Learning Executive Briefing: What responsibilities does your particular job entail at Allstate?

Groff: My job has changed over my five-year tenure. I was brought in to oversee the learning and development role. In the first several months, I proposed a focus on managing talent in general, not just training or developing talent. A broader set of opportunities was outlined and agreed to than was originally envisioned.

These responsibilities included examining the business strategies to define and develop the capabilities required for key roles at various levels. To accomplish this, we identified a set of competencies or success factors that link many of our talent systems together. As a result we adjusted the way Allstate assesses people for hiring, promotion, and development. It included aligning development products and processes to reinforce and build the capabilities defined by our strategies. We linked together processes and practices beyond learning that effect performance, such as performance management, succession planning, talent reviews, development, and so forth.

LXB: With the swell of talent management, many organizations' learning functions are working to build synergy among all aspects of HR rather than coming up with different angles. Is this the case at Allstate?

Groff: Yes. Increasingly, we focus on a wider range of dimensions that affect individual performance. It's not simply about traditional HR functions. It's the broader aspects of human and organizational performance that can affect an individual's ability to perform. We're improving human capital planning, talent decision processes, organization design, change management, and more. These are some of the key features of a performance culture that we are highlighting, integrating, and managing at Allstate.

LXB: What other departments have you worked with?

Groff: There are talent management implications for many governance functions, for example, accounting, budgeting, and strategic planning processes. We support initiatives in sales, claims, marketing, finance, and product development. We work with human resource business partners on change management, org design, learning, and development. We ensure that C-level executives are kept informed of evolving trends in talent management and internal improvement opportunities.

Advice is key. We don't always do the work. Often, we advise those who do it. For example, our product operations department develops our insurance products that are distributed through our agents. We might collaborate with them in developing online training, learning tools, and job aids around products. Our role may not be to actually write the course but to enable the client source externally.

LXB: Do you outsource any of your talent management or other learning functions?

Groff: We outsource much of the tactical delivery of our products and services. When I joined Allstate, we were outsourcing some fairly standard project support activities, such as instructional design, delivery, and curriculum development, particularly when demand exceeded internal capacity. Just as we outsource parts of benefits, we outsource parts of assessment, staffing, performance management, coaching, training program design and delivery, measurement, and course administration, among others.

In the past, we had a larger internal staff that actually did all the design and delivery. Now we leverage partnerships with a number of companies that have critical expertise in key talent areas. This enables us to deliver products faster, better, and cheaper than before. We retain all strategic work, some operational work such as relationship management and program management, but most transactional work is in third-party hands. Outsourcing has been highly successful. This model is also prevalent in many of our business units. Our education partners in finance, sales, and claims have been very successful at outsourcing the design, development, and occasionally the delivery of their training products and services.

LXB: How do you decide what to outsource?

Groff: We ask the question: "Can we get a product or service that is fast, competitively priced, and more leading edge by going to outside firms that do this on a full-time basis?"

After we examine an opportunity, we look at what other companies are doing. Increasingly, we find that outsourced work is often faster, better, and cheaper. We do it on a project-by-project basis until we prove to ourselves that the outsourced product or service is as good as or better than expected.

Beyond learning and development, we have been outsourcing portions of many HR functions, including benefits, compensation, staffing, and assessments. Also, we outsource our learning management system (LMS) and course administration to a third party.

LXB: How does the use of technology support Allstate's learning initiatives?

Advertisement

Groff: Most companies now have LMSs that coordinate the administration and sign-ups for online courses and classroom events. We have an LMS that manages our courseware, administration, and related processes.

We're exploring the use of mobile learning and larger learning technology strategies. Some companies are considering cell phones, BlackBerrys, and iPods to enable learning on a more mobile basis.

We're exploring this as well in conjunction with third parties. Given the challenges of doing business today and the various multigenerational issues, we are always looking to better enable learning through new products, channels, and networks.

LXB: What kind of challenges are you seeing with talent management and the multigenerational workforce?

Groff: That's a great question. Of course, we follow the research on generational differences and make selective adaptations to internal practices. Understanding generational differences offers the potential to better react to the needs of different generations, as well as better harness their performance potential. We're particularly sensitive to generational differences in hiring, retention, and engagement processes. Selectively, we provide flexible work opportunities (through telecommuting, job sharing, and working from home). Classroom training has expanded to online and virtual classes. We currently have four generations in our workforce and expect a fifth soon. A member of my staff, Marsha Love Morrow, director of learning and organizational effectiveness, put it this way, "The goal should not be to simply understand the various generations. To outperform our competitors, the goal must be to enable the organization and its leaders to engage each generation to achieve better than average performance."

There seems to be research on both sides of this issue. One side suggests generational differences are quite significant and best managed accordingly. The other side holds that generational differences are less consequential to work, performance, and management. We attend to some generational differences, but continue to strike a balance between them and work demands.

LXB: What sort of metrics does Allstate use to measure the performance of its learning initiatives?

Groff: For our learning initiatives, we start with the Kirkpatrick model. It's a training tradition and something that has been around a long time.

We also use the case study method to evaluate learning. In certain learning solutions, we evaluate the extent to which there is real-world proof that what someone got out of the event resulted in higher performance. Three to six months later, through an interviewing process, we ask the individual who participated in the training to provide evidence that would suggest that his performance has changed the business as a result of the changes he made. Allstate collects that information into a case study and then uses it as evidence that the learning event actually resulted in a business improvement.

Another way of looking at measurement is what we call "conditions of success." For example, "How much of the success of the learning solution is dependent upon what occurs in the learning event? Often the answer is: "Very little." What determines the effectiveness of the learning solution before and after the solution itself? This gets to a need to understand the conditions that must be present in an organization to ensure that what is embedded in a learning event has a positive effect on organization performance. For instance, people need to have a certain mindset before going into a learning program. The managers of those people need a complementary mindset - for example, a mindset focused on performance expectations before, during, and after the event. What is an individual's level of involvement in selecting a learning intervention? What is their manager's involvement? What are the business drivers that warrant the learning solution? These are typical conditions we measure.

We look at conditions of success for other major processes: staffing, succession, development, and so forth. For example, the traditional metrics in staffing have been "time to fill" and "cost per hire." As is, they don't really offer insight into how well an organization is doing to make the staffing process work or improve. We have been evaluating staffing from a conditions-of-success point of view - that is, examining the quality of the decisions that occur in the staffing process, i.e., the quality of the candidate pool, the quality of the selection pool, and the quality of the offers.

LXB: What other things would you like to add about learning initiatives at Allstate?

Groff: Successful learning and development doesn't lie just in the jurisdiction of the learning and development or HR functions. It requires alignment among many factors - individuals, managers, and organizational infrastructure. As with other components of talent management, it must be managed as an integrated system.

A high-performance culture results from the coordination of multiple systems and processes that directly and indirectly affect performance. Narrow solutions are usually ineffective in changing performance. Having a strategic framework for talent management (including development) has been beneficial. An integrated architecture rationalizes greater integration, minimizes redundancies, and improves effectiveness. Importantly, we have to manage many factors simultaneously to achieve success.