Using the feel-good factor: socially responsible training

If you are seeking tangible results from training, then a dash of corporate social responsibility may be just the job. It can also give participants a nice, warm glow.

Socially responsible training is where HR meets corporate social responsibility (CSR).

So says Jan Levy, director of Three Hands, a company that specialises in training that marries corporate and community needs. Socially responsible training is bespoke team leadership and personal development programmes achieved through community action.

“It is learning and development – personal development, team development and leader development – through engagement in real-life community projects,” says Levy. “It’s instead of sending people off to the Lake District to build a raft. We believe people get a lot more out of it because it’s real and therefore they will also put a lot more into it.”

Morag Aitken, team leader of learning and development, tribunals, at the Department for Work and Pensions, says the real-life element makes all the difference.

Community training

Her department has done a couple of training events with Three Hands. The first was with 12 regional office managers and involved building a garden for a drop-in centre run by mental health charity Mind. The idea was to improve the service offered to customers through spending time with them and gaining a greater understanding of their lives, and through learning new personal and team skills at the same time.

The managers were set the task of building the garden in three days without incurring any costs. They had to either raise the funds to buy the necessary materials or persuade local businesses to donate them. Aitken says having to get help and support from the community was an alien situation for many of the managers – unlike their customers. “So people learned some new and very different skills, including negotiation.”

But the most telling benefit came from spending time with customers and seeing things from their perspective. “The given challenge was building the garden,” says Aitken. “But the real challenge was to get managers out there working with people and getting their views.”

Levy says community training events always result in improved communication skills, whether it’s negotiation skills, influencing others, setting and achieving goals, or problem solving. These skills all benefit the individuals and therefore the organisation.

But, says Levy, the actual process of community engagement is also hugely beneficial to organisations. “The healthier a community is, the healthier a business will be,” he says. “The business case for that is really very clear, and means that bringing community engagement and learning and development makes perfect sense.”

It is not something that many training organisations do, however. Several offer community-based programmes as part of their overall training package, but Levy says he doesn’t know of any other organisations that do it exclusively.

Three Hands’ programmes last from one to five days and cost from £100 to £500 per person per day. The one-day programmes usually concentrate on team development, with the leadership programmes lasting three or five days.

In 2004, mobile telephone company Motorola sent 20 senior leaders to a small village in rural Malawi for a three-day leadership programme. Their task was to rebuild a community centre and two run-down houses. They slept in tents, shared the work with the villagers, and worked with the local community on the building project.

According to Vanessa Loughlin, director of leadership and diversity at Motorola, the aim was to improve the participants’ capabilities around risk-taking, decisiveness, thinking laterally, getting tasks done in whatever way necessary, personal leadership and teambuilding.

Challenge people

“The key was taking people out of their known environment, challenging them with a seemingly impossible task, and supporting them through the learning process to enable them to see the true extent of what they were capable of in difficult circumstances,” she says.

As a result, claims Loughlin, those leaders have a much better understanding of team dynamics and the impact of sound leadership practices. These include setting expectations, leading by example, the value of feedback and the need for continuous open communication.

For senior managers who have been on numerous training courses, working on a project like the one in Malawi really does stand out for them and challenge the way they work and think. “It gave them a renewed sense of purpose and feeling of direct impact,” says Loughlin. And that is worth a lot for many companies.

Case study: Orange

Mobile communications provider Orange has sent staff on two socially responsible training days. One involved 30 managers providing new facilities for people with learning disabilities, and the other involved another 30 organising the opening of a new café and day centre for older people.

In both instances, Three Hands worked alongside Orange’s employee engagement team.

With the first event, the team were set their challenge at 9am and had to complete it by 4pm that day. In terms of team development, the driving force behind both projects was to help people get to know each other better and understand individuals’ styles and strengths, improve leadership, communication and team-working skills and encourage a collaborative approach.

By the end of the projects, says Orange, the teams felt closer and there was a huge sense of personal achievement for the participants.

After each event, the managers completed evaluation forms and took part in group discussion to ensure the HR objectives had been met and that the learning would be translated back into the working environment.

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