Strategic HRM of Marks & Spencer: A Review of Training and Development Practices

1. Introduction

Between 2018 and 2019, the key economic indicators of Marks & Spencer (M&S) had demonstrated a downward tendency during the last year, namely from 10,698.2 million GBP of revenues in 2018 to 10,377.3 million GBP in 2019 and 10,181.9 GBP in 2020 (Marks & Spencer, 2020a). Within the scope of the 10-year table covering the period of 2010-2020, this continuing three-year decline may be seen as a downward slope from the previous steady growth trend (Statista, 2019c). The analysis of other company indicators has suggested another highly problematic area that could potentially cause these problems. Specifically, M&S had been suffering from high employee turnover rates between 2017 and 2019 when the number of employees had reduced by 6,612 (Statista, 2019b). This report aims to explore the strategic human resource management (SHRM) practices of Marks & Spencer in order to identify potential inefficiencies and strategic fit issues in this sphere and provide practical recommendations for improvement.


2. Company Background

Marks & Spencer is a global brand that has been one of the leaders of the British retail sector since 1884 and is presently operating in 57 countries (Marks & Spencer, 2019a). It is primarily interested in such spheres as clothing, food, homeware, electricity production, and financial services. In 2018, M&S was among the Top 3 fashion and clothing retailers in the European market, as seen in the following Figure. With that being said, the declining revenues between 2018 and 2020 reaching 320.9 million GBP per one financial year (see Appendix A) suggest that the company needs to quickly analyse the causes of these issues to maintain its leadership position.


Figure 1: Top 10 Fashion and Clothing Retailers in the European Market (Units Sold in 2018/2019)

Source: Statista (2020, n.p.)


The BrandIndex survey measuring the public appraisals of brand health included M&S in the list of top brands across multiple UK industries in 2019 with the score of 38.9 points (YouGov BrandIndex, 2019) as shown in the Figure below. The company shared second place on this list with IKEA. As opposed to the previous years, these results demonstrated a positive upward shift from the third position in 2018 (YouGov BrandIndex, 2018) and 2017 (YouGov BrandIndex, 2017). As an employer, Marks & Spencer provided work to 78 597 employees in 2019 (Statista, 2019b) with the majority of these workers operating in its UK stores (Marks & Spencer, 2019d). The company corporate HR guidelines called People Principles outline strict compliance with national legislative provisions in recruitment and workforce management as well as the best industry practices in this sphere (Marks & Spencer, 2019c). However, this document does not explicitly name the persons responsible for monitoring each of the listed commitments or specific improvement goals for any problematic areas.


Figure 2: Leading Brands in the UK (BrandIndex Index Score)

Source: Statista (2019a, n.p.)


3. The Role of Training and Development in SHRM

As noted by Bailey et al. (2018), training and development in SHRM are comprised of both processes and activities. This duality was created by the combined focus on realising long-term organisational outcomes and the shorter tactical patterns required in daily organisational practices. According to the review of training and development research provided by Karim et al. (2019), the second element was critical for resolving the newly emerging challenges and eliminating the skill gaps of workers preventing them from increasing their performance. At the same time, long-term strategic development of competencies was usually aligned with the career advancement choices available to top performers within the workforce. The employment life cycle model shown in the following figure reflects this processual view (Campbell, 2017). All recruits have to engage in onboarding activities teaching them the skills necessary for performing their job functions. However, proactive staff members willing to achieve top performance can seek development opportunities and become eligible for higher positions within the organisation. From the company standpoint, these processes require the introduction of succession practices for replacing the opening line-level vacancies and the provision of transition opportunities. Otherwise, the workers reaching the ‘full circle’ position may choose to leave the organisation and continue their career advancement elsewhere.


Figure 3: Employment Life Cycle

Source: Campbell (2017, p.125)


From the resource-based view, human capital can also be recognised as a strategic resource ensuring the survival of contemporary companies (Wood, 2018). The rapid changes in the market environment further suggest that it cannot be acquired once and for all since new external challenges require new workforce competencies, which emphasises the significance of ongoing training and development. Underlining the prevalent role of human capital among different types of a company's capitals (human, physical, and financial), Noe and Kodwani (2018) proposed the following model incorporating formal training activities with the opportunities for self-development and knowledge-sharing provided by corporate informal learning and knowledge management systems.


