Q&A: learndirect Chairman, John Weston

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John Weston

John Weston of learndirect talks about the ongoing challenges his organisation faces, what he believes is the importance of the HRD function and his thoughts on what the overall people strategy should be for UK Plc.

Q1. What is your main role at learndirect?

A: I have been Chairman of the Board of Ufi Ltd, the organisation responsible for learndirect and UK online, since July 2004. I first became involved with Ufi when I joined the Board towards the end of last year.

Q2: What have been the main successes of learndirect in recent years?

A: Since its launch in 2000 learndirect has attracted more than 1.3 million learners who have taken more than three million learndirect courses.

It has established more than 2000 learndirect centres located in the heart of local communities and worked with thousands of employers of all sizes to develop the skills of their workforces.

A particular success of learndirect has been its ability to engage with learners categorised as “hard to reach”. For example Ufi research has identified that many learndirect learners struggled with traditional classroom education, or had negative experiences at school. learndirect’s informal, flexible and bite sized approach to learning has proved to be extremely appealing to this group. This is an area in which we are making a huge difference not only to the lives of these individuals, but also to the ability of this group to contribute to the UK’s productivity.

Finally learndirect has raised the profile of e-learning as an important element of the training mix. Ufi does not hold the view that e-learning could – or should -completely replace traditional training methods. I believe, however, that through learndirect we have started to challenge the perception that all training has to be completed face to face in a classroom. E-learning is increasingly valued as a complement to other training methods providing a cost-effective, flexible and innovative solution to the training needs of the workforce.

Q3: What are the ongoing challenges for learndirect?

A: learndirect is primarily aimed at two markets, providing basic skills training and business training for small businesses. We also operate an advice line to provide impartial advice on solutions to individual’s training and learning needs.

There is a considerable challenge for learndirect in developing its impact even further into particularly difficult areas, for example reaching more small businesses and people with literacy and numeracy – what the government calls ‘Skills for Life’ - needs or those qualified below GCSE equivalent level. We have made considerable inroads, but there is a lot more to be done.

learndirect needs to convince employers in small to medium sized enterprises that we have a high quality low cost solution to their training needs. Most small businesses recognise the value of training, but many struggle to create enough time for their staff to be released for training.

Online learning has a huge advantage in enabling the training to be done in the workplace, and to fit in with the pressures of small business operations. A recent learndirect survey found that 68% of HR Directors said that their employees found it difficult to make time to train, whilst 34% said that employees found time a barrier to completing their training.

A major challenge will be overcoming scepticism about e-learning as a valid and effective training method. A challenge which stems from our success in engaging with “hard to reach” learners is that learndirect needs to encourage learners to progress.

We often provide the first step back into learning for adults who previously felt excluded from learning but if we are to contribute towards the productivity of the UK we have a key role to play in encouraging and enabling these learners to continue with their learning and ultimately to gain valuable skills for work and qualifications.

Q4: How does a tight labour market and changes in the external environment impact on employee development and recruitment plans?

A: When the labour market is tight employees can be choosy about where they want to work. Employers committed to lifelong learning and developing their staff are likely to be more attractive than those who don’t. A far-sighted employer can readily appreciate the benefits of offering real development opportunities. We need to be able to offer these employers a quality training solution, which delivers, with minimum disruption to their business.

Q5: What can employers do to engage their workforce to meet business strategy?

A: Employers must find a way of explaining their business strategy to all employees, not just the senior management team. They need to ensure that each employee understands how they as individuals, their team and their department contribute to its success.

Employees need to feel valued to perform to the best of their ability. Providing opportunities to progress at work or to learn new skills make employees feel valued. Increasingly an investment in training and development is seen as an important part of the employee benefits package.

Employers should communicate to staff that this commitment to workforce development is as much about achieving business objectives as it is about giving them opportunities and gaining new skills. It’s also important for employers to stress to employees the direct links between investment in training and employee development and business effectiveness: figures from Investors in People show that companies which have the IiP standard generate £353 revenue per employee per year on average – 50% more than companies without the standard.

Q6: What do you think is the importance of the HR function? How can HR help businesses deliver their strategy?

A: An effective HR department can add tremendous value to any organisation. In an organisation undergoing extensive change, or under real pressure, they can make the difference between success and failure. As in many sports the real challenge is doing the simple things really well. Employees and staff are rightly a demanding and critical audience.

They can tell the difference between the managers who demonstrate real leadership and those that talk a good game but behave differently. They know whether a company really values and works at its appraisals system, and whether the company manages low performance well.

They know whether the development needs discussed with employees are turned into delivered effective action, or whether they can expect the same unfilled recommendations at their next rushed annual appraisal. They know whether talent is recognised, nurtured and developed in their organisations, and whether it is likely to offer them the best prospects for the future. A good HR function cannot deliver these critical contributions without good line management but funnily enough in organisations with good HR departments you usually find good line managers.

Recent learndirect research which looked at how more than 500 large employers using e-learning found that there were significant challenges, as well as benefits, to its use. Many companies reported initial scepticism about the effectiveness of e-learning as a training method. However those HR departments willing to try new ideas and combine traditional and innovative training solutions found it paid dividends.

Twenty-six per cent of respondents perceived that successfully embedding e-learning within their training and development plans allowed them to train a higher proportion of their workforce for lower cost. Its flexibility, accessibility and cost were highlighted as its major advantages.

The research also found that the most successful use of e-learning occurred when HR teams worked in tandem with senior management to develop an e-learning strategy that was aligned to wider corporate objectives.

Q7: What would you say should be the overall people strategy for UK Plc in the next five years?

A: The UK has a real problem with its attitudes towards vocational education and training. The low regard in which vocational skills are held has been an issue for many years and unless employers work hand in hand with government to create parity of esteem between vocational and academic routes the skills gap will continue to grow. For example the government’s 50% target for participation in higher education needs to be carefully positioned so that it is not seen to downgrade further the importance of technical skills.

A small step in the right direction can be found in the recent Queen’s speech which announced that child benefit will be available to teenagers aged between 16 and 19 who are doing training or vocational courses, rather than the benefit just being available to those in full time education.

Industry has a key role to play in advising the government on those areas where skills shortages are currently most apparent and where they are likely to occur in the future. A medium to long term view of the skills deficit will allow the education and learning and skills sectors to plan their provision accordingly.

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