In conversation with Liz Vinning

Liz Vinning, Head of Commercial, has worked at DeakinPrime for over 20 years. A highly regarded learning and development professional, Liz has formed many high-profile enduring partnerships between Deakin and corporate Australia. She played an integral role in the establishment, development and growth of the strategic partnership between Coles Supermarkets (and then Coles Myer) and Deakin.

When did DeakinPrime establish a relationship with Coles Myer and why?

DeakinPrime’s founding executive director, Ian Dickson, approached Coles Myer (CM) in November 1993 to discuss a potential collaboration. CM had a significant issue with ethics and corporate governance and was seeking help to develop its senior workforce. After a meeting between the CM companies and DeakinPrime (then the Technology Management Centre), Coles Supermarkets (CS) decided to put 44 staff through the Foundation Studies Program (FSP). The employees’ work experience was being recognised and at the same time they were developing management skills, all contributing to the attainment of a Foundation Studies Certificate, which later became the University Certificate of Management awarded by Deakin University. It was the beginning of a program that continued until 2003.

Why did CM choose DeakinPrime as a partner for its learning and development requirements?

The Technology Management Centre, which became Deakin Australia in late 1993 (and later DeakinPrime), was very innovative in its use of technology, distance education (Deakin University’s strength), and online support to adult learners.

Deakin Australia’s role was to manage the client relationship and the learning programs. Deakin University carried the onus for quality control of the programs, which were rigorously monitored because they were very innovative in corporate Australia and could affect the University’s reputation.

How did DeakinPrime come up with the idea of the Coles Institute?

DeakinPrime’s CEO was in the US and came across the notion of a corporate university. He wanted to find out if our clients were interested. CM was my biggest client, so I put it to the general manager for HR at CS. She thought it was a fabulous idea and championed the strategy to her executive colleagues. In April 1999 the first corporate university in Australia, the Coles Institute, was launched by David Kemp, the federal minister for education. It was a landmark moment in corporate education in Australia.

What were the advantages of establishing such an institute?

Coles could see that DeakinPrime, a specialist educational consulting organisation, offered something different—the professionalisation of and university qualifications for their workforce. The institute’s mission was to provide seamless integrated training and education so all CS employees could reach their full potential and CS could achieve its business objectives. While the organisation valued the qualification, they especially valued skills provided in the context of the business.

When was the Coles Myer Institute established and what was your role?

In 2002 CM’s CEO asked CM company executives which two initiatives CM should adopt. The Coles Institute was one of those. Linda Heron was chosen to head up the Coles Myer Institute (CMI), which began operating in November 2002.

I was the account manager and responsible for the institute’s financial management, the DeakinPrime team, the consultants we engaged and progress in the institute’s many projects.

In what way did the CMI differ from the Coles Institute?

The CMI addressed the broader population of CM (185,000 employees) rather than just Coles Supermarkets (65,000 employees). CM was Australia’s biggest private employer. DeakinPrime provided undergraduate and postgraduate education, and a raft of organisational development programs: coaching, women’s leadership, facilitation skills, internal consulting skills, change management, business acumen, etc.

What drove the partnership and who benefited most?

Business need was driving CM’s requirements—turnover of managers and inadequate management skills were key elements driving the professionalisation requirements. Working on site gave the Deakin team a unique opportunity to understand the business intimately and know what learning strategies would work.

One of CM’s gaps was leadership training at a mid- to senior-executive level. CM and DeakinPrime jointly supported a five-country, 21-day study tour to visit universities and companies renowned for their leadership programs. By the last visit, we decided we could design and develop an equally impactful, cost-effective program in Australia. DeakinPrime subsequently developed a suite of leadership programs for CM middle and senior executives.

DeakinPrime benefited directly from the partnership because we were working with a major corporate in Australia and could demonstrate successful outcomes across numerous programs. This success engendered confidence in DeakinPrime’s capability for many other clients.

The partnership also supported CM’s employer of choice strategy and increased their retention rates—managers still worked the typical retail long hours but had better coping strategies thanks to the range of available management and leadership development programs.

Thousands of junior CM staff completed training every year and were proud of their CMI certificates. For most it was their first post–secondary school qualification. CM demonstrated its commitment to developing its employees by conducting annual graduation ceremonies in every state that greatly lifted the morale of many across the organisation.

Did the institute receive external recognition?

In 2005 the CMI and DeakinPrime partnership won the Corporate University Xchange (CUX) Alliance Award and the Marketing Award. The Leadership Development program suite also won a CUX award in 2007. Major companies—Deloitte and IBM, GE, and Boeing—all sought that recognition. In Australia the Coles Institute won the 2003 BHERT (Business and Higher Education Round Table) award for Outstanding Achievement and Collaboration in Education and Training with a major corporate over a sustained five-year period.

What was the most important factor in the success of the partnership?

For me the critical success factors in the Coles and Coles Myer Institutes were the constancy of the internal champion at Coles/CM and the DeakinPrime partnering personnel; the willingness of the Coles/CM executive team, and Deakin University and DeakinPrime executives, to invest in the relationship; and the corporate institute as a world-class organisational L&D strategy that delivers business results.

DeakinPrime is now DeakinCo., the result of a merger between innovative Credentialing business DeakinDigital, and longstanding workforce capability development business DeakinPrime.