Figure 4: The Business Role of Training and Development

Source: Noe and Kodwani (2018, p.7)


4. An Analysis of Marks & Spencer's Training and Development

4.1. Lead to Succeed

The ‘process’ perspective of employee training and development is represented by the programme called ‘Lead to Succeed’ that is aimed at teaching leadership and innovation competencies (Page-Tickell, 2018). This course is provided annually to 350 most talented senior leaders at Marks & Spencer. It is strongly connected with the company's current strategic aims as well as the general principles of training and development outlined by the aforementioned People Principles document (Page-Tickell, 2018). Within the scope of the model by Noe and Kodwani (2018), this programme addresses the formal instruction and knowledge management dimensions. At the level of specific practices, it involves ongoing coaching, 360-degree assessments, role-playing exercises, and classroom simulations. The following Figure demonstrates the five primary teaching methods utilised by this programme.


Figure 5: Methods of the ‘Lead to Succeed’ Programme

Source: Page-Tickell (2018, p.104)


The ‘Lead to Success’ initiative is comprised of four modules covering the principles and styles of leadership, team dynamics, organisations as dynamic systems, and others (see Appendix B). These elements are directly associated with the M&S strategic commitments for its Plan A 2025 that are shown in the following figure (Page-Tickell, 2018). From the process-based strategic perspective, the ‘Lead to Success’ programme addresses two primary goals. On the one hand, it aligns the competencies and vision of key company leaders with the company's strategic interests and values to support its current strategic development plan (Marks & Spencer, 2019b). On the other hand, it offers personal advancement opportunities to top performers while also building an internal talent pool to support succession planning at M&S within the scope of the employment lifecycle model.


Figure 6: M&S's Strategic Goals According to Plan A 2025 Commitments

Source: Marks & Spencer (2019b, p.12)


4.2. Training on Demand for Line Managers

While the previous instrument was associated with strategic long-term outcomes, training on demand is a tactical tool focused on addressing more routine HRM challenges (Marks & Spencer, 2019b). It is offered to all line managers to enhance their professional competences in the sphere of personnel management problems. This development option is provided on the basis of an electronic platform developed by the Kineo company specialising in e-learning services (Turban et al., 2017). Within the scope of the model by Noe and Kodwani (2018), it addresses the ‘knowledge management’ and ‘formal training’ elements. Specifically, the managers experiencing problems in their line of work can learn more about the recent industry trends, get support from more experienced colleagues or contribute some data for financial analysis. The voluntary nature of these activities is fully in line with the provisions of paragraph 2.3 of M&S Plan A 2025 commitments (Marks & Spencer, 2019b) since the company offers training and development opportunities to all staff members and allows them to use these systems at their own convenience. From a business perspective, the electronic learning format also reduces costs since thousands of workers can be trained simultaneously. It should also be noted that the programme effects on staff performance can be both direct and indirect since the managers acquiring additional competences also share new insights with their subordinates, which improves productivity at the level of company units.


4.3. Induction Programme

The Induction programme is provided to all newly recruited specialists as well as the staff members looking to acquire new competencies (Marks & Spencer, 2020b). It is provided in a group setting and usually lasts between one and two weeks. Firstly, the Induction programme educates the participants on Marks & Spencer's history to explain the key corporate values to newcomers. Secondly, the training includes a number of team-building exercises to demonstrate how the company maintains a supportive environment promoting workplace learning and on-the-job advancement. According to the SHRM perspective outlined by Karim et al. (2019), this programme aims to address the training needs of the company rather than its development goals. This is suggested by its short-term nature and its formal arrangement emphasising standardised learning routines and one-size-fits-all content selection. Within the scope of the employment life cycle model by Noe and Kodwani (2018), it can be assumed that this initiative corresponds to the ‘onboarding’ phase to deliver non-unique knowledge to multiple staff members. At the same time, other analysed programmes are made available to more experienced specialists and are adapted to their unique development needs.

