Some more thoughts on the future of functions/’support’ services

WARNING: Even by my standards, this is a bit of a mish-mash of ideas rather than any type of coherent article…

I’ve previously considered the idea that corporate ‘functions’ should change their terminology to the language still used in many institutions, such as universities, namely to become ‘support services’.  However, more recently, I’ve wondered if this actually will exasperate existing problems – particularly the struggles professional groups have in ‘pushing back’ to those ‘in charge’.

The CILIP event on demonstrating value I mentioned in a previous post put across a very passive approach – recommending you ask the organisation “what else should I do?”.  On reflection, this is in part why I moved away from pure ‘library and information’ roles, there was too much focus on the niche and, often, the physical space.  Instead, why not look at the business vision and plan to build proposals with clear business cases to go over and above what the organisation expects or thinks is possible?

Many people working in corporate roles will be seeing something else – the attempt of ‘traditional professions’ to try to claim the ‘business partnering’ mantle.  HR, L&D, IT, marketing and more are all claiming organisational alignment and ‘performance consulting’ is a term being adopted to mean multiple different things.  This feels like an attempt to claim ‘the middle ground’ and position one professional group in power, like when IT departments claimed ‘information’ for themselves via ICT or where PMOs have aggregated expertise from across the business in a vacuum from BAU activity.  However, the question remains, how can we best support the ‘business as usual’ in our organisation/industry as well as dealing with change?

I thought about this again recently when discussing something on Twitter, following this tweet from a renowned UK education tweeter:

The physical enforcement of location on education is something that does irritate me so I asked the question of why that needs to be:

The reply included a perfectly fair question*:

* the way I’ve previously recommended use of social media is to “say what you’d say to people’s faces” – this tweet is a good example of exactly what you’d ask in that situation (say if discussing the issue in the pub, at a conference, over dinner, etc.) BUT…

…it also highlights the problem: too many people jump to “well have you ever done it before?” or even straight to the dreaded “because we’ve always done it this way”.  Depending on how you read that tweet it’s either a reasonable question or trying to ‘shout someone down’ (in this case me).  This won’t be unfamiliar to, say, support services in universities (“how can you tell me how to teach my subject?” ) when, in reality, learning technologists, librarians and other support staff can add considerable value (I particularly liked this recent post from a lecturer at Northampton Uni seconding to their learning tech team).

So, in a world of open opinions online (such as my tweets in the above thread) how do we best share and support ideation internally?  Of course hybrid orgs and similar models come and go (holacracy’s for example got a lot of attention a while back).  There also seems to be renewed interest in ‘fee earners’ vs support type models that have long existed in LLPs, for example where people are looking at a ‘core’ team supplemented by flexible resources that come and go – in part via the ‘gig’ economy.  Another I’ve had bashing around in my head is BAU vs project structure/model.  However, BAU and projects could encourage a ‘them and us’ and a move away from ‘continuous improvement’ in the BAU fields.

So if we want to be ‘consultants’, in part to differentiate our professional work as cognitive and to avoid replacement via automation/machine, to improve performance perhaps the flip side is ‘delivery’.  The challenge for L&D, however, is that ‘learning delivery’ can risk an over focus on that traditional area (as identified by Jane Hart and others).

For now I think all we can say is continue to look for continuous improvement via lifelong learning and organizational development.  Whatever our professional backgrounds we need to try to ensure a rush for the middle ground doesn’t end up being a rush for the bottom in lowering quality and the support our teams expect of us.

CIPD Learning and Development Show: April 2018

I didn’t last long at this year’s CIPD L&D show – beyond catching up with a few people there wasn’t much grabbing my attention amongst the usual wide spread of presentations and stalls.

The CIPD show often feels like the broadest of L&D churches with a mix of tech, publishers, consultancies, coaches and more in a space smaller than many of the coaching, technology or other focused learning events.  Indeed this year the stalls seemed quiet whilst the presentations were oversubscribed (as always) – as a one-stop shop for HR generalists to keep up-to-date with L&D it is no doubt a useful day.  For the L&D specific person (like myself) it is less of a ‘must attend’.

