Charles Jennings has close to 25 years' experience developing and deploying technology-supported learning. Donald H Taylor talked to him about his approach to learning and why he doesn't believe that training is always the answer.
Charles Jennings, global head of learning at Reuters is responsible for the learning of some 18,000 people working in Reuters offices in 91 countries world wide. That's an enviable position of responsibility, but Jennings hasn't reached this point via the route you would necessarily expect. And having got there, he is not resting on his laurels.
A former professor at Southampton Business School, Jennings has an academic credibility which informs his frequent public speaking, and this background also strongly influences the way he works at Reuters. "I look for data and evidence first" he says. "Opinion is not nearly as important. I will always drive for change by providing evidence and good solid research to back up what I'm saying."
Jennings also points out that at the business school in Southampton his role included running a research centre that was actually a small business – and very profitably too. Not all his business background has been small scale though. Previous roles include time building performance support and learning solutions as a strategic technology director in the transactions business at Dow Jones.
This wide background, including practical business experience, has, says Jennings, helped him focus on the reason every organisation is engaged in learning and development. "That can be summed up in one word: performance."
The L&D profession knows that learning and development helps performance, but that simple correlation is not strong enough for Jennings. Thanks to internal staff surveys, he is able to assess the contribution of learning and career development as a driver of employee engagement (it plays a leading, measurable role). He is also willing and able to cite industry data to support his chosen approach.
"Data shows that employees who work for managers who are effective at developing people show a 25% performance increase over people who work for a manager who is ineffective at developing people, and a 39% increased likelihood of staying with their employers. My aim is to ensure that managers are engaged in learning that is aligned to their business needs, and then to deliver my part of that learning as effectively and efficiently as possible."
This stress on the role of the manager is a crucial part of Jennings' approach: "Managers have to be involved," he repeatedly says in the course of our conversation. "You can't do it without them." And, as always, there is published research behind the point he is making. "Mary Broad showed in 1992 that a manager's active involvement before a learning event is the most important determinant of success and improved performance. And manager support afterwards is almost as important."
Yet improving the effectiveness of formal training is only one part of what Jennings is focused on - 10% of it, to be exact, because Jennings divides learning activities into three types. At Reuters they use the 70:20:10 approach. Jennings explains "70% of learning takes place on the job, 20% through coaching and mentoring and from the individual employee's networks, and 10% through formal courses".
Once again, we are back to data and the vital involvement of managers in learning.
However, Jennings is unwilling to allow managers in indulge in what David Wilson calls the 'conspiracy of convenience', where managers ask for training, and training departments supply it, regardless of the value to the organisation. "Performance is a function of knowledge, skills, motivation and environment," he says. "Learning and development can affect the first two. Managers have to take responsibility for the rest." To avoid managers ducking responsibility for motivational and environmental issues, Jennings has encouraged the adoption of a formal performance consulting approach to help them identify and tackle such issues.
As well as building a culture where managers take responsibility for performance challenges that don't stem from a lack of knowledge or skill, Jennings says it's also important to get down into the detail: "You also have to look after the plumbing." With an L&D budget of several million pounds, efficiencies in delivery are crucial. One example: since taking on his role in 2001, he has rationalised the number of L&D suppliers from over 3,000 to under 1,000. That reduces the administrative cost in delivering training. It is crucial, however, says Jennings, not to focus entirely on activity.
"I'm not so interested in measures of activity, like number of training days delivered," he says. "They are a means to an end. Chasing level 1 Kirkpatrick results and activity measures puts us at risk of what I call 'perfecting the irrelevant'. The focus must always be on the end point: improvement in performance – individual performance, team performance, and organisational performance."
This focus will be keenly felt in Jennings' current work. The two information giants, Reuters and the Thomson Corporation, are currently merging into a single company and Jennings is driving the integration of learning and development between the two organisations.
"We have two large companies with different learning infrastructures, different content libraries, and a large amount of bespoke and generic learning content, as well as a wide range of workshop and classroom programmes. Rationalising that while maintaining a focus on performance is going to take some work," he says with a glint in his eye.
That's certainly true. Then again, for a man who's already driven a lot of change over the past 25 years in the world of learning and development, it sounds like the perfect next challenge.
This article first appeared in April 2007.
To read Andrew Mayo's article, which calls for more on-the-job learning, according to the 70:20:10 rule, click here
Nigel Paine also calls for a more enlighted approach to informal learning. To read his comment click here