Building a Better Workforce

What technology can (and can't) do to help companies optimize their most valuable asset.

“Our sales per store, inventory turns, shrinkage, and other metrics didn’t match our competitors,” explains Doug Bryant, vice president of organizational development and training. “When we drilled down, we saw that the reason was people. Some performed at a high level, while others fared much worse.” When a talented manager was relocated to a poorly performing store, for example, things improved quickly.

It developed a talent-management process that it implemented manually at first, then automated last year (with software from Authoria that integrates with an underlying system from Oracle/PeopleSoft). “The system gives us data we can analyze to see where competencies are strong or weak,” says Bryant. That holds true not only at the store level, but even higher up the food chain. “We saw that at the general manager and VP levels, some people needed more business acumen, so we’re working with universities to develop appropriate training,” he says.

The effort to build what Bryant calls a “high-performance workforce” has led to other discoveries, notably the importance of making smart hires. “We changed gears and reallocated funds from training to a more-formal interviewing and hiring process,” says Bryant. “We realized that getting good people from the start makes a huge difference. Capturing data on employees allows the company to do things that were impossible before. “Regional VPs rate their employees on 14 competencies,” says Bryant. “When that was manual, we had no way to look across all those paper reports and spot good candidates or understand training needs. But now we can search it and get a much better window into the workforce.”

Fifty years ago, that Look magazine letter writer was advised by Peale, the power-of-positive-thinking guru, to “wake up mentally” and develop a greater appreciation for the possibilities within his current position. Now, it appears, it is companies that are waking up. Slowly, perhaps, but the early risers may have much to gain.

Online Talent Shopping

The Internet has shortened the distance between employers and potential employees in any number of ways, from providing companies with a more-economical way to post job openings to sparing job seekers the annoyance of a Sunday spent scouring the help-wanted section.

Now, some companies are seeing the Web as a way to not only post jobs and economically process applications, but also as a way to build relationships with future staff members. Federated Department Stores Inc., for example, has a Website called Retailology that is designed to attract both entry-level and experienced workers.

The site’s initial goal was simple: present retail as a viable career option to new college graduates, and Federated as a particularly enlightened employer. That proved so successful that over time, the company has expanded the site’s capabilities; last October, during a 10-week pilot that coincided with the holiday hiring period, 49,000 people self-selected interview times after having submitted their resumes and passed the first round of screening.

Susan Burns, operational vice president for employment initiatives and college relations, says that while the front end of Retailology is essentially informational, the back end is a heavily automated candidate-tracking system that replaces a once intensely manual task, freeing HR staff to address “talent-opportunity areas.” For example, if a promising candidate applies when there is no suitable opening, a Federated recruiter will maintain a dialogue with that person and alert the individual when an opening occurs. “Handling that kind of follow-up was virtually impossible when everything was paper- and phone-based,” she says. Today, more than one quarter of the 100,000+ employees hired by Federated apply via the Web, and that percentage is growing. “No doubt it’s a very cost-effective way to extend your reach,” Burns says. “We expect the talent market to get even tighter, and we’ll need more tools like this in order to keep the pipeline flowing.” —S.L.

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