Lessons in L&D: World of Learning 2013

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Should you use your own staff or third parties to train employees? Does learning and development (L&D) work better outside the HR function? And if e-learning is the future, how do you make sure it works? Martin Couzins travelled to the World of Learning conference and exhibition in Birmingham to investigate.

When a €2 billion loss is turned into a €1 billion profit four years later, it can be safe to assume that fundamental change has taken place. Speaking at the World of Learning conference 2013 – which took place in Birmingham on 1 and 2 October 2013 – Rick Jackson, head of the certified international specialist (CIS) programme at DHL Express, explained to delegates that L&D played a central role in transforming the global logistics company’s business fortunes between 2008 and 2012.

To make this happen, the L&D function was taken out of the HR team and given a direct reporting line into the chief executive. Jackson, who headed up the L&D function, was given a blank sheet of paper on which to create a new L&D strategy. This was designed around the overall business strategy, which focused on motivating employees, providing great service quality, growing a loyal customer base and creating a profitable global network.

DHL Express had to educate 100,000 people continuously across 220 countries. It did this through substantial investment in the CIS programme, the name given to the L&D initiative.

Setting up for success

With a €150 million budget over two years and full support of the senior leadership team, Jackson set about rolling out his global strategy. This included translating all training materials into 41 languages. The company also insisted that the first CIS training programme would be rolled out across all employees within a year and would be facilitated by DHL Express staff to ensure more engagement with the initiative and to retain knowledge and skills.

Quotes from the conference

“The NHS has a lot of acronyms, but BYOD is not one of them.”
Helen Bingham, e-learning resources manager, NHS, on bringing your own device (BYOD) to work

“Effective talent management requires a shift in a business and manager’s mindset, supported from the top and applied consistently and continually.”
Catherine Rush, head of talent, DMG Media

“Why is L&D designing and developing the same stuff? We do not collaborate enough outside of our organisational silos.”
Niall Gavin, head of HR and learning technologies, First Group

“Organisations are adopting learning technology, but applying it to what they used to do. That might give efficiencies, but won’t necessarily give results. Automating what you do will not support the learning process.”
Laura Overton, managing director, Towards Maturity

“We would not accept unqualified people in the rest of the business, so why were we doing it in the sales function?”
David Butterfield, head of L&D, Aggregate Industries

“The iterative development of learning technologies is posing big challenges for organisations and learners.”
Dr Maren Deepwell, chief executive, Association for Learning Technology

“Under no circumstances will we have external training providers coming into DHL Express and training our staff,” Jackson says.

The company has 30 trainers and 1,200 facilitators to run its training programmes. There are 160 employees across the globe who manage CIS locally, with the central L&D team funding programmes and managing communications. DHL uses a passport system as a way of unifying the workforce around the CIS training brand. Every employee has their own paper passport, which includes their photograph, country stamps and achievement stickers.

Giving an example of how DHL Express staff facilitate training, Jackson said that, at a recent global meeting of the company’s top performers, a leadership programme was delivered by the top 120 employees. Jackson said the feedback from the event was “incredible” and that delegates particularly liked hearing from top-performing leaders about how they were running their teams.

DHL Express delivers most of its training through videos and has developed a series of animations based on The Incredibles comic characters. “We don’t want boring PowerPoint slides in DHL training,” Jackson says.

Over the past two years, DHL Express has moved back into profit and has seen staff engagement increase by 13%, as well as an 18% increase in staff knowledge and understanding of the business strategy.

Jackson says the turnaround at DHL Express has been driven through engaging employees: “You need senior leadership support and to have a lot of guts to invest in the business. [We are] now working on how to embed the learning from the CIS programme into HR processes, including reward and recognition, succession planning and talent management.”

A lens on leadership

Another corporation transforming itself through L&D is General Electric (GE). Sameena Bashey, country HR director for UK and Ireland, told delegates that L&D is critical to its success.

“As a company, we constantly evolve and innovate – and a key part of that is developing our people,” she says.

As a part of its evolution, the company looked at whether or not it has leaders to deliver on tomorrow’s challenges. To find out, it asked 35 leaders to visit 100 organisations around the world to see how leadership is changing.

Managers were asked how they see the leadership role changing and how they wanted to be led themselves. The company also asked what millennials expect from management. It then sought the views of academics, politicians and thinkers and fed them into its research on future leaders.

Bassey says that GE is now looking at how to change leadership development based on this research. It has already updated the five values that its managers are measured against: external focus; clear thinking; imagination and courage; inclusiveness; and expertise.

Its learning academy – Crotonville – is also being transformed from a traditional college to an open learning space. GE has leader-in-residence programs in which it asks leaders to take a week out of work to teach others going through Crotonville leadership programmes. There are currently 3,500 people progressing through the academy.

As a result of this research, GE is also looking at its whole L&D offering. Historically, it had an L&D function in each business and this often led to the replication of work. The company decided to create a global centre of excellence in order to stop duplication, add consistency and amplify excellence. The team is now designing and developing more resources internally.

Making e-learning work

Krissie Owen, L&D partner at insurance group RSA, says that it has three golden rules to making e-learning work: understand your organisation’s goals and what you are trying to achieve; understand the demographics of your people by making sure you know what the demographics are rather than what you think they are; and focus on results.

Owen told delegates that in the past, RSA had been very good at developing generic e-learning content without understanding what the business was trying to achieve in terms of learning outcomes and the learning gaps that needed to be closed. By having a deeper understanding of the organisation’s demographics, RSA is now focusing on closing those gaps in knowledge.

“Understanding the demographic of the organisation has been a key part of this. We are a 300-year-old financial services institution, and the perception was that our employees were mostly 50-year-old men working in the City in London. When we looked at our demographics more closely, we discovered the perception was wrong. For example, we have 20-year-old women in our Liverpool office with an average tenure of one year,” Owen says.

To appeal to and engage with these different demographics, RSA rebranded its L&D offering with an on onus on what Owen calls a “user-chooser” approach, whereby different demographic groups choose learning that suits them.

“We had to make our learning offering different so that colleagues can select what is right for them,” she says. “We keep our learning short, succinct and to the point. We also keep it fun and light-hearted so that people engage with it.”

RSA has just started a project to reduce the number of mandatory e-learning modules from 12 to five, and is reducing the length of each module from 30 minutes to 20 minutes.

Owen says that the RSA has used a cartoon-led approach when discussing serious themes in order to add a layer of interest to its e-learning content.

Sticky learning

Picking up on what makes learning engaging, Patricia Riddell, professor of applied neuroscience at Reading University, told delegates that organisations should use knowledge of how the brain works to help make learning more “sticky”.

A common problem for L&D teams is that it can be difficult for learning from courses to be transferred back to the workplace.

“An understanding of how the brain works can give you insights into how you can help that knowledge transfer back into the workplace,” Riddell says.

She suggests that L&D teams could go one of two ways with this: they could keep repeating the learning so that it is reactivated before it is lost back in the workplace; or they could add an emotional kick to the learning.

“The emotion does not have to be related to the learning, it just needs to be evoked soon after the learning has taken place,” she says.

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