This all said, the first session I attended:

did get me thinking at least…

Improving employee buy-in and engagement with training programmes

I recently said L&D is a “simple” profession – that we work to deliver improvements in performance (through knowledge, skill and behaviour change) in areas the business needs.  However, this session title hinted at a number of challenges I’ve faced and I’m sure are not uncommon, including:

  1. teams are busy and too ‘in the day-to-day’ to reflect and improve
  2. employees have their own ideas of what is needed vs management, different perceptions on business metrics, etc.
  3. unless something is transferable (to other organisations) and/or accredited there can be little interest in participating
  4. we have many underemployed people in the UK who may, simply, be in the wrong role(s)
  5. there is a continuing desire for ‘formal training’ when informal would be better and vis-versa.

Now the ‘simple’ solution to this could be to have stakeholders involved in design and use performance consulting to tackle the real issues.  However, carrot and stick techniques remain often necessary.

The presentation, from the Professional Academy, argued that you need to build a learning environment to then facilitate a development culture.  I suspect most L&D professionals would like to think they do this but, at the same time, it’s probably worth reenforcing.

The steps outlined for the perceived environment creation:

  1. Training needs identification
  2. Training structure – formalise and make clear to new starters from day one
  3. Reward and recognise
  4. Demonstrate progression (show learning impact, including but not limited to promotions)
  5. Gather feedback
  6. Formalise knowledge sharing and best practice

Johnson and Scholes’ Cultural Web was referenced as a way to think about learning and culture:

  1. Apprenticeships, for example, are good for the success “stories“.
  2. Symbols can include badges, different uniforms, etc.
  3. Rituals include things like graduation ceremonies.
  4. Power structures to help L&D includes genuine executive sponsorship and organisation structures that assist (at basic level that you actually have an L&D dept)
  5. Control included the calculation of ROI on investments [but see many an earlier post on my issues with ROI via ROE]

The session moved onto the 10Cs of Employee Engagement and how this relates: for example, making it clear the contribution of mandatory training is good for you and the company – not just there for the sake of it.  I liked the ‘confidence’ item in this as its related to the empowerment piece that I often refer to.

The ‘simples’ bit of ‘know your audience’ was also picked up.

The other good bit of this presentation was a free download of a toolkit – always good to get some freebies 🙂

Interestingly an article on marketing your external content passed my way too shortly after covering some of the same ground.

Rest of the show

predictably universities and training providers seem to have caught on that the apprenticeship levy is a potential game changer, if only people only cracked on with it.

xAPI update from HT2 Labs on how some of their work (as introduced to me at Kineo Connect) is delivering real results (and lots of industry awards).  The key thing here, for me, was that the examples have strong business metrics – sales figures, etc – to impact upon.  As always, your L&D approach is only going to be as strong as your business strategy.

Also briefly popped around a couple of other sessions that were not really up to too much.

Time to stop the snobbery in L&D

L&D departments need to support their organisation in valuable ways.  Simples.

Yet I increasingly feel that the L&D industry takes a snobbish approach to the world of work – far too often talking about what we might actually call ‘knowledge workers’ or, at least, office work.

Yes knowledge work is obviously a large part of the workforce, however, this focus ignores the large numbers of UK PLC working in hospitality, healthcare and other areas where the workplace and workforce are relatively ‘low tech’, ‘low skilled’ (in the traditional graduate workforce kind of sense) and unfortunately often low paid.

Part of the problem seems to be that multiple traditional support departments (IT, KM, L&D and more) all seem to be running for a middle ground around productivity – which is largely as identified by the DWG’s 2018 research agenda:

Digital Workplace Group (DWG) embarks on an exciting research programme to deliver focused insights across both intranet and digital workplace good practice….

