Learning & Development at BMO Financial: "A Driving Force of Cultural Pride"

Barbara Dirks

HRIQ Speaks with Barbara Dirks, Chief Learning Officer, Institute for Learning BMO Financial Group, winner of the 2011 ASTD Best Award. Dirks shares key insights into BMOs journey and how the organization has responded to the changing corporate learning landscape.

Has corporate learning changed over the past few years?

There have been many significant changes in corporate learning over the past few years, driven by the needs of an ever-changing workforce and work environment.

Our workforce has become more diverse and the environment in which we work has become faster-paced, more demanding and complex. Employees are constantly challenged to innovate, adapt and change.

At BMO we are responding to the changing needs of our learners by providing learning solutions that ‘fit’ with the realities of their day-to-day lives, while continuing to enable them to achieve our vision of being the bank that "defines great customer experience."

We accomplish this by thinking of learning as a journey, rather than an event. We use this mindset when we design, develop and deliver learning solutions. This means building programs that support the needs of the learner before, during, and after the formal learning experience occurs.

We also provide our employees with many flexible and informal learning options, such as elearning, virtual learning, videos, podcasts, and social learning options.

As a learning organization, I’m very proud of the success we have experienced. We will continue to work closely with the business to anticipate and meet the needs of our employees, delivering on the same promise of great customer experience that we make to our customers.

What role does learning and development play in enhancing the customer experience at BMO?

At BMO Financial Group, our vision is "To be the bank that defines great customer experience." We do this by putting the customer at the center of everything we do. Learning and development plays a critical role in ensuring that we deliver on this promise.

We want every employee to understand how they contribute to the achievement of our vision. The message of great customer experience is consistently woven throughout all of our learning offerings and we find as many opportunities to incorporate the voice of the customer into our programs. This begins from the first day of employment in our orientation program where new employees hear first-hand customer accounts of how we have successfully delivered a great customer experience.

We also have a responsibility to ensure that our employees not only understand our vision but have the knowledge and skills to effectively deliver on this promise. We have developed robust branch development programs, intensive leadership development offerings and best-in-class sales training programs, including our Customer Conversations program, which ensures that employees have the skills and tools to have customer-centric, needs-based conversations.

Regardless of whether employees are customer-facing, they receive consistent messaging about the value we place on the customer’s experience and how we can all contribute to this.
We are currently working on a new enterprise-wide initiative, specifically for non-customer facing employees. This program will launch in 2012 and will provide opportunities for all employees to understand how they contribute to defining great customer experiences.

At the Institute for Learning, we seek to model the promise we make to our BMO customers. There is nothing more important to us than the customer’s experience, and we will continue to integrate this vision into the fabric of our offerings, our conversations and our partnerships.

Your programs cater to almost 50,000 employees and a diverse workforce. How do you manage the learning needs of all of these employees?

I believe that strong partnerships with the business are at the foundation of any successful learning organization. We support the learning needs of thousands of employees world-wide, of diverse backgrounds and experience. Regardless, we are able to stay in touch with the needs of our learners and provide solutions that support business objectives.

We do this by building strong relationships with our business partners in order to keep a pulse on strategic direction. To support this model, we have built centers of expertise, aligning learning resources with our lines of business.

We also recognize that our workforce is becoming more globally diverse. We have responded by providing learning options that are localized, informal and accessible ‘anytime’. For example, to accommodate the needs of our growing employee population in China, we are set to launch our BMO Financial Group online orientation program in Mandarin.

Our workforce is also comprised of many different generations and we value the wonderful dynamic that this diversity brings to our organization. We recently hosted workshops on the topic of leading multi-generational teams, which included practical ideas for leaders to motivate, engage and retain employees of every generation. We received overwhelming feedback that we had ‘hit the mark’ with this venture and will continue to explore other avenues to support this topic.

Despite the size and diversity of our workforce, we stay in touch with the needs of employees through formal mechanisms, such as our annual employee survey, training evaluations, and focus groups. We also actively seek out feedback through informal conversations with our leaders and contributors throughout the organization.

Ultimately, it is our ability to build partnerships and understand the business and its strategy which differentiates us as a learning organization and enables us to deliver programs that make a difference.

How have you moved away from traditional classroom learning?

The Institute for Learning (ILF) opened in Toronto in 1994. We have since grown to include satellite campuses across North America, including Brookfield, Wisconsin.

The IFL is a great source of cultural pride at BMO and is a tangible representation of our commitment to learning. Employees enjoy the experience of coming to our world-class meeting facility, networking with colleagues, and staying over at our on-site guest accommodations.

We will continue to offer outstanding instructor-led training programs at the IFL. We also anticipate that our employees will continue to seek learning options that are flexible and informal.

We provide a host of alternatives and supplements to classroom learning, including a robust catalogue of elearning, virtual learning, video, podcasts, eBooks, and social learning. We have had great success with our online orientation program, providing employees with an excellent understanding of our business, our vision and values and our culture at BMO Financial Group.

The classroom learning that we do offer has evolved to become more practical, action-oriented and applicable to the realities of our workforce. In our leadership development programs, for example, we focus on practical ideas and applications that our leaders can use immediately. We also support their journey of learning by offering on-demand webcast series, virtual seminars, and quick reference job aids.

We will continue to provide our employees with a diversified portfolio of learning options to meet their changing needs.

How do you drive innovation in your company?

In the same way that we seek to provide innovative products and solutions to our customers, we are always looking for innovative and effective ways to support the learning needs of our employees.

At the Institute for Learning, innovation means listening to our employees, anticipating how learning and development can support the strategic direction, and delivering creative solutions.

We are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to facilitate transfer and application of learning. For example, following our Senior Leadership Development Program, we host moderated ‘radio-shows’, to reinforce key messages that are discussed in-class and allow leaders to leverage a community of their peers.

As part of our Customer Service Representative Development Program we support online discussion forums. This has been immensely successful in providing learners with opportunities to share and ask questions of their peers.

While innovation is often synonymous with technology, we prefer to search for the most effective and appropriate means to deliver learning to our audiences. Sometimes this means providing engaging multi-media experiences, however it also means we innovate our thinking to provide new ways to build capability within the organization.

As a learning organization, what’s next in your evolution?

We are experiencing many exciting changes within our business and our industry that will position us well for a strong and successful future.

Our workforce demographic is transforming and the way in which we work is changing. Even the way that we learn continues to evolve. As a learning organization, we must be at the forefront of these changes, anticipating direction and delivering relevant and timely learning solutions.

Technology will continue to be an interesting factor in how we sustain and grow our business and in how we drive learning. However technology, for the sake of technology, is not the answer. We will continue to drive a purposeful and thoughtful learning strategy, leveraging technology appropriately and effectively to engage our learners.

We also recognize that with the advent of social, community-based learning, we must ensure that our employees are ready to embrace a new model. We are positioning our learning organization to teach and support learning that is more flexible, learner-centric, and informal.

I’m very proud of our accomplishments thus far and excited about where we are headed. Our mandate is ‘to be a world-class learning organization that develops inspirational leaders and passionate customer-focused employees while fostering BMO’s culture.’ As we evolve, we will stay focused on this goal and continue to drive the business.

Interview conducted by Alexandra Guadagno, Editor for Human Resources iQ.