CIPD Podcast 42 - Pushing the boundaries of learning and development

Date: 04/05/10 Duration: 00:22:57

In this podcast Dr John McGurk, CIPD Adviser on Learning, and Talent Development, Peter Butler, Director of Learning at BT, Nicky Taylor, Head of Learning and Development at Ginsters and Alan Fletcher, Business Development Manager for KMI, discuss the latest trends in learning and development.


Philippa Lamb: Welcome to this CIPD podcast where we’ll be discussing the latest trends in learning and development. As highlighted in the CIPD’s recent learning and development survey, the demands of the organisation and the practices being used do seem to be changing rapidly. We’ll be talking to two organisations with successful but very different approaches to L&D as well as to a guru of web technology; they’ll all be helping us to consider the greater role that technology may or may not play in the future innovation of learning and development.

First though, John McGurk is the CIPD’s Learning and Development Advisor and he revealed the survey results at the CIPD’s latest conference on HRD.

John McGurk: Times are tight and tough as you would imagine. A lot of people are doing things much more creatively with less resource and that in itself is what economists might call a productive constraint. Now there is a kind of seamlessness emerging between learning and talent and development, because learning and development should be about talent.

PL: Afterwards John talked me through the key findings.

JM: Well basically we found that there’s been a push towards learning and development methods which I think could be seen as cost effective or low cost and particularly a big incidence of reporting of coaching and e-learning and that’s obviously a trend that’s happening against the constrained background.

PL: E-learning was once heralded as the holy grail, the solution to everyone’s learning and development needs but there’s good and there’s bad e-learning and the key is to understand the difference.

JM: I would call good e-learning as thought- through e-learning, which is about designing and having an architecture around how people use the methods of electronic learning to accelerate their learning and more particularly to take ownership of their own learning. There are some great examples of brilliant e-learning. There is bad e-learning out there and I think again that’s a kind of cost driven lowest common denominator e-learning, which is effectively chucking a DVD at somebody and saying “We used to have an induction course that was classroom based, now there’s a DVD to watch”. There is not necessarily structured feedback, core evaluation or ongoing discussion about how the person is learning and it’s very much a case of shoving learning over to the individual without support and I think that’s the kind of e-learning that could actually impede learning and development itself.

PL: BT is an organisation with an innovative approach to L&D. Four years ago they implemented a single global learning management system to replace the 12 different systems they had up until that point. This provides a single portal for everyone in the organisation to develop at their own rate, tailored to their individual needs. Peter Butler, who’s Director of Learning at BT Group was at the conference and he had this to say about the CIPD’s L&D survey results.

Peter Butler: I was disappointed to see the survey results from the CIPD that say that people think that learning is about running courses and scheduling events. It’s not. Learning is about enabling organisations to transform themselves to serve their customers better and to provide people with the opportunity to learn what they need to learn to enable them to be more successful.  Because if they’re successful we’re successful. It’s about performance support for individuals to grow in the organisation and enabling them to do that, when it suits them, at the time that they most need it. That’s the challenge for learning teams.

PL: So is that actually the big shift that everyone’s looking for, the new trend in L&D? It’s not about techniques and methodologies, it’s actually about how you approach the thought of what it’s for.

PB: I think the real challenge is to really revisit what you think your raison d'être is. If you think it’s about what I described just a moment ago then you’ve got a problem because if I went into my CEO and presented him a dashboard that said I’ve done this, this, this and this and it was unrelated to how the business performance was improved as a result of what I did then I’m going to be out that door pretty quickly and I would suggest many people will be too. So, bring a commercial focus to it and realise that your role is about supporting business performance improvement nothing else.

PL: BT's own systems have changed and development significantly in recent years and Peter gave me the low down.

PB: It’s called route to learn so it’s a portal that enables people to access all of the content they could possibly want for their learning.

PL: So what’s the scope of this system? As you say it’s a huge organisation, there’s a lot of people doing all different things; what does it cover?

PB: All learning should go through that so not only is it an ability to search for learning but also to book and schedule learning as well and we have a procurement system on it for external purchases and it’s available to pretty much everybody globally. If you have access to our systems you have access to route to learn so we’re 160,000 worldwide operating in a 170 different countries.

PL: Okay so that’s the system, how do you actually deliver it to your people? How do people engage with it? What’s the system for that?

