July 2021
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Two Sam's Club workers talk in the produce section.
TD Magazine

Training in the Flow of Work

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Sam's Club's improved Manager in Training program keeps associates learning while on the sales floor rather than in a back office.

Sam's Club is committed to ongoing associate development and fostering a culture of learning so that associates can grow and build a career with the company. It seeks to create opportunities and invest in the future of every associate who walks through the company's doors.


The L&D team, which comprises five individuals, constantly works to build and execute best-in-class training programs for 100,000 associates in almost 600 Sam's Club locations across the US and Puerto Rico. We know that to offer associates the best experience in retail, we must evolve our training and create a technology-enabled environment where associates can thrive.

Among the company's strong foundation of L&D programs is the Manager in Training program that prepares high-potential associates for a future leadership role. Last year, we took the opportunity to completely rebuild the MIT program from the ground up to ensure the content was relevant and interactive. The reimagined program is embedded in the flow of work so participants can immediately apply the training modules to work-related tasks.

Before and after

On average, more than 200 associates participate in the MIT program annually, and it's been a driving force in helping hourly associates promote into management roles. In fact, approximately 75 percent of management associates started in an hourly role and earned promotions after completing programs like MIT.

The original MIT program required associates to use working hours to review a 170-page printed manual that focused on functional and technical skills. That approach meant that associates sat in a back office for hours reviewing the materials and sacrificed time that could have been optimized by using on-the-floor training. The modality and approach to training also taught associates to focus on tasks rather than effecting change, driving their curiosity, and encouraging individual exploration.

Another problem with the 170-page manual was keeping everything up to date. Without digital tools to support the manual, we had to include everything about processes, policies, and standards in detail. By shifting to a digital format, we can keep activities at a high level, and the program framework teaches associates to curate the information they need based on questions and tasks they perform as part of their role. The new program encourages application and reinforcement of the new ways of working across workgroups and drives interaction between peer associates and managers.

The decision to transform the MIT program largely came from associate feedback and ethnographic research we conducted in the field over a six-month period. We not only asked questions but also observed individuals as they completed their work. To foster a new way of thinking and learning for the program, we identified three goals.

Encourage more critical thinking. Associates crave insight into how their daily choices affect the business. And even if they understand the bigger picture in theory, they still need practical and specific learning activities on how to apply critical thinking to everyday tasks and member issues. That is an important skill today, but as the world of work continues to evolve, softs skills such as critical thinking and problem solving will become even more crucial to associates' success.

Outline a clear path for professional growth. One of the best ways to prove how much the company values associates is to describe how it sees their futures together. By outlining how to move to the next step in their careers at Sam's Club, the company commits to that future.

Use the learning platform to measure engagement and results. This helps us determine learner engagement and training effectiveness while better positioning us to iterate and improve the program.

Transition from the back office to the sales floor

The concept behind the MIT-Reimagined program is a behavioral-based associate development program where changes in behavior stick. The program design teaches associates how to grow in strategic perspective, execute their business successfully, lead people with authenticity, and develop a strong curiosity about the world around them.

Program materials are entirely digital and available on our intranet. Associates access them via their mobile devices within their daily work experience. That enables them to refer back to and look ahead to learning outcomes they want to tackle while working on the sales floor and interacting with members and other associates.

Participants gain a holistic understanding of their Sam's Club facility through inquiry, analysis, and interactive learning experiences such as conducting club tours, navigating digital tools, and reflective writing assignments across four digital learning labs: membership, merchandising, fresh, and specialty.

The learning labs are based around the workgroup structure within participants' work environment, giving them exposure to all parts of the business they will one day manage. Participants can set their own pace for the program, are empowered with career information to learn more about the company, and get the opportunity to embrace digital tools.

Subject matter experts across the organization curate, create, and maintain the program content. However, MIT-Reimagined is not solely content driven. A behavioral-based learning framework teaches associates to ask questions, find answers, curate content when it is relevant, and connect new knowledge to what they already know (see sidebar).

The four learning labs lead participants on a journey to understand the necessary behaviors and competencies to achieve business goals, provide personal and career development, and create special member experiences. We built each lab experience upon four leadership pillars aimed to encourage associates to look at the business through different lenses: strategic perspective, business execution leadership, leading people, and innovative mindset. The pillars serve to train participants on how to envision the future, make strategic and thoughtful decisions, see around the corner, and work with others to initiate change. They also inspire MIT associates to think critically about their work.

How does it work?

When an associate enters one of the labs, the Fresh Learning Lab, for example, he first sees a high-level overview of the content and areas of the club that the lab will cover. He then selects one of the areas to begin training. For instance, he may decide to work on the meat and seafood area in the Fresh Learning Lab because he is currently helping to cover that area of the club.

The training's actionable parts encourage associates to participate in interactive assignments, collaborative learning sessions, immersive experiences, and reflections—which include self-assessments and action plans that drive learning outcomes, motivation, and behavior change. As associates complete an assignment, they can mark it complete in the learning lab, and their progress is saved and visible the next time they log in.

