In this episode of the Learning at Large podcast, I talk to Sam Taylor. A learning leader for nearly 20 years. Sam believes in putting the learner first and has found ways to achieve that scale by shifting the conversation from training to development. We talk about digital first learning strategies, how to build a successful learning culture in your organization, and finally, why confidence is an important indicator of effectiveness.
Sam has led large scale digital learning programs at Barclays, Tesco, and Hitatchi Rail, reaching audiences of up to half a million people. In one project alone, she saved the business two million pounds by thinking about and optimizing the time to learn.
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Simon: To get us started, I was just wondering if you could introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your experience as a learning leader in its broader form.
Sam: I have been in elearning for probably—scarily—the last 20 years now. I started off working as part of a team, building some of the first online executive education programs, and then fell out of the industry and then came back into the industry having worked for companies like Barclaycard, working with Tesco, most recently working with Hitachi Rail. I left there at the end of last year, and I’m currently working on a six-month project in another organization. Amongst all of that, I suppose—from a digital learning perspective—I was also heavily involved with the elearning network. About five or six years ago I was actually the chair of the elearning network— so not only was I involved in the community, I was also involved in that board of directors, organizing events and being a mentor, and generally just trying to evangelize about elearning and digital learning in the industry. Because it was the people in that network that taught me so much about the topic, that I then wanted to share on with this.
Simon: I know you’ve got some really strong opinions about what effects digital learning can have on learning programs—more generally, in the learning ecosystem. Can you name an initiative that you’ve been involved with or most proud of over the years?
Sam: There’s been lots of little individual projects. One of the first things that delivered real value was when I was at Barclaycard. It was everybody’s favorite—not—and most common experience with digital learning, which was compliance learning. We’d just introduced a learning management system. Everybody had gone crazy creating compliance learning. It was all built in different ways; every single module was slightly different, and they had all been released at exactly the same time. At the time I was working quite closely with the contact centers, who were servicing customers from a business perspective. We could put a financial value on the amount of time you spent doing compliance learning versus how many customers we were able to serve.
So, one of the projects there was looking at how could we make simple changes to that content to actually improve the experience. Just by doing things like skipping straight to the test, just by standardizing the way in which it was built, just by enforcing a maximum time duration for that module and being consistent about whether there was or wasn’t an assessment in it, we saved over two hours from our annual compliance calendar—which equated into something like two million pounds of savings from just the contact centers alone. So, it more than paid for actually redeveloping the modules.
That, from a very simple perspective, was just minor tweaks add up to something that has a massive financial impact—and also begins to improve that perception of what elearning is inside of an organization. And then, I suppose, more recently—sort of from a digital perspective—Tesco. That experience was around helping other L&D practitioners inside the business get on that digital learning journey—that it wasn’t about losing your job and actually how could you simply create digital learning resources.
Then, within Hitachi Rail, it was taking that step on the next level. We started in a business that had only 250 people. By the time I left, three and a half years later, we had nearly 13,000 people in it, because we had grown that much through acquisition and generally just scaling for the projects we were working on. That was an environment where, for the UK operation, there was no real L&D, so we built an L&D function from scratch. In that environment, it was looking at how do we not create your typical traditional L&D function? How do we actually drive a digital learning-first agenda and actually say we’re going to still have workshops, because they still add value, but they’re going to be minimal? So how do we actually then build and curate more of a resources—not courses—more of a microlearning-type approach to people’s development to begin to build a learning culture, I suppose, as much as anything?
Simon: What do you think the role of an L&D function should be, then, and how do you support that kind of culture of learning?
Sam: I think it’s around not being order takers. It’s around looking at where the performance needs are inside of the business. That’s where we should be starting; that’s where everybody talks about we should be starting. It’s about getting an idea of what are the main challenges for people in their roles that stop them from being able to perform. Often, it’s just sheer volume of information and processes that have potentially been thrown at them in course after course after course. I’m beginning to say, hang on a second, the brain can’t cope with that.
As an L&D function, how can we strip some of that back, how can we look for—do we need to tell you this, or actually is it a checklist? There’s some content that will probably always get created or you just curate it because it’s always there and it always exists. It’s things like management and leadership skills—how to have difficult conversations, how to be a great coach. There are tons of resources out there that actually don’t necessarily require you creating a brand new module from scratch, but you can pull those together to create something that will help that audience on the day-to-day basis.