4.4. On-the-Job Coaching

As a busy retail organisation, M&S has to utilise on-the-job training to address the newly emerging short-term challenges (Marks & Spencer, 2019b). To facilitate this process, experienced workers are encouraged to provide coaching to their less-skilled colleagues for additional compensation. Within the scope of the model by Noe and Kodwani (2018), this practice can be attributed to all three areas including formal and informal learning as well as knowledge management. For example, experienced workers can share unique insights and experiences in a relatively relaxed and supportive learning environment, which increases team cohesion and mutual trust (Einzig, 2017). In this aspect, on-the-job coaching can be more effective than standardised training due to two reasons. On the one hand, it provides answers to the particular challenges unique to specific stores or regions. On the other hand, the direct delivery of relevant information is generally faster than traditional centralised training sessions provided on an annual or semi-annual basis.


4.5. The Data Fellowship Programme

Responding to the challenges of modern time, Marks & Spencer provides a specialised training programme aimed at developing the digital skills of its employees (Moules, 2018). This 18-month initiative is called ‘Data Fellowship’ and is closely aligned with the long-term strategic plan of company transformation (Marks & Spencer, 2019b). On the one hand, this programme created by the Decoded training provider is a development-oriented practice. It grants M&S staff unique competencies in programming languages that open new career opportunities within the company. On the other hand, the acquired digital skills can produce valuable insights on improving the daily business operations, which also contributes to short-term performance improvement (Webber, 2018). However, it should be noted that the programme scope is relatively small since only 1,000 employees have been already enlisted into it. This makes it an experimental niche initiative rather than a company-wide option available to everyone and forming a major part of the company-wide development strategy.


5. Recommendations for Improvement

Overall, the findings suggest that the five practices studied earlier comprehensively address the company strategic objectives (Marks & Spencer, 2019b) as well as the personnel training and development needs outlined by Noe and Kodwani (2018). However, the current financial problems of this company as well as its increasing employee turnover rates suggest that its HRM practices need to be revised to retain organisational talent and stimulate higher productivity and commitment. First, a gap may be identified between the onboarding initiatives delegated to optional workplace mentors and e-learning schemes and the personal coaching and assistance provided to more seasoned executives (Page-Tickell, 2018). The lack of direct supervision during the first stages of the employment life cycle may be one of the reasons for the current turnover intentions and job satisfaction issues. To close this gap in a cost-efficient manner, the company can provide single-time coaching sessions for career planning purposes on an annual or semi-annual basis to all interested employees.


Second, the declining economy of the UK suggests that M&S should focus on internationalising its operations to balance its risks in terms of revenues and staff availability in the case of the ‘hard’ Brexit scenario. In this aspect, the experience of H&M (2019) as its closest competitor may be used as an example for developing a more balanced training and development strategy. The primary HRM practice that can be copied from H&M is international staff rotation. The global presence of the company implies that top performers are not limited by a particular branch in their career advancement and can freely move to any of its foreign outlets (Bailey et al., 2018). This rotation option may be highly interesting to young specialists such as the students recruited by M&S within the scope of its graduate schemes and the members of its existing Enterprise Programme focused on job rotation as a major part of managerial career development.


6. Conclusion

It can be summarised that Marks & Spencer presently utilises five primary training and development practices, namely the Lead to Succeed programme, training on demand, induction training, on-the-job coaching, and the Data Fellowship initiative (Page-Tickell, 2018). These initiatives vary in terms of their scope, the employment life cycle phase targeted by them, and their short-term or long-term orientation. Their analysis suggests that the company can address its identified HRM problems by expanding the coaching options to all employees including new recruits while also adding international training and development options as an element of managerial career progression (Marks & Spencer, 2019b). Finally, the existing digital capabilities such as the M&S Data Academy  and its Data Fellowship programmes (Webber, 2018) should be made available to a larger range of candidates in the future to further increase the digital competencies of the M&S workforce.



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Appendix A

Marks & Spencer's Summary of Results (Million GBP)

Source: Marks & Spencer (2019b, n.p.)