Poised for Discovery: Transforming an Onboarding Program

By Ladan Nikravan

While much of the nation has been fighting to survive the recession, Booz Allen, a strategy and technology consulting firm, has faced a different challenge: unprecedented growth. With an increased focus on business delivery and utilization, new hires need to be equipped with the knowledge, tools, and resources to be engagement-ready. And they need to be ready faster than ever before.

The firm’s legacy onboarding program had many strong components, but lacked the cohesiveness and accountability necessary to ensure a consistent new hire experience for the firm’s growing workforce. Aimee George Leary, Booz Allen’s director for learning, development, and diversity, explained, “We needed to develop a comprehensive onboarding solution that increased new-hire readiness and accelerated time to productivity to serve the needs of the business.”

Before getting started, Booz Allen conducted a comprehensive internal evaluation and external benchmarking analysis. Their research led them to determine that it was essential the new program do the following:

•         Promote accountability and participation through a cohesive brand that defines the program.
•         Make a good first impression and generate excitement before the new hire’s first day via an online new-hire portal.
•         Maximize engagement and speed learning through a combination of immersive learning activities that expose new hires to real-world challenges.
•         Drive results by integrating performance management and career planning systems and processes.
•         Encourage virtual networking through social media and knowledge management tools.
•         Keep enthusiasm high through ongoing communication via social media, newsletters, and guides.

Booz Allen partnered with industry experts to develop a branded, phased, 12-month series of learning events and activities designed to help new hires quickly engage with the organization, feel comfortable joining their respective teams, and develop a strong level of knowledge regarding the firm’s culture and core values.

Because new employee orientation jumpstarts the onboarding process, it is imperative that the revamped program makes a good first impression, reinforces new hires’ decision to join the firm, and delivers business impact.

Promote accountability and participation

The program is broken into three phases throughout the new hire’s first year. These phases are branded Engage, Equip, and Excel. Each phase has its own milestones and objectives. The program’s design provides a recognizable framework that is applicable to all new hires, while allowing regional offices to tailor some local content for enhanced value. Orientation attendance is mandatory across the firm to drive a consistent new-hire onboarding experience for all employees.

The initial phase, Engage, is designed to excite and prepare new hires for their first year. This phase typically spans two to three weeks (from acceptance through their first week on the job). Two key program elements within this phase are the New Hire Portal and Firmwide Orientation.

Maximize engagement and speed learning

Booz Allen’s Legacy Orientation program has been transformed from a two-and-a-half-day program that occurred around the fourth week, to a four-day program that now occurs during a new hire’s first week. The new Firmwide Orientation uses experiential and discovery-based learning to create an interactive and engaging experience, connect the learning to the real world of Booz Allen, allow for practice and application, and provide for early networking opportunities.

Built on discovery-based learning activities focused on networking, skill development, and early career planning, the first day of Firmwide Orientation centers on an information-rich, table-sized learning visual called a Blueline Blueprint. This unique classroom design concept functions as a launch point for a broad range of individual activities and team challenges.

Discovery learning techniques demand that learners play an active role in the learning process and apply themselves in new and different ways as they work in cross-functional teams, explore different points of view, learn from each other’s experiences, integrate new information with past experiences and current knowledge.

In addition to its role as a launch point for a broad range of interactivities, the Blueprint serves as a visual landscape, inviting participants to explore the firm’s history, its people and culture, institutional structure, client service, and core values and mission. New hires collaborate in cross-functional table teams made up of six members each, spanning different work teams, regional offices, and levels. Working in these teams jump-starts the development of working relationships and networks, which are critical components of success at Booz Allen.

During days two and three, new hires are immersed in a realistic job preview that equips them to engage fully with the organization and the firm’s clients. Teams of three learners each compete in a simulated, year-long client engagement. A second Blueline Blueprint combines elements of a process map with a traditional board game (not unlike Monopoly or The Game of Life). It serves as the critical “touchstone” throughout the simulation.

The game also provides exposure to foundational planning tools and analysis skills that help prepare new hires for performance on the job. An adjunct instructor, who is a seasoned employee with knowledge gleaned from client engagements, adds to the experience by providing “real world” insights and examples from her career.

The fourth day, a highly interactive and hands-on workshop, is based on a firm-specific “formula for success.” New hires use laptops to explore online resources designed to assist them with career planning and development.

Senior leaders play a key role in the program by delivering welcome messages and leading personal discussions on how to succeed at the firm. Meanwhile, new hires learn the “secrets to success” and receive tips on how to navigate the company’s culture through structured networking events, which occur both in-person and online via Booz Allen’s social media and knowledge management tool.

Keep enthusiasm high

Phase II, Equip, spans the period encompassing the new hire’s second week through their first six months, and provides employees with the tools, skills, and behaviors needed for success at the firm. Key program elements within this phase include: Local Orientation; 30-, 60-, and 90-day check-ins with the manager; detailed onboarding toolkits; a six-month pulse check; and a series of e-newsletters. All of these are designed to reinforce and build on the information, knowledge, and relationships developed in Phase I by providing opportunities for learners to apply them on the job.

Drive results

Phase III: Excel, is focused on continued professional development, affiliation building, and embodiment of the firm’s values. This phase spans month seven through the end of year one, and its key milestone is the new hire’s first annual assessment.

To complement the year-long program, the onboarding team also has harnessed the firm’s social media and knowledge management tool to provide a social space designed to connect new hires, and those who support them, throughout their first year. As a member of the “Onboarding Community,” any employee can discover and contribute information, activities, and resources that support and enhance the first year experience, and can communicate via blogs and forum discussions.

The results

Since its launch in November 2009, more than 8,000 new employees have completed the new hire program. Greater than 95 percent of new employees have acknowledged the program’s positive impact, reinforcing their decisions to join and stay at Booz Allen.

As a result, attrition for employees with tenure of six months or less has been reduced by four percentage points. And new hire time-to-productivity has been accelerated by several weeks, saving the firm millions of dollars of lost revenue. Internal survey results also reveal higher (a 6 percent average increase) levels of perceived job readiness and impact among new hires.

Booz Allen’s onboarding program has been recognized as a “best in class” solution. The work has been rewarded with a Bersin Learning Leaders Award for Learning and Talent Initiative Excellence and ASTD’s prestigious Excellence in Practice Citation and Award.

Reprinted from Learning Circuits

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