Implementing a training programme: How BT Exact retrained an in-house support division with flexible skills

The business

BT Exact is the IT and operations business of UK telecoms giant BT. It has 6,400 staff across its UK and offshore operations. Over the past 18 months, the business has grown phenomenally. In the 12 months to May 2006, the company won orders worth £7.2bn, as well as a number of additional long-term outsourcing contracts. This success has seen BT Exact morph from its primary role as a business support function to an independent commercial division.

The challenge

In 2004, BT as a whole underwent a major restructuring programme. At the time, rapid growth in demand for business-to-business IT and networking meant that BT Exact struggled with staffing levels and budgets. The workload pushed talented staff to the limit and their busy schedules meant there was little opportunity for advanced training.

Staff ended up being pigeonholed into technical specialities that were quickly supplanted by newer technologies and the company closed its skills gaps by using expensive contractors.

The solution

To combat that negative cycle, BT Exact created a targeted skills training programme to make its employees more flexible in this fast-changing market.

Over a period of a year, it spent £12m on staff training. Some 1,500 employees sat business accreditation exams, 4,000 received customer engagement training and BT Exact developed 2,000 places for technical skills training.

“In the early days we put a lot of investment into customer-focused training, making people aware there is a difference in the way you treat customers,” explains Dave Butcher, chief operating officer at BT Exact.

“Going forward, we’re looking at putting more emphasis on the technology skills – making sure our people are fully up-to-speed on technologies we want to keep in-house, including IT security and web services.”

The outcome

The training programme has enabled BT Exact to streamline its business and reduce its reliance on high-cost suppliers. “We want to limit our use of high-cost contractors to skills areas that we don’t have or where we have peaks and troughs,” says Butcher. “We want our people in higher value jobs.”

BT Exact is also moving lower-value work offshore and retraining staff to focus on external customers.

Butcher says total headcount has remained relatively flat during the exercise, and one of the ways the company has prevented skills from stagnating is by introducing shorter project cycles.

Traditionally, employees could be locked into projects for between 12 and 18 months. Now all projects work on 90-day cycles of delivery, at the end of which there is a formal review process. BT Exact links staff bonuses to that formal review process, so staff are rewarded quicker for their hard work. What’s more, skilled employees can be moved on to other projects as the need arises.

If I could do it again…

“We implemented a lot of change with a lot of people in a very short amount of time, and that reflected in a definite hit on people’s morale,” says Dave Butcher, chief operating officer at BT Exact.

“If I were to do it again, I would do it just as quick, but would invest more time upfront on communication and engagement,” he says. “Not just what we are doing, but the long-term strategy and why it is important in terms of the change BT as a whole is going through.

“I would also have ensured better continuity of line management as staff feedback found that, just as people began to form a relationship with their new manager, they were moved on. They felt like they had to do it all again, which was both tiring and frustrating for them.”

Employee perspective

Paul Nolan has been with BT Exact for four-and-half years. He joined the company as a software engineer, followed by 12 months’ project work, before taking a secondment as a deployment manager out of frustration with the stop-start nature of the job.

“I would spend a couple of months getting my teeth into a project and then it would all stop,” he says.

Nolan realised his career needed a jump-start. “I wanted to get into project management, which needed formal accreditation,” he explains.

After discussing his goal with continuity manager Gina Brown, Nolan spent five days on an external training course and achieved a nationally recognised Prince 2 accreditation. (Prince 2 stands for ‘Projects in Controlled Environments’ and is the government standard for IT project management.)

Nolan immediately landed a job as project manager on the BT Exact NHS N3 project, which aims to link all NHS hospitals and doctors’ surgeries via a new IT network.

He says this training was crucial to his new role.

“There are a large number of NHS properties and their current network is critical to them. I have to negotiate downtime with them, and it has to be planned very carefully. My new skills involve providing solutions and time management. I have to pull it all together – the delivery of circuits and the network, commissioning and organising the full migration.”

Most importantly, Nolan now has continuity of service.

“My new role means I will be able to stay with it through at least three 90-day cycles. Until now, I’ve never had the opportunity to get more than a basic understanding of a project. Now, I will be able to become completely competent and experienced at what I am doing.”

Guide to Implementing a major retraining programme in 5 steps

  1. When going through a major change in skills that involves your own people it is more convincing if you do it to yourself. Third party-led projects will build up resistance to the change.

  2. Never underestimate staff validation. A positive message is much more believable coming from someone who has gone through the programme.

  3. Hold your nerve. When introducing new skills and methodologies, no matter how good your engagement and your communications, you are going to go through a period where a significant number of staff will be questioning if it is a good thing to do. People are always going to be alienated by change to some degree.

  4. Go for a ‘big bang’. Staff will adjust quicker to the world you have created as everyone is in the same boat.

  5. You get a much better result through experience rather than theory – see the business in operation and make changes from there.

Source: Dave Butcher, chief operating officer, BT Exact

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