There was a time when American retailer Borders was one of the largest booksellers in the world with nearly 20,000 staff in the US alone, and more than 500 superstores and outlets around the world. But it collapsed after 40 years, not because the business model didn’t work, but because it could not adapt to online competitors like Amazon.com, leading to hundreds or thousands of workers who have been trained to deliver an outdated service.
To survive in the modern era, companies must have both foresight and the agility to adapt their business models to cope with changes and find new opportunities. That means having a well-skilled workforce that understands the digital tools and trends that are disrupting traditional business models.
Yet the answer as to what skills an organisation will need to cope with the changes that lie ahead is still to be found. Even Australia Post management admits that it does not know what skills it will need in the future. Hence it is equipping its workers with as many as it can with its Future Skills scheme, which kicked off in 2010. The organisation is injecting $20 million over three years into programs that give workers the skills required to adjust to the challenges that digital technology is presenting to its business model.
According to Sean Carroll, Australia Post’s head of enterprise capability and talent, Future Skills is one part of a series of investments and changes the company has made. He says the $20 million budget is reviewed on an ongoing basis to ensure it is sufficient. “It is important to note that the $20 million is additional,” Carroll says.
One known change is that parcels will be an increasingly important business, as more Australians shop online. Australia Post’s parcel business is growing at 12.5 per cent per annum, but it is also highly competitive. “We need our employees to be more customer-centric than they are at the moment,” Carroll says.
“As the technologies evolve we will be retaining staff in those technologies. We do know that we have a fairly low level of digital literacy in our award-level workforce and we need to build the foundations of basic computer literacy.”
To this end, Australia Post has partnered with a specialist provider of online computer skills training, delivering 24-hour access to training, which workers can use in their home or the workplace, at their own pace. In the first year 1500 people accessed a computer-based program and spent an average of two hours in the program.
“We start with very simple programs that help people get on and play with the basics of the computer,” Carroll says. “Without the basics of computer literacy their opportunities are going to be severely limited.”
The organisation is also investing in building its leadership capabilities among award-level workers, along with their capacity to deal with change. In the first year of the program, which equated to the 2011-12 financial year, Australia Post had 4736 employees from its award-level workforce experience some level of Future Skills training, equating to roughly 15 per cent of that workforce. Approximately 2500 participated in programs related to growth, including 1000 van drivers who were educated on the basics of customer service and interaction. Another 400 frontline service staff from its postal stores also underwent education on the basics of customer service and selling, and another 400 from its contact centre went through a similar program.
Carroll says unlike some learning programs, the overall success of Future Skills is not measured against a benchmark. “This is not a program that is about helping them to be better in their current jobs, it is about helping them to be better at future jobs,” Carroll says.
Signed, sealed, delivered
After 11 years as a stay-at-home mum, it is not surprising that Rebecka Solomon felt she lacked confidence when she returned to the workplace. But less than five years after joining Australia Post as an inbound call centre agent she became its national resolutions manager, in charge of a team of 12 and representing Australia Post in court for small claims decisions.
Solomon attributes her rise in part to the confidence she has gained through the company’s internal skills-development program, Future Skills. Within that program she has undertaken a self-paced course on resume and application writing and participated as a mentee in the My Mentor for Women program.
“Without the resume and application writing I don’t think I would have been successful in claiming the national resolutions manager role,” Solomon says. “It includes a lot of self-discovery and a lot of confidence building and learning not to be afraid to ask questions.”