What is, I suppose, almost more information, and then what’s going to help build a learning experience? So, how can we put you in an experience? How can we encourage you to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well, and how can you apply that back in your role? That’s the silver bullet. How can we make sure that, and ensure that, you are motivated and engaged and/or feel equipped enough and confident enough to go back into your role and go, “Right! I can have a brilliant coaching conversation.”
Simon: It’s amazing the attention to detail you have with that kind of learning experience and the curation of it. How do you identify the gaps that need to be filled from within the organization rather than resorting to off-the-shelf or Google-style resource content?
Sam: A lot of the time, we’ll go out and have a look at what are existing courses on a particular topic title typically covering. I think in terms of the curate versus create debate—when I build a blend for content, I would say probably a good 50 to 70 percent of that is stuff that I found somewhere else. Now, it might be online resources that you subscribe to, finding stuff you’ve already paid for that people aren’t always the most proactive in going out and actually accessing them, actually pulling some of those resources in to make it more clearly signposted for the learner.
I mean, I rarely buy typically off-the-shelf content. I’m not always a massive fan of the quality of it, and I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement in the whole learning experience. And sometimes, even in the way in which it’s built, there’s still a lot of stuff that isn’t actually designed to work on mobile phones. And sometimes, it’s around what’s the content that actually is really contextually driven? How do we pull out… The stuff that’s going to be really meaningful—for me as an individual, is applying it in my world. So how can I pull out examples that feel like my world? And again, sometimes the problem with a lot of off-the-shelf content is that it still feels very corporate.
Simon: Yeah, a lot of what you’re saying adds up—you know, you’ve got that more modular way of breaking things down to short chunks, not having the off-the-shelf with the shirt and tie, which is not like you and your working environment. They’re all elements of personalization, aren’t they? Getting closer to the person taking part in this, and closer to their needs and requirements. Personalization is kind of bandied around, and people have all sorts of strange definitions of it, but those are the kind of real tangible ways that you can do it quite simply and effectively. Do you have any other examples of how you might provide a more personal experience with these kind of vast audiences that you reach out to?
Sam: Other ways that we’ve tackled personalization before have been by using upfront diagnostics. So, if you have—let’s call it a typical course that has a number of component parts to it—you might ask a series of questions upfront about those components to almost assess where your knowledge level is or what your previous experience is. And as well as asking those questions around knowledge, also asking those questions around how confident are you in this? Because I think that can sometimes be quite useful from a personalization perspective. You might have somebody who is really, really confident but badly fails every single question. So, there’s a disconnect there. And you can also have the opposite—someone who’s not very confident, but actually you know you stuff and it’s a way of reassuring you that actually you’ve got all these questions right. So, you do know what you’re doing and begin to build up your confidence that way.
Simon: How are you—at the same time as looking at the time-saving receipt time, which is beneficial to the learner as well, of course—how are you showing the effectiveness of the actual learning intervention itself?
Sam: Ah, the evaluation. Some of the stuff we were doing was around running focus groups. How do we know that the way in which we all did—not the specifics of this content, but how do we know the way in which we’re delivering this material is of benefit to people in the business? That would be through focus groups or poll surveys, or something like that. Another thing that we were looking at doing was not doing sort of your typical level one happy sheet, but actually coming in maybe a month or three months later and again doing a bit of a survey around: How confident do you now feel? How do you use these skills? What has stopped you? As much as anything, to try and say, “Have you literally just closed down that module and forgotten all about it, or have you gone back to that concept and how to look at it?”
So, I suppose, not necessarily anything historically that I’ve done that has been really really quantifiable in that sort of metric sentence, but then I’ve been lucky enough to be in an environment where I’ve never had to provide that. Sometimes, I’m sort of the opinion that I don’t even care if people have even gone and looked at the content. It’s more, can they do their job? It’s the performance measure.
Simon: You talk a lot about building a continuous learning culture. Do you see that your role would be to over time have less and less work to do, to allow that ecosystem to take care of itself?
