For many corporates the global financial crisis put the brakes on education and training; as financial woes hit home, up-skilling was seen as a luxury – a nice-to-have when you can afford it. But the improving economy is bringing with it a new emphasis on learning and, for many companies, a whole new approach to the way they’re doing it. By Patricia Moore.
Learning is becoming business-centric and, in doing so, becoming far more effective across the whole organisation, than the traditional option of sending employees on a course.
Effective training and education also support what is rapidly becoming a strategic business priority; finding and retaining talent.
An iconic New Zealand company is showing the world how it’s done.
Fletcher Building has a proud history as a construction company, and manufacturer and distributor of building and infrastructure products. It’s grown from a small family business to a global entity employing almost 19,000 people in 45 businesses across 40 countries. But, like many multi-nationals in a post-GFC business environment, it’s been forced to reassess its human resources strategies.
Jo Nicol came on board as GM, organisational development, three years ago, at a time when a few years with very little investment in education and training meant there was a lot of strain in the organisation in terms of people.
“There was no organisational development function and leadership development and training were not aligned to business strategy. I’d agreed to a three month contract but soon saw this was going to be a three year commitment – and require quite a bit of cash in terms of investment. I also needed to know that senior management were ready for it.”
Today Fletcher Building has a Leadership Development framework, a Learning Council and Academy that has delivered programmes to 6,785 employees, a Diversity Council – and an annual employee engagement survey.
As well, bespoke programmes in 11 languages are delivered to the global workforce – and the efforts of Nicol and her team have earned the company a host of awards here and on the international stage.
It’s been done in bite-sized pieces; year one focused on building the basics. “I called it Make it Happen. We started with talent management. There were no clear development plans; no programmes that had any scale. I spent months on the road interviewing, walking round sites, talking to front-line people, asking what they needed to learn?
“We then mapped out the learning curriculum that’s now known as The Learning Academy.”
Year two was about making it stick, says Nicol. “Delivering a lot of learning to as many people as possible. The curriculum is vast – everything from compliance training like forklift driving, through to sales-call effectiveness, operational excellence and quite complicated leadership development.”
Given the global nature of the business and the number of different languages involved, Nicol says outsourcing trainers was the best solution.
“It’s a Fletcher Building branded, global curriculum, delivered for the local area by local trainers that speak the local language.”
They’re very much about on-the-site, in-the-job, frequently project-related training, “with relevant mentors and coaches helping people learn in real time. I think the dynamic approach we’re taking to learning is actually far stronger than what I’m seeing overseas”.
Employees access training in three ways. A team of learning business partners – one for each of the five main divisions in Fletchers – create learning calendars and identify people who will benefit from training, and the type of training which will be most relevant.
The second way is by nomination and applies particularly to the company’s leadership programmes.
The third, and perhaps most powerful driver, is word-of-mouth. “Most of our programmes have something like a 93 percent approval rating. So peer pressure has got to the point where people are thinking ‘I’ve got to go and do that’. In the last six months we’ve seen a massive trend for self-nomination.”
So is word-of-mouth also attracting fresh talent? “Yes it is. Development is an attraction but so is the fact that we’re very big on teams. People like knowing they’re coming to an organisation where teams work together.” (As year three has rolled around, reinforcing Fletcher Building’s status as the go-to company for people who want to get on is something Nicol is working on.)
Creating learning programmes that involve teams gave Fletcher’s an edge when their ‘Step Up’ programme took second place in the prestigious Leadership 500 Awards, announced earlier this year in Dallas, says Nicol. “A lot of corporates are still just spending on individuals.”
The Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2015 survey released earlier this year highlighted lack of employee engagement as the top issue for HR and business leaders. This is reinforced by The State of the Global Workplace: Employee Engagement Insights for Business Leaders Worldwide, which found just 13 percent of employees feel engaged at work.
New Zealand has one of the highest engagement rates – a modest 24 percent; by contrast, Fletcher Building’s latest global results are an impressive 67 percent – up four percent on last year.
But Nicol and her team aren’t stopping yet. They’re aiming for 75 percent to 80 percent within the next couple of years.
“Our vision as a team is to grow great people, to achieve globally; we’re about learning, we’re about change agility. We want to make our organisation one of the best places to work in Australasia across any industry. That’s our goal. And we’re getting there.”
A quite different approach to learning has been taken by United Technologies Building & Industrial Systems. It may not be a name that’s widely known in New Zealand, however companies such as Otis and Chubb, which come under the UTC umbrella, are respected brands and familiar names.
Learning and development is core to UTC’s culture, says the group’s Australasian president, Mark Brisson. Central to this is their Employee Scholar Programme (ESP), one of the most comprehensive company-sponsored employee education programmes in the world.
“UTC’s leadership believes in the absolute power of education to change lives and change the world. In addition, employees who participate in the programme generally choose to stay with us for longer, and advance more quickly within the organisation.”
Essentially ESP covers the full payment amount for tuition, course books and associated academic fees, and provides recipients with up to three hours paid time-off each week for study.
Employees are able to select their course from a wide range of educational institutions accredited by UTC; to qualify they need to have worked for UTC for a minimum of a year in a permanent or part-time role. “Providing different options in fields of study grants them access to fresh perspectives and problem-solving tools from outside our traditional fields of expertise.”
Roughly 40 percent of participants pursue advanced degrees, but UTC places no restriction on the path of study an employee opts into, nor do they expect it to relate to their current role.
“At 15 percent of participants to date, our New Zealand employees are well represented among the ranks of those who have taken up the ESP opportunity,” says Brisson. That’s around 150 of their New Zealand workforce.
Lance Grant is one who’s benefited from the opportunity. Now Chubb NZ regional fire manager, Wellington and Wairarapa, he started his UTC career as a monitoring operator and says his post-graduate Diploma in Management from The University of Waikato, has broadened his perspective on leadership, facilitating his career progression.
UTC’s programme is a huge investment in learning – over $1 billion globally. And, since its inception, in the late 1990’s, there are more than 35,000 college degrees to show for it. Aside from having “the best educated workforce on the planet” the payoff is two-pronged, says Brisson.
“First it increases employee engagement, retention and development, and second, it’s a driver of company and individual performance.”
The programme helps UTC attract top talent and recent internal data indicates that those who participate in the programme are 20 percent less likely to leave than their counterparts. “The question changes from ‘why should I stay with the company?’ to ‘why would I want to leave?’
“ESP helps people acquire knowledge and can prepare them for further career advancement within UTC, allowing us to build and retain a highly skilled workforce. As employees expand their knowledge and capabilities though a variety of courses they’re able to perform more effectively within their roles and this translates into heightened success for UTC at a company level.”
There’s a shared feeling of pride across their workforce that people are part of a company that values and invests in their personal development, says Brisson. “The Employee Scholar Programme is an investment in the future of our business. It fosters a culture of continuous learning and engages employees in their own development and progression. A highly educated and innovative workforce is critical to our business success.”