1. Collaborating in the digital workplace: how to have and to measure impact
2. Taking a strategic approach to the digital workplace: teams, structures, methods
3. Office 365: a detailed look at the wider suite
4. Digital literacy in the workplace: how to raise the organization’s digital IQ
5. Successful intranet migrations: strategies, approaches, tactics
6. The intelligent DW assistant: what teams need to know now about artificial intelligence
7. Digital workplace trends, themes and statistics: insights from DWG research and benchmarking.

The above list is pretty close to the buzz in L&D circles – at least if you swap out intranet for LMS or other system.  The reality on the ground for L&D professionals – especially in those low paid sectors mentioned above – is instead apprenticeships, post-Brexit skills agenda, basic skill training (even JISC are saving ‘citizen’ resources from closure) and more.  The positive is that at least via mobile, AR and VR we are seeing some practical workplace L&D buzz away from the knowledge workers who are tied to a desk and Outlook.

Yes, digital workplaces exist and many support departments will be made up of digital-first workers (even if their parent market or industry are not).  However, let’s not forget everyone else.

After starting this post I then, when catching up with TJ podcasts, hit upon the Donald Clark interview from Online Educa that really hits many nails on their heads.

Why I’ve changed my mind on award nights

In the past I’ve been quite snobby about award nights in the HR/L&D field.  I’d argued the only real recognition you should need is from your board/c-suite that you are doing a good job.  However, I’m increasingly being won over as award nights for a number of reasons.

My new found enthusiasm includes that (well organised and robust – not like these) awards are one of the few times that we see robust evaluation of L&D.  For example, I was quite shocked to see how Brandon Hall asked the second of the below questions in their “Learning Measurement 2018” survey.  In my opinion the third option may be perfectly valid, i.e. “not all our…initiatives get measured” – this can be perfectly fine as evaluation requires resourcing (like other activities) and the ‘top’ two options wouldn’t necessarily be correct in that context:

thumbnail

Awards are also increasingly important in sharing best practice in what has become a more transient environment – we’re not realistically seeing books or journal articles on good practice but shorter format blogs, tweets, conference presentations, etc where an award can act as a stamp of quality based on people taking the time to be reflective and analytical of their practice.

There is also the bonus that L&D teams can be too often firefighting problems.  Taking the opportunity to reflect, on actually solving a workforce or performance issue, can be a positive benefit in line with the “celebrate achievement” piece of good team building.

#talentbites : How can employee engagement improve business performance

Hosted by Havas People this was my second Talent Bites event (notes from first one here).

The format was a quick hour or so with a couple of introductory bits by Havas followed by three case studies.  It was a really good example of the kind of event where it is helpful to think about the messages after the event, reflect on what you think the key messages were, develop some personal take-aways, etc.

What is engagement anyway?

I’ll start with a point from the Q&A:

“full-on/full-off”

This made me think how many of us can honestly say we are 100% “on” all the time at work and, when away from work, able to relax fully?  Indeed, what does “full-on” really mean with so many questions over UK productivity, people struggling with email overload and ‘firefighting’ taking people away from projects and other work that adds value?  Indeed whilst we can standardise work, to some extent to try and help, there is a risk of stress and a lack of treating people personally.

Discretionary effort

In the introduction engagement was deemed to be “about change, not surveys” and “discretionary effort” (DE).  DE was illustrated with a version of the below graphic:

This got me thinking about a couple of things, firstly that we’ve seen some very high-profile examples of DE in the UK in the last few weeks, not least #snowheroes battling the bad weather.  Secondly, that the idea of people hitting a lull a few years in to a job probably rings true with my own experience and the need to move beyond initial goals and targets.  Personally I’ve also struggled to imagine working for the same company for more than a few years and this chart hints at that idea of decreasing returns.  This, I would argue, is where learning and development very much kicks in as a value add – beyond initial onboarding and into keeping people engaged with career options and development.

