Most businesses see PowerPoint as the be-all and end-all when it comes to distributing information. As David Braue finds, however, Fone Zone's willingness to look further has paid many benefits.
Resells Telstra mobile phone and related services through a nationwide network of more than 150 retail outlets.
Revenue (FY2005-6): AU$181.8m (up 20% over previous year), EBIT AU$16.6m (up 35% over previous year)
For better or for worse, Microsoft PowerPoint has become synonymous with the act of sharing information across today's businesses. For mobile phone chain Fone Zone, however, the search for a better way of staff training has led to an alternative that has dramatically improved consistency of training across more than 150 stores nationwide.
Having grown from just three stores in 1995 to its current status as Australia's largest independent specialist communications reseller, Fone Zone has expended considerable effort on consistency. This includes the creation and maintenance of a base of training materials that can be readily used to communicate changes in the fast-moving and highly competitive mobile phone retail industry.
-One of the keys to Fone Zone's success has been our ability to duplicate things, get our heads around new [telco] programs and figure how to sell them and where they fit into the marketplace -- and do it quite quickly," says human resources manager John Weir. -That sort of information was either sent out as a printed product brief, or published on the intranet as a PowerPoint."
The PowerPoint challenge
For years, these materials consisted of PowerPoint presentations highlighting everything from internal human resources and occupational health and safety procedures to point-of-sale how-tos, details of new mobile phones and telco phone plans, and procedures such as returning a phone to the vendor for repairs. The company's more than 800 employees were expected to go online and download the presentations themselves, usually at the behest of store managers who weren't always very good at training.
This approach, however, was fraught with problems, since there was no way to guarantee the training was being delivered to the right people at the right time. Dissemination of new information was often handled by publishing the PowerPoint slides online and walking a group of store managers through the new information using a teleconference.
Using this staggered approach, it could be four to six weeks before a process change had been conveyed to all store managers. Furthermore, it was the managers' responsibility to ensure the information got to their employees quickly and accurately -- and this wasn't always successful.
-Some managers would take that information and run their people through the new process, and they did a really good job with it," Weir explains. -In other cases, it probably didn't happen at all. We were getting mixed messages when we were relying on the Chinese whispers approach. And, now that we're bundling services, it's actually more complicated to get a mobile phone set up now than it was eight years ago when I started here."
The intranet was also used to support regular induction training for new hires. However, scheduled induction training might only happen every few weeks, leaving new hires to learn the ropes in an ad hoc manner until they could get formal training on corporate policies. Even when they were able to attend, such training often meant paying employees overtime to stay after hours, adding extra cost to the whole process.
A better way
Recognising that there must be a better way to deliver consistent information to its employees, Fone Zone began investigating alternative publishing options and soon hit upon the Macromedia Breeze Meeting collaboration platform (since rebranded as Adobe Acrobat Connect Professional, or AACP).
For a non-technical person such as Weir, the platform's capabilities were well within the realm of the possible, compared with several alternatives that were complex and script-intensive. Basic content is still designed using PowerPoint -- but that's the beginning of the process, not the end.
Working with solutions partner Webqem, Fone Zone's eight-strong content production team quickly learned how to add voice annotations and other content before turning the material into Flash presentations. These presentations are made available over the company's intranet for structured or informal employee training.
AACP also manages access to an online collaboration portal that lets the company's administrators deliver live content online to multiple employees at once. This approach has replaced the old phone conferences with an interactive, rich content interface that has been well accepted across the company.
Content control and learning management features have given Fone Zone a much better understanding of which employees have completed what training, and when. Specific groups of employees can be given access to multimedia training modules focused on certain tasks, with performance on assessments recorded centrally to facilitate easy reporting.
A nightly news bulletin, circulated across all of the company's stores, carries information about new training modules as they're made available -- yet employees are regular enough users that typically around 30 percent of employees have already completed the training by the time the bulletin hits their inboxes. -Many of the employees are in the habit of logging on and having [a] look," Weir says.
Ready availability of new content has made the new platform much better accepted than the old self-directed learning approach, in which employees were expected to pull down PowerPoint files stored on a central server.
Yet improved content delivery has been about more than just making employees happier: better learning management scores points for the company's governance practices, as well as resolving the more practical issue of making sure employees in far-flung stores know what they're doing. In the end, all of these changes support Fone Zone's goal of continuing its growth while maintaining consistency of engagement with the marketplace.
-There's always an amount of time between when the new program's released and when, judging by the sales figures, that program seems to have been understood and properly implemented by the sales team," says Weir. -This often used to take four to six weeks but, since we began using Breeze, we've seen that a change can be fully out there and implemented within a couple of weeks. It's a fantastic tool, and it has really been embraced by the business."