Success Is in the Details: A Small Learning Unit within a Large Corporation Gets Big Results by Attending to Details

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[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

VF ASIA LIMITED

HONG KONG, SAR, CHINA

It seems there's not a leading company around that doesn't attribute a measure of its success to the learning organization, and also supports those accolades with hard evidence. But at VF Asia Limited, a Hong Kong-based business unit of apparel giant VF Corporation, a successful reorganization of its learning and development operation has contributed to record revenues while showcasing the value of internal expertise.

VF Corporation is the world's largest apparel company, owner of 36 brands including Wrangler and Lee jeans, Eagle Creek, Nautica, Jansport, and North Face. Headquartered in Greensboro, North Carolina, it has 45,000 worldwide employees and produced record revenues in 2008 of $7.6 billion. VF Asia is a comparatively small and autonomous subsidiary that performs the sourcing and sales and marketing functions for the firm.

In 2004, VF Corporation launched an initiative to transform the company into a global lifestyle apparel firm, and identified six growth drivers crucial to its success. One of them was to build new growth "enablers," a direct challenge to its various learning organizations.

Tommy Lo, learning and development manager of VF Asia, says the directive meant nothing less than a rebuilding of the subsidiary's learning infrastructure around a progressive system of talent management that encompassed all levels of employees. "Previously, we had bits and pieces of this but no structure," he says. Elements including learning and development, goal and performance management, succession planning, and recruiting management would finally reside under a single umbrella.

Added to that was Lo's own strategy: to rely on internal expertise as much as possible, outsourcing learning-related services only when it made sense. He reasoned that doing so would not only save the company money, but would also exploit the vast knowledge base that resided within the business unit.

Hong Kong's two-person, regional training team started by creating a learning and development framework. It grouped the division's 780 employees into four learning and development categories: personal competencies, functional leadership, managerial leadership, and strategic leadership.

Each category focused on learning topics appropriate for its level of employee. Strategic leadership, for example, offered topics such as strategic thinking and financial management for directors and above. In addition, the topics were mapped with the company's core competencies of business sense, entrepreneurship, and strategic thinking.

For special employee groups such as high potentials, the team worked with line managers to customize individual development plans using tools such as 360 feedback exercises and an internally developed Manager Development Instrument. The team also nominated these individuals to attend corporate organized global development programs, such as VF Max, VF Leadership Institute, and VF Supply Chain University.

A searing focus on leadership prompted other organizational changes. The learning team developed a new talent management model in 2008, communicated it to stakeholders, and carefully executed and monitored the plan. For leadership development, several initiatives were introduced including senior executive development programs for directors or above, and a Middle Manager Curriculum for the manager and senior manager levels.

Talent retention also became a priority, spurred by exit interviews and employee engagement surveys that had found learning "opportunities" to be key motivators for staffers. Following an increase in training activities in 2008, an associate engagement survey found that 87 percent of associates agreed that training improved their job performance, up from 82 percent in 2007. …