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.

Unleash18 London

I took a different approach to Unleash than my normal focus at events – instead of making lots of notes, to  reflect on later and blog from, I tweeted throughout most sessions (each session a different Twitter thread) with a view to save links to the tweets here with a few reflective notes.  All slides from the event are here.

Looking back at the tweets I’ve realised I didn’t stick to my own approach of adding comments in [square brackets] or after >>> marks.  Anyways, hopefully they were some use for the twitterverse and in capturing key points from what, in the most part, were pretty quick fire 20 minute presentations.

The day after Unleash I needed to update a paper that I last updated in April 2017.  My main point in that paper last year was that someone needed to decide on the Digital Employee Experience and what that might look like.  If I take the call of the conference, to be “unleashed”, then deciding and implementing that experience is an action for me…

Day 1

Opening and other MC/intro duties

A tough gig for the always excellent Deborah Frances-White – trying to get a crowd going after long registration and cloak room waiting on day one.  I for one, sans coffee, was far from in the mindset I think the organisers were going for with the very loud, movie trailer start (“Let’s make a better place to work and live…unleash your people”.  As MC for the keynotes DFW mixed some new (to me) content and some of what I have seen used before – for example at LearningPool’16.  I did like the call to “presume inclusion” – i.e. dont wait to be invited or asked to do something, be like a kid at kindergarten: introduce yourself and get involved.

Opening keynote: How do you DISRUPT and Change the World of Work?

Lots of naughty words and pretty controversial ideas from Jonas Kjellberg.

By his own admission people are quick to want to get rid of him but he’s clearly a disruptor who has had a lot of hits (like iCloud and Skype) and misses.

As I tweeted (outside of the above thread) I did love the beaver – i.e. reward people for being willing to take the chainsaw to old ways of doing things:

As a way of signifying the disruptive mentality of this role I might well have to have a look at the ‘Gear Up’ book’s approach too:


Future of Learning: PA Consulting

Pretty broad content here, which was perhaps deliberate in opening the learning stream (one room) of the conference.  Nothing too earth shattering or revolutionary but a fair summary of current thinking.

I did like the concept of the course > resource > guidance > automation paradigm to explain how automation can fit in:

“Best Practice Evaluation and Transfer of Learning” project at Icon PLC.

A decent example of showing a fairly traditional blended leadership programme could be evaluated.

“Build an Employer Brand in 100 days”

Really energetic presentation this one – I always like when consultants, rather than selling directly, give up some ‘secrets’ from their methodologies – definitely one where the slides are worth picking up.

“Assessing future leaders digitally at Royal Bank of Canada”

Moving from standard psychometric testing in graduate recruitment to a more bespoke assessment.  Overall, sounded good and potential to move it away from the focus on graduate centric approaches to existing staff.  Makes me wonder again what the best way of judging potential is for internal candidates to our own programmes/talent management.

“Empathy in Action”

On reflection, a more challenging session, focusing on the need for workplaces to be more empathetic.  Whilst it’s difficult to argue people should be more empathetic I’d also be tempted that it’s not something that is naturally energising to everyone – as Strengthscope states empathy is a strength where:

“You readily identify with other people’s situations and can see things clearly from their perspective”.

Brexit as an Opportunity for Business

A quick run through of Brexit history, current situation and possible solutions.  As always with this topic there were some things you could agree with and other bits where that was less the case.  Overall it really just highlighted that many things are still up in the air and that overall, from a country-wide workforce perspective, things really have not been managed very well at all.  For a session that was supposed to be the ‘opportunity’ from Brexit it was pretty depressing.

Brexit and GDPR started day two so I skipped for time on the trade show floor although that then did mean lunch on day two dragged a bit.

Day 2

Lloyd’s of London’s “Bigger than the business”

Good example of corporate L&D team offering services to the ‘extended enterprise’ and becoming a profit centre as a result.

“Virtually Learning”

Possibly the best example of VR in workplace learning I’ve seen – a clear productivity gain by moving a practical session from ‘real’ to ‘virtual’.

Mazars U on LinkedIn Learning launch

A session that would be familiar to the library and information world – trying to get external content providers embedded into culture and systems, *spoiler*: it’s tricky.

