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Managing a learning program for a dispersed workforce carries unique challenges—with employees across different schedules and devices, fostering collaboration and ensuring accountability is difficult. General content is too vague, and highly individualized programs are tough to scale. But at Farmers Insurance, Katherine Kokenes and Kelly Minick are meeting the challenge with zeal.

Kokenes, learning and development manager, and Minick, director of field curriculum helped to develop customized, innovative training for more than 50,000 exclusive and independent agents across the country. We sat down with the duo to learn how they incorporate tailored learning paths, improved reporting and multiple areas of study into effective training for thousands.

What are some issues you've noticed with traditional learning methodologies?

Minick: Our past training was online courses only; agents could procrastinate taking the training and then cram everything in at the last minute. A lot of things weren't topic-specific, and we lacked instructor-led pieces.

Kokenes: We didn't have specific learning paths based on people's roles, so it was kind of a one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone had to take all of the training. Now, if agents come in with a background in business or insurance, they can test out of parts of training. If they fail a test, they are automatically enrolled in that curriculum.

What was the motivation behind implementing the new training methodology?

Minick: Two years prior to launching the program, we learned we were going to start recruiting agents with a variety of backgrounds. When we looked at our program, we realized new hires shouldn't all take the exact same training, so we created separate learning paths.

Kokenes: Another driver [behind the new program] was reporting ability. Now, we only track passed assessments rather than all of the curriculum components. We worked with IT to build an automated tracker on the agent portal — similar to an intranet for agents — so managers can log in and track progress.

What is innovative about the new training program?

Minick: We incorporated skill assessments, and managers can now require agents to perform skills they learned at the end of each milestone. We have reports that measure progress every six months, and we have classroom training to supplement online training.

Kokenes: Skill assessments were a real game changer, and that has taken the training to a whole different level. Managers now have their own 'learning library' that provides easy access to course materials like participant and facilitator guides.

Why is continuous learning important?

Minick: In the past, we've sided towards formal learning, but we've learned that creating a continuous learning environment works best. We do this by following the 70-20-10 rule: 70 percent of knowledge should come from on-the-job experience, 20 percent from exposure and interaction with others, and 10 percent from formal learning.

Kokenes: To help foster a learning community, we've made the learning paths available to all of our employees, even though the training is designed for agents. Since we've implemented this training, multiple business units — IT, claims, training, and personal Lines — have come to us and said, 'This is awesome; how can we replicate this for our department?'

How can HR leaders transform their learning programs to be more effective?

Minick: Incorporate skill demonstrations and observations. From a design and delivery side, we are always dealing with changing culture, which takes a while. We want people to embrace learning through cultural accountability. Learning should be readily available and easy to access when people seek it out.

Kokenes: Build collaborative communities and use skill assessments. In a recent user survey, we received feedback about continuing to innovate and use emerging technology. We hope to incorporate video more in the future. Currently, learners can access assessments on mobile devices or iPads, which has been helpful. To help increase engagement in learning, we've redesigned our employee portal so things are easier to find, and incorporated banners that highlight recommended courses.

Photo: Creative Commons