The ballroom is buzzing at a Marriott hotel off a highway outside Newark, N.J. On this warm December day, more than 200 Prudential employees are putting their heads together to discuss the changing world of financial services, with its new competitors, new technologies, and new customers. What are the priorities of those customers? they ask each other. How can we best meet their financial needs?

Tough questions. But this isn't a top-level strategy session. It's a meeting called One Prudential Exchange, and sitting together in the roomful of round tables are financial advisors, claims processing clerks, insurance agents, managers, mail-room workers--employees from all levels and divisions of the company. They talk animatedly, bent over what appear to be giant posters laid out on each table. These posters are in fact Learning Map(r) visuals, graphical representations of the world in which Prudential competes. They are the day's first springboard for discussion about where the company has come from, where it's headed, and why the effort of each person in the room is critical to getting it there.

Meetings like this one have been taking place since last fall and are continuing, all over the country, through this May. When the last chair is stacked in the last hotel ballroom, 60,000 Prudential employees will know more about the company and the financial services industry than they probably ever expected they would.

The industry has seen dramatic changes in recent years. Many insurers are broadening their product offerings, many continue to pursue mergers, and many mutual insurers are demutualizing, changing from policyholder-owned companies to stockholder-owned companies. All are looking hard at how best to grow into the new millennium.

One Prudential Exchange meetings are introducing employees to Prudential's strategy for growth and giving them a backdrop against which they may better understand corporate decisions ahead.

That, at any rate, is the plan. And Prudential has made a massive investment in time and money to put that plan into action.

Chairman and CEO Art Ryan puts it this way, in a video played during each Exchange meeting: "It's an investment in our people, so that they understand all that is required of the company to be successful in the marketplace--and, importantly, what their role is in the company."

Vice President of Learning Architecture Jody Doele is the major force behind developing and implementing One Prudential Exchange. "At such an important time in the company's history, Art Ryan understands that we're only going to succeed with everyone's help," Doele says. The way to get that help, she continues, is to explain to each employee thoroughly--exhaustively, even--why the effort is so important.

Using meetings for that message was an obvious choice: This was far too important for a memo. This communications effort had to do more than just inform--it had to inspire.

Michele Darling, executive vice president, human resources, suggested using the Learning Map system, a training technology patented by Root Learning,(r) Inc. in Perrysburg, Ohio, as a way to get a lot of complex information across effectively. (See "A Crash Course in Business," page 37.) Then it fell to Jody Doele and Debbie Boschee, CMP, director, meeting management, to get the show on the road.

There was a model for such large-scale meetings: A project called Mobilization had been rolled out to 26,000 Operations & Systems employees in 1997. But the scope of One Prudential Exchange, an attempt to reach every single employee, was unprecedented.

The first challenge for the Minneapolis-based Boschee and her 12-person staff was to figure out where all of the company's employees actually worked in order to determine which potential meeting locations would provide an appropriately varied cross-section of participants.

Adding it all up meant Boschee was faced with negotiating hotel contracts for 192 meetings in 12 cities. (See "An RFP for 192 Meetings," page 36.)

"This project is different not only because it touches every employee, but because it's vital to the future of this company," says Boschee, who has been with Prudential for 22 years. "To be a part of making it happen means a lot. I really do feel dedicated to this company."

That she was asked to build a team to handle the project represented the company's vote of confidence in her. "I moved into an operations manager role and out of the hands-on meeting planning," she explains. "Because of the scope of the project, I've really gotten to know more about the other divisions of the company. It's been a great experience for me."

Hard Data Jody Doele is equally enthusiastic about her role in leading this kind of effort. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she says. "We all believe in the importance of it."

With her relaxed, straight-talking manner, Doele seems a perfect fit with the spirit of the program--an effort to create genuine dialogue with employees. That includes acknowledging that Prudential's reputation has suffered over the past few years and that the company's financial picture needs to improve.

"In the past, Prudential had a hierarchical, top-down culture. Most employees did not have a broad understanding of our business and the competition," Doele explains. By contrast, the openness of One Prudential Exchange meetings demonstrates that the company "has confidence in its employees' ability to understand the challenges in today's world of financial services and, most important, to respond to those challenges," she says. "The fundamental thesis is to give people information so they understand what they can do differently on the job."

This new philosophy and approach have an immediate effect on meeting participants. The video in which CEO Ryan introduces the goals of the One Prudential Exchange meetings also includes some attendee reactions to the meetings. Says one: "I felt like the company was sharing information that was never shared before, and that really made me feel like I was a part of One Prudential Exchange."

