merger of the Halifax and Bank of Scotland brought HBOS into the financial
world, and, as John Williams, head of operational training, retail, reveals, it
also gave him the greatest challenge of his career. Stephanie Sparrow reports
Ask English television viewers who is the promotional ‘face’ of financial
giant Halifax and they will have little hesitation in identifying the
bespectacled and cheerful Howard of the Sheldon branch who has reggaed his way
through its TV adverts for the past couple of years.
However, in Scotland it is a different story. Scottish viewers are as likely
to name a cool blonde in blue tartan check who has had only an short dalliance
with Howard (remember them flying over desert islands on the back of a giant swan?).
This is a valid but rather flippant way of introducing the training and
cultural challenges facing HBOS since it was formed from the £ 28bn merger in
2001 of the Bank of Scotland and Halifax. Namely, how to function as one
operation while respecting the identities and traditions of two businesses with
strong regional ties.
Enter John Williams, head of operational training (retail) HBOS, tackling
what he admits is "the biggest challenge" of his career to date as he
sought to implement a new counter system in 300 Bank of Scotland branches
throughout Scotland. This part of the change programme, which started in
December 2002 and is scheduled to finish in summer 2003, will involve 3,500
employees from major Scottish conurbations to the Highlands.
Following a 17-year long career in the Halifax, which has encompassed many
aspects of the business, Williams had a four-year spell in this training role.
His retail training team (which is responsible for high street activity such as
agencies and estate agencies) has grown from six to 33 members with 12 fully
focused on the changes in Scotland. Williams places this team, many of whom
have a background in the branches, at the centre of the merged company,
operating as consultants and working closely with the business on training
needs analysis and objectives and evaluation. He prides himself on his and the
team’s product knowledge which proved essential in understanding the training
challenges presented by a post-merger review.
"After the merger there was a review of all the systems, process and
products we offered, to determine the best way forward. Choices have been made
on which best systems we would use across the company and which products would
sell in England and Scotland, using those different brandings: Bank of Scotland
The review found the Halifax had witnessed a major investment in technology
over the past couple of years, hence the more sophisticated counter techniques,
and has focused on sales. "There were a lot of ideas that could be shared
across the Bank of Scotland, whereas the bank itself is very strong on service
and is a well-known and trusted brand name in Scotland," he explains.
It also identified a need to integrate the companies for the sake of
customers and called for an accelerated change programme, as HBOS wants to
quickly offer both Halifax and Bank of Scotland customers the ability to use
any branch in Scotland.
"We wanted to bring together a series of changes to systems, products
and services and to accelerate that change over maybe seven months to a
year. Phase one involved a bringing
together of all elements of the counter system and processing to be followed by
the products," said Williams.
He admits it was a "massive challenge" which he could only embark
upon after spending five months actually getting to the point of knowing what
to design. "It was like having new recruits to the company. But if a new
recruit joins they come into a branch where the other colleagues are
experienced. The scenario here was that there were 3,500 new recruits who had
no-one else next to them to say ‘this is how you do it.’ "
To compress a two-year change programme into such a short time meant
Williams had to move quickly but smoothly, so opted for an evolving programme.
"Early groups would learn, who would be used to teach later groups, so
it’s a satellite kind of growth – an evolution. Now the last group are so
comfortable because everyone has built knowledge and shared that with them
In order to initiate the skills evolution, Williams decided to take 106
people out of Scotland, train them early and develop them as ‘experts’.
"They were used in the early locations, then moved across the country in a
support role but will eventually go back into the business as very highly
experienced staff. In addition, we are putting in a series of project managers
who, in effect, are a separate driving force ensuring successful implementation
and providing regular reporting on progress," he said.
"Rooms in key locations have been developed as additional training
sites to what we call ‘training technical centres’ which simulate the new
counters. We have 18 rooms giving us 144 seats a day and need every one of
those. Around 37 trainers are involved in delivering the training in Scotland,
around 20 of those were pulled from branch work and training backgrounds in the
English operation and had their skills brought up to speed.
The practicalities and logistics of this training programme could be mind
boggling, unless tackled with a well-organised approach, partly because the
branches have to maintain business as usual while training is taking place.
What Williams admits was virtually a ‘scientific formula’ was brought into play
as he drafted in 10 people to man a new unit, sending invitations to workshops,
ensuring trainees arrived with the right material and pre-work at the right
Each colleague goes through a five-day interactive workshop programme spread
over a fortnight, to cover the new counter system, backed up by pre-work in the
branch. There is also work shadowing with colleagues who have gone live already
and in-branch practice after the programme so staff are confident by the day
they go live.
Training takes six weeks, and to keep the business running, Williams has divided
the branches into quarters and takes out one quarter of the branch at any one
time. Relief staff are co-ordinated to ensure the branch is fully manned during
Williams put a number of strategies in place within the training workshops to
check the level of understanding and competence. These include quizzes,
competence measures which are captured as management information, and material
for discussion with branch managers. Further back-up is provided via learning
materials and reference guides which they take with them from the workshops.
Branch managers also play key roles in identifying branch champions or training
partners to support colleagues and create what Williams believes is
"energy and excitement" around the countdown to the relaunch of the
All this builds to the ‘live’ day when the new counter system is switched
on. But Williams’ work does not stop there as three weeks after it goes live he
reviews the branch’s progress with its manager and the area manager.
Such a rapid change and the pressure to learn could frighten some people but
Williams has taken this into account. "That’s why we’ve put in different
support programmes," says Williams. "We’ve taken out people to
constantly go branch-to-branch to reassure others. There are helplines both for
technical issues and understanding of a process. Also we want to share success
and have made a video of early colleague feedback which will be sent to all
He is mindful that some large-scale programmes across a geographical spread
use online learning, but although there is online back-up after the workshops,
Williams is happier that he chose the interactive option with lots of people
"We want people to enjoy their jobs and lives. We are trying to make
workshops lively and interactive and the role playing within the workshops is
about getting you as close to live as we can, which removes the fear. We want
colleagues to feel very comfortable, confident and supported. "
At time of writing Williams believed it could take six months before he
knows if the training was successful which is not overly cautious as the
estimated roll-out means training goes into 15 branches a week.
"We are in the early part of the training," he says. "We’ve
trained all the experts, all the trainers and we’ve done some of the early
branches. The early feedback from project managers, who provide weekly updates,
indicates that it’s positive and colleagues are enjoying the experience.
"We have delivered on what we would see as the customer service
objectives, sales objectives and also colleague advocacy.
"It has been a key objective for the company and it should start to
generate savings and sharing and best practices," says Williams.
CV: John Williams
1998 Training manager, progressing to head of operational
1996 Project manager, change programme
1992 Personnel Officer, London Region
1988 Branch manager, SE London
1984 Joined the Halifax as a cashier