Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Onboarding staff in the 21st century

The British Computer Society (BCS) and IT Training Magazine have published my article on how onboarding new staff can be transformed in terms of overall time to full productivity and dramatically reduced training costs. As the economy picks up the quality and efficiency of induction will matter more than ever. What do you think?


How we work and who we work for is changing rapidly. In an internet-enabled, networked age where we can communicate with anyone, anywhere, in real time, the way in which we acquire knowledge and develop new skills is transforming.

To cope with the pace of economic and social change we must re-evaluate how we train and support our people. The onboarding experience is the crucial start to reaching a desired level of competence and confidence needed to deliver a valuable contribution.

However, this is often sadly neglected. New joiners arrive in their new workplace to discover they are expected to fend for themselves - their manager is too busy fire-fighting, work colleagues are stretched enough getting through the day, let alone having time to 'handhold' someone new.

The induction training is not scheduled for a few weeks, by which time its value is greatly diminished. Furthermore, what about the increasing number of staff working from home or on the move? How do they become integrated into the organisation's culture?

It is no great surprise then that many new joiners don't stay the course. It is recorded that 90 per cent of employees decide whether to leave their new employer within the first six months (recently voiced by Gretchen Alarcon at Oracle).

Measuring time to full productivity of new staff reveals it can take anything between six and twelve months to reach the required levels of competence and confidence to deliver at expected performance levels.

As a result, staff attrition is extremely costly to an organisation. When a staff member leaves, all the investment made in that individual - from recruitment, selection and induction to salary - is lost before they can add any real value.

In areas where there are naturally high levels of staff turnover, such as contact centres and retail, this can amount to large sums of money spent on training and re-training without ever truly improving overall performance.

The Call Centre Association (CCA) claims a failure to retain employees is costing firms up to £1 billion per year and generating employee turnover rates up to 30 per cent. The current economic climate may have dampened these costs temporarily, but with increasing employee mobility, they will rise if not managed more effectively.

Employee engagement

A positive onboarding experience can seriously improve employee engagement. The government (see MacLeod Report commissioned by Lord Mandelson) has recognised the importance of improving employee engagement and its positive affect on productivity. Here's a definition of engagement taken from the report:

'Engagement is about creating opportunities for employees to connect with their colleagues, managers and wider organisation. It is also about creating an environment where employees are motivated to want to connect with their work and really care about doing a good job… It is a concept that places flexibility, change and continuous improvement at the heart of what it means to be an employee and an employer in a twenty-first century workplace.' (Professor Katie, CIPD, 2009)

The report also shows the difference employee engagement can make to the bottom line:

  • Engaged employees in the UK take an average of 2.69 sick days per year; the disengaged take 6.19 days. The CBI reports sickness absence costs the UK economy £13.4bn a year.
  • 70 per cent of engaged employees indicate they have a good understanding of how to meet customer needs, only 17 per cent of non-engaged employees say the same.
  • Engaged employees are 87 per cent less likely to leave the organisation than the disengaged. The cost of high turnover among disengaged employees is significant.

Ensuring that the early onboarding experience is a positive reinforcement of someone's decision to join will make a dramatic difference to these metrics.

Technology, more specifically e-learning, plays a central role in offering a more seamless, continuous support mechanism that simultaneously accelerates learning, releases managers from basic training obligations and significantly reduces time to full productivity.

The pre-induction portal

The provision of online learning and assessment can be used at all stages of onboarding new employees, all managed through a single learning portal. This portal, alongside the corporate website, actively reinforces brand values and culture.

Here are examples of how e-learning can be used to improve efficiency and effectiveness for each stage of onboarding:

Recruitment - potential applicants complete short scenario-based assessments that provide more accurate impressions of the job role. The organisation benefits by encouraging those seemingly best suited to submit an application.

Selection - more rigorous assessment and psychometric testing can further filter applicants prior to, or as part of, the formal interview process. Tests can include realistic experiences that represent the job activities.

Pre-induction - successful applicants can receive additional learning opportunities that are completed in the run-up to their first day. With high levels of motivation and enthusiasm these individuals are in a perfect cognitive state to learn more about their new organisation. Learning modules may cover organisational structure, welcome videos, product knowledge, activity or system simulations (perhaps customer scenarios) and mandatory compliance (like health and safety). Such early learning means new employees arrive on their first day with a high level of confidence and active knowledge. This dramatically reduces time required for further induction training.

