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Archive for April, 2013

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I am a great fan of curation and use Scoop.It on a regular basis to bring together and publish articles and blogs on key areas of interest. One of my curates is called “New Leadership” and a couple of weeks ago one of my Twitter followers asked me what I meant by that. It was a fair question and following the death of Margaret Thatcher, it was one which got me thinking about the way that our concept of leadership has changed over the last couple of decades.

Margaret Thatcher was always held up to be a great leader (at least by her supporters). “Strong” “Fights for what she believes”, “Clear Vision”, “Doesn’t have time for dissenters” were the sorts of phrases which were used to describe her. But leaving aside the politics, I never really bought into that concept of leadership. Even in the 80’s, I sensed that things were changing and that we were looking for very different characteristics in our future leaders.

I think that view has been borne out by events. Nowadays, we want leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence who are collaborative, who engage with and empower their people and who seek consensus rather than conflict. I somehow feel that Mrs Thatcher would have viewed such people as weak and “wet” but if you look at most of the most successful companies on the planet, then that style of leadership has become the norm rather than the exception.

So what has changed over the preceding years? Many things in my view. Firstly, we now operate in a genuine global market place. Our trading and political relationships have changed dramatically and we stand and fall by our ability to collaborate and work in partnership with countries and people whom we might previously thought of as being fortunate to do business with us.

Secondly, as organisations are re-structured to meet the changing needs of that global market, I would argue that there is less call for “leaders” and more need for leadership qualities to be displayed throughout an organisation. Listen to how many times, national team coaches talk about having “leaders throughout the team” to realise how far that concept has been taken. In my last role, I spent 8 years on the Executive Management Team of a global company and I cannot recall a single occasion when the CEO demanded that we follow a certain course of action. Did this mean he was weak? Far from it, he simply realised that he managed a team of highly experienced “leaders” and as such, the decisions we reached were far more effective because they had been reached following a robust and challenging debate. I somehow doubt that was a regular feature of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet meetings.

Finally, I think that people’s expectations have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. The global skills shortage, means that companies can no longer pay lip service to the hackneyed saying “Our people are our most important resource”. Talent retention and development at all levels are now a critical component of any decent strategic plan and this generation of workers will not accept the old, directional styles of leadership. They expect to be consulted and involved in decision-making and empowered to take genuine responsibility – not just simply given a job of work to do. Moreover, if they don’t get what they want, they simply leave. Loyalty is no longer a given.

It will be interesting to see how far these changes in leadership style evolve. I read a blog a couple of weeks ago entitled “Are CEO’s Defunct?” and there are certainly some companies who are experimenting with “leaderless” groups and teams. Indeed, our own business operates as a partnership with each partner “leading” where appropriate.

Whilst I don’t think that CEOs need to be quaking in their shoes yet, we have clearly come a long way in the last 30 years. One of the great quotes from the late Brian Clough was “I am a great believer in group discussions. We talk about it for 20 minutes and we then decide I was right”. Not any more Brian, not any more!

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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learning1-300x225The government appears committed to implementing many, if not most, of the recommendations of Doug Richard’s review on Apprenticeships. If you haven’t read the Review so far, you should try and do so. Unlike many past tomes, it is short, easy to understand and eminently readable and should therefore stand as a beacon for future such reports.
Most independent observers have quite rightly in my opinion, welcomed the review and the government’s commitment to its implementation. However, I wonder how many people have thought through the implications of these changes?

No More Apprenticeships for Competent Staff

Firstly, the government have made it clear that Apprenticeship funding will no longer be available for existing competent staff. That seems entirely appropriate. In the last couple of years, there have been too many examples of large programmes aimed at such staff whose purpose seemed to be little more than to gain access to huge amounts of funding. In the short-term, this could result in a significant fall in the number of new Apprenticeships.
However, there is a second more serious concern. Whilst existing “competent” staff should not be doing an Apprenticeship, there is every possibility based on government figures, that they will lack functional competency in Maths and English. Previously these skill deficiencies could be addressed within the Apprenticeship framework, but that route is no longer available.
Of course there will be those who say “So what – checkout staff and warehouse workers don’t need the equivalent of GCSE Maths and English in order to perform their job”. I think that is cynical, very short-sighted and in all probability, plain wrong. Our experience is that learners of any age and background who gain Functional Skills qualifications, become more confident in their own abilities, perform better, are more likely to seek and find career progression and are more engaged. Surely that is a scenario which any decent employer would want to encourage.
We would therefore urge employers who can no longer offer Apprenticeships to existing staff, to consider Functional Skills programmes as an alternative entry route back into learning. Unlike Apprenticeships, these courses are fully funded and can be run either as a standalone programme or in conjunction with other in-house training.

