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Off the beaten track: Unconventional training approaches

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While Essilor International has trained its internal HR team through consulting for an external project, Starbucks Singapore is making six-month sabbaticals the norm. Aditi Sharma Kalra tells the stories of how these organisations take a refreshing approach towards L&D.

I would be a whole lot richer if I had a cent for every time someone in an office says: “You can’t get new results using the same old approaches.” And yet, it’s hard for many of us to shift the needle to a new way of working because of organisational silos, politics, or simply, inertia.

With this in mind, we bring you this feature on unconventional training approaches, profiling two organisations – Essilor International and Starbucks Singapore – who are looking at L&D through a refreshingly different lens.

The expert in everything vision-related, Essilor International has facilitated the training of its internal HR team by encouraging it to embark as consultants for an external project. At coffee chain Starbucks Singapore, sabbaticals (aptly called Coffee Breaks), talent exchange programmes and the Regional Starbucks Championship have become the norm rather than the exception. Sit back and enjoy their stories in this feature.

Helping ourselves by helping others: Essilor International

In March 2018, Essilor’s global human resources team had the opportunity to work on a cross-functional project. Over the course of six months, Darlene Uy and Sherrie Koh, from Learning & Development, and Amrita Raj, from the Talent Acquisition team (pictured below), spent time outside of their usual job responsibilities to work on a consulting project with a non-profit organisation in Singapore – with a specific focus on HR.

The NGO requested to have a road map to develop its talent and leadership pipeline, define internal policies and increase employee engagement. What initially started as a team building project and working with a beneficiary to uncover the HR challenges (in areas such as staffing, training, engagement and cross-functional communication), turned out to be an amazing learning opportunity.

As Koh describes: “Throughout the project, we were not working as individuals, but as a team of consultants. We were stretched and had to learn, adapt and deliver.” Raj adds: “As consultants, we experienced first-hand the importance of listening to understand, asking the correct questions to comprehend and the act of brainstorming before coming up with a solution.”

Due to the project time frame, the team considered many factors before coming up with an execution strategy. It was an act of learning on how to balance its work and executing the project within a realistic period, while ensuring its recommendations would be meaningful and impactful to the NGO. This was especially so as the culture and dynamics of an NGO are very different from an MNC.


The initial stages of the project were not easy as the team of three spent substantial time trying to understand the pain-points of the organisation. While the initial idea was to come up with HR processes and guidelines for the client to implement, it was becoming evident this was not going to entirely solve core issues such as improving employee engagement, retention and overall communication.

Given the tight deadline, the team was very transparent in what it could deliver, while ensuring the NGO was equipped with more than just documents and recommendations, but concrete deliverables for action.

In the process, it was affirmed the most important thing was to understand the needs from the employees themselves, so the team scheduled to speak to key stakeholders in the NGO. Together with a representative from NEEDeed, the organisation that had linked Essilor up with the NGO, employees with varying profiles, backgrounds and experience within the organisation were identified for face-to-face meetings and casual interviews.

The team also shadowed the NGO’s director for a day and sat in several team meetings. The objective was simple – to understand the viewpoints from the various stakeholders, that is, board members, managers and employees. Based on the comments, it was able to identify common themes the NGO was doing well and HR policies that could potentially be improved or implemented.

During the workshop, the managers also had the opportunity to prioritise their key challenges, list actionable items and make a group commitment to the set deadlines.
At the end of the six months, a design thinking workshop for the NGO’s managers was facilitated as it allowed the team to present its findings; for the managers to experience the employee life cycle journey; and think of ways of improving their current scenario. During the workshop, the managers also had the opportunity to prioritise their key challenges, list actionable items and make a group commitment to the set deadlines.

With an objective for L&D to be a “consulting” arm of the HR department, this project provided the Essilor team with a great opportunity and a sense of how it could work closely with its internal “customers”, that is, the employees. It also brought the global HR team closer as it gained a better understanding of each other’s working styles and how they could leverage on each other’s strengths and experiences.

