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.

What am I using: March 2018 Edition

Four years on from a similar post, this is a recap on my current tech use and how that impacts my professional practice and work/life balance.

Home machine:

Home use is still my iMac – now about 10 years old it’s going strong after a recent hard drive failure and replacement.  Kudos to aamac for the work saving the data and transferring everything over.


My biggest recent change is that 12 months into my 24 month phone contract I’ve given up on my Microsoft handset and instead switched back to Android, with a Moto G5.  My employer previously switched us from an earlier (not great) Moto to an iPhone so I was a little hesitant about all the glowing G5 reviews (for example it made it into The Guardian’s top tech items of 2017) but the low price (£150 on offer at John Lewis) meant it was a sensible move.  The final push away from my Windows phone was it constantly dying on me whilst I was away from home visiting family.  Vodafone had offered to send it away for possible repair but it would work fine for a week and then have a week off, where it would only work plugged in. These technical issues combined with the dying support from Microsoft (including the LinkedIn app’s removal from the Windows Phone store) meant I was pushed back to Android (even with my previous concerns).  I would say I still prefer the Windows Phone interface over Android (even with the Microsoft Launcher I have installed) and iOS but with Continuum failing to live up to my expectations there isn’t much to be lost by going back to Android.

Websites: still really the same as 4 years ago.  Trying to use Twitter more – especially handy for when waiting around in the yard for the dogs to finish doing their rounds!

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.


Unusually I was quite looking forward to BETT this year.  The usual trepidation ahead of fighting through slow-moving crowds perhaps tempered by knowing I wasn’t doing “the new year double-header” with Learning Technologies:

The positive vibes for BETT were perhaps also coming from some hope regarding a new ‘learning space’ in our HQ that would need fitting out with appropriate tech.  So, whilst I used to always ignore the ‘physical’ classroom stuff at the show, this year I found myself drawn to wipe clean glass desks, chewing gum resistant tables and laptop trolleys.  All in all it was quite an eye opener checking out some stuff that I’ve only really had a passing interest in over the years.

There were only a few seminars I had earmarked as worth attending so it was to ExCeL I went with the usual expectation that making it around the show floor would take most of the day – the particular sessions I did attend are reflected on below.  Also some general notes from the floor:

General thoughts from the floor

One of the major criticisms of BETT is that it is the hungry pigs at the trough of school spending/funding.  So soon after the Carillion collapse this perhaps stood out even more this year – with Capita and Microsoft probably having the biggest stalls to show quite how much of a “market” education now is.  Of course this is a little harsh on Microsoft who are often playing the long game in getting kids and uni students used to their tools on the cheap so they then query employers as to why they are still using Excel 2010 and/or Apple and/or Google.  I’m totally one of those suckers…

…pretty sure I said something similar about discussion boards in c.2004.  There’s also plenty of big ‘learning’ players at BETT – working across BETT (for schools), HE, workplace and more – such as Techsmith, Kaltura, Canvas, Claro, D2L, McGrawhill and 3M.

I attended a few bits and bobs on other stalls, including a good one on the Microsoft stand considering PISA and the future competencies learning professionals need to be supporting:


Anyways, whatever your political persuasion and thoughts on capitalism’s influence on the classroom its likely you would still look twice at the presence of the Russian, UAE and other nations’ stalls.  They seemed more pronounced (to me at least) this year but I probably think that every year.  That said, the French stall had a few interesting startups and a pleasant amount of stereotyping in the branding:



Overall I fleetingly pass stalls when in BETT, in part as I don’t have a particular budget I’m looking to spend, some reflections from this year’s wander:

