BT rings the changes with the right blend

One of the best-known brands in the UK, BT is undoubtedly in pole position
when it comes to expanding the telecoms market and blended learning plays a key
part in that development. By Nic Paton

The best-known of Britain’s telecoms firms and, until the rise of Vodafone,
the biggest, BT – or British Telecom as it was then known – was born in 1981
when it was split from the Post Office.

It floated in 1984 and, as the first national listing of a public utility,
became one of the benchmark privatisations of the Thatcher era.

The company changed its name to BT in 1991, unveiling its famous (and much
criticised at the time) ‘Piper’ logo and, in 1999, took sole ownership of BT
Cellnet, the UK mobile phone business.

However, the high cost of the auction for the next generation of mobile phones
and a series of expensive overseas acquisitions and joint ventures plunged the
company deeply into debt and, two years ago, a comprehensive restructuring
operation was announced.

This included splitting its fixed-line telephony businesses and, last year,
selling its Yell directories business, undertaking the UK’s largest ever rights
issue and demerging BT Wireless, its global mobile arm, which was renamed mmO2.
Chairman Sir Iain Vallance and chief executive Sir Peter Bonfield both
departed.

As of March, BT employed about 108,600 staff, mostly in the UK. Pre-tax
profits for the year were £1.27bn on turnover of £18.45bn, down on the £1.76bn
the previous year.

Early in 2002, new chief executive Ben Verwaayen set out the company’s
strategy of becoming a single, integrated telecommunications business, a move
welcomed by the City, which had in the past accused BT of trying too hard to be
all things to all men and ending up as master of none.

Recruitment

Last year, BT recruited 4,000 staff – 400 graduates with the rest split
50/50 between managers and other staff. In a sector that is notoriously
fast-moving and difficult to judge, this year’s targets are likely to be much
the same, says Caroline Waters, head of employment policy.

All graduates are enrolled on a two-year training programme, through the
company’s Virtual Academy e-learning portal, with trainees placed in local
business units to build up valuable experience.

For the first time this year, BT has insisted that graduates apply online,
having run a conventional application process in parallel for the past three
years.

Retention

The staff turnover rate at BT is about 3 per cent, markedly below the
industry average of 7 to 12 per cent, says Waters. Benefits include share save
and profit sharing schemes, holidays and extensive flexible working
opportunities.

BT is considered something of a pioneer of flexible working, through its
Freedom to Work initiative. It currently has 700 job sharers, 5,200 home
workers, 8,000 part-time workers and 60,000 staff who work remotely. Call
centre operatives have a choice of 200 different attendance patterns.

Staff can also apply for adoptive, parental and maternity leave, all of
which tend to be offered at above statutory minimum levels. BT has a 98 per
cent return rate of people coming back to work following maternity, says
Waters.

"Some people even turn down higher paid jobs to come back to us because
of the flexibility," she claims.

Discounted nursery places are on offer, there are creches at company
training centres and BT operates a partnership scheme with nursery provider
Jigsaw to provide nursery places for local workers.

Training and development

The training department is made up of 400 staff and training is blended,
split between the online Virtual Academy, launched in 1999, and instructor-led
training.

The company has moved away from the idea of offering trainees a set number
of training days on induction, or demanding that staff do a certain number of
days’ training a year, explains Waters.

Instead, staff are expected to work with their line manager when they join
and develop a "career life plan", designed to take account of their
career goals and aspirations. "We like to think we employ people
holistically," says Waters. "People sit down and talk about what they
need. There should be open and trusting communication." The ethos is
completely the same for call centre staff.

Performance management

"There is an absolute and direct line of sight between us and BT,"
says Waters. Personnel goals have been set using BT’s five-year strategic plan
– now being reviewed – which was designed to outline goals for everyone from
the door keeper to the chief executive, she adds.

Staff performance is broken down into individual competencies, management
objectives and team goals. There is a corporate scorecard system and a range of
performance-linked pay and benefit systems.

While appraisal is expected to be constant – through the career life plan
supported by ongoing dialogue – there is an annual review process that links
into a personal development plan. This plan is accessible via the intranet or
available as a print-out.

The company’s core values have been constant for the past 12 to 15 years,
says Waters, and are available in a booklet form, called The Way We Work, to
every member of staff. It is also permanently available on BT’s intranet.

When it comes to succession planning, BT operates a network of career
councils right across the business, which feed into executive development and
fast-track programmes. Anyone who scouts someone with potential is expected to
feed the information into their local career council.

The company is always on the hunt for new blood, says Waters.

HR factfile

Alex WilsonGroup
HR director

Wilson took up his post yesterday, replacing John Steele who has retired.

Previously senior vice-president of HR at technology firm ICL,
Wilson worked his way up the HR ladder through a variety of positions at Ford,
Grand Metropolitan and Guinness and, once the two had merged, Diageo.

The HR director is a not a board-level position and, as such,
BT does not divulge salary levels.

While it is impossible to predict how Wilson intends to spend
his time, in the past, a large proportion of Steele’s time was spent on two key
areas, ensuring HR helps drive forward the strategy of the business and
focusing on the individual within the business, suggests Caroline Waters, head
of employment policy.

Highlights of the job include working in an "immensely
exciting", fast-changing environment and being able to use technology to
give HR even greater flexibility and impact, she believes.

Size of HR team

The BT HR team has some 600 staff, of which 60 are responsible
for policy, employee relations and compensation and benefits issues.

HR department structure

Each of the business lines has an HR director who works with
the chief executive and the board, supported by a raft of business partners.
The transactional HR function has been outsourced, freeing the core HR staff to
deal with the more strategic issues. An e-HR function has been in place for the
past 15 to 20 years.

Ratio of HR to employees

1:200.

Key HR initiatives

Last year, BT developed a concept called Agile Business,
Balanced Life, including holding a conference and exhibition for business leaders
to prove that work-life balance can mesh with successful business practice.

BT’s Cost Busters initiative has already saved £1bn by looking
at innovative ways to cut costs, such as, encouraging more staff to work from
home, says Waters.

HR priorities for the year

Change management is likely to be an ongoing priority this year
as are diversity, work-life balance and making cost-savings.

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