeping everyone separate," he says, "you help to shatterbarriers, rather than helping create more of them." 

Using training to build morale
    In OLC’s initial challenge of helping employees cope with a newdata-processing system, perhaps the most immediate problem was employees’sinking spirits. In response, Austin and his team focused on providing workerswith reassurance as well as new skills. "We concentrated on getting as faraway as we could from the ‘you’ve failed, you’re not getting the concept’sort of pressure," he says. "If they were ashamed because they couldn’t doit, they wouldn’t want to come back for more training. Instead, we tried toproject the message that this wasn’t their fault, that the company recognizedthat the timing of the rollout had gone awry, and that we were there to supportthem with the help to which they were entitled."

To that end, OLC also provided a non-technical motivational program toaugment the software nuts and bolts. The course was based on Dr. Spencer Johnson’sstorybook-manual on coping with change, Who Moved My Cheese? Employees liked theprogram so much that OLC now offers it on a quarterly basis to both new hiresand veteran employees who feel that they need a lift.

"One of the things the course accomplishes is to give the employees acommon language to describe what they’re going through," Cosentino says. Itwas particularly helpful when they recently got a new CEO and went through acorporate reorganization. "We would hear people jokingly comparing themselvesto Sniff and Scurry, the mice in the book. One person took it further andstarted calling herself Velveeta, saying that her cheese had been shredded. Itwas a great way to reduce the tension."

OLC continues to work hard to stay abreast of Health Partners’ continuallyevolving training needs, offering courses ranging from medical privacy to amonthlong, four-session class on leadership for top executives and managers.Austin considers it a measure of success that even people at the top of thecompany are finding time to squeeze OLC’s courses into their schedules. "It’s45 minutes, in and out, zip," he says. "And when they say that it isn’tlong enough--well, that’s a criticism that I really welcome."

Workforce, November 2002, pp. 60-64 -- Subscribe Now!

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