American Laser Centers' Roadmap for Learning: An Interview with Ted Villella

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Ted Villella

For any organization, emplyees working in silos can be dangerous for performance, productivity and success. It is extremely important for employees to communicate, educate and improve areas that serve as core functions of the overall business in order to achieve organizational success. Becoming a business partner to other units in the organization serves great benefit that can leverage every goal set forth.

American Laser Centers’ Ted Villella, Learning and Performance Leader, discusses how their learning structure has evolved to focus on core areas within the organization that needs improvement and how they are preparing for the success of tomorrow.

What functional areas within your organization are you working with most closely?

We are working with operations. For the company to go to the next level, which is probably three times its size, operational excellence in operations have to greatly improve in a variety of ways.

Customer service remains a concern and we know we can do much better in that area.

Turnover and retention is an important issue because turnover is high—some of it is understandable and should be high because of the sales aspect of the company—but our service providers, which are the largest number of people in the organization who represent 60 percent of our entire company, there should be less turnover..

Customer service, team building, life-long learning, career paths and those types of things are all part of operations that we feel are very important to build a sustainable company in our industry.

How is your learning function structured? Has there been any change?

It changed dramatically in the year I have been there. What they did, part of my being there, was promote successful client managers into training managers. There was not much ongoing training, [there was] no distance learning and no corporate university. The idea had popped into some people’s head [about creating the corporate university] but that’s it. We went from a primarily instructor-led type of training to a learning, performance and incentives structure. In the last year we added 50 to 60 custom online learning activities and short courses.

There was dramatic change from a traditional-type training—one where an instructor talks to four to five people over a course of a few days. It was a very crude form of instructor-led. We changed that to distance learning with online webinars, built-in wikis and discussion threads. We are starting to do some social networking things as well as maintaining some of that instructor-led training.

What isthe biggest change your learning organization will face in the next 18 months?

Improving operations through learning and performance and managing pretty rapid growth. We will be entering a growth mode where we will be opening 30-50 clinics every year until we get to critical mass and we don’t know when that is. It is possible we could move out of the United States and into Canada, or we can become a global company at some point in time. That is not on the table right now but it is a possibility because what we do for most developed companies, is a very valuable service that customers want.

Do you currently have a partnership with a university/business school as part of your delivery methods? If not, are you planning establishing one in the near future?

I plan to do this. The first step is to get some my curriculum qualified for continuing education units. We are in the process of doing that. Our next step would be to become established with one of the universities in the area or one of the online universities. We haven’t taken steps in that direction yet; however, it is in my long term planning. If we provide learning opportunities that are not specific to their [employees] jobs through the company, will we retain or will we lose them? If we put them through a tuition reimbursement program will we lose people because they will get their education then leave? I’m pretty clear on the fact that we will lose some but we will retain more. We are real confident in our service providers that we can create very attractive, part-time jobs that are very high paid for the time committed. We think we have a great opportunity to build with in that group.

What are the top three most intractable problems for your learning organization?

Constant delivery of service would be one. Managing retention appropriately would be two. What is the right amount of turnover as we expect it but we don’t know what that is? And the third one—some people might argue that this should be first but, how to price our services—since the industry is so new, we don’t know if we are asking enough or too much for what we deliver. We really need to do some cognitive analysis on the customer side to learn how our customers think about our services. I’m leading an effort to do that because it is a pretty innovative way to approve customer research but we need to do that. I am getting traction on it by asking the question within the company, "Where is the voice of our customers being heard?" I do not have that answer.

Interview by Katherine Mehr