Wal-Mart Training Goes Into Wholesale Overhaul

May 22, 2006
When John E. DiBenedetto took over Wal-Mart University in May 2005, he inherited the world’s largest corporate training program, an operation that reaches more than 1,000 workers each day.

    But when he peeked inside the training apparatus, he was startled to discover that it was staffed entirely with Wal-Mart store veterans and no professionally trained trainers.

    "Not one," DiBenedetto says. And in a company that likes to track every penny, there was little thought to quantifying training results. "There was no reporting at all," he says.

    Since then, DiBenedetto, vice president of talent planning and development, has been on a mission to bring Wal-Mart University into the modern age of training and development. The entire operation is being overhauled, with new programs, people, methods and tracking programs. It is a massive and expensive undertaking that is unlike anything Wal-Mart has attempted in the field of training and development.

    Changes in corporate training and development typically are incremental and slow-moving. Not at Wal-Mart, where an entire system that was developed over decades is being scrapped and replaced in one year.

    "I had to lead a tumultuous transformation," DiBenedetto says. "There was no other way to take it forward."

    If DiBenedetto succeeds, it will be just a first step for Wal-Mart. His authority extends over the domestic Wal-Mart operation. Separate training programs are in place for the retailer’s Sam’s Club chain and for international Wal-Mart stores. But the domestic Wal-Mart division is the biggest, with $210 billion in annual revenue and 3,700 stores. Sam’s Club does $40 billion, and the international division brings in $63 billion.

    Wal-Mart grew its training and development program the way it grew the corporation: from the store level up. Employees with a knack for training found their way to Wal-Mart University, where they helped write and teach various training and development programs.

    DiBenedetto, who arrived from Columbus, Ohio-based retailer Limited Brands, immediately restructured his core staff of 112. He created 27 new professional training positions. Of the old staff, 70 percent left, all but one taking different jobs in the company. His core operating budget doubled from $12 million to $24 million.

    His new team set about analyzing the company’s training needs, creating new learning platforms and courses and installing tracking systems to provide feedback on everything from class participation to customer satisfaction. In April, Wal-Mart began shutting down existing training programs and installing the new systems. The company began to introduce new programs in January and will continue to do so through the rest of the year. Meanwhile, key personnel like assistant managers will continue to receive training under the old system.

    Wal-Mart’s moves are likely to be watched, and perhaps copied, by other companies.

The entire Wal-Mart University operation is being overhauled, with new programs, people, methods and tracking programs. "I had to lead a tumultuous transformation. There was no other way to take it forward."
--John DiBenedetto,
Wal-Mart University

    "They are making a significant commitment in terms of people and resources," says Elliott Masie, an author and workplace learning consultant who runs the Masie Center in Saratoga Springs, New York. "It is certainly going to be on the radar screen of other organizations."

    Broader interest in the Wal-Mart training and development makeover relates partly to the company’s size and influence. Whenever Wal-Mart changes course, other corporate execs take notice. Thus, if Wal-Mart devotes more resources to training and development, other companies may consider doing the same.

    Indeed, Masie says the spotlight may focus more on the size of the commitment Wal-Mart makes to its revamped training and development function rather than the specific methods it uses.

    DiBenedetto, meanwhile, says his mission is to create a new breed of Wal-Mart employee: more customer-friendly, more knowledgeable, more professional. "I am hoping my legacy will be that you see a different associate as you check out, on the sales floor, in the back room, in logistics."

    In designing the new system, DiBenedetto has drawn on a host of models and methods from the corporate and academic worlds. The company is using a combination of outside vendors and systems it has created on its own in the overhaul of training and development. Wal-Mart declined to name its vendors, citing confidentiality clauses in its vendor contracts.

    DiBenedetto is counting on the new sophistication to produce quick results. And this being Wal-Mart, he knows he had better be able to quickly show some benefits for all the expense.

    "If I don’t produce results this year," he says, " I won’t be here next year."

Workforce Management, May 22, 2006, p. 30 --Subscribe Now!