PB: The best way to describe it is that the vast majority of people have to use it because we run all of our mandatory training, so compliance, regulatory, health and safety training has to be undertaken through that. Most of that training has to be repeated annually or bi-annually and therefore that draws people back to use the system. So, everybody has learning planning annually as part of their appraisal process and therefore they need to go search for learning to support their skills development and capability building in the company so that takes people naturally back to the system.

PL: It’s a comprehensive solution, the key element for Peter is that it’s not L&D for its own sake but an approach which is tightly aligned to the organisation’s goals and objectives. For John McGurk this is just the type of solution that’s really pushing the boundaries of L&D.

JM: Actually what L&D's job should be, the architecture rather than the delivery, and I think that’s necessary and you will work across different areas and I can see L&D people getting involved in reward, I can see them getting involved in strategy and insights and solutions, those kind of other issues because that’s how you become effective. If you take the view of some of them, the more kind of leading-edge thinkers, what L&D is really about is human capital, it’s about equipping people with the skills and the capabilities to deliver for the organisation and that’s going to be across every part of the HR agenda.

PL: BT really is trying to take a radical approach to getting the best out of individuals, teams and, indeed, the organisation as a whole. Being a technology-based company it’s finding ways of using technology to support its work in L&D and as in many organisations, the ratio of face to face desk learning is changing, opening up the debate about whether screen based learning is all that’s needed when it comes to effective L&D. Does traditional classroom learning no longer have a place at all? Here’s Peter Butler.

PB: Sometimes that’s necessary and we’ll continue to do that – that’s formal learning and they’ll always be a place for it – but more and more we’re advocating performance improvement support at the point of need. So, using social networking platforms (which is what we’re doing and experimenting with BT) is enabling people to create their own content and share that in the organisation but also enables people that are looking to consume content to find it and to access it, be that a podcast, an audio cast, different types of technology that web2.0 technology enables organisations to create.

PL: So you’re a big fan, you don’t feel that the social networking routes, the usefulness has been over estimated at all.

PB: Absolutely not, no. I’m an absolute passionate user of it. You have to be clear about the benefits that you’re trying to derive from the use of social networking in your organisations, so a couple of headline figures - I can take out probably 15% to 20% of my budget for learning that would normally be spent in classroom based and other forms of formal learning by providing the capabilities for people to create the content themselves in the organisation and share it. Enabling people to do that in the company is significant.

PL: How do you quality control that?

PB: You don’t. You know, there’s a big word here called trust. We had to trust people 20 years ago to use email appropriately and we did. We set guidelines and we set principles. It’s no different with social networking. We have probably uploaded in excess of 700 podcasts now, not one of them has been inappropriate. We trust our people to be trusted and I think if you trust people to do the right thing invariably they will.

PL: Ginsters, the pie and pastries company, is based in Cornwall. Their L&D is headed up by Nicky Taylor, a passionate advocate of a broad spectrum of L&D options. They agree with Peter Butler that you must link L&D closely to business objectives.

Nicky Taylor: The business is built around three main areas; people, quality and profit. One of the underlying principles is that good people will make good products so it’s really important that we focus a lot on skills, on development, about people taking personal responsibility and always look to continually improve what we do.

PL: So obviously as head of L&D everything you do plays into that so what’s your strategy on the L&D front?

NT: The really important bit it to make sure that it is totally aligned with the business strategy and the two are so closely married together and one of my personal mantras is, we can’t grow our business unless we grow our people and the two things are inextricably linked together.

PL: In contrast to BT, Ginsters was far from being a text-savvy business, indeed many of the employees had never used a computer so introducing e-learning was a way of getting employees up to speed with IT as well as delivering on learning and development goals.

NT: The average at that time of our employees was about 38, which meant that a lot of them didn’t do IT at school and didn’t use IT in the home and one of the things that we were looking to introduce into our business was a lot of robotic technology which meant that people were moving from very manual jobs into quite highly complex skilled jobs with technology that would involve operating using a computer interface. Part of our initial strategy with e-learning was a way of utilising our core training, which is our mandatory training – safety and food safety – as a way of getting people familiar with even pressing buttons on a computer.

PL: And did it work well?