As Uy shares: “Apart from us helping the NGO to achieve their objectives, as a team, this gave us an opportunity to hone our facilitation skills and allowed us to see the importance of being adaptable in situations. We did not know what the project outcome would be, but it was a success because we kept an open mind and were willing to try out different approaches for solving problems.”

Taking ‘coffee breaks’ seriously: Starbucks Singapore

With customers gravitating towards new and quickly changing trends, employees at Starbucks, better known as “partners”, have to go beyond recipes and new products to really grasp these trends and genuinely connect with customers. As such, training is an imperative that sets Starbucks’ people apart from others in an increasingly competitive business arena.

“Our partners grew up in the digital age and have expectations their work experiences will mirror their off -work experiences as well, for example, instead of coming to ‘class’, they want to check on their mobile for the latest coffee knowledge,” says Celestina Lee, Partner Resources Director at Starbucks Singapore (pictured below).

With this context, Starbucks Singapore has five key strategic partner experience pillars: engage our partners, build amazing teams, grow our leaders and talent, reward through sharing successes, and innovate work processes and tools.

“With more than 24,000 stores across more than 75 markets, it’s clear that our passion for great coffee, genuine service and community connection transcends language and culture,” she says.

Translating this to L&D, learning doesn’t take place through the training curriculum alone. It starts from the “first impression” meeting between the store manager and the new partner even before the first day. Both new and older partners join in quarterly open forums where they learn continuously about the company from the management team and peers from other districts.

This is substantiated through coaching during the partners’ quarterly performance and development conversations with their managers. In fact, Starbucks is part of The Learning CONSORTIUM, a coalition of 230 global organisations, which believes in blending informal and formal training, and offline and online training.

As such, the unconventional training curriculum at Starbucks Singapore is driven by certain flagship programmes.

The first, Coffee Master programme, is a signature master certification that hones partners’ expertise in all things coffee – the history, geography, physiology and sociopolitical challenges of the humble coffee bean. The journey figuratively takes them through the world to communities such as Guatemala, Kenya, and Costa Rica.

Partners who complete the programme are awarded a black apron which they proudly wear as long as they get recertified every year.

“Despite this being the art and science of our business, we do not enforce the programme, but encourage partners to take on this journey only when they feel they are ready. Ironically, more and more partners, including non-retail partners, aspire and complete this programme year on year,” says Lee on the participation rate.

Another indicator of how seriously Starbucks takes its L&D charter is its aptly named Coffee Breaks, that is, six-month sabbaticals for partners with long tenures to explore the world and take up new courses to hone their skills.

Starbucks embraces its talent exchange programme, open to all partners for transfers to other markets, for deep-diving into the local environment.
Apart from these off -the-job pathways, Starbucks’ China and Asia Pacific (CAP) Regional Barista Competition is in its third year, and it attracts more than 3,000 partners to compete for the chance to represent their market in the championship in Vietnam. Over three days, partners from across the 16 CAP markets come together for the culmination of their hard work and coffee passion.

The championship also introduced new ways to engage with finalists, including the Manual Espresso competition and the Manual Brewing – both internationally recognised by the World Barista Championship and World Brewers Cup competition.

Finally, Starbucks embraces its talent exchange programme, open to all partners for transfers to other Starbucks markets, deep-diving into the local environment, and learning from other partners in the region. “Our curriculum is adapted to the individual as everyone learns at their own pace and has individualistic skill sets,” Lee explains.

To stay on top of the impact of such programmes, Starbucks employs a number of means – for example, the annual appraisal has been replaced with quarterly performance conversations, and the “Stars Bonus Programme”, where success is shared with partners.

Also held quarterly is the open forum, where partners and management get together for conversations on the company’s direction. This is topped off with a 12-monthly partner experience survey to ensure high satisfaction and strong relations between partners and their team, managers and the company.

An evolution is clearly on the cards in the L&D space. We hope you can take a cue from this feature and add unexpected surprises to your training and development curriculum as well in the near future.

Photo / 123RF

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