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Case Study: Waterstones Academy – Goal-Based Learning for Booksellers

November 21, 2013

We were thrilled this month to win Silver at the 2013 eLearning Awards in the ‘Best eLearning Project (Private Sector) for a project that we did with bookseller, Waterstones. It was the toughest category with over 30 submissions. This project was a lot of fun to do, as Waterstones embraced an innovative and creative approach with commitment and enthusiasm. They were brave enough to do something a bit different and it has reaped rewards. Here’s their storyWaterstones Academy

Waterstones is one of the leading booksellers on the high street and online. They first opened in London, in 1982 and currently trade from nearly 300 shops in the UK and Europe. Waterstones’ reputation is built upon the knowledge and enthusiasm of their 4,500 booksellers, who are able to offer passionate and informed recommendations and advice to customers. With the introduction of the Kindle as a product range, there was a need to train booksellers on how to operate and sell these new devices, so that they could offer the best possible service to customers.

Although Kindle training was the starting point for this project, Waterstones’ vision extended beyond that and they wanted the Kindle training to sit within a bespoke system/website which could be built upon to include induction, career progression, ongoing training, a Certificate in Bookselling Qualification, task management and a simple performance review process.

The Challenge

Waterstones needed to introduce their booksellers to their new Kindle product range, however, the booksellers had a range of technical abilities. Despite this, they all needed to be able to confidently and competently talk about, demonstrate and sell the full range of Kindle devices as quickly as possible.

With Christmas, traditionally the busiest time of year for Waterstones, on the way in just a few short months, the timescales for building a solution and training all their Booksellers were extremely short.

Another challenge was the availability of technology in-store. Booksellers are not desk-based, whatever solution we came up with had to fit into their working patterns and be accessible, not just on the in-store computer, but also on Kindle devices themselves.

In terms of the system itself, Waterstones wanted the site to behave differently for different people or people at different stages of their career – so varying subjects and functionality would be made available to individuals, depending on their position or area of work.

They wanted to be able to set timescales for completing goals and to have a facility for learners to allow their line managers to review what they had done. The goals needed to include text, images, videos, podcasts, quizzes and assignments and have a star rating system.

The final challenges were that Waterstones wanted to be able to create and edit the content themselves. The site needed to work cross-platform (so on computers and the Kindle devices themselves) and also the design needed to have the Wow factor.

The Solution

Waterstones knew of our work with University of Cambridge and had already seen our goal-based systems. They immediately saw the potential in the approach to solve their business issue of how best to train all their Booksellers on selling the Kindle range.

The solution that we came up with was a goal-based learning system with a number of ‘shields’ (subjects) that Booksellers and other Waterstones employees could attempt. They would work towards attaining a shield by choosing goals to achieve and then completing a range of real-world activities, to be done within their work environment. We also included embedded quizzes and surveys using a third party tool, to reinforce their learning.

Many retailers wanting to provide product training would opt for face-to-face training, or elearning courseware plus an LMS. Waterstones went further and embraced a performance-focused goal-based learning approach:

  • Instead of going through courses, users work towards goals that will improve their performance.
  • They undertake real-world activities that build skills and rate how they are doing.
  • They access knowledge-based materials in support of the activities.
  • They reflect upon their learning and gather evidence of it.

Waterstones added in the ability for Shop Managers to conduct informal scheduled reviews with the booksellers. This, combined with the goal-based learning, is a truly innovative approach to people development.

They now use Waterstones Academy to deliver a nine-month bookseller qualification and have more plans for further development too.

Success Factors

If we had to say what the key factors were in making this project a success they would be these:

  • Openness to new ideas
  • Aligning the project with organisation strategy
  • Engagement with key stakeholders from the start, including Booksellers, who were the target audience
  • Marketing and communications that kept staff informed and involved in the project from the outset
  • Support – providing great front-line support to users and managers
  • Evaluation – including sales statistics, completion rates, user and manager comments which allowed us to demonstrate that the learning was meeting organisational objectives.

So what did they think?

‘The Waterstones Academy site has provided us with a fantastic new tool to develop and train our bookshop teams.  We wanted something both simple and sophisticated in both functionality and look and feel and LearningAge really grasped this.  We are so pleased with the site and have received glowing positive feedback from the users, and seen a great take up from booksellers signing up and completing content.  We are keen to continuously improve and evolve the site and every time we approach LearningAge with suggestions, however seemingly impossible, they give us practical, non-techy advice and make it happen within equally impossibly tight timescales. ‘ Emma Brown, Head of Learning and Development




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