Sam: I’ve spoken a lot of times in a couple of rows about my ultimate aim is to do myself out of a job—that’s when I know I’ve succeeded. I think it is either Nick Shackleton, James or Clive Shepherd who wrote about the L&D profession as a honeybee, and it still sits in my mind is where our roles go to—our role transforms. We hop between places to bring information together. Often, we’re in a privileged position within a business to be able to see more broadly across things. So, one of the things I’ve always done is looked at the horizon, and so I said, “Well, you’re doing that there, and you’re talking about that there. So, how can we come together and actually do this once?”
So, there’s things like curation skills that we’ll be looking at. There are things like facilitation skills. We will still facilitate; we just won’t be delivering courses.
Simon: I like the way you cut through the noise with your thinking. You’re getting to some of the fundamental points — what does someone want to just go and do their job. And that seems to come across in so much of what you’ve said. It’s not really the norm, is it?
Sam: I suppose in some ways it does feel still quite aspirational, and I’m not sure I always crack it. What I’ve been doing in the last year or so I’ve been reading an awful lot around neuroscience and cognitive science, and not specifically from an L&D perspective, but around change and employee engagement. I’ve read a couple cracking books in the last year—there’s Hilary Scarlett’s book on neuroscience and change, and then there was another one by Paul Brown I want to say… that’s all about change and the fair free organization. And then, Daniel Cable’s book on alive. They’re all about—a lot of them cover the same things in terms of how the brain works, but also what stops us from changing. So much of what L&D is about is actually about change.
Simon: And have you got any tips or tricks for enabling someone to want to change, or to identify the change? How do you play that back in a way that gives them motivation to want to change, want to learn?
Sam: I think most of it happens before you even sit down in front of that P.C. or in that classroom. It’s about the communications. I mean, again, learning’s role changes because it becomes less about that today. We’re going to run 15 courses on this too. What are the campaigns and the initiatives in space? That’s what I’ve started thinking more about cultural and organizational development in the past year or so. Because it’s a longer process. It’s seeded in so many different areas. It’s about the comms campaign, it’s about the engagement with senior leadership. It’s about if certain factors are off. If you don’t have a permission to learn, if you don’t have the psychological safety and the trust to do things differently and potentially to fail, then you’re going to be resistant to doing the change, because you’re going to get sacked.
It could be potentially the mentality that people will have. If I look this up, my PDA will be rubbish and I won’t get a bonus. It’s another thing that I’ve heard over the years. So, it’s those organizational factors that actually will influence the success of any learning program, which is why I’ve started to look more broadly at what’s going to tip the balance. Because pushing out a course isn’t always going to do it.
Simon: We were just talking before the call about our shared experience of organizational development—what would be your tips for a CLO to think more broadly about the impact they have in the business?
Sam: I think it goes back to looking at how do we affect business strategy. Where can we help the business succeed by working with a specific business department? Some of that could just be through coaching, or it might be enabling managers to have better coaching skills in a more traditional sense, or it might be—from an organizational perspective—we need to look at what managers are being asked to do on a daily basis, if they have the time. It’s sometimes around what of those environmental factors. If you’re talking about digital learning, does everybody have access and a decent Wi-Fi connection to a device? What if that audience isn’t the most digitally literate in the world—how are we going to tackle that? Just thinking about things like that, that transcend potentially a small trunch of what happens in an organization to think more broadly, I suppose.
Simon: You’ve mentioned Hilary Scarlett and Daniel Cable books around how we think. If you were going to speak to an aspiring CLO on how they would manage scalable learning, what book would you recommend to them?
Sam: For me, it was things like Jane Hart at Modern Workplace Learning, the stuff that Harold Jarche writes, Life in Perpetual Beta. There are books such as Clive Shepherd’s on blended learning; Nigel Paine’s recent book on workplace learning—that was really useful when I was reading that at the start of this year, more as a reflection about going along part of that journey and what worked and what didn’t work.
I mean, often it’s not books. Often, it’s Google. And actually, the best source of all is either organisations such as the elearning network or Twitter. Half the time, I’ll go onto Twitter and I’ll ask my personal learning networks, and that’s the way I’ll learn—it’s the connections that you have through LinkedIn and reading some of their posts. That has been what’s helped me the most over the past decade or so—those connections.
Simon: And, Sam, how can people listening to this follow you on Twitter?
Sam: My Twitter handle is @samt_el.
Simon: Great stuff, Sam. Thanks again for today, and I look forward to catching up with you soon.
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