“It’s our time are we ready”- event close

A deliberately challenging session to finish.  I did comment more on the presentation as it went (below thread).  Overall I’d say digital is pervasive and I agree the ‘waiting for IT’ excuse is growing old, however, whilst I always remember an old conference presentation from BBWorld in the US that said “tech should just work” in reality (as with Mazars above) things are more complicated.  Coming to this conference not from a ‘classic HR’ background probably impacted on my view of the talk of digital, experiences, performance and collaboration – i.e. that a lot of this was really a call to action that could have been made a number of years ago in many ways:

General comments on conference:

The “Unleash” themed seemed to fall a bit flat with the dancing aliens (or whatever they were) and loud music not really getting the crowd going.  Perhaps a cultural thing and the North American crowd, in Vegas, would be more into it than those isolated in the always rather isolated ExCeL?

The event app was good for tracking the agenda but I remain as having two notifications that would not shift during the show even though it shows as having cleared everything.  Really not sure what was going on there – perhaps an issue in using the work iPhone rather than my Android?

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:


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:


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.

QA Talent Lab: Jan 2018

“Apprenticeships, apprenticeships, apprenticeships” – what many a person involved in learning will have been hearing about for the last couple of years.  Yet the changes in England (that took place last May) are still really to bed down and the audience in the room for this event obviously had mixed perceptions still.  This variation is, in part, due to the variety of ‘traditional’ roles impacted by the changes and the room was clearly a mix of corporate HR generalists, L&D practitioners, apprenticeship specific staff, QA’s team, etc.

Both client case studies (Capgemini and Royal Mail) made it clear that for apprenticeships to be a success you really need a wide variety of people involved to be a success – and both cases showed CEO/leadership commitment was key due to the fundamental change apprenticeships are for many organisations.

In the evening after this event I had dinner with my family and it was interesting to explain the levy to my dad (who worked for Royal Mail for many years and was, once upon a time pre-RM, an apprentice) and my brother who is now based in New Zealand.  The levy immediately made sense to my dad – “well the companies used to pay for them” and that shift of responsibility for skills development really is what it is all about to me.  It’s time to stop complaining about the skills shortages and actually do something about it – in combination with school partnerships, innovative qualifications, etc etc.

This was my first (the 3rd overall) Talent Lab event (around 60 people in attendance) and it was a really useful day in the current ‘bedding down’ period of the new apprenticeship rules.  The main items from the TL agenda were as below, with some of my rough notes and reflections as bullets below.

  1. Why? Creating the business case and understanding the context we work in.
    Rebecca Plant: Head of Apprentice Solutions, QA

    1. This focused on the ‘why?’ of taking on apprenticeships and introduced some QA resources around “10 killer questions to kick-start your apprenticeship programme”.
    2. In summary it came down to “is this a good use of my time?”: for the apprentice and the company – both need to be getting out of what want, i.e. skill development to solve business issues.  Not about spending levy for the sake of spending levy (hopefully people are not in that mindset but no doubt some companies will be).
    3. Expect quality of apprenticeship to be increasingly the focus, with data to back that up, now the Institute for Apprenticeships is up and running.
  2. Royal Mail Group – Why it matters to us.
    Gareth Jones

    1. 1:185 people employed in the UK work for the RM group (160,000 total) so huge levy fee but also huge opportunity.
    2. RM have put together a small team (5 people) to develop apprenticeship offer, to increase capability in-house whilst changing culture as potentially means big increase in young people in the workforce and opportunity to tackle issues such as low % of BAME representation in workforce.
    3. Currently they have c.100 apprentices (this was good to hear from my perspective as we’re not too far off that number yet with a much smaller workforce).
    4. CEO had committed to all vacancies being apprenticeships – has scaled back slightly now to “all relevant” roles.
    5. They have worked with the unions to get them on side – unions recognizing this is a potential way for RM to massively invest in their members.
    6. Challenges include non-England workforce (c.15%) and developing comparable options (again similar to us).  Also missing suitable standards and EPA orgs in some areas.
    7. Again similar to my experience, they have been through procurement challenges and now balancing QA with other providers, trying to manage nationally where (historically) it was a mixed bag of some regions being engaged with colleges, some not at all, etc.
    8. Some really interesting figures were shown, that I don’t think I had seen before, that showed how strong the 25+ age group is in apprentice start numbers.  Will be useful to reuse to try and finish off that misconception internally.
  3. Executing the Why?
    Anouska Ramsay: Talent Director, Capgemini

