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Kohler Uses Learning for Engagement and Retention
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
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Kohler Co. of Kohler, Wisconsin, is a private company with a long history of consistently supporting talent development and a culture of learning. 

But until the creation of the Kohler Learning Academy in the midst of the recession, that commitment lacked a structure that clearly linked learning to business needs and reinforced the culture of learning.

Kohler makes its culture of learning apparent even before a potential hire submits an application. Every job posting at Kohler—whether for a security guard or a senior systems analyst—includes these words just after the skills and requirements section:

Why Work at Kohler? 

Kohler’s mission is to contribute to a higher level of gracious living for those who are touched by our products and services. We understand that it takes investment in our associates’ development to make that happen. So, we offer ongoing investment in each individual’s personal development and the opportunity to collaborate with others across functions and roles at Kohler.

New hires should be clued in to the culture of learning before they start working. “When I’m hiring, I’m looking for someone who is learning and growing,” says Michael Smith, manager of the Kohler Design Center. The design center, which is the public face of Kohler, showcases the company’s products and history over three floors. The importance of including learning discussions in prehire interviews is one of the strongest conclusions reached in Building a Culture of Learning. The report found that such conversations were uncommon in hiring practices, but six times more likely among the high-performing companies (ATD 2016). Says human resources chief Laura Kohler, “People want to come to a company where they have a future, and the learning culture has a role in that.”

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Once a new hire is on board, the company wastes no time introducing a development plan. This process connects each associate’s goals to a learning plan, which is reviewed three times a year by employees and their managers. Employee course transcripts are instantly available on the Cornerstone OnDemand talent management system; Smith reviews his team members’ transcripts once a month.

“There is an ongoing dialogue with associates around ‘Are they learning?’ and ‘Are they growing?’” says Laura Kohler. Building a Culture of Learning found that regularly updating personal development plans and holding employees accountable for following through with that learning are two of the most powerful connections between employee involvement in a learning culture and a company’s success (ATD 2016). 

As a curriculum manager, Tim Ahrens teaches many of the courses in the Kohler Learning Academy, but he also has a learning plan for his own development. On a large screen in a Learning Academy classroom, the 54-year-old logs in to the company intranet, and soon his plan stretches across the screen. His most recent personal goal is “developing global competencies.”

The learning-plan format allows for three categories of learning that are aligned with the company’s adherence to the 70-20-10 model. In the 70 percent category, his learn-on-the-job assignment is to adapt the very learning management system on his screen to Kohler’s foreign operations. (It currently only functions fully in North America.) Ahrens has no coaching or mentoring expectation in the 20 percent category—not every plan includes all three—and in the formal-instruction 10 percent of his learning plan, he has signaled his intention to take a class called Global Cultures. It’s marked as 100 percent completed.

Want to learn more? Read the ATD Research case study Kohler: Making Learning a Way of Life. This full-length case study, which features interviews, photos, and detailed program descriptions, takes an in-depth look at how Kohler Co. not only established the Kohler Learning Academy, but made learning a way of life for its employees. Among the topics explored are building and nurturing a learning culture, using learning for engagement and retention, motiving employees to learn and innovate, developing leaders, and taking learning programs global.

About the Author
ATD Research tracks trends, informs decisions, and connects research to performance. By providing comprehensive data and insightful analysis, ATD Research Reports help business leaders and workplace learning and performance professionals understand and more effectively respond to today's fast-paced workplace learning and development industry. Our research reports offer an empirical foundation for today's data-driven decision-makers, containing both quantitative and qualitative analysis about organizational learning, human capital management, training, and performance.
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