  • Whiteboards, screens, etc – 4K seems to have given this area a boost although a session I started to watch (facilitated by two wonderfully confident early teens) soon turned into the usual Smart farce when the software wasn’t working properly.  Still feels like a software-lite solution is best in this space so one less thing can go wrong (even if Tango and others seem to have nice additional software) – one of the worse inventions ever was the Smart TV turning a previously immediate boot device into something that has to ‘load’, update and crash.  I was though intrigued by a few claims related to “eye care tech” built into devices.
  • Laptop safety – as mentioned above, device security is potentially going to be of interest to me in coming months so it was interesting to see how the tech in this space has developed with an array of tablet-friendly lock and charge systems – as well as wireless/contact less charging.  Wireless charging remains, for me at least, still slightly magical yet the sowed it is very much deployed and ‘in the real world’.
  • GDPR was out in force with some data regulation, hosting/protection suppliers having (literally) stuck it on as an additional to their stall’s advertising.  The impact on education was also in a number of magazine and flyer takeaways.  Presumably, as with other industries, there will be a lot of people failing to prepare for this and others cashing in on the general misunderstandings and malaise.
  • VR seems to be developing along but still seems of most use where there are clear experiences to be gained – the idea of experiencing a WWI trench in VR sounded intriguing and akin to the use for highlighting the issues Syria faces: http://www.360syria.com/intro .  I’m torn on if we would ever want ‘rapid’ VR authoring or if that will open the floodgates to awful VR in the way PPT to SCORM converters did for eLearning.  Although templated AR might be useful?
  • LMS.  You would think in a school environment that the LMS/VLE would be a central tool.  However, you still get the feeling that Google for Education and Office 365 are central (on the authoring and deployment side) with student information systems the data coal face.  Perhaps due to budgets, it is seems increasingly that another (LM) system isn’t a priority – perhaps as schools will also be face-to-face focused in the first instance.  Also there seemed to be growing numbers of add-ons to 365 (such as https://www.livetiles.nyc/ that do some of the job).
  • Mobile: Nice to see that, at least some, classrooms and taking advantage of students carrying powerful devices with them by leveraging them in the pedagogy – for example with: https://www.wooclap.com/ and https://nearpod.com/
  • https://www.iridize.com/ (for context sensitive employee performance support on systems) and a few others looked less ‘BETT-y’ and perhaps more suited for the LT show.  TootToot for feedback/safeguarding would also have uses outside of the target school models and they are apparently working on an enterprise version.  Similarly Derventio’s performance management tools were clearly suitable outside of the school market – but, as always, do you want integrated HRM or multiple systems?
  • Furniture: a few worthy mentions for interesting products – Mirplay, Learniture, Freedesk, Folio, Wall Art and, surprising to see at the show, John Lewis (for Business).
  • AI: wasn’t as obvious as might have been expected.  No doubt many of the publishers (even Britannica who were celebrating their 250 anniversary) are working this in and there are other products out there like https://www.tassomai.com.
  • As well as the usual programming, robots and other cool stuff:


Talk 1: National College for High Speed Rail on the 4th industrial revolution

Didn’t really feel like it went anywhere this one (perhaps ironically considering the home org of the presenter).  Useful I guess if people were not aware of the ‘IR4’ buzz/argument but with little direct applicability beyond a call to the attendees to be innovative.

Basically argued that the college is set up, via apprenticeships and innovative approaches, to tackle modern workplace challenges.  Yet I thought that whilst it is all well and good that this new style of college exists to “disrupt” – the use of new tech in “everything we do” sounds a little like setting itself up to fail (or at least retract when budgets are cut in the future).  Interesting bits like their use of Azure for combining data didn’t sound like they were too ‘new’ – instead leading to early warning indicators like Starfish and other solutions have in the past.

Talk 2: Leading a digital learning strategy

An impressive school turnaround story from a headteacher who put digital at the heart of the school approach.  Really a rare cultural success story with a successful 1-2-1 device programme.

Tips for success were not surprising but good to see a success story for once:

  • Sustainable, not one-off investment
  • Don’t expect tech to make life (i.e. teaching) easier: just different
  • Tech rich, not paper free: still room for outdoor learning, physical science, drawing, etc.
  • Used what was right for them: Chromebooks and GSuite
  • Staged roll-out: staff with pupils so learning together over a three years (not a complete ‘big bang’)
  • Used distance learning software and techniques when relevant (and when needed like school snow days):  including having people collaborate in the same room but at different desks, i.e. get pupils used to workplace digital collaboration style remote working
  • Google Sites for ePortfolio allows for parents to be more involved with the demo of work and outcomes
  • Continuous feedback on teachers via Google Forms to allow iterative improvement.

What was pleasing was the trust evidently put in pupils, with low-level web filtering and pupils allowed to ‘own’ their device.

Still clearly a way to go – for example, they are looking at audio feedback (even though that was well embedded when I worked in HE c. 10 years ago).  I hadn’t seen the immediate feedback available in the education version of Duolingo which looked quite good.

Overall, inspiring and the point made that a lack of IT teacher/department hasn’t held them back – and has probably helped as it means shared ownership in their culture – is probably as revealing about failed projects elsewhere as anything.

Talk 3: GDPR

A decent session that made the point that GDPR is a major issue for schools and that one reason why it is tricky is that it is really made up of three equal parts: cyber security, data protection and information governance that had, previously, been developing separately and experts find difficult to cut across.

Unfortunately were in a world of pretty terrifying stuff – like one school who were targeted by a phishing attack and parents then lost £150k in paying fraudsters a fake school charge.  A key point here being that the processing activity is key – e.g. it’s not IT’s responsibility but rather the user (such as HR teams as they hold personal data).

Getting onto Windows 10 was identified as an easy step to improve compliance and that everyone needs to be clear where they are on meeting requirements – with a way forward plan by the introduction in May – rather than compliant from day one.

Talk 4: Digital transformation

More a summary from the Ludic Group on changes in the last 20 years and some ongoing trends:



Nothing major here unless, perhaps, people entered disagreeing with his “digital changes everything” mantra and had their heads turned or, indeed (and this is a possibility as the Q&A question was “what is blended learning?”[!!]), eyes opened.