Are You Level 2 Ready?

The second area of the Richard Review which I want to highlight is the government statement that as from August 2014, all new Apprentices should be working towards a Level 2 (GCSE A-C Grade) qualification in Functional Skills. To date, the vast majority of learners on a Level 2 Apprenticeship have been working towards Level 1 Functional Skills qualifications and raising the bar is likely to result in a number of challenges.
Most Functional Skills practitioners would agree that the difference in standards between Level 1 and Level 2 is significant and inexperienced trainers who may have just about managed to get their learners to Level 1, will struggle without the necessary expertise, to get them any further. Employers therefore need to start planning now and ensure that their providers have the necessary expertise to deliver Level 2 Functional Skills. If not, their whole Apprenticeship programme is at risk
Implementing the Richard Review will therefore not be without its challenges. However that shouldn’t stop us doing the right thing. Challenges are there to be tackled, not avoided and the UK desperately needs a workforce with the appropriate skills for the 21st century. Like it or not, functionality in Maths and English has to be the basis of that skill set and we should therefore take advantage of the excellent levels of funding and the government commitment, to produce a more confident, engaged, higher-performing workforce.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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In a recent blog, I commented on the rapid development of “collaboration” both as a way of working and a way of learning. In this blog, I want to focus on the mechanics of making it work

1. Leadership from the Top

Collaboration simply won’t work unless there is genuine leadership from the very top of an organisation. So getting your CEO or head teacher on board is a key first step. That task is made so much easier if they understand how this new way of working will add value. Moreover, lip service simply isn’t sufficient. When I introduced Yammer into my last organisation, our CEO made a point of contributing every day and this sent out a very powerful message to everyone in the business.

2. Ownership Throughout The Organisation

You can’t force collaboration down people’s throats. Just as it needs to be led from the top, it needs to be owned by the organisation. If people are to commit to a new way of working, they need to understand what problems it will solve, how it will help both them and their teams perform more effectively, why it will make their work life more fulfilling. My approach was to identify some genuine evangelists and empower them to take responsibility and make things happen. That strategy was hugely effective, not simply as a way of implementing change, but of making it happen quickly and embedding it throughout the organisation.

3. Part of the Culture and Values

Collaboration isn’t something which can skim along the surface of an organisation. It has to be embedded deep within the culture and supported by an appropriate set of values. If openness, honesty, integrity and innovation are not contained within that value set, a collaborative culture is unlikely to gain ground.
In my last company, I knew that a collaborative culture would work because we had a set of values which clearly supported it. Moreover, those values had been developed by the people within the organisation – not handed down from on high on tablets of stone.

4. Social Networks Are A Great Facilitator but not the Total Answer

There are now a wide range of different Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) available of which Yammer is probably the best known. Yammer was acquired by Microsoft last year so expect it to be integrated into Office at some stage. If you are unfamiliar with ESNs, think about them as a combination of Twitter, Linked-in, Google +, a smattering of Linked-In and maybe even a bit of Facebook, but ONLY available to the members of a specific organisation. They are therefore totally private (unless you choose otherwise).
If you are thinking of introducing an ESN such as Yammer, my advice would be not to ram it down people’s throats, but to adopt a “softly softly” approach. I found that within 6 weeks of implementing Yammer into a global company, we had almost 100% of our people using it – not because they had been told to do so, but because they gradually started to see the value.
It’s important to remember that ESNs are facilitators. They are a great way to stimulate collaboration but they are not the complete solution. Without the other building blocks in place, they simply won’t work.

5. Quick Wins Are Important

The best way to win hearts and minds is for people to see positive effects at an early stage. So quick wins are important. We developed an Innovation project and used Yammer not simply for people to log ideas, but for others to build on them and to evaluate them using a “like” system. Within a few weeks, we had dozens of ideas flowing around our relatively small (200 people) company and many of these were agreed and implemented almost immediately via our “just do it” policy.