We define learning labs outcomes in four ways.

Assignments. These are activities participants complete independently. Examples include reviewing and analyzing a report, watching a club-specific process video, reading an article, observing a person or process, reviewing documentation or toolkits, completing activities (for example, downloading and using apps), going on a club scavenger hunt, and doing a skill demonstration.

Using the Fresh Learning Lab as an example, one of the assignments asks participants to use the Ask Sam app (a voice-responsive digital assistant) to pull up a product spec sheet and then evaluate the product on the sales floor. If they find any issues, they must resolve them. As another example, in the Merchandising Learning Lab, participants complete an interactive video that teaches them about the different types of gemstones in the jewelry counter. Through the interactions, they learn about the qualities and characteristics of 10 different stones.

Collaborations. These are activities participants complete with other associates as part of a cohort. Examples include presentations or teach-backs, best practice and key learning share-outs, group projects, group tours, and collaborative problem solving.

An example of a collaboration activity is found in the Specialty Learning Lab–Fuel Area. Here, participants must collaborate with an experienced fuel associate to take a tour of the fuel area. Program materials include some starter questions to help spark the discussion.

Immersions. Participants complete these activities with other associates in their facility. Immersions involve learning from the other associates or helping to upskill associates. Examples include learning or leading a process, conducting or performing role plays, leading tagalongs, and visiting competitors.


To illustrate more clearly what an immersion looks like, in the meat and seafood portion of the Fresh Learning Lab, participants schedule time to work with the meat cutter. During that time, they learn about the tools and resources commonly used in the area, as well as the importance of following processes to ensure safety and quality.

Reflections. Participants complete these activities individually or as part of a group or cohort discussion. Reflections are either stand-alone or tie to another activity participants complete. Examples include assessments (formal or informal tests and quizzes), writing prompts, discussion board contributions, and giving feedback to peers.

Returning once more to the Fresh Learning Lab, associates must participate in the backroom inventory process. After completing the process, they are prompted to reflect on several questions such as: How does this affect your business? How can you improve any negative impacts or reinforce positive ones? They then meet with a colleague to discuss their thoughts.

A comprehensive experience

As part of the learning experience, program participants can connect with other colleagues in the program via in-person meetings, over Zoom, or on our internal social media platform to share best practices and tips for overcoming challenges.

We also assign MIT associates to a sponsor in the club who has experience in club management. The sponsor helps the participant navigate the content, debriefs the activities, and serves as an advocate for the individual to ensure they get the time they need in different areas of the club.

Due to the L&D team's small size, we relied on our partnerships with the field operations and HR teams to activate the program. To help with program implementation, we created digital facilitator guides and trained our field partners to kick off the program. The interactive guides detail the roles and responsibilities of the MIT associate, club manager, and field people partners in areas such as program onboarding, registration, locating content, debrief sessions, and assessments.

To provide another program benefit, our team worked to ensure the content was eligible for college credit. That required ensuring that the content met the standards for college-level curriculums, including assessments to show mastery, providing seat time considerations for the time participants spend interacting with the training, and maintaining training records. Through such efforts, upon completion, eligible associates may receive up to a semester's worth of college credit from five universities through Live Better U, the Walmart and Sam's Club $1-a-day college program.

Building a behavioral-based learning model designed to be a blueprint of a sustainable experience completely transformed the way we deliver learning to frontline associates. They have shared that they are at their best when tasks, processes, and concepts are taught and learned in the flow of work. They better retain the information and it's easy to teach to peers. As of April 2021, 215 associates have received college credit for completing their learning labs.

A Framework for Behavioral Change

Each learning journey begins with a framework based on behavioral competencies that focus on existing knowledge, gaps in learning, adding skills, and changing behaviors. The L&D team builds each learning experience by following four guiding principles:

  • The learning experience is behavior focused. It is relevant, rigorous, contextualized, and designed to change and reinforce positive behaviors.
  • The learning experience is personalized. We tailor customized learning experiences to associates' needs, strengths, and interests.
  • The learning experience is journey based. Learning journeys are individually defined, specific opportunities for growth—to identify skills gaps, we involve managers at many levels in the process and measure impact.
  • The learning experience is closer to work. It provides associates with real-time interactivity, adaptivity, feedback, choice, nonlinear access, linked learning, and connectivity with other learners via a real-time digital experience.

Our focus is to develop sustainable programs, grow associate careers, and provide immersive experiences accessed in the flow of work. Using the behavioral-based learning model, we are creating a common language around behavior change that is a simple mindset:

  • Activate curiosity and desire to learn something new.

  • Communicate content through thought-provoking questions, storytelling, and successful application of the new knowledge.
  • Show the value of the learning by connecting and applying it to prior knowledge, experiences, and expectations.
  • Encourage ownership of learning experiences, collaborative conversations, and reflections by providing learners with opportunities to share their knowledge with others.
About the Author
Jennifer Buchanan joined Walmart in 2015 as senior director of the international ethics and compliance training team before taking on her current role as senior director of field learning and development at Sam’s Club. Prior to Walmart, she led the... Read More
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