Skills Escalation in Retail

Around the world, people flock to Ikea stores to purchase inexpensive modern household products, which are designed to be assembled at home either by the buyer or, for a fee, by an assembly service. While most people are familiar with Ikea’s products and philosophy, the company’s approach to training is also the result of thoughtful design.

Skills Escalation in RetailIkea products attempt to make the most for the least. Indeed, the company has brought modern design to a mass market in a reasonably affordable way for decades. They do this by deploying a few simple strategies (e.g., using inexpensive materials and cutting down on shipping cost by creating products than can be easily shipped in flat boxes). But as the company likes to say, “Low price but not at any price.” In other words, while the aim is to make and sell products at a low cost, they also remain committed to functionality and design. In many respects, the company’s approach to training is similar. Training needs to be functional and appealing and while they aim to keep training costs low, they also recognize that training is a long-term investment.

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Training Future Trainers

Ikea employs an estimated 140,000 workers worldwide and serves over 500 million customers per year. In contrast to many companies, Ikea’s recruitment focuses on values more than inherent skills. They seek employees who share their vision and mandate, and they are willing to train workers who do.

At the center of their training model is a belief that good workers can be even better workers, and this is where their Skills Escalator model comes in. In this model, everyone begins as a trainee and eventually steps into their intended role in the organization. In addition, the model emphasizes that it’s good for business if no one is hired for a signal role but always hired with the goal of taking up a more senior position in the long term. In the Ikea model, no employee is a trainee for longer than a year—everyone is trained with the intention of eventually being able to train his or her co-workers. For this reason, employees always already have access to skills up the ladder from where they are currently located within the organization. Notably, this enables even the newest employees to perform tasks with more knowledge and a higher skill level.

To appreciate how well Ikea’s model works, it is important to bear in mind that while they hire thousands of new workers each year, in comparison to most retailers, their turn over is much lower. Employees around the world cite Ikea’s training model as one of the reasons they stay, emphasizing its affordability, flexibility and ability to enable workers to escalate skills and expand their roles at their own pace in accordance with their own level of motivation.

For employees seeking management positions, Ikea offers management rotation opportunities, eLearning courses for would-be managers, and courses targeting “next generation store managers.” While some of the training is carried out online, Ikea also operates Ikea Concept Centers where employees have the opportunity to train in a fun and creative environment. Finally, they offer tuition incentives to full- and even part-time employees who wish to pursue further training and education courses that will enhance their work in the retail sector.

Co-workers rather than Employees

Unlike most companies, Ikea refers to all its employees from top-level executives to warehouse staff as “co-workers.” The language may reflect the company’s origins in Sweden, a notoriously socialist nation with a strong history of labor equity, but Ikea is by no means a co-operative—it is one of the most successful retailers in the world. The “co-worker” language, however, does reflect the company’s approach to training, and its commitment to skills escalation. Using the term co-worker, rather than employee, emphasizes that everyone has a role in the organization and that everyone has the potential to fill these roles. It emphasizes that skills can be acquired, through training, education and experience, and that everyone is a worker with something to learn.

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