Induction period - continuing access to the learning portal carries new employees seamlessly through their first few days. Access to social networking tools accelerate contact with other employees, as well as access to additional learning modules on key systems and processes that were not available during pre-induction.

Ongoing development - these learning activities naturally integrate with existing HR systems to ensure a full record on which the individual can build further training and development as their career develops.

Tracking progress - tracking and reporting facilities allow the organisation to monitor new employees' engagement with learning opportunities. The portal can reward those who demonstrate exceptional levels of motivation and attainment, whilst nudging and supporting those who need encouragement. Equally, identifying early on those new employees who are uncertain of their decision or are likely to fail to integrate is valuable for both the individual and organisation.

Unbeatable business case

For those looking to reduce costs and improve employee productivity, overhauling the onboarding and induction experience is a strong candidate.

Sky, the satellite TV and broadband communications provider, has launched a pre-induction learning portal that has reduced induction time from four to three weeks with measurable improvements in sales and customer service targets. High levels of commitment and enthusiasm shown by individuals completing the pre-induction activities have also been sustained into the workplace.

While many organisations may not be experiencing growth or normal recruitment levels in the current climate, this is likely to change over the next twelve to eighteen months as the economy recovers.

Cost pressures, however, will not go away, so introducing a more cost effective onboarding model must be a priority in order to take full competitive advantage when the upturn arrives. When it does, employees will begin to further flex their new-found freedom and the battle for talent will intensify.

Monday, 21 September 2009

UK Higher Education needs more radical change than a debate about who funds it

With the current media and political debate about the future funding of education (and the rest of the entire public sector for that matter), I was struck with the thought that perhaps the wrong question is being asked.

Is funding or cutting the same model of higher education the real issue. Or would a more radical shake up of higher education be more affordable and indeed more effective at preparing our young people for work and life in the 21st Century?

So, I've set up a debate which I'm inviting you to contribute your thoughts. You can access it it here:

To help you get going consider the following:

Do you think a smart student of today would be right to question starting a 3 year degree course and incur significant debt in the process...OR...

Spend those three years developing work experience with supplementary online study?

Imagine if this was your own decision, or your child's decision - what would you do?
Indeed if you are a young student this is a real dilemma for you - would love to hear your views.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

How to build a social learning culture

I was asked by Trainingzone to provide some tips for bringing the learning benefits to bear of social tools within an organisational context. All comments/feedback welcome.


Resisting the rush to social media feels a bit like trying to push water back up a waterfall doesn't it? A fairly futile exercise. Why is it so popular? Well, homo sapiens are a particularly social, pack-like species whose success on this planet has been predicated on our unique ability to communicate. This is why we have gone to many lengths to build complex organisational structures. We've invented the telephone, television, and now the internet to the point where we can be in constant touch with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

We have always learned through conversation, self-directed reading, and interacting with the world and people around us. It's strange really that we now refer to this as 'informal learning' as if somehow inferior. The internet and the mobile phone provide us with all the information we could possibly want when we want it. Our main challenge now is finding the right information to use at the appropriate time. Equally, we can now practice new skills in virtual settings that are increasingly realistic and applicable. The learning experience has finally got personal and it has done so with technology beating at its heart. In that context it makes sense that social tools, which give us real-time access to the activities and experiences of others, tap right into our innate desire to share and belong.

But we are still in transition. Most organisations have yet to catch up. In a recent survey of organisations with 5,000+ staff, conducted by Brightwave, almost two thirds of those surveyed confirmed they do not plan to facilitate social learning in the next 18 months. Indeed the majority of UK workers in large organisations don't have any access at work to leading social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
Data security reportedly is the key reason why most businesses do not actively encourage participation in social networks. Whilst a concern most organisations will already have processes in place to manage responsible participation. If not, any worries can be addressed by developing and communicating an effective information security policy.

So there are benefits but cultural and perceived technological barriers remain. What's the best way, then, to navigate around these and begin nurturing a social learning culture in your own organisation? Don't be daunted. It's easy to get started.

1. Don't wait for permission

Most successful social learning implementations to date have started at the grass roots level. So that's you providing the necessary jolt of enthusiasm and energy to get a pilot off the ground. Clearly this doesn't mean being irresponsible, instead identifying a community that you feel can benefit and deliver real business benefits.

