Case Study: FirstClass email training system from 6 Degrees Software

Retailer JCPenney is applying email to new realms by using its email server to train employees throughout the US and Europe

Retailer JCPenney is applying email to new realms by using its email server to train employees throughout the US and Europe


Training department for more than 1,230 stores

Centralised Human Resource Development responsibility

50 state domestic responsibility

Training in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Chile

The challenges

JCPenney has tens of thousands of associates scattered worldwide and across all 50 states in America. A dynamically changing retail landscape meant that new programs, new policies and new procedures were being developed every day to cope with competition and regulations. Traditionally, training was accomplished by developing video tape and paper-based training programs at JCPenney headquarters and transporting trainees to Dallas, Texas. Training materials were being distributed to stores all over the country. This made it difficult to monitor changing needs and requests on a timely basis.

The solution

In 1996, a major change in the approach to training took place when JCPenney adopted a Distance Learning program. Distance Learning immediately began to take advantage of available technology to solve some of the problems of getting timely and effective training materials to stores throughout the country. Satellite broadcasts and CD ROM-based training were major steps in distributing better material. However, they still lacked the support that was needed for the training. Satellite classes still needed text-based materials to support the learning topic.

Deborah Masten, manager of Human Resource Development, made a discovery at a training conference that turned things around. The University of Wisconsin-Madison demonstrated how it had used a product called FirstClass, from SoftArc, to implement a successful on-line training program for its medical students. Deborah immediately saw how that success could apply to the learning organisation she wanted to build for JCPenney.

The implementation

FirstClass, an email and conferencing system, was adopted as the core complement to the other Distance Learning elements that had been put in place. By integrating FirstClass with its satellite training, it has not only enhanced educational programs but also provided JCPenney with a knowledgeable management system.

Working with 6 Degrees Software and Consulting, from Burlington, Vermont, JCPenney used FirstClass to provide a system that truly offers central control to nationwide training. At any given time, there may be 7,000 to 8,000 users registered for instruction. Users pass through the system, like a revolving door, as they enter a work group or class. Once they have completed the course, they are removed from the system. All of this is made possible because the FirstClass system allows local managers to enroll students using a simple menu-driven interface. This field enrollment is then checked and confirmed by the Human Resource Development staff at headquarters. By using this combination of decentralised enrollment and centralised control, 11 people can effectively oversee the training of thousands of people at once.

JCPenney makes extensive use of the conferencing power of FirstClass. The most popular training tool is a case study where a group is given a situation and asked to work together to prepare a recommendation. The class is divided into small groups of eight to 10 participants. Because the FirstClass system is asynchronous, every participant is free to work on the training assignment as his or her schedule permits. They may log on and exchange information in a near real-time manner or they may leave a comment or a question and return in hours, or even days, to learn the answer.

Because the system is tied to a central database, the Human Resource Development department can produce reports at any time and analyse the quantity and quality of the participation of any student. So, even though there may be thousands of people in training at one time, an instructor can view the performance of a person and offer them one-on-one attention, if needed. The person with the training responsibility at store level can also have secure access to monitor those people who are currently registered in programs from their store.

The next planned stage of development for the JCPenney Distance Learning Program is to implement remote testing using the FirstClass intranet server. The current system bases a user's success on primarily subjective observation of the quality and quantity of participation in the case study groups. Remote testing will generate more quantitative analysis of the user's understanding and retention of the principles being taught.

The results

After starting with a very limited training community in 1996, the success of the Distance Learning Program, built around FirstClass, has brought requests from nearly every business unit in the company. Using FirstClass has helped the JCPenney organisation keep their managers in the field current with changing roles and procedures.

According to Masten: "SoftArc's FirstClass Intranet Server is one of the most powerful training tools a Fortune 500 company can use. JCPenney, with the help of customisation from SoftArc's development partner, 6 Degrees, is able to provide a knowledge management system uniquely designed to meet the needs of each core job classification. It not only provides a structured text-based electronic manual, but also allows students to interact with their instructors and peers in an unprecedented way - and they can do it asynchronously."

Paul Phillips

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