Since 2003, Fortis Construction, based in Portland, Oregon, has experienced unprecedented growth. The company started with just six employees and grew to 210. As expected with a company that grows quickly, this resulted in some growing pains.

For the last five years, Fortis has struggled with how to train, communicate, and organize operations. Even more important to Fortis was preserving its unique culture that the company characterizes as “the magic that unifies us”; it is intentionally different. Given the dispersed job sites, consistency of operations is key for successful outcomes for customers, as well as for the bottom line. Fortis hired me to identify the operating gaps and suggest a strategy to move forward. One of my first tasks was to develop a formal training strategy and structure that offers consistency and prepares employees to embrace future challenges.

The Fortis culture truly values employees who are able to “figure it out.” The mantra “51 percent responsibility” is prevalent in the shared language and on the physical walls in the main office. The expectation is that employees will seek out what they need, and not wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder with direction. It’s a flat organization without a traditional hierarchy. Owners sit alongside employees, and every single person has a say in how the company moves forward. Therefore, learning methods need to be engaging and unexpected so that employees’ curiosity is piqued and they’re empowered to learn every day. Training must also stay relevant and at the forefront of the employees’ minds.

An additional challenge was that the existing learning management system (LMS) was clunky; signing up for a course was cumbersome, and tracking was spotty. Employees without access to email could not access the LMS. For example, 70 percent of employees did not have access to safety training. Content was housed in ShareFile in no logical manner, so finding information was difficult. Also, there was no tool to enable shared learning. So lessons learned on one site were not shared across the organization. The ability to share best practices and lessons learned could prevent mistakes from being repeated, as well as enable successes to be replicated across the organization.

After interviewing stakeholders and completing an all-employee survey, I designed a strategy to meet the organization’s needs. I also interviewed existing software vendors that Fortis was engaged with to determine tools and resources available. Finally, I researched construction industry trends including the US Construction Industry Talent Development Report and the American Subcontractors Association (ASA). Once this background work was complete, I assembled nine employees with varying levels of tenure in the organization. Their role was to brainstorm solutions, validate solutions that were in line with the Fortis culture, and be ambassadors for the onboarding program once it was completed.

Once all the research was complete, I recognized four critical areas to address:

  1. Content development
  2. Content delivery and storage
  3. Customized learning plans
  4. Onboarding

Content development: Force-rank course needs and hire team to develop

We created three content tiers, including software, process, and role materials. Subject matter experts (SMEs) were identified, and freelance instructional designers were paired with each SME in order to develop the content in a timely manner. Each piece of content is being designed in three different modalities (face-to-face, eLearning, and self-directed) so that learners don’t need to travel to the main office. And even though the content for onboarding has been the primary focus, any employee in the organization, regardless of tenure, can attend the training; in other words, new hires are not the only ones who get to learn! Additionally, a new process was added: Prior to the first day of employment, new hires complete the new-hire paperwork online and some pre-work for the onboarding content.

To help with the massive undertaking of content development, I decided to capitalize on vendor resources. For example, Viewpoint Construction Software has a customer portal called ClearView that houses comprehensive training materials. Training content has been created for a variety of learning styles, and on-the-job (OTJ) situations were captured and used in the materials. A job aid for each software and process accompanies the training material. Because culture is so important at Fortis, special focus has been given to culture and history throughout each training and in stand-alone sessions.

Content delivery and storage: Simplify tool

Content delivery and storage is in the process of being developed. Fortis will be adopting a SharePoint platform to house and communicate all content. This tool will allow us to create groups in order to share successes and pitfalls across the organization. This will help with “cross-pollination” of information and will serve as a knowledge repository, to share frequently asked questions and what’s been learned in general from projects.

We’ve identified a variety of on-the-job situations that could be used for training content in an engaging, sharable manner. Everyday occurrences could be used to educate and communicate in a fresh way to help employees gain new knowledge and skills. Search functionality is robust, so employees will be able to find resources and information easily.

Customized learning plans: Give employees a road map

I created a learning plan form and process to help direct employees in their skill development. The learning plan outlines required courses and suggests additional courses for career development tied to core competencies—including internal and external training options. The learning plan is updated annually during an employee’s performance appraisal. All learning is documented in the performance appraisal.

Rethink onboarding: Extend onboarding period and give employees useful tools

In the past, onboarding was regarded as the phase in which new hires completed their paperwork, got their computers, and then proceeded to the job site. Employees were expected to master nine different pieces of software, with no formal training to support them.

I recommended rethinking onboarding as a chance to immerse the new hire in the dynamic and unique Fortis culture by extending the onboarding period and giving them the proper tools to be successful on the job. I’ve developed 101-level training for each software and process. Once 101-level training is complete, then 201- and 301-level training content can be much more targeted. I have structured the onboarding so that the new hires attend four full days of training in their first week on the job. On the fifth day, they go to their site, where an on-site sponsor meets them and familiarizes them with their specific site and their role on the job. During weeks two and three of the onboarding training, new-hire training takes place on the job. They’re given tailored activities to practice skills learned during the first week of face-to-face training. Finally, during the fourth week, new hires return to the main office for some additional content, with time set aside for writing their learning plans. Games and welcoming events are sprinkled throughout the four-week period.

Overall success of this massive undertaking depends on some key underlying strategies:

  • The training needs to be compelling. Each piece of content must answer the question, “Why do they need to learn this?”
  • The simpler the training, the better; think “easy and accessible.”
  • The content should be focused and task oriented.
  • The content and the training should be flexible. Our sites are fast moving and dispersed. Our training needs to support these parameters.
  • Managers should be involved in the development and delivery of the content. And, of course, they should be modeling the expected behavior.
  • Carefully and thoughtfully determine what needs to be “learning” and what can or should be “performance support.” Performance support is great in three scenarios: when trying to remember, when things change, and when something goes wrong.

We piloted the new onboarding program for four months, and plenty of valuable feedback allowed me to improve much of the content and the processes. Reaction from employees and new hires has been ecstatic overall. New hires are impressed with the quality of the training and how prepared they feel to do their jobs. Existing employees welcome the additional resources and the ability to be involved in the process.

Of course, for me, this is just stage one. Ultimately, as more content is created, the goal is to allow the employee to have multiple ways to learn—whether face-to-face, sharing a best practice online, or taking an immersive eLearning course. I have so much more I want to build, and I feel fortunate that Fortis wants to invest in developing its employees to meet the growing challenges of the future for the company and the employees.