Importance of a company narrative

The three case studies, on reflection, all had one thing in common: the companies wanted to grow but needed to baseline to bring people along.  Without that idea of (growth) direction it would be very easy to see how people would not be engaged

I used to run some basic business/consulting skills sessions and one aspect was the different levels of business planning (akin to below image):

Much like a sports team – if the company’s vision isn’t one of growth and success then it is difficult to engage and gain peak performance.  Even being average is not likely to be much good if we continue the sports analogy, for example, “we’re happy tracking along in mid-table” isn’t going to gain much support from employees (players) or customers (fans).

Engagement as a part of wider system

The complex interactions of internal coms, internal/external branding, learning and other people elements were clearly only touched upon in the short talent bite sessions.  However, the sessions did make me think of HBR’s Human Capital Drivers model and (as well as developing mission, vision and strategy) organisations need to cross link all of these against the below model:

I also found a useful blog post that does a nice job of pulling together some of these various components: and how they can impact on discretionary effort (that it is considering it from a school leadership perspective does not really matter).

Top-down vs Bottom-up; Local vs Global

All three presentations were by global companies and it was therefore interesting to hear how they balanced ‘corporate’ requirements versus local needs.

  • In the case of Umicore – there was a central effort to develop a new employer brand but with a lot of input from across the business.  This input (via research) was deemed key – the new brand was not based on HR and/or marketing’s view of what brand should be.  There was then a “marketing for dummies” brand toolkit developed that could be used locally, with core elements to be customised for local usage.  As the company is a green one and can be seen, via recycling products, to be building a better world it is easy to have people aligned with the brand and be proud of the work by living the values.  They also back this up with “brand ambassadors” who are a network to share interesting marketing and internal coms activities across the group – this sounded like a community of practice and, presumably, shared content on internal social networks, etc.
  • Allergen – a story of considerable change (multiple takeovers either that happened, didn’t happen or were muted) over the last four-ish years (following previous stability of three CEOs in sixty years).  This was an excellent and very personal talk, more open and honest than many you would see at such events.  Against the hostile takeovers there were examples of grassroot activism where people spontaneously acted ‘in defence’ of the brand.  In the end, four cultural aspects were launched to set what the company means for all employees (a ‘BOLD’ culture).  Through all the change, management managed to keep the business going via: authentic conversations, bringing their customers with them and developing the BOLD new company culture.  Overall, I’m sure Allergen would make a great business studies case study for how much change can happen in just a few years!
  • Nomad – A story of turning around multiple brands within a newly created parent company.  They have had turnover of staff, realising you will lose some people, but tried to make people aware if they were being cynical – can’t change everyone but create conditions that can inspire.  Some of this nicely tied in with Strengthscope and the idea of positive psychology.  Some of those more positive aspects articulated in their “Our Way”.  The CEO worked with HR on this to create a turnaround and growth narrative and what people needed to do and how they needed to act to deliver this.  Our Way tapped into basic emotional needs of needing growth and community via combined vision, mission, growth strategy and eight values.  This was not just about posters on a wall, worked with an external partner to run a number of large face-to-face events for what it meant for different levels of management (8×1 day programmes : 800 people from 13 countries) – some snippets from these being shown via video.  The external partner (Breakthrough Global) providing a number of simple tools and activities that aligned to the values for use in these and other sessions.  The presenter and company acknowledged strategy is one thing but need the culture with it and reinforcements were all relaunched: appraisal, culture survey, performance and reward to all align.  Now back in acquisition mode thanks to change, organic revenue growth and company turnaround around, inc. share price value.

Summary of some of the techniques and approaches

So, to summarise the above, here are some of the things that seemed to have worked for the presenters:

  1. Ensure enough focus on people managers: they will win/keep hearts and minds, do not just rely on senior managers.
  2. Keep things simple: from Allergen focusing on four key statements to Nomad’s wider, but nicely integrated, “Our Way”.
  3. Be authentic: personally I’d add transparent to this – both with employees and customers to ensure there is confidence.
  4. Simple tools: give people simple tools to transfer big picture and ‘corporate’ ideas to what it means for individuals in different roles and roll back up from community/grassroot advocates to bigger picture.

I don’t think any of these are revolutionary but it is always good to hear some case studies where things do work and can influence performance.