Informal methods show smart results

Autumn is a depressing time of year for me. It is the start of the rugby season and I come from south Wales. It’s a time to reflect on what went wrong with my national and club sides. How did we fail to realise how much was shifting in the world in which we operated, and how did we fail to embrace the change that was required to maintain our position?

As we publish new Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) research on learning, I wondered if similar questions need to be asked in our professional lives. Are today’s training and learning professionals likely to fail to see the demands of their changing environment? Are they likely to become marginalised in their organisations? The answer is a resounding ‘no’. We’ve found numerous examples that show that much good practice exists. Training and learning specialists across a wide range of public, private and voluntary sector organisations are formulating interesting and worthwhile initiatives to promote individual and team learning.

The word ‘learning’, as opposed to ‘training’, is used deliberately and must be emphasised. What we have put on our website are learning initiatives not training initiatives. This reflects a continuing strand of CIPD research, which culminated with the publication of our new research report, Helping People Learn. The report argues that the nature of the challenge facing the profession has changed. The critical question nowadays is “How can learning be supported, accelerated and directed towards the organisation’s strategic needs?”

We need to consider what can be done to shift the emphasis from training to learning: to manage the progressive movement from the delivery of content to the development of learning capabilities as a people development strategy.

Many factors contribute to making this shift, ranging from broad features like the vision and values of the organisation, to specific features like the degree of support for learning provided by managers. Ultimately, responsibility for learning rests with the learner so, as the report says: “The message for organisations is simple: cultivate learning everywhere, at all times, not only on training courses, and not only in response to perceived gaps in capability.”

Why is this switch from training to learning so important and what sort of things can we do to promote learning? Let’s take these two questions in turn. Learning has become more important because so many of the skills and knowledge required for effective performance are developed in the workplace through informal methods and day-to-day exchange with colleagues. This is on-the-job learning.

IT skills are an obvious example. Everyone I’ve ever asked says they have developed many of their skills in Microsoft Word, Excel or PowerPoint through trial and error. When stuck, they ask the office expert – every work place has one. However, there is still a place for the more formal top-down training intervention when, for example, a new system is introduced.

Moreover, such evidence that we have available suggests that people prefer to learn using more informal means. The 2002 CIPD survey of learners, Who Learns at Work?, demonstrated that on-the-job training was by far the most popular method, with over half the respondents rating it their best method of learning. We are about to repeat and update this survey and will publish the results spring next.

So if that’s the background, let’s turn to the second question and ask what we can do to promote learning? Here there is both bad and good news. The bad news is that it is not possible to offer a set of generic ‘tips and tricks’ – a handy checklist which can be applied irrespective of the circumstances. What is required is a series of well-designed interventions that command support and attention.

The good news is that we have assembled a whole set of case illustrations of organisations who seem to have succeeded in this endeavour.

Circumstances can arise where business necessity creates a particular opportunity to promote learning. What is important is that interventions are designed to meet a clear need which follows from business requirements: then they will work in the context in which they are delivered. The Harvey Nichols case study, a learning intervention based on immediate feedback delivered on the shop floor, offers an excellent example.

We are moving as a profession from a trainer-centred approach to a business-centred approach by developing learner-centred solutions. This is the task ahead. To some extent our strategies will be opportunistic; we will be exploiting inevitable business change to build a learning capacity. The end result will be positive and exciting – unlike the Welsh Rugby experience, I fear…

Harvey Nichols: learning, vision and values in retail

Harvey Nichols is a well-known retailer of luxury brand goods with a flagship store in Knightsbridge, London and other outlets in Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham. It also owns two up-market restaurants.

A major project began early in 2003 to embed a set of brand values which had been identified as defining business success. These three brand values – “we provide a feel-good experience”, “we are exclusive but accessible”, “we provide fashion leadership” – reflected the company’s approach to customer service. The challenge was to decide how they could be expressed in terms of visible behaviour: the critical question was “what does it look like when it happens on the shop floor?”. Once this had been determined, the development of individual skills could be progressed.

In the summer of 2003 launch events were held at every site, to present the values and the associated behaviours. These events were led by directors, and actors presented role-plays of desirable (and undesirable) behaviours. Subsequently the department managers (who could be responsible for anything between six and 24 staff) were charged with ensuring that the values were embedded in the company. All department managers attended a one-day “Train The Trainer” course and were provided with the necessary tools for team discussions and exercises.

Currently the competencies that underpin the performance review system, and the system itself, are being updated to reflect the desirable behaviours identified from the brand values exercise.

The ongoing task facing the HR Department at Harvey Nichols is to ensure that such behaviours are recognised and reinforced in the context and culture of an up-market retail organisation.

The training and development team, led by training and development manager Karen McKibbin, have explicitly rejected the idea of a generic training course for all sales assistants. A traditional training solution is not considered appropriate. In their view, sales assistants will learn best through immediate feedback, personal reinforcement and support from their managers and peers. Input from the small group of Harvey Nichols specialist advisers (the elite sales people who receive additional recognition for their exceptional capabilities) emphasised that it would be wrong to be over-prescriptive on what makes for good customer service; it involves an elusive ability to “read the customer”. This can be learned, but may not be trainable.

Against this background, in late autumn 2003 Harvey Nichols introduced the Brand Champion Scheme. This was based on immediate recognition and potential reward for people who demonstrate the values. Importantly it was the sales assistants’ peer group who were given the responsibility for identifying such examples. All staff were issued with voucher cards which they could complete when they observed exceptional action in accordance with the values. They would hand these vouchers to the person who had demonstrated this behaviour who would then forward them to HR as evidence of eligibility for designation as a Brand Champion. Such a designation earned one-off rewards.

On-the-job learning

Stephanie Sparrow asked readers how they interpret some of the informal learning advocated by Martin Sloman, and found they were already using such ideas.

“In the utilities industry there aren’t many training providers but we’re fortunate in South Staffordshire Water that we know where our  internal experts are with technical knowledge and we make sure that they inform our apprentices. This is an informal process but works within guidelines which we set for the apprentice and for the expert, who in turn is given training in being a coach. The apprentice has monthly learning objectives.”
Helen Nightingale, senior training adviser, South Staffordshire Water

“We believe it encourages employees if we offer individual access to learning. So we have eight learning centres from Kings Cross to Edinburgh and just launched a Home Computer Initiative Scheme. We also have a learning grant for individuals which can be spent on any type of learning—there are no restrictions. All this makes good business sense—if you work hard to improve morale there is a direct correlation to customer satisfaction and improved business performance.”
 Sharon Adair, head of training and development, GNER

“I found our networking programme useful for myself. It allowed us to book and set the agenda for a meeting with the key people who impacted on your role. I spent time with a buyer and the finance director and this informal learning method helped us all to understand the results of the decisions we made and encouraged a sharing of product knowledge. In  turn this had impact on how some things were done in stores. “
Gill Ince, head of learning and development, Claire’s Accessories


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