* RECRUITING AND RETAINING In the battle for snaring and retaining talented employees, training may be a critical secret weapon. So says a recent study of seven companies--Dow Chemical, Edward Jones, Great Plains, LensCrafters, Sears Roebuck, Southwest Airlines, and South African Breweries--whose exemplary training and development practices outshone those of more than 2,500 organizations worldwide.

All have low turnover rates and high employee satisfaction, and all, in part, attribute them to sizeable investments in employee growth and career development initiatives, according to a benchmarking study by the American Society for Training and Development and the Society for Human Resource Management.

"Training and development are not the only options that keep employees loyal, but they are an integral part of why employees go to and stay at organizations," says Stacey Wagner, director of the study and ASTD benchmarking forum team leader.

Compared to most companies, the seven firms train more employees and offer more hours of training; deliver more cost-efficient development; train more with learning technologies and less via the classroom; and use more outside training resources.

Additionally, each of these companies has an identity and culture in which employees are greatly valued, and there are opportunities for growth and career development. Senior management strongly supports their firmly rooted training and HR infrastructure.

"People often leave companies because they don't see opportunities for development and they don't have a good relationship with their supervisors," says Mike Feurer, manager education development at Edward Jones, a St. Louis brokerage firm. "We address both issues with our leadership development process, which helps leaders understand that our associates need the right climate for us to succeed and grow."

Another thing in common: All these companies regularly evaluate the success of their training. "We do a lot of training for trainers here, and that's a big benefit," says Bonnie Robertson, vice president organization development, Great Plains, a Fargo, N.D., software firm. "Because they (trainers) are closer to our (internal) customers, they're teaching them more of what they need for their jobs." --Harvey Meyer

* PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENT Learn from the Army Think of them as a form of brainstorming sessions. After Action Reviews, first developed by the Army, are emerging as a way to speed up the learning curve in the corporate world.

The AAR is a simple after-action exercise that lets team members capture and apply lessons learned to future situations. In the Army model, participants in an exercise--such as a battle scenario or troop movement--meet immediately afterward, led by a facilitator (called an Observer/Controller), to review the intent of the mission, analyze what happened and why, evaluate which actions or results should be sustained and which should be improved, and develop a plan to apply lessons to the next scenario.

"It's simple and straightforward, but it works because it's a disciplined process," says Marilyn Darling, co-founder and partner in Signet Consulting Group, a Boston-based firm that helps organizations design strategies for learning. "It's not about correcting mistakes, but about learning. And it has many uses in the private sector, where team members face many of the same challenges as in the service: logistics, communications problems, changing terrain and missions, an uncooperative enemy."

Many of the first AARs rolled into the corporate world on the backs of retired Army people such as Steve Dankert, now operations manager for Geerings & Wade, a direct wine-delivery company headquartered in Canton, Mass. "The beauty of a good AAR is that it becomes habitual," he says. "The participants aren't even aware that they're doing it. Consequently, they're always in learning mode."

Dankert has found the technique to be particularly helpful in applying lessons learned to such crucial tasks as inventorying and gearing up for peak season. "Basically, it's about looking back at how you did with the goal of improving performance in every area."

The AAR strategy has helped the Geerings & Wade team improve efficiency and productivity, says Dankert. For instance, during a recent move to a new warehouse in Florida, the team used the technique to cut down moving time by an entire day.

Now Dankert is trying to make AARs part of the corporate culture. "The toughest part is getting all the team members to buy into it," he says. "There has to be a willingness to check your ego at the door, and a strong desire on everybody's part to improve performance at every level. But once you get the hang of them, AARs work." --Joan Lang

They've Got the Beat Looking for a new way to open the lines of communication--and get people moving to the same beat? Why not try a drumming workshop?

"Drumming is an excellent form of nonverbal communication and the best ice-breaker," says Charles Kaplan, founder of RhythmWorks Organizational Development, New Haven, Conn. (www.rhythmworks.net). Companies from Wild Oats Markets Inc. in Boulder, Colo., to Bloomberg, LP, in New York City, have used Kaplan's workshops to help groups of 20 to 200 people improve their overall attitude, communicate better, cooperate with each other--and let off some steam by banging on a drum.

"Everyone comes into it with performance anxiety," says Kaplan, "but the hand drum is the only instrument that can be picked up by anyone and played in a meaningful way in a short period of time." His workshops range from 90 minutes to three hours long, beginning with some simple body stretching and rhythm games, then moving the group toward "making music together" with traditional West African beats on full-size, handmade drums.

"This was one of the most enjoyable team building experiences that I know of," says Kathie Ross, vice president, organizational effectiveness and communication, The Arbitron Co. in Columbia, Md. "One of the nice elements of drumming is that it is not cognitive, so it really levels the playing field."

--Anna Chinappi