Doele believes the video helps participants see the One Prudential Exchange effort as authentic.

"There's such a high suspicion in Corporate America. People wonder what this means, whether it's just the flavor of the month," she says. "Our video shows the company's senior executives doing the maps together. There's no more powerful message than that."

Executive Commitment The very first One Prudential Exchange meeting, held last July, was attended by Art Ryan and his 150- person executive team. Then from August through October, 24 One Prudential Exchange meetings were held for the company's 4,700 managers. In all cases, the agenda and the exercises were the same as what every other employee was about to experience.

More important, these managers and executives have remained intimately involved in the process. At each employee meeting, about three dozen managers serve as "table coaches" and two executives serve as leaders. That leadership includes speaking frankly about their own experiences with the map exercises, putting the process in context, and fielding questions from participants. It does not include long lectures.

"This isn't a talking heads meeting at all," Boschee says. "The executives are not up there talking to the masses. The masses are talking to the executives and to each other."

George Hanley, vice president and chief compliance officer, is leading the One Prudential Exchange meeting back in the Marriott ballroom in New Jersey. "I went through this in July and I was skeptical," he says, before attendees work on the first of three maps. "But it's a great way of learning. You learn by doing, you learn from each other."

Dressed casually, Hanley has the air of a friendly neighbor as he offers a quick review of the dramatic changes in the company since CEO Ryan took over in 1994. "We are writing the story line today for what Prudential is going to look like in the future," he says. It will be up to you, he tells the participants, to go back to your work units and make changes based on what you learn today. Getting local initiatives clearly aligned with the company's overall strategies, he says, means that "we now have 60,000 people mobilized to help Prudential achieve its objectives."

It's a powerful thought. It's also easier said than implemented in a company as large as Prudential. "There is a direct correlation between employee satisfaction and line of sight--that is, knowing how my job affects the company," says Doele. "Prudential is so big and so diversified, most of us couldn't easily establish that line of sight."

That's the next step of One Prudential Exchange. Once employees see the big picture, they need to understand where they fit, how their work matters to the company. "A lot of this stuff is at 50,000 feet, then we're asking people to go process claims better," Doele explains. "They need to understand the linkages."

The links are made when the employees return to their offices and begin Work Unit Meetings, the local followups to the One Prudential Exchange meetings.

This is where the rubber meets the road. How is the One Prudential Exchange experience translated into action? Is it compelling enough to actually change behavior?

The table groups are working with Map Two, "Diving into Our Financial Cycle." Pictured as a network of pools and streams, this map shows where Prudential's money goes. Participants learn how key revenue sources contributed to the insurer's overall revenue in 1997. They estimate how much of Prudential's revenue went to cover benefits in 1997, and flip over a card for the answer. They learn how return on equity (ROE) is calculated, and why this is a performance measure Prudential is paying attention to. They find out what Prudential's ROE was in 1997 and see its ROE target--their target--going forward.

When the groups have finished working through the map, George Hanley calls for some commentary on the experience. What words describe how your table feels about what you learned? he asks.

Two facilitators from Vector Strategic Resources, a Manhattan-based consulting firm that has worked extensively with Prudential on this project, carry microphones around the room. Far from wandering in search of willing speakers, they can't get to all the raised hands.

Says one attendee, "We feel nervous and concerned, but also informed." Another says, "We started listing negative feelings--exhausted, confused--but then, because we know change is needed, we became excited, committed."

A Call to Arms How those feelings translate into action is what's at stake.

"It's a call to arms for all of us," says one participant in the video. That kind of commitment, coupled with confidence that the company has a strategic plan for the future, is what Prudential hopes employees will take away from the One Prudential Exchange meetings.

"I want to see that spirit of winning, that feeling of, 'Yes, there are obstacles, but there are also opportunities, and this company and its people are positioned to win,'" Ryan tells participants from the video screen. "That's what I want." And he's using these meetings to get it. Already there is evidence that One Prudential Exchange is making a difference. According to Doele, quarterly surveys that track employee satisfaction and attitude show a substantial lift following participation in One Prudential Exchange meetings.

The trick is to keep that momentum going, and Doele places responsibility for that squarely on Prudential leadership. "We need [senior management] to define and own what's next, because without their buy-in and resources, nothing will happen. The biggest thing we hear [from participants] is, 'This is great. I need this information on a regular basis.' So we need to give them the next dose. We can't back away from this now."