2. Focus on the frontline

Managers will typically put up the most resistance as they perceive they have the most to lose. In many ways they are right. An effective social learning environment changes the model of management considerably. Frontline staff have the most to gain from sharing their knowledge and cutting across traditional divisional silos in the interests of serving their customer or solving their problem. Less time wasted hunting for information and knowledge to do their jobs improves customer service, and reduces their own levels of frustration and dissatisfaction. In many cases, your chosen community will already be active social users of Facebook, Twitter and the like, so you'll find a burgeoning demand. That said, provision of some training (elearning would be my recommendation) on how to get the best out of the tools you make available will be valuable.

3. Technology is the enabler not the driver

Don't get caught up in which platform to use. Start with the business objective you want to impact. Do you want to reduce customer complaint resolution times? Reduce the number of return visits made by engineers to fix a problem? Whatever it is try and add to the existing systems in place where possible. Your only option may be the corporate intranet. It may be a free software platform such as Elgg, Ning or harnessing the available (but often underused) functionality of Microsoft Sharepoint. You may need to think more creatively, such as setting up group texting facilities on your engineers' mobile phones with a private Twitter-like service such as Yammer. Whatever it is, technology choices must follow the business objective.

4. Guide rather than control

Social-learning communities are self policing so do not feel obliged to over-moderate the communication flow. In fact, encourage open debate but with some simple ground rules on etiquette and professionalism that you would expect employees to observe in other forms of day-to-day communication. One tip - insist that all community members retain their professional work identity. Anonymous posting may quickly degenerate into unhelpful, damaging messages. So don't allow it.

5. Be patient

It takes time to nurture social learning, especially when your organisation's existing culture may be far removed from the concept of knowledge sharing and cross-functional collaboration. Based on published case studies this seems to average three to five years. By starting small, with a focused community that can reap early benefits, you can use this success to persuade others to get involved. The network effect will take hold and growth can be exponential once a solid foundation has been laid. Note that it is normal for only a small percentage (5-10%) of your community to be active contributors while the remainder remain grateful consumers of the content made available.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Learning - augmented

I’ve previously posted on how we are beginning to move from training as a separate activity from doing, to a model of primarily supporting practice and performance on the job. Ubiquitous Performance Support (UPS) I rather snappily called it. One dramatic example of how this is developing is in the nascent area of Augmented Reality.

This clip amply illustrates where this is heading.

While there appear some practical oversights in this example, I can see this sort of thing working really well. Amongst the rather amusing Youtube comments about expensive services being done by mindless monkeys is one suggestion:

“Yeah like halfords should do these where the overpriced haynes manuals are.”

Too right. And in fact this is something I did attempt with Iveco Trucks way back in 1992 in constructing an interactive servicing tool that take information from an engine management system and provide performance support guidance for a service mechanic in both service manual and video formats.

This is now possible, and even exists already if you count the self instruction videos already available on Youtube and other video sharing platforms.

We’d do well to ensure our definitions of learning are closer to Charles Handy’s – as written in his book, Age of Unreason:

"Learning is not finding out what other people already know, but is solving our own problems for our own purposes, by questioning, thinking and testing until the solution is a new part of our lives."

What’s your definition?

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Mobile learning – keep taking the tablets

There is growing excitement with a new class of mobile device hitting the streets over the next few months – the electronic tablet. Most of the buzz is about Apple coming out with what’s dubbed the “iTablet” that essentially would be a larger screened iPhone or iPod Touch.

Some enterprising people have mocked up images of what it could look like:


But several other vendors are beating Apple out of the blocks in what will be an intriguing race for a market sector that is set to put mobile learning truly on the map. Have a look at the Archos tablet:


These devices have 9/10” screens, are light (or should be), portable and connectable to all sorts of other peripherals. The screen means browsing and interacting with internet sites becomes even more natural and accessible, especially with modern gesture based touch screen technology.

There is something vaguely nostalgic about this new wave of tablets. Remember Apple’s first attempt at going mobile – the Newton?


I had one of these and while it demonstrated a lot of promise it was an idea before its time. However things are looking brighter this time round. The processing power and connectivity is now here to make these devices excellent portable learning tools. The size is practical for all ages and seriously challenges traditional text book provision and the way we engage with digital assets such as video and online learning content. The personal nature of the device means we can annotate everything and still share everything.

It looks like the promise of mobile learning will finally arrive in force in 2010.

If you want to get a fantastic indication of where all this is heading, you really should read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer which features an intriguing vision of a “state-of-the-art interactive device designed to raise a girl capable of thinking for herself”.

Imagine an education system that could do that…