Sierra Systems earns top marks for training

Training and development 'critical' to business

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of a seven-part series taking a look at some of the best practices of Canada’s award-winning employers. Here, we take a look at Sierra Systems’ training and skills development programs and why these make it such a great place to work.

A personal career advisor, access to more than 2,000 online courses and ongoing in-house training — that’s the commitment Sierra Systems Group, a Vancouver-based information technology consulting company, has made to employees and part of the reason it receives high marks for training and skills development.

“Training and development is critical to our business,” says senior HR manager Stephanie Hollingshead. “We’re a professional services firm and our people are how we deliver our business.”

Sierra also covers 100 per cent of the tuition cost for some courses unrelated to an employee’s position, as well as providing subsidies for professional accreditation and financial bonuses for course completion.

The privately held company, established in 1966, has nine Canadian offices with roughly 1,000 full-time employees. For competitive reasons, Hollingshead won’t say how much Sierra spends on training and mentoring such a large staff. However, she will say the return on investment is worth it.

“We have to keep developing our people,” she says. “We’re selling our people as ‘These are the people who are going to help you solve your business problem.’ They have to have the latest skills.”

Giving them those skills is a huge financial investment, both in terms of tuition and lost productivity.

“Anytime one of our employees is out on training, that’s lost billable time, so it’s a touchy subject (with management),” says Hollingshead. “We haven’t had reluctance, though, and part of that is because of the design. The e-learning — they were very eager (about) because it’s flexible. You can access it anywhere.”

Being innovative has kept management solidly behind the eight-person HR team, says Hollingshead. A few years ago, Sierra introduced a career growth program in which every employee is assigned a personal career advisor.

At the same time, the company put all of its training under what it calls the Sierra Systems University — a collection of internal and external courses available to employees. While the list of courses is long, it’s up to individual managers to approve the request, with input from career advisors. HR’s role is to make the right courses available at the right time, she says.

In terms of spending the money, managers make individual decisions so there’s no push-back, she says. “It is the management team making the decisions. They know what they’re spending the money on.”

However, some quarters are tighter than others and the HR department has learned to modify its training delivery to meet the needs of the company’s bottom line. Recently, Sierra turned a two-day managing people course into a series of one-hour webinars. There are still in-person components to the training but most of it is done in the office and incorporates on-the-job learning.

“I’m quite excited about this one because I think it’s going to be even better, cost less and have an even better end result,” says Hollingshead.

In another instance, HR responded to management concerns about lost time by offering a course on a Friday and Saturday, rather than both days mid-week.

“That was management pushing to do that,” she says, adding that employees didn’t want the course to be canceled and were willing to give up one day on the weekend instead.

There have been a few other bumps along the way. In a company with locations across North America “the geographic spread wasn’t at first appreciated” by the HR department, says Hollingshead.

“There was a lot of travel and a lot of push-back on travel costs,” she says. “Why weren’t people going on these courses? Well, because it costs money to send them there and they ended up missing a week of work for a two-day course.”

Breaking up training and development into smaller pieces also makes it easier to bring management on board, she says. In one case, HR offered to introduce a larger course in-house in one-hour lunch webinars, with one topic per session.

“We ended up having to book more sessions because people were talking to other people and everyone wanted to attend,” she says. “It sort of got a life of its own. Now it’s a model we’re using and building out.”

Most of Sierra’s initiatives have stemmed mutually from HR and management. Turnover statistics and surveys often underscore the need for a specific course or a need to broaden skills.

“You put that back in management’s faces,” she says. “You can get some real tangible numbers out of that: The cost of turnover. That’s a powerful message.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

Employer Snapshot

Sierra Systems Group

Head office:
San Francisco

Number of employees:
1,000 in Canada

Number of HR employees:
Eight, plus an outside firm
for recruiting

Who does HR report to?

Year company founded:

What company does:
Provides information technology consulting services to a wide range of industries.

Seven-part series

Topic overview and schedule

This is the fifth part of a seven-part series on best practices. Here’s what’s been covered and what’s on deck:

Dec. 1: The physical workspace at the University of Toronto.

Dec. 15: Employee engagement at Microsoft.

Jan. 12: Vacation and time off at McGill University Health Centre.

Jan. 26: Community involvement at SaskTel.

Feb. 23: Health and family-friendly benefits at TD Bank Financial Group.

March 9: Benefit consultations at Simon Fraser University.

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