How FedEx Trains Workers to Innovate

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 05-19-2008 Print Email
The shipping giant’s Purple Pipeline Program attempts to battle skills shortages and expand business acumen. Is it the blueprint for all companies?

Corporate IT departments face a serious dilemma on the personnel front: CIOs point to recruiting, training and retaining staffers as their top priority this year, coinciding with a clear shortage of qualified workers in the available pool.

But as the problem looms larger, few experts point to a panacea, a "best practice" for building and maintaining the best possible IT workforce. Add in CIOs' expressed desire to create long-term IT innovation strategies, and the staffing issue moves further to the forefront.

Innovative IT user FedEx thinks it has an answer.

As part of an IT transformation effort launched about five years ago, FedEx executives turned their attention to arming employees with the best arsenal of skills to effectively help the company accomplish its goals. Born out of that focus was the Purple Pipeline Program, a yearly, elite training system aimed at broadening select employees' leadership abilities and their understanding of corporate objectives--and not just focusing on technical savvy. The program is about to enter its third year.

Here's how it works. Each year, managers nominate high-performing workers who have demonstrated their ability to lead and manage staff. Forty to 50 are chosen each year to enter a six-month program focused on additional training in metrics management and leading employees to produce results more efficiently.

Those selected workers remain in their day jobs, but spend 70 to 80 percent of their time in the program. That's important, she says, because the members of the trainee's former team work to pick up his or her portfolio, essentially supporting that person's efforts to grow in the program, says Sherry Aaholm, FedEx's executive vice president for IT and overseer of the program.

After that phase, the selected workers go into "rotation." They're chosen to move into a position different from their past roles, putting to the test their leadership abilities--and the success of the Pipeline program. It may sound unconventional--or even wrong-headed--to move people away from their perceived core competency, but Aaholm says it reflects FedEx's emphasis on business and management skills, not just IT. "We believe that it isn't necessarily your technical skills that make you successful in your job," she says. "It's your ability to lead and motivate people. You can learn the technical side."

The same ethic applies to FedEx's recruitment strategy. Sure, FedEx--like every company--needs specialists to work on legacy technologies. But instead of selling a job candidate on the task of working on, say, COBOL, Aaholm says they promote the bigger picture of working within FedEx's innovative culture. Once candidates become employees, they have opportunities to move around different departments (and, of course, could be chosen for the Pipeline program). "We have people who move around between IT, HR or customer service, and we view that experience as more important than technical skills," Aaholm says. "(We want people who want) to be part of the bigger team to help lead and drive the bigger picture, as opposed to someone who wants to be a technical hero by themselves." 

Also see:

FedEx's CIO on Getting Executive Support

Why Businesses Keep Struggling to Innovate

Building the Innovation Process

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