Maritz: the Multimedia, High-Involvement Classroom

The Midwest region of Maritz Travel Co. runs business literacy training classes for 15 to 18 people at a time -- and the class lasts seven hours. Dull, traditional, classroom-style learning? Not exactly. The theme for the class is Mission Possible, complete with secret-agent motif. The walls are covered with pictures. Music plays in the background. Students watch videos, hear audiotapes, see overheads and flip charts, get involved in interactive exercises. Known as accelerated learning, the Maritz approach teaches on a variety of levels -- and thus appeals to people who have different styles of learning. What makes it work?

  • Plenty of humor. The videos, for example, are zany -- including one in which senior managers are dressed and act like secret agents. "It puts people at ease," says VP of finance Alicia Behrndt, who acts as a trainer. "They get interested."
  • Up-front answers to the question, What's in it for me? "We go over the benefits of sharing financial and operational information early on," says controller Dawn Giarla, another trainer. "We focus on gain sharing, improving profits, how they'll be contributing to the bottom line and putting more money in their pockets."
  • Job-related exercises. In one audiotape, a travel agent chats with a client about a trip. The trainers stop the tape and ask the class how many revenue-generating opportunities they heard. Berhndt: "It's a powerful exercise because it shows people how they can affect commissions."
  • Innovative solutions to difficult learning problems. Travel agency pricing is complex, and agents need to understand the intricacies of each pricing agreement. Trainers hand out envelopes, each with a narrative describing a particular type. "We give people 10 or 15 minutes to come up with a short presentation explaining that pricing option to the class," says Giarla. "It's a different way of learning -- they have to explain it to everybody else."
  • Demonstrations of how to apply the learning. When the group studies expenses, they hear an audiotape of an "undercover agent" sent into a company to look for cost-saving opportunities. Giarla: "The goal is cost cutting. They pick out the five largest cost-saving opportunities. We record people's answers on the flip chart -- did they get the top five correct? Most of the time they do. And we ask people, 'Is anyone out there doing anything to help control expenses?' We share ideas."
  • Review. At the end of class, every group of students gets an envelope with questions in it. All the questions have to be answered before the group leaves. "These questions review every single concept we've covered during the day. And then we ask them if they want to write up their own personal mission statement on what they're going to do to help the company watch the bottom line."

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Morse Bros.: 15 Minutes a Pop

Morse Bros. Inc., with 17 locations and nearly 600 team members, does road construction and paving and sells aggregate and other rock products. The company is just launching its business literacy training program, says training director Dan Abbott; in fact, the first modules won't be tested until next month. But Morse has a big leg up. The company has long had a serious commitment to training, allocating 3.5% of payroll to training and education, and has developed a host of innovative instructional techniques. Here's how Abbott explains what Morse knows:

  • How people learn. "We did some research and found that the average adult has an attention span of about 15 minutes. So every week in our organization, 52 weeks a year, training is being delivered in a 15-minute module. And learning takes place best when peers train peers. So the drivers in one particular location choose someone in the group to be what we call a Mentor Driver, and this person goes through some training to learn how to be a facilitator. Then they have the responsibility of delivering the training at that location."
  • Measuring the learning. "We're real sticklers for measurable learning objectives. Most of the training in the real world never takes that approach -- it's things like, 'At the end of this module, you should be able to understand what an income statement is.' One of the objectives for our finance class, for instance, is phrased like this: 'Working as a team and using only a handheld calculator, you will be able to analyze the nine items on our yearly income statement using the vertical analysis process.' So the facilitator knows that's the objective. They know what they have to accomplish before they kick everybody out of class."
  • Broad objectives. "The theme for our business literacy training program is 'Building a Business of Businesspeople.' We feel our view of business training might be more broad than some folks' view. We want our teams of front-line people to be able to understand income statements and break-even analysis, all that good stuff. But we also want them to understand marketing, business ethics, hiring, and so on. Right now in some of our locations we have truck drivers who are actually hiring their peers. They'll go through the applications, schedule the interviews, do the interviewing, boil it down, bring the manager in to make sure everything's square. Then they'll actually offer the job, do the training, and follow up. Three years ago our managers would have done all that."
  • Careful program design. "We developed nine 3.5-hour modules, and we're going to run through them with a group of 25 managers over three days. We just want their feedback before we roll it out to the rest of the organization. When we do roll it out, we'll spread the nine modules over five weeks. Before the pilot, we'll send the managers a preassessment on a CD-ROM. They'll pop it into their machines and answer questions. We want to know what their knowledge level is in areas such as financial terminology and financial computation before they come to the workshop. Then we ask them to rate themselves on their proficiency in Excel, for example. When we do the post-test, we'll have all these measures that we wanted to see improved."
  • Team-based learning. "The plan is to organize the rest of our people into teams of five. We want them to learn financial decision-making tools and understand how to use them to make financial decisions, bid jobs, create budgets. But we also want them to learn in a team environment, because we want them to work as a team in the field. We'll set the teams up so they have varying levels of understanding, because the goal is to get them to help one another. Our long-term goal is to do exactly what we've done with the Mentor Driver program: Once a month they might get a 15-minute lesson on, say, the difference between profit and cash. We'll have these 15-minute training sessions going on in addition to the formal workshops."

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