Tesco sets much store by staff education. The living proof of its commitment talked to Chris Johnston.
IN the cut-throat world of the British supermarket industry, retailers will do anything to gain an edge over the competition. But when prices cannot be cut any further, lateral thinking is required.
That is most likely the reasoning behind Tesco chief executive Terry Leahy's decision to appoint Kim Birnie as the chain's first learning director.
In her view, the move reflects his desire for the retailer to become a "true learning organisation" to enhance its performance, better serve its customers and ensure they will want to come back to Tesco next time.
Achieving this goal means ensuring its employees become better at learning and part of Ms Birnie's role is to create the right environment where people can learn effectively and efficiently.
In an organisation that has 220,000 staff worldwide, this is no simple task. "I look at everything from technical skills and how we run our operations efficiently through the right development solutions, to how we create the right values and skills in our leaders to manage the business most effectively," she explained.
Technology is playing a major role in the attempted transformation. Tesco's distribution centres and 700 UK stores are being linked up to its corporate intranet, which allows information about stock and price changes, for example, to be dispersed with more speed and accuracy.
The network will allow more online learning, while email software such as Lotus Notes will allow information and ideas to be shared more easily and "natural working teams" to be set up. Both are key elements of Tesco's embryonic knowledge management strategy, Ms Birnie said.
While training managers will run programmes in larger stores and face-to-face lerning will still take place, she added that online methods are likely to be popular as they allow employees to learn when it suits them.
In her opinion, the investment of time, money and resources Tesco is making in improving the way it does business will help the retailer maintain its market leadership.
"It's about doing everything we do to the best possible level consistently across our business, so training is about supporting and enabling that and giving our people the skills and tools they need to do their job to the optimal level," she said.
Ms Birnie, formerly director of organisational and management development for the Frito Lay snacks division of Pepsico, believes the new emphasis on learning would be welcomed by staff and help the company to attract graduates, who want a good training programme and career progression opportunities. "We're providing staff with the skills and tools to do their job and not just saying 'here's your job, get on with it'."
Tesco also plans to spend pound;1 million helping staff to improve their basic reading and writing skills following the success of a pilot project in Leeds. Almost 150 people were given jobs at a new store after they took courses for up to 30 weeks.
Meanwhile, Tesco's arch rival, Sainsbury's, is also climbing on the e-learning bandwagon with the launch of an online training framework.
Its Learning@Sainsbury's intranet contains all its internal training programmes and is linked to the University for Industry's Learndirect, so employees can access the range of courses it offers.
John Adshead, human resources director, said the initiative would provide an effective, simple and quick training solution and help Sainsbury's attract, nurture and keep the best people in the industry.
www.tesco.com and www.j-sainsbury.co.uk