Considered on its own, a One Prudential Exchange meeting is not especially attractive to a hotel. Prudential needs a 7,000-square-foot meeting room and a 600- to 1,000-square-foot workroom on 24-hour hold for three days; the company brings in an outside AV contractor rather than using the hotel's staff and equipment; and most of the meetings require a pretty small sleeping room block--in a few cases as few as 85 rooms.

Considered as a whole project, however, the 192 One Prudential Exchange meetings represent upward of 16,000 room nights. We're also talking about Prudential here, a major corporation.

Still, Debbie Boschee, CMP, Prudential's director of meeting management, wasn't sure what to expect when she sent out RFPs to the major hotel chains plus some independent hotels with whom she had relationships. For the most part, she was unimpressed with the response. The exception was Mike Murphy, director of insurance sales at Marriott. "The minute he got the RFP, he called," she says.

When the proposal landed on his desk late one afternoon, Murphy says, "I stopped everything I was doing and did the math." Considering the number and location of Marriott and Renaissance properties across the country, Murphy thought he could book enough of the meetings to make up for the individual programs being less attractive to some individual properties. In addition, the meetings were scheduled from 3 months to 10 months out. "That's still short-term," he points out, "and with short-term meetings, the rooms-to-space ratio is not the biggest concern."

Murphy's first step: a face-to-face meeting with Boschee. "This was too important not to get on a plane and hear more about their objectives," Murphy explains. "I wanted to have a complete understanding of what the company was trying to do."

Boschee recalls: "We met and talked for a couple of hours about our objectives, how this came about, what I needed standardized in the contract. His plan was to then communicate that to the network." That meant Boschee negotiated once, with Murphy, for some 140 programs. They focused on including "value-added" elements in the contracts. "What I looked at to save Prudential money wasn't rate so much as the whole package," Murphy says. "I asked the properties for their best rate but also asked them to minimize incremental dollars--rental for flip charts, for example." It took some explaining. "It's difficult to get a property to move away from its own interests unless it's presented to them that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I looked at this as a 16,000-room-night opportunity. It was attractive to us to provide added value above and beyond what we would give for a 1,000-room-night program."

The Philadelphia Marriott, handling eight Exchange programs over seven months, is a case in point. "It was quite an undertaking," says Mike Hochman, director of national accounts at the property. Even though Prudential was flexible, Hochman couldn't find dates with enough rooms and the appropriate amount of meeting space available. But he'd clearly understood Murphy's call to action. "Mike did a good job of letting us know what it meant to Marriott, and that we had to act quickly and be creative," Hochman says. So he did, placing the One Prudential Exchange meetings in the hotel's off-site catering facility, the Crystal Tea Room.

The stakes are high for the programs. "Our attention to quality is enormous," says Jody Doele, vice president, learning architecture. "We can't have even one meeting go awry." Working with Murphy, who dug deep into the content and context of the meetings, created a comfort level for Boschee. "Mike was very supportive and aggressive as a partner," she says. "He made sure the individual properties understood the big picture."

Priority number one for Prudential's series of One Prudential Exchange meetings is to increase what Chairman and CEO Art Ryan calls "business literacy." Across the country, all 60,000 Prudential employees, regardless of their business background or their position within the company, should know what the current competitive landscape looks like, how Prudential earns and spends money, and what is the company's strategy for the future.

"It all started with Art Ryan talking to his team about his concern that critical information about Prudential strategies doesn't get down to the work level," says Jody Doele, vice president, learning architecture.

The question was: How could the company make complex business concepts easily understood and, more important, stick with employees long after they learned them? The answer was found in Learning Map(r) visuals, a product of Perrysburg, Ohio-based training company Root Learning,(r) Inc. Along with Root Learning, Prudential designed three maps to be used during the One Prudential Exchange meetings and a fourth map to be used on the work-group level after employees had returned to their offices.

Participants spend an hour and a half working on each map, answering questions, placing small cards in appropriate places on the maps, and discussing what they see.

The two senior executives who lead each meeting introduce the maps and answer questions from employees after they work through each one. At a meeting in December, George Hanley, vice president/chief compliance officer, who has been with Prudential for 22 years, walked around the room during the discussion of Map Two, early in the afternoon. "You expect the energy after lunch to go down, but instead it goes up," he said. "Look around at the eyes of the people. They're all engaged."

A video that is played for participants during each meeting offers some candid impressions of the maps: "It was a childish exercise, I thought to begin with," says one attendee. "But I couldn't believe how wrong I could be."

"You almost don't realize that you're learning anything," says another, "but there it is--you know how the company works."