At J.C. Penney service is central to the success of the business. The company — one of the largest retailers in department store, catalog and e-commerce sectors in the United States — sells consumers top-notch assistance and support as much as it does suits, shoes, dresses and other apparel. To ensure the approximately 150,000 employees in the company’s 1,021 stores have the knowledge and capabilities necessary to provide the best customer experiences possible, Vice President and Director of Associate Development Deborah Masten offers an array of learning and development opportunities.
Masten has a genuine zeal for education. In fact, her first career choice was a public school teacher.
“I worked for J.C. Penney while I was in college,” she said. “Then when I graduated, I went into their management trainee program. But I wanted to be a teacher, so I left J.C. Penney and taught elementary education for the state of Indiana for seven years before coming back. Actually, if my husband hadn’t been promoted and transferred to the Washington, D.C., area, I might still be an elementary school teacher. I might have been an elementary principal — I had gone back to school and was working on hours to move toward an administration role. I have hours above my master’s and a reading endorsement, so that I can diagnose and ameliorate reading difficulties.”
Fortunately for J.C. Penney, Masten came back to the company. As head of the organization’s learning and development efforts, she has overseen a transition to more modern, sophisticated modalities. Indeed, she brought 21st-century learning to J.C. Penney years before the 21st century got under way.
For example, in 1996, Masten spearheaded virtual communities of practice across the company’s entire associate population, which she compared to wikis (“what I know is …” ).
“No matter what computer you’re on in a J.C. Penney store, there’s an icon for our community of practice, which we call ‘First Class.’ It’s not unlike a wiki today,” she said. “The only differences between what we had in 1996 and a wiki of today are that we were much more graphic and that the participants could add in certain areas, but it wasn’t like everyone had full control — the instructors had more control. We had question-and-answer features so that a participant could ask a question, and we’d get back to them in 24 hours. But they could also categorize their question, so that they could review all the questions in the queue and see if it had been asked and answered before. If it hadn’t, then they could ask the question. If it had, then their question was answered almost immediately.
“It also allowed us to break them out into small groups. We could give every small group a case study, and each team could work on it via the Internet. We could see their discussions, so we knew who the leaders were — who was reading the cases first and giving their opinions first. Then we would debrief it in a live satellite training class. It was an electronic training manual — we no longer publish written training materials — and it was much more in tune with today’s learner.”
That same year, J.C. Penney also instituted the One Touch keypad, an interactive distance-learning program with one-way video and two-way audio for associates. Masten cited that as making a huge difference in workforce performance, largely because it allowed learners to ask instructors questions. Another important development that year was the creation of a training management system, which was constructed in-house.
“At the time, there just wasn’t anything out there that could do what we needed them to do,” Masten said. “All the training management systems at the time were eight-hour classroom, butts-in-seats type of training. We needed to be able to have a transcript of everyone who signed into a keypad or everybody who participated in a case study in our community of practice. We needed it to be more dynamic than anything that was out there, and we were able to build that over time.”
This focus on cutting-edge learning programs has only intensified over time to the point where J.C. Penney’s learning content overwhelmingly is delivered via technical platforms.
“When I went to school, we had binders and read textbooks,” Masten said. “Today, as long as you can access the information, that’s all that really matters. We’re primarily technology-driven, whether that’s interactive distance learning or a community of practice or a wiki. We deliver the majority of our training electronically. I look at our distance-learning programs that are live as being the formal training, and I look at the communities of practice or wikis as the informal training. We do a lot of interactive CD-ROMs, especially for functional training, then they come into a live class, and we debrief it.”
One of the main reasons behind the company’s technology-intensive training is timeliness, Masten said.
“I think that the biggest challenge, no matter where you are or what organization you support, is time,” she said. “So much gets pushed out for people to do, and setting time aside for training sometimes becomes difficult. The world in general is so fast-paced. One of the biggest challenges for us is that we are geographically dispersed in multiple time zones. In 1996, that was one of the reasons we went toward interactive distance learning — so we could close that gap and deliver training when it was just in time, just enough and just down the hall.
“Training has to be timely. It’s no different from a glass of milk — if you pour a glass of milk and let it sit, it’s going to sour. A lot of times people want to have training before systems roll out. We try to do things that are just in time. If we’re rolling out a new system or process, or there’s going to be a significant change in a job role, we’re generally invited to the table ahead of time. We’re thought of as partners, and I think that’s really important.”
Despite the technology focus, Masten does provide some face-to-face learning opportunities. For instance, J.C. Penney held an all-store-manager meeting last January, for which about 1,300 attendees came to the company’s corporate headquarters in Dallas for two-and-a-half days.
“One of the sessions they attended was a ‘train the trainer’ group learning exercise on associate engagement. We had a learning map, and they went back and conducted it in their stores. We want to improve associate engagement at J.C. Penney. We think it’s a huge opportunity to reduce turnover and for associate satisfaction. We believe that builds customer loyalty and ultimately drives the stock price.”
Mike Theilmann, J.C. Penney executive vice president and chief human resources and administrative officer, praised Masten for the creative way she conducted the meeting.
“Deborah co-ran it with one of the officers in the operations team,” Theilmann said. “It was about how we train them in what we want them to walk away with, which was really alignment around our long-range plan — the vision and strategy for the company. She did in it in a very innovative way. She partnered with an outside firm to create learning maps to get them to understand engagement and how they engage their associates in stores. And she made it fun. Ninety-seven percent of our store managers said it met or exceeded their expectations for the meeting. I haven’t been to too many meetings that rated 97 percent in the top two boxes.”
Masten’s contributions have helped steer J.C. Penney in new directions. Her learning and development programs have given the workforce an adaptability that allows the company to adjust to changing conditions in the retail market.
“Last year, we rolled out a completely new customer service organization,” she said. “In our store’s organization, people were going to be performing their roles differently than they had before. We created training for every one of the new functional positions. When we did our associate survey this year, we asked the question, ‘Did you have the training you need to perform your job?’ The answer was 89 percent agreement. Then we asked, ‘Do you know how you contribute to your store’s success?’, and 91 percent said they did. Anything in the 70s is a very high score, so when we get an 89 or a 91, we feel that we’re making a very high impact. They know their role, and they feel like they have the training they need to do their job.”
Without a doubt, Masten’s enthusiasm for learning and development has benefited J.C. Penney’s operational success, Theilmann said.
“Deborah kind of attacks everything as a learning opportunity. She’s very loyal and a very focused person. With anything she does, she wants it to be the best it can be done. I’m not talking about ‘her’ best — I’m talking about ‘the’ best. She wants other people to learn and grow, and she’s a learner. She’s one of those people who wakes up in the morning and says, ‘What am I going to learn today? What am I going to help other people learn?’ That’s her passion.”
– Brian Summerfield, firstname.lastname@example.org
Name: Deborah Masten
Title: Vice President and Director of Associate Development
Company: J.C. Penney Co. Inc.
Learning Philosophy: “We actually have a mission statement, and it’s my philosophy too. It’s to provide first-class learning solutions focused on building the knowledge, skills and abilities of every associate so that they can fully contribute to customer service and be successful throughout their career and to drive the company’s performance by aligning training with the company’s strategic objectives.”