As an employer of around 3,000 people in the UK alone, Heinz has always made a significant investment in external training. However, time pressures mean that releasing staff to undertake courses is a constant challenge. At the same time, the company has been seeking ways to make the most of the wealth of knowledge, expertise and skills from within its workforce.
Last year's graduate intake helped to identify the need for shorter-term internal training, according to Pat Rees, Heinz's talent manager. "The graduates were assigned to different sites and had short training sessions called 'Lunch and Learn' with various heads of departments," she says. "They reported how other managers were extremely interested in what they'd learned from these. We'd already realised a dynamic workplace needs regular updates. Processes change but we knew we could be drawing more on our internal talent pool."
These lunchtime training concepts have evolved and, since January 2009, been rebranded Learning Bitez - workshops lasting between one and four hours, not necessarily at lunchtime, run internally and led by Heinz staff. Already, 600 people have sampled one or more of the 'bitez'.
Topics range from how to get the best out of Outlook to an introduction to can-making. They are prompted by the identification of a general need or by a department volunteering.
"The finance team discovered the financial parts of the monthly reports often went over people's heads, so proposed a learning bite to explain this in more detail," says Rees. "It started at our Hayes Park site, but has since spread out to other sites."
There are 61 bitez on offer at the moment but this list is growing and some are so popular they are regularly repeated. Some are relevant to a wide range of employees, while others are more specific. "An introduction to can-filling can be tailored to the departments that provide services to this operation," says Rees. "This can help iron out potential problems."
Staff find out about the workshops available via internal communications and then book, with the approval of their line manager, through an online system. The HR department manages the booking process and deals with preparation and post-course evaluation, leaving the course leaders to focus on content.
The best measurement of short bursts of training is immediate feedback and ongoing popularity, and Rees says both demonstrate staff enthusiasm. The concept has been embraced more fully at larger sites that are better equipped and have a greater spread of expertise, but Heinz is working on wider take-up, and when the content lends itself to remote participation, the company uses technology to enable employees to join in.
The HR view
Pat Rees is Heinz's talent manager. "Learning Bitez have been around for a year but they have made such an impact it is as if they've always been there," says Rees. "There's an agility about the way the courses start and I'd like to keep this so the training is always done by someone with a passion. Internal staff know their audiences, they already know where the problems are and how they can tailor their information.
"Some courses are extremely popular - how to get the best out of Outlook, for example. We just assume people know this but our head of IT took it upon himself to develop training," Rees adds.
"He trained 35 people last month and there are 30 more signed up for the January session. The short courses allow people to sample a subject - such as coaching - before embarking on a longer course. They make our resources go further and encourage greater cross-functional engagement and interaction, while providing real business benefits."
The employee view
Val Lowe is HR administrator at Heinz. "I did the personal effectiveness learning bite in November. The course leader took us through the ways in which Outlook had been dominating our days and how we could organise our time better," says Lowe.
"We looked at to-do lists and tasks, how to arrange diaries and get emails under control. I used to keep about 300 emails on my system and now I've got that down to about 10," Lowe adds.
"I've also learned to turn off my email alert and to take a more disciplined approach by only looking at them at set times in the day. That way, I'm able to concentrate on the task I'm doing and not get distracted. I sift through and copy them into task lists.
"I have definitely found the course really useful and would highly recommend it to anyone. I finished the course, went back to my desk and was able to use the learning almost straight away. I am now thinking of leading a session myself."