NT: It did work well. I would say blood sweat and tears. We had people that really did resist that initially, we had one gentleman who’s worked for our business for over 20 years who was in his early 60s that had never used a computer and he spent hours and hours but when he finished the sense of achievement from that was phenomenal but the payback for the business is he now has the confidence to go and work with more complex technology than he ever believed that he would have done before.

PL: As John McGurk warned, good e-learning shouldn’t be based on a one size fits all framework, that’s why Nicky Taylor follows up the e-learning with a buddying approach which consolidates the screen experience with face to face conversation.

NT: E-learning does give us flexibility in that our shift system operates a 24 hours a day seven days a week so if we can have things that are flexible in bite-sized chunks that’s great but the challenge is how do we contextualise that into peoples’ day to day working? An e-learning solution in its own right won’t necessarily give you that so what we’ve tried to do is combine that with our buddy system which then talks to people when they’ve completed the e-learning programme about how are they going to use that in their workplace? What did they pick up on? What do they want to go through? I think that bit is really, really important, particularly when you’re using it for your mandatory training that you absolutely have to do. It’s very easy to tick a box with it but are you really getting the value and the return on it that you need and I would probably challenge that and say you’re probably not unless you have some kind of intervention that helps that individual to really contextualise that.

PL: During these testing times the critical issue for many organisations tackling L&D is how best to evaluate it and for John McGurk without evaluation of some kind the potential of L&D can’t be realised.

JM: There is a problem that a lot of professionals they start off with the really good intentions of evaluating from the commencement of a project, they then find it difficult to get data off of people or they over specify what they’re doing, they try and get this massively complex set of answers where in fact what they should really be doing is talking to stakeholders about what they’re expectations are and CIPD’s at the forefront of research on this. A Value of Learning project we did with Portsmouth University shows really good effective organisationally appropriate methods of evaluation and we are just concerned that organisations aren’t using those more and we can’t afford as a function not as a service to the business not to have a compelling evaluation story because when our budgets come up for discussion that’s exactly when we’ll lose them if we can’t prove their value.

PL: L&D can clearly have an impact on workplace culture. At Ginsters the entire language of the workforce has changed and it’s boosted the reputation of the organisation and today the company has a lengthy waiting list of people wanting to work there.

NT: Interestingly when I first joined the organisation I ran some focus groups to survey people's attitudes to learning and it always really sticks in mind that 99.8% of people in the survey said that if they needed to develop the business had to do it to them and for me that was quite shocking but also hit home that nobody owned it.

PL: A complete abdication of responsibility of their part.

NT: The whole culture for learning was stagnant and we did loads of development, we did loads of courses but when you look at the amount spent and what people should have learnt versus what actually goes on in the organisation there was just a complete mismatch. 

PL: And have you revisited that question with your people?

NT: We haven’t but I don’t feel that I need to now because the anecdotal evidence of people coming into the Academy to pick up a book, to have a chat, to volunteer their services to run a session.... you just need to get people to own something and move it forward. When I go to meetings now you can hear the Production Director saying “…and what’s the learning?” and for me that just ticks a big box because everybody’s doing L&D now, which makes it easier for me.

PL: Nicky’s already mentioned the Academy at Ginsters, this is a building dedicated to learning where employees run training sessions covering a surprising range of topics.

NT: The breadth is huge and we try to focus things on the employee journey, so when an individual joins the organisation, yes, you have the compliance, the mandatory aspects of that, you’ve got 'the learning to be able to do my job and perform my job to the required standard' but then, depending on what role the individual will do, there may be learning which is about how to become a more effective leader, how to drive the organisation forward in terms of improving its culture right through to people who want to share their learning because they are passionate about a topic. For example, one of our employees had a passion for floristry and wanted to gain a qualification, so part of the thinking is about 'let’s get people to engage in learning, it’s fun', once they’ve engaged non-vocationally they’ve got some more skills, they’re more up to date effective learners, it helps us in the workplace so we’ve looked to fund that, but what we then do is okay, in exchange for that come and run some sessions at our Academy that will share your expertise in flower arranging with staff that are interested to come along and this whole thing about creating a really vibrant learning culture because at the end of the day if you switch somebody onto learning it’s so powerful within the organisation that they’re just driving their whole area forward continually, which has got to be good for the business.

