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Whirlpool Adopts E-Learning for Leadership

Until the recession hit, the U.S.-based appliance-maker steadfastly avoided online training in favor of classrooms. Now, it's a proponent of virtual online learning.
November 14, 2012
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Corinne Gorenchan learned a lot during a yearlong training session for leaders at Whirlpool Corp., but the most important realization is that she is not alone.

Gorenchan was one of the first supervisors to graduate from "Leading People at Whirlpool," which immerses managers in the nuts and bolts of leadership. It blends virtual and live classroom learning, plus job projects designed to let managers apply their newly acquired knowledge. Supervisors and their managers also are held to a higher level of accountability.

"Each of us is new in our leadership experiences, and it was awesome to be able to share, gain insights and learn from each other," says Gorenchan, a consumer scientist who leads a team of six people. "It is one of the best training sessions I've ever been involved in."

Among other things, the leadership training provided help on key management issues, such as setting expectations, building credibility, communication and assessment.

Rolled out in 2010, Leading People targets 6,500 managers at Whirlpool, an appliance-maker in Benton Harbor, Michigan, near Kalamazoo. It is a concerted effort to strengthen Whirlpool's bench and prescribe competencies for managers who lead other employees, says Tamara Patrick, director of Whirlpool University.

It also marks a change of attitude toward online learning at Whirlpool. Until recently, the company relied almost exclusively on face-to-face classroom instruction to deliver learning about innovation, marketing and other business imperatives. "We didn't think e-learning was engaging enough to be effective," Patrick says.

Whirlpool's move online mirrors national trends. Two-thirds of learning executives believe e-learning will increase "moderately or substantially" within six months, according to a report by the American Society for Training & Development, or ASTD, a trade group in Alexandria, Virginia. The Learning Executive Confidence Index, released in August, includes responses of nearly 350 learning leaders.

A prolonged global recession prompted Whirlpool to re-examine its learning strategy. Squeezed by dwindling consumer demand for its big-ticket items, Whirlpool, whose brands include Maytag and KitchenAid, has laid off 5,000 employees since 2008, according to a recent securities filing.

At the same time, the 101-year-old company in 2009 purchased a new learning management system and migrated most training online, Patrick says. The inaugural program was Foundations of Whirlpool, a set of nine 30-minute online modules that informs employees about the company's specific growth strategies.

The self-paced modules in the Foundations program are designed to familiarize employees in advance of classes at Whirlpool University. Patrick says it also helps when onboarding new employees and serves as a prerequisite for all learning and development pursuits.

A natural outgrowth of Foundations is Leading People, which provides targeted training to supervisors deemed to be up-and-comers at Whirlpool. Supervisors invited to participate complete a series of online modules that prepare them to attend in-person classes at Whirlpool University.

To ensure the leadership training sticks, each supervisor's manager also participates in coaching workshops to learn ways to help the supervisor put their learning into immediate practice.

"When the leaders graduate, their managers are asked to come and explain how they are going to support the continued learning and application of the supervisory skills," Patrick says.

Convincing leaders and their managers to devote 12 months to a single training initiative was at first a tough sell. "The feedback at the start was: 'A 12-month program? You've got to be kidding, right?' Patrick says.

But spreading the coursework over one year enables better learning results through ongoing feedback, managerial coaching and periodic assessments, Patrick says. "In the past, we would bring leaders into a classroom for three days to teach them basic supervisory skills. Then, we sent them back to the job and never talked about it again," Patrick says.

During the first two months of the program, leaders invited to the program are required to complete a series of three e-learning modules, created by consulting firm Development Dimensions International of Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. The content focuses on building essential leadership skills and coaching.

During the third month, a class of 20 to 40 participants gathers for the first time at Whirlpool University, a 100-acre campus at the company's headquarters. Members of Whirlpool's training team are on hand to facilitate group sharing of their experiences. In-classroom learning labs and collaborative exercises are used to address Whirlpool's most pressing strategic issues, such as the importance of innovation, how it manifests itself, and the role the supervisors play to nurture it.

The process of preparatory e-learning and classroom activities repeats itself several months later. During the break between physical classes, teams of managers work together on business projects. The course concludes with a final in-class meeting at which leaders make group presentations to an audience that includes their managers and senior leaders.

Throughout the year, each supervisor's manager receives coaching to help their supervisors put their skills to use on the job.

Leaders like James Crawford say the Leading People program provides a framework for learning how to manage other people. "It helped me pinpoint weak spots in my leadership practices and then gave me a strategy for turning those weaknesses into strengths," says Crawford, a senior training producer at Whirlpool's Chicago division.

"I learned the impact communication has in driving a high-performing team," Crawford adds.

Whirlpool is soliciting the opinion of graduates on tips to improve the experience. Among the suggestions: establish formal mentors for supervisors—including leaders other than their direct managers—and provide face-to-face learning more frequently, with greater exposure to executive leadership, Patrick says.

Employees that demonstrate leadership potential soon may get the chance to pursue the training as well. Whirlpool this year plans to pilot the Leading People course to select employees who have demonstrated leadership potential.

Leading People also is the best example of Whirlpool's new "closed loop" approach to employee development, which governs the creation of learning programs "from initial design all the way through to implementation," Patrick says.

The learning activities open the loop, while practice, coaching and periodic assessments help to complete the circle. Blending the strengths of online learning with face-to-face activities is a key part of that loop. "It's a really powerful combination that is reshaping our approach to learning and development," Patrick says.

Garry Kranz is a Workforce contributing editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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