An engineering company discovered the significance of the engagement of sponsoring leaders when it trialled a blended learning package with its managers. “For the learning to be properly embedded, the line manager needs to do so much more than just allow the time and space for the learning to take place,” reflected Kelly Langley, learning and development advisor for Briggs Equipment.
Briggs Equipment is a forklift truck and materials handling equipment sales, hire and servicing business. Its Staffordshire based head office manages the usual finance, operations, IT, sales, marketing and HR functions and is supported by other service-based depots throughout the UK. They have a team of over 600 field based engineers working all over the country, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Briggs has a history of commitment to learning and development and Alison Field, head of HR and Kelly Langley, learning and development advisor, are always on the look out for new ways to inspire and upskill the 1,200 strong workforce.
When the pair came across the OBD Academy, they were interested to see how its blended learning approach could bring individualised and in depth business education to managers across all departments. They were particularly curious about how the one-to-one coaching element of the package would add value to the online learning.
Alison and Kelly were aware from the start of a number of challenges posed by the nature of their firm, which is one of the largest employers in Cannock.
Alison said: “Most of our managers are home grown and come from an engineering background. Their technical skills are of course second to none, however like other engineering companies, we still need to develop the soft skills, commercial awareness and leadership aptitudes of our managers to be as strong as their technical abilities”.
“A further challenge to L&D,” said Kelly, “is that half our employees are field based. Out on customer calls all over the UK, they don’t have the opportunity to check in to head office often and can find it challenging to travel here for classroom based training.
“For this reason we were very keen to trial online learning. The fact that the coaching provision was Skype based and could therefore take place anywhere was an additional appeal”.
Twenty five managers made up the first cohort of learners. A mixed group, they came from across the operations, H&S and finance departments. Keen to also experience the programme themselves, Alison and Kelly each enrolled on a different discipline, Alison taking on Financial Awareness and Kelly, Active Leadership.
OBD Academy currently offers six complementary disciplines, which combine to give a strong all round understanding of how a business operates. Each discipline comprises of six modules, which the learner works through at their own pace. At the end of each module there is a one-to-one coaching session to help embed learning. Every discipline is taught with a mix of on- and offline materials, with the learner being required to undertake practical work-based assignments throughout.
“Overall, the feedback from our first group of learners was very positive,” said Kelly.
“Some of the managers were initially hesitant – particularly those who had not experienced any kind of academic learning before – but most saw it for the positive challenge that it was.
“Having experienced the completion of a discipline each ourselves, we knew it wasn’t easy, but that there was plenty of reward if you really threw yourself into it.”
Alison was particularly impressed with the quality of the coaching relationship that developed throughout the course. She said: “Coaches were matched to learners on personality and professional background and in nearly every case, a good fit was found. We had one learner who reported they could not get along with their coach. A second was allocated and was found to be a better match.”
The majority of the managers had not experienced a personal coaching situation before and were full of praise about the benefits. Feedback included: “The coaching relationship was 100% important to my learning. Talking through the assignments with Russell… challenged my thinking in different ways. It really brings you out of your ‘tunnel vision’ that we all have at times” and “I cannot speak more highly of Andy. He was excellent. The choice of coach was pivotal; not only did we start off on similar career paths but we had similar interests (football), which really helped to build a relationship.”
Every learner surveyed at the end of the discipline rated the importance of the coach at nine or ten out of ten.
The second cohort, of 24, included some learners from cohort one, now commencing their second modules and some new starters. Having now monitored two cohorts through through OBD Academy, Kelly and Alison are clear about which employees will benefit the most.
Said Kelly: “We had one person who was brand new in a management role and was very keen to do the leadership course. But because of the aspects of self-reflection needed to really engage with the content, we didn’t feel they had enough experience.
“The OBD Academy definitely suits people with at least a few years of leadership and management behind them. They don’t need to have studied business before, but the learning is aimed at those with a substantial work history.”
The HR department themselves went through an important learning process between cohorts one and two. Kelly highlights three particularly striking insights.
“The first was the paramount importance of a thorough briefing before a learner commences a module,” she said. “The commitment they need to make is not insubstantial at around 10-15 hours a month for around six to eight months. And it’s not just book learning; there are practical, work-based assignments to carry out and then unpick with your coach.
“We felt the second cohort was set up for a much stronger start as a result of a better introduction. Because Alison and myself had experienced the training first hand along with cohort one, we were able to set the scene 100 percent more effectively.
The second insight Kelly gained related to the programme’s sponsoring leaders.
“After feedback from cohort one, we realised we mustn’t underestimate the importance of the engagement of the sponsoring leader, that is the line manager of the learner.
“For the learning to be properly embedded, the line manager needs to do so much more than just allow the time and space for the learning to take place.
“An effective sponsoring leader will have a good knowledge of the syllabus the leaner is tackling and will be able to ask pertinent and in depth questions.”
Kelly sees the support of the sponsoring leader as of equal importance to the relationship built up with the OBD Academy coach.
“After all,” she said, “the coach works with the learner for six hours, whilst their line manager plays a significant role on a day to day basis. With the second cohort, we worked hard to communicate this with the sponsoring leaders.”
The third observation made by the L&D team has been that there is no obvious benefit in starting the learners off in clusters.
Said Alison: “Third time round, we won’t do bulk release. As the learning is self-directed, all learners finish in their own time, so there was no gain from starting them off on the same date. In future we will offer flexible start times to fit around people’s other commitments. There is much more to be gained by learners choosing a start date that works around the rest of their schedule than everyone leaving the starting line at the same time.”
Word has spread throughout the company about the OBD Academy and managers are now approaching HR asking to enrol. And Kelly and Alison are only too keen to oblige.
Said Alison: “Done badly, L&D activity can have a ‘sheep dip’ mentality: line every one up, make them sit in a chair and attend a course, and then tick a box to say it’s been done.
“Learning with the OBD Academy is at the other of the spectrum. The course materials for all six disciplines are excellent, the practical, work-based assignments bring real world significance and the one-to-one coaching element really takes it up a level from self-directed learning.
“The OBD Academy has become an integral and popular part of our learning and development offer and I am looking forward to seeing the commercial benefits of the management and leadership upgrade it is helping Briggs Equipment to achieve”.