    1. A longer history, with apprentices a focus pre-levy.  Basically have managed to move away from graduate heavy hiring schemes to more of a balance with apprentices as a leading organisation in development of degree apprenticeships.
    2. Again a lot of drive was from CEO – aim to re-onboard roles to UK, via apprentices, as way to avoid skills gap and decrease reliance on India.
    3. Looked at the wide range of people that need to be involved, including:
      1. learning and development (be ambassadors for the programmes),
      2. business teams (finance and line managers particularly key),
      3. students (i.e. need to ‘sell’ that apprenticeships are a good thing, not only for men, not about trades but also highly skilled IT roles, etc),
      4. HR (how formalize pay, progressions, etc – as rules change ensure stay in line).
    4. Started small with 24 in 2011.  The big ‘sell’ was that it is a debt free way into work.  Now c.380 on programme(s).  Had a team of 2 to support, now 4/5.  Business deals with pastoral care but escalate to them as needed.
    5. Admitted some pain points – like one total misuse of an AMEX by an apprentice (leading to major policy rewrite) but overall a success.
    6. Recommend attendees get involved so everyone’s voice is heard, e.g. with “apprenticeship boards” – she is on digital (https://www.thetechpartnership.com/recruit-and-train/apprenticeships/digital-apprenticeship-board/), although trailblazer groups are difficult!
    7. Retention is good but do loose some, in part as realize not the career for them and just move to different role internally – first degree cohort had 50% graduate.
    8. Not just about degrees for them – also, for example, Level 4 cyber.
    9. Realized need to “constantly evolve recruitment” – still have grad programme but have clear “two doors into organisation”.  Find grads tend to have more life experience than new apprentice but apprentices up-to-speed in c.6 months.  Selection still done in-house rather than using training provider.
    10. To achieve the EPA standard they use internal job rotations.
  4. Data & the Why?
    Discussion & Networking

    1. A considerations of data requirements, on my table this included:
      1. what we need to capture for targets/government.
      2. what we can do to ensure recruitment correct and then people are competent to deliver the role.
      3. how to measure financial savings, for example from staff and agency cost savings.  Interesting point here about making apprentices non-location specific and brought in expecting to move locations.  Then can be used to fill holes – if they are a project management apprentice, business admin support, etc.
      4. to avoid resistance to “grow our own”, for example in high skilled IT roles, be harsh: reduce budgets for contractors to force apprenticeships.
      5. track as cost vs offshore vs alternative (agency, contractor, etc).
      6. how measure utilization of apprentice – i.e. track what doing in the 80% not just 20% to demonstrate value.
    2. The round robin of tables, predictably, got onto ROI.  I thought it very interesting that, of all companies, the Microsoft attendee (58 current apprentices) shot this down quite quickly: instead saying their focus is on the opportunity it offers for people and the impact/benefit on people will come from those case studies as numbers grow.
      1. Speed to productivity was another measure brought into conversations.
      2. Another table (perhaps drilled in the way of KP) mentioned “indicators” and the need to both reflect and keep across in real time a number of metrics to show benefits – including retention.
      3. There was also the view that year one is always going to be hard and generally companies get better in support of apprentices as time goes on.
    3. Sticking points around the room included getting organisations to be better at workforce planning and HR systems that are not built for the kind of data that is useful to track on apprenticeships.
  5. BAME apprenticeships
    1. Presentation from Isa Mutlib of the Asian Apprenticeship Awards and BAME Apprenticeship Alliance on the continuing misconceptions in BAME communities and the impact (i.e. low take up) on apprenticeships.
    2. Another area with big opportunities: with the groups currently underrepresented yet a bigger part of under 18 group than previously so should be an increasingly important demographic for early career hires.
    3. Are lots of other focus areas that crossover – such as Women in STEM, Women in Tech, etc.  Overall familiar messages about needing to break some stigmas, better inform career choices and break obsession with universities as main route to work.