“No is off the Table” and Other Lessons in Training Design from Northwestern Mutual

Last week our local ASTD chapter had the privilege to visit the beautiful south campus of Northwestern Mutual to hear from NM’s own Jodi Nolte (Learning Strategy Consultant) and Michele Steinpreis (Sr. Instructional Technology Specialist) about their highly successful and award winning blended mobile learning initiative, Fastrack.  

Probably the most pressing training demands at NM is training the 2,000+ new field agents that join the firm every year to become producing agents.  Most of these are millennials, right out of school and located across the US.   While the company is rightfully proud of the values that have guided its 155 year old history, to meet this training challenge Northwestern Mutual needed to create a solutions with 21st century technology.     

Jodi and Michele walked our group of 50+ training professionals through the history of how they developed, implemented and continue to support the Fastrack training program.

Here are some of the key takeaways that I wanted to share with you:

1.    Start with the right team – the combination of Jodi’s back ground in training program design and Michele’s technology background were essential to the program’s success.

2.    Know the audience – before beginning any program design, Jodi and Michele spent extensive time learning from the field offices and conducting surveys.  One definite conclusion was the training had to be i-pad optimized.

3.    Look at what the audience is looking at – When coming up with concept designs, the team looked at designs familiar to their target audience such as Apple and Facebook.

4.    “No is off the table” – When sitting down with the tech team, Jodi wanted to stretch them and not have them focus on the budget.    So Jodi had a rule – “No is off the table.”  She didn’t want “this is the way it’s always been done” thinking driving the project.

5.    Build a great relationship with IS – Even though Jodi and Michele “took no off the table” they admitted that they worked very hard to build a great relationship with the IS team which was crucial to meet the year end 2012 deadline.

6.    Improvise but don’t compromise – to keep the project on budget and on time line the team had to get creative in terms of the interface design and the technology supporting it, but didn’t compromise when it came to great finished product.

7.    Use Live Training where it matters the most – Use technology for delivering instruction and save the live sessions for role playing and simulation.

8.    It’s Time for “Amateur Hour” – in creating the video and audio modules, the team tried as much as possible to feature actual successful field agents in real situations instead of actors.   Not only did this save a ton of money, it also lends legitimacy to the message delivered.

9.    Ensure the Transfer – In order to graduate the Fastrack training program, new field agents must apply and practice the concepts involved in the real world.  No application – no diploma.

10. Sell, sell, sell – A good training program is of no value if no one uses it.  Since field offices are independently owned and operated, they have discretion over what training materials they want to use.  To date, Jodi and Michelle have reached over 80% adoption of the new program!

11. “Don’t dump and run”– on a monthly basis Jodi continues to contact all field offices to solicit feedback on the program.  Given that the field offices were made to feel like partners in the project up front, they continue to provide valuable feedback to improve the program.

By the way, did it work?   First off, putting this in place will save the company over $365,000 on an annual basis going forward.  Plus acceptance and utilization have dramatically improved.   Since the final modules just launched in late 2012, it’s too early to report back definite numbers on retention and production, but early numbers are promising.   Our local ASTD chapter will definitely be looking forward to hearing good news on those fronts as the program continues.  In the meantime, congratulations to Jodi and Michele!


Northwestern Mutual® is a trademark of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.

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