6. Focus on the Skills

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about “new “ skills required to successfully implement a collaborative strategy. I don’t buy that but I do believe there are a number of “existing” skills which need to become higher focus and practiced more regularly. Collaboration will take people out of their comfort zones and into working in new teams, many of which may be temporary, and working with new people, many of whom they may not know or whom in some cases, may not even work for the same organisation. I find that skills such as listening, questioning and giving feedback become particularly important in these situations.
Somebody once defined “listening” to me (and sadly they meant it) as “Waiting for the other person to finish speaking so that I can say what I want to say”. Real or “Active” listening is of course so much more than that. It’s about not simply listening to what someone has said but showing through body language and responses, that you have not only heard them but understood what they were saying and why they were saying it. In an era of conference calls, webinars and multi-tasking, it is skill which is often poorly used and one I will return to in future blogs.
Finally, I would just like to touch on the area of Emotional Intelligence EI). Again, it is a subject I will return to in the future, but I believe that the self-awareness, social awareness and relationship management, all of which form a key part of EI, are of huge significance in any organisation which values collaboration.

And Finally

So effective collaboration is never going to be easy. However, I am convinced that it is worth the effort. The potential benefits both in education and business are huge, not just for the organisations in terms of resource management and productivity gains, but for the individuals involved. Collaborative work places tend to be more fun to be in and contain people who are far more engaged with the organisation. Not a bad starting point in my view.

Roger Francis is a Director with Creative Learning Partners Ltd, a new vocational training company formed by the senior managers and staff of MindLeaders Learning Services following the acquisition of the company by Skillsoft in 2012 and focusing on the delivery of Functional Skills

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networkrailapprentices-370x229Recent data from the Department for Business and Skills (BIS) has shown that in the period August 2012 to January 2013, nearly 11,500 fewer people started an Apprenticeship programme compared with the same period in the previous year. That’s a fall of about 4.5%. So why is this decline occurring at a time when Apprenticeships are being so strongly promoted and is it something we should be seriously worried about?

What’s Causing The Decline in Numbers?

As always, this is a complex problem. Some analysts are blaming the lack of appropriate careers advice in schools and the continued promotion of “University” as the preferred route for students. However this scarcity of good advice, whilst regrettable, didn’t just start in August 2012 and until then, Apprenticeship numbers had been steadily rising.

I think we have to look more deeply at some of the changes which have taken place within the Apprenticeship arena over the last 6 months.

Firstly, there has been a clear shift in thinking from “quantity” to “quality”. There has been widespread recognition that some Apprenticeship programmes were being poorly delivered whilst other large-scale projects which were aimed primarily at existing, competent staff, are no longer supported. Moreover, the government has made it very clear in its response to the Richard Review, that such programmes will not be funded in the future. I believe that most providers and supporters of the Apprenticeship programme would support the move towards quality and if this results in a short-term fall in numbers, I don’t see it as a cause for concern. Apprenticeships should never be a numbers game nor a “sheep dip” exercise designed to tick boxes and draw down funding. They should be a stepping stone which gets people back into learning and on to the first rung of a career ladder.

Is Functional Skills The Real Problem?

Secondly, and I am surprised that no-one appears to have pointed this out, I do not believe it is a coincidence that this sudden decline in Apprenticeship numbers has coincided almost exactly with the mandatory introduction of Functional Skills into the framework. I suspect that some providers and organisations offering Apprenticeships, may have become much more selective about the people they put forward in the belief that many would-be Apprentices would not get through the rigorous Functional Skills programme.

If that is the real reason for the decline in numbers, then I am extremely worried about the short-sighted nature of this reaction. There will of course be those people who will say “I told you so – we should go back to Key Skills”. That of course would be the easy solution – a few boxes would be ticked and Apprentices would progress. However, it would have done nothing whatsoever to address the skills crisis in the UK brought about primarily by poor levels of Maths and English.

A far more effective approach would be to ensure that Functional Skills can be delivered in a way that provides high success rates and motivates learners to progress rather than putting them off the entire learning process.

We set up Creative Learning Partners to do just that. We believe that Functional Skills is so important that it needs to be delivered by specialists and it needs to be delivered in an innovative and fun way which will engage learners and further develop their motivation to succeed. We don’t claim to be the only company delivering specialist Functional Skills programmes – there are some excellent other dedicated providers. However, we do know from feedback, that our learners genuinely enjoy our blended, technology-driven approach and our clients are equally delighted with our success rates and completion times.

Of course, Functional Skills is only part of the overall Apprenticeship framework. But functional Maths and English skills are vital not just if Apprentices are going to progress further within their organisations, but if UK Plc is to compete globally in the 21st century.

So please don’t let’s start looking backwards to Key Skills in order to reverse the decline in Apprenticeship numbers. Instead, let’s look forward and focus on making Functional Skills work both for our learners and for the commercial organisations who employ them and whose future success is dependent on the skills and abilities of their people.

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