Applied Academy, the internal learning department of San Francisco-based communications consultancy Applied Communications, provides numerous services—including career counseling, classes and development funds—that rival PR firms ten times as large as Applied. Established in Fall 1999, the Academy, as it’s called, fosters the growth of every employee in Applied’s global organization in accordance with the firm’s charter—that business communications should deliver competitive and measurable advantage to Applied’s client base. This unique approach takes public relations to a higher strategic level, demanding knowledge of business models and technology, as well as strong communications skills. The Academy also helps retain and attract the best and brightest professionals to Applied, who crave continued learning and career development.
THE PR GOLD RUSH
The Public Relations industry has grown rapidly in the last two years. Applied Communications itself ranked as the fastest-growing public relations firm worldwide according to the Council of Public Relations Firms (March 2000) with100% overall growth in 1999. The end result of such growth is a fiercely competitive job market in which firms scramble to attract talented professionals to meet client demands, while striving to provide consistent quality of service.
The Academy plays a critical role in resolving the challenge of recruiting and retaining talented employees within this market. It is one of the many “benefits” that contribute to Applied’s attractiveness as an employer, offering programs to integrate new employees as well as retain existing ones. In 2000 alone, Applied expanded its staff by 35%, requiring innovative ways to turn new employees into satisfied, productive team members. To address these acute needs, Applied has committed two full-time dedicated positions to run its Academy.
ADAPTING TO NEEDS
The Academy’s mission is to infuse Applied’s charter into all client activities, further contributing to Applied’s growth and long-term success. In addition, the Academy creates an environment where every employee continues to grow and develop to prepare them for ever-greater responsibilities and career advancement.
Research of the Academy’s efficacy is an ongoing process based on the needs of Applied’s staff and industry demands. The academy conducts two formal surveys per year. The Annual Survey measures the Academy’s performance by the staff, and the Needs Assessment Survey identifies the staff developmental areas as assessed by senior management. Together, they provide the “big picture” to determine which skills require further development and how well the staff is being served. In addition, the Academy measures the performance of individual programs, whether internal or external, to provide opportunity for training improvement and to ensure they support Applied’s charter. More informally, the Academy also solicits feedback and discussions through everyday interactions with senior management and staff members.
INSTITUTIONALIZE APPLIED’S CHARTER
The Academy embodies Applied’s charter. It collects and disseminates the firm’s methods for driving competitive Public Relations and Communications Research through classes and documentation. The key is to tap experts within the company in who can speak to important topics with an eye towards the company charter and maintaining Applied’s distinctive communication style. Applied also invites external consultants to provide PR market and communications perspectives, technology expertise and leadership skills. Each employee also has an annual professional development fund of $3,000 or more that can be used for external education and training. In addition, the Academy counsels individual employees on career development, and incites discussions about the communications and technology industries to keep Applied on the cutting-edge of technology communications.
THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
The year 2000 saw many firsts for the Academy: the first bootcamp-style, skills-based training by employee level; a management and leadership training program; Applied’s 6th Annual Retreat; a formal tracking system of required class hours and development funds; a new career resource library for Applied’s Amsterdam office; and trip to bring internal training to the Amsterdam office.
Based on its first-ever needs assessment survey of the staff in 1999, the Academy outlined and delivered training on Applied’s style of competitive communications to integrate 46 new staff members during 2000. In March 2000, the Academy premiered the SAE/AE Bootcamp, a two-day intensive training focused on PR skills for mid-level employees, account executives and senior account executives. The bootcamp tradition continued with a series of workshops designed for entry-level employees and account coordinators, held twice during the year. To bolster its leadership and management skills, the Academy developed a nine-month program begun in August, holding one key management seminar per month. The program covers everything from developing motivation skills to giving feedback and managing multiple projects. In order for these programs to be effective, the Academy constantly gained the support, input and participate of the firm’s senior management.
Applied was one of the first public relations firms to hold an annual company-wide retreat, a practice that is now recognized as a key tool for building a collaborative atmosphere and fostering shared goals. Last spring was the Academy’s inauguration for producing and directing the training at the retreat, including a keynote by Jack Bergen, President of the Council of Public Relations Firms.
During the year, the Applied Academy drove the creation and management of Applied’s knowledge base. Methods included: the Applied Academy Repository on Applied’s intranet, Applied Academy bulletin boards, an “Academy Corner” in the firm’s weekly employee e-newsletter and in-house classes. Not only did the Academy store the knowledge, it connected the many branches of expertise at Applied, including skills possessed by individuals, teams and departments. For example, it tapped into Applied’s HR department to educate the staff on the firm’s annual performance review system, and Applied’s Communications Research Vice President led a discussion on how Client Services staff can use research in PR planning and execution.
SHOW ME THE NUMBERS
Applied’s communications programs are designed to deliver competitive advantage for its technology clients, not simply to inform, publicize or manage reputations. Similarly, the Academy provides that same advantage for its staff through a variety of services—including classes, professional development fund, annual retreat, knowledge database and career counseling.
The Academy contributed greatly to Applied Communications’ recruiting and new employee orientation efforts, as well as retention. Applied’s new employee acceptance rate was 92% in 2000. In the second half of 2000, 95% of the new hires (20 out of 21) said they were satisfied to very satisfied with the professional development opportunities at Applied. The results from the 2000 Academy Annual Survey showed that 86% of the staff surveyed were satisfied to very satisfied with the Academy and 96% of them affirmed that the Academy was important to very important.