PL: So through L&D Nicky has built a strong sense of community at Ginsters. At BT, Peter Butler has been able to build a similar sense of community but on a global scale and largely through a shared passion for Web2.0 and social networking. Having put the onus on the employees themselves to manage their own learning a certain level of engagement is needed. I talked to him about the challenge of getting employees on board with it.

PB: I think peoples natural inclination will be to search for what they need when they need it to help them be more successful at their job.

PL: But do they push their boundaries as far as they could do do you think?

PB: I don’t think they do currently because I think this is very new.

PL: So how do you make that happen?

PB: You don’t make anything happen. What you do is you provide a capability for people to use their own innovation and creativity to use the system to best effect for themselves.

PL: But isn’t that what you’re saying they’re not doing at the moment?

PB: But it’s a very viral capability so if they see other people in their team or in their business using this...

PL: So it’s a culture thing.

PB: Yeah, it is very much a cultural thing. They’ll be inspired to create their own material. Research shows that most people are inspired to create a podcast or an audio cast when they see one of their mates do it, so we’re reliant on the fact that if we provide the capability to do it and give them freehand to use it to suit their needs, it’ll be in their interests (and I would suggest the organisation’s) because what we’re encouraging is collaboration, networking and sharing knowledge to learn how to serve our customers better. That’s got to be in the interests of our people and our organisation.

PL: What Nicky and Peter both agree on is the need for a flexible approach to L&D, giving the learner control over their own learning and as many ways as possible to do it.

Alan Fletcher is Lab Manager at the Knowledge Media Institute at the Open University. He refers to the concept of choice in learning as MUPLE.

Alan Fletcher: What it stands for is a Mashing Up of Personal Learning Environments. As an individual you may use lots of different technologies to enhance your learning and there’s the concept of social learning in places like Facebook where just by chatting to people you’re learning stuff. Then there’s a recognised or more formal learning where you might have a learning platform provided by your organisation or by your university or whatever. The idea of MUPLE is to understand that a learner may want to take elements from all of these different things and create a single environment for themselves to pull all these things together and enrich all the different elements rather than be restricted by one or lost in another so-to-speak.

PL: Above all engagement is paramount and creating the right environment coupled with sufficient means to engage all employees is the key. 

AF: The biggest challenge is engagement and one of the best things I think you can do is go and understand where your people are currently playing. Try and understand why they go and engage in be it Facebook or Twitter or Bebo or any of the other myriad of tools that are out there. Try and understand how they like to learn, why they like to learn and don’t restrict yourself to a single channel for learning. Consider using chunked learning, different types of learning, short three minute pieces of audio, short five minute pieces of video, task based learning; blend all of these things together and then pull them back into some form of accreditation rather than just have a single channel and try and force people to do things because people are engaging in such a diverse area of internet tools and technologies now that it would be mad to try and just make them do one thing.

PL: There’s no single answer or solution when it comes to L&D. However, forward-thinking L&D can offer benefits for all. John McGurk is positive about the overall direction we’re seeing, especially with the increased focus on L&D clearly meeting business needs. For him this shows creativity and cohesion.

JM: I’m seeing a lot of really amazing innovation, joined up innovation, and that to me is what’s most exciting is when L&D stops thinking about the classroom, stops thinking about the methods, starts thinking about what is it the business wants to achieve and how can we help it to achieve that and how we build the architecture around that and that to me is really exciting.

PL: That’s interesting you say that because that’s almost about philosophy. We’ve been very hung up on methodology haven’t we with learning and development in recent years, different ways of delivering it as you say but from what I understand you to be saying that’s really not for you what it’s about is it? It’s about thinking in a much broader way about why you’re doing it.

JM: Yeah but without getting into the stratosphere of strategy and thinking we just sit back on bean bags and think, we don’t do that, we do it in a way that’s very measurable, that looks at the hard impact, that looks at how we equip the business, at what problem has the organisation got that we can solve and that’s the kind of stuff that by learning and development, actually sitting back and saying ‘What’s this businesses problem at the moment? How can we help solve it?’ that we actually deliver real value.

PL: I hope you’ve enjoyed this month’s podcast. You can find out more about the L&D survey and anything else you’ve heard at:

Next month we’ll be taking a look at leadership at all levels. The CIPD call it ‘distributed leadership’ but what is it, does it work and should your business be striving to achieve it? Join us then.