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Southwest Airlines: Employee Education Takes Flight

With more than 35,000 employees, Southwest Airlines takes a unique approach to learning, empowering its people to build relationships with the company, with each other and with customers to ensure the success of the business. Taking this approach has help

September 4, 2003
Related Topics: Technology, LMS, Technology
KEYWORDS LMS / technology
Through its University for People, Southwest Airlines provides professional and personal development for its entire workforce. But the University for People is the umbrella department of a highly decentralized training structure—there are eight other training departments within Southwest, according to Fritz Petree, senior manager, Career Development Services and Virtual University at Southwest Airlines’ University for People. “The University for People offers leadership classes, software training, career development workshops and some electives that are available to all employees,” said Petree. “Leadership training is also something that the University delivers to all leadership within the organization.” Petree estimates that more than 10,000 participants attended training from the University for People last year.

While most of the learning challenges that face Southwest are specific to the operating group conducting the training, Petree said that logistics represents one area of strain for the University for People. “Being an airline makes it a little easier for us to shuttle people in and out,” he said. But they prefer not to take employees out of the workplace, and Southwest is turning to the online components of training to meet its employees’ training and professional development needs.

Petree added that another key driver is the need to provide just-in-time, relevant training. “What is needed, when people need it—I think that’s going to be the biggest hurdle as we move forward,” he said.

Southwest Airlines is one of the lucky few that has not felt a huge negative impact from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The company has managed to avoid the layoffs and financial troubles plaguing many other airlines. Petree said that since Sept. 11, Southwest has focused on increasing efficiency and fine-tuning its training organization. “Southwest Airlines is in a unique situation with no layoffs as a result of Sept. 11, and so with that, it’s really important now that we increase our focus on having people in a personal development arena that are accomplishing their particular personal development goals more efficiently,” he said.

Southwest is leveraging the Pathlore Learning Management System to bring learning to its employees. The seeds of the relationship were sowed around five years ago, when the University for People began using Pathlore’s Registrar (then owned by Silton-Bookman Systems) to administer the operations, registration, roster management and facilitator management of its classes, said Petree. He added that since that early implementation, the LMS has grown to “a substantial physical and manpower infrastructure to help us manage and track all the learning events from the departments that are now implementing the learning management system.”

According to Bob Kerr, director of Enterprise Management for Southwest Airlines, it was really around 2000 to 2001 that Southwest began growing its LMS. “The more and more mandated-type training that we put into an application like this,” he said, “the more important it is to have a more classic development, QA and productions type of environment to support this LMS application.” Kerr’s department has grown to support the application, and the cooperation and collaboration between the Technology group and the business units has been partly responsible for the success of the LMS. Petree claims that if they had it to do over again, they might have focused more on this relationship from the beginning.

“That’s probably where we would have wanted to start,” he said. “It was difficult in the very beginning to have seen that possibility and the growth that we’ve had in it, but over time it has really driven to both of us seeing the same outcome for the product instead of IT just being a participant in the delivery of the product.”

Kerr agrees with Petree’s assessment and said that the company’s implementation of the Pathlore LMS over time has been a great example of the benefits of involving IT as a partner, rather than as just a consultant. “We really are one team, and we share this responsibility from all perspectives, and I think that’s what’s making this very successful at this point,” Kerr said.

Steve Thomas, president and CEO of Pathlore Software Corp., said that this relationship seems to be more of an exception than the rule. “Southwest has done an absolutely fabulous job of making sure that those who touched it, not only the individual business units, but the people who end up supporting the technology in the IT group, know what the mission is,” he said.

While this type of cooperation may be unusual, it is not so unusual for Southwest Airlines, which has a company culture that places a heavy emphasis on collaboration and teamwork. Thomas said that Southwest’s company culture translates easily into learning, as the company works closely with its employees to help them achieve career goals. “If somebody wants to go somewhere or become something, they try to provide them the source of training and education to let them achieve their personal goals,” he said. “They are putting together, and they have put together, the infrastructure to make sure that these people can achieve their dreams.”

Petree said that Southwest does this through its Career Development Services group, which provides assessment and coaching to enhance employees’ personal and professional growth. He explained that there are two components his organization is working on: an online component to help “assign and align people’s personal development needs as well as enhancing their strengths in order for them to grow more effectively” and a skills assessment and skills management system to help judge each employee’s degree of fit with a particular job role and the company.

“Our purpose is employee fulfillment,” said Petree. “That’s just the number one goal that I have in my department for Career Development Services is to help people be more fulfilled in their jobs.” He added that the way to be sure people are fulfilled in their jobs is to use skills assessments to align them to their jobs and skills management to further develop strengths. “We want to enhance people’s natural capacity and capability,” Petree said. “So those two things—the online training for personal development and the skills management program for career fulfillment to improve that fit—is really what my passion is right now.”

Thomas said that this translates into Southwest’s success as a business, particularly during the economic downturn. “They haven’t had any layoffs. They have high employee retention rates,” he explained. “They’ve got a very happy employee staff, and there’s a great ability to move around and grow within the company, and they do this deliberately. …They’re still profitable, and a lot of it has to do with their culture, and a lot of their culture is driven not only by making sure that the employees are happy, but by making sure that they have the skills to do their jobs the best they can.”

Petree added, “Southwest philosophy is to hire for attitude and train for skill,” and having a process for assessing and developing needed skills for the job is a part of the learning management strategy. “That done, we also want to focus on increasing people’s strengths—not always focusing on where you may have development opportunities, but where you have strengths that we want to enhance to make you even more effective in your job.”

According to Petree, this close cooperation between the company and its employees leads to a customer focus based on the golden rule. “One common thread in all classes that we do is customer focus and doing the right thing,” he explained. “It’s a major cultural focus to just do the right thing, regardless of rules, regardless of things that are put in place. …The learning that is supported with that and the selection of courses that we choose have to do with how customer-focused are they as opposed to process- or business-focused. So we focus on the employee first in the company to make sure they’re fulfilled and have the opportunities to learn and grow, and we think in turn they will treat customers the same way.”

By empowering employees to do the right thing, Southwest ensures high-quality customer service and drives up productivity. It encourages altruism, teamwork and shared effort in its employees, and Petree said Southwest looks for the same qualities in the vendors it works with.

“It’s not so much about the best deals, and it’s not even so much about the perfect product,” he said. “If you have a difficult relationship, even the perfect product can go south, just like an employee can be a perfect fit, but not have that altruistic and want-to-give, want-to-make-things-better kind of perspective.”

Overall, Petree said Southwest’s LMS has helped increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its learning. “Over the last couple of years, that is the driving force to continuing to be profitable, to utilize technology for increased efficiency and effectiveness,” he said. “As I look back to each department that has been brought on board with the Pathlore product, the goal of being able to track effectively, address the reporting needs for regulatory requirements, and to be able to manage how much training and tracking is required is critical to increasing efficiency and productivity from our different training groups.”

Kerr added that the Pathlore LMS is saving time, energy and money for Southwest. “We are a pretty distributed organization with a lot of diverse needs across our different workforce groups, and I think that being able to pull us together under one whole umbrella structure has just been an enormous benefit.”

In the immediate future, Southwest will be implementing a skills management approach to provide individual employees with the tools necessary for personal development, Petree said. This will be tied in to having managers work closely with employees to set them on a path to increasing personal productivity and performance.

But, Petree said, Southwest doesn’t necessarily focus only on performance, but also on development and caring for each employee. He explained, “We’re caring about the employee here, and the productivity seems to come as a result of that.”

September 2003 Table of Contents

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