The Skills Obsession: Why L&D Needs to Lose the "Men in Black" Mindset
May 4th, 2021
Satnam Sagoo, Director of Learning and Organizational Development at the British Red Cross
For some reason, we don’t listen enough to what our peers in the non-profit world can tell us about skills. But when a practitioner there says something like, “We see anybody joining us as an empty vessel: a bit like in Men in Black, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we up-skill you. That means we forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want, but we don’t have a way of actually capturing that and supporting that as a network,” we think a lot of ears will prick up in corporate L&D! If you agree, check out this deep dive into everything from skills frameworks (their seductions and their perils) to credentialing with Satnam Sagoo. Satnam works at British Red Cross, where she’s accountable for developing and delivering the organization’s learning and organization development strategy—creating an L&D offer that meets the need of all 5,000 permanent staff but also what can be at times of crisis 100,000 temporary and external volunteers. Is this the most heart-felt of all our looks at The Skills Obsession? We’ll leave you to judge—it certainly moved (and inspired) all of us.
Find out more about Satnam’s employer British Red Cross
Connect with her on LinkedIn
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Anybody joining us as an organizer, as an empty vessel: you come to us, a bit like the Men in Black pen, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we upskill you. We forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want to look for people, and we don't have a way of actually capturing that and we don't have a way of supporting that as a network.
L&D,we're all building frameworks—I’m sure all of you are— ultimately, we need to address how we are treating our people: are we empowering them, or taking that power away? Anybody who's in the people space of that HR family never says ‘no’ to the leaders, because we're so scared that if we say no, they won't come back to us, and this is the first time that top tables are talking to us. So we want to say, yes, we want to give them what they want to give; but we want to also say, actually now is the time to have that conversation. We're scared to push back—myself included.
Within our metrics, the things that we're using is obviously the kind of who's done it and not done it, that sort of stuff, but also the engagement and the repeated engagement. The mechanisms that we're using are also around the connection to wellbeing as well: are there measures that we haven't looked at to support individuals? We're doing wellbeing checking every quarter, which I think many organizations are doing, but we kind of connect it to the L&D portfolio because obviously I lead on that as well.
Teaching people to learn rather than teaching people the thing, and making sure that they're agile enough to adapt to their environments and find out what they need to know in order to deliver what they need to deliver. I think that’s pretty forward-thinking; I think organizations are getting there, but not as fast as they probably should.
It’s kind of emotional, but I'm really inspired by some other things that we do as an organization.
We often, as organizations, forget that people come to us with a massive skillset. And for us it's really about going, how does it work for you as an individual? How do I respect what you already bring? and we're working on a mechanism where we can support that and capture that. So for us, it's really about you come to us as a full suite as a person, so let's utilize that.
That was Satnam Sagoo, the director of learning and organizational development at the British Red Cross. Satnam is accountable for developing and delivering the British Red Cross’s learning and organization development strategy; her role includes creating a learning and organizational development offer that meets the needs of all of their people, which has 4,000 staff and 100,000 volunteers.
The difference between a humanitarian organization is that you find your way to our organization through a connection of the heart. Value to an organization like the Red Cross brings is that connection to the heart; to me, fundamentally that is the difference—that there is such a strong connection to your personal values and your heart. That's what a humanitarian organization offers outside of the normal organizations, and we have the same issues.
We met Satnam in 2018 as a part of our engagement with the International Federation of the Red Cross: we were taking a look at their learning strategy, not just for the internal learning that happened at the Red Cross, but also how they educated their volunteers to do the most good. The most amazing thing that I think we learned is that an organization of that size with mostly volunteers had some of the very same challenges that some of the organizations that we talk to.
I think Satnam brings a really interesting perspective from a skill standpoint, but it was also an incredibly inspiring conversation.
Satnam, welcome to Workplace Stories by RedThread Research; we’re thrilled to have you this morning.
Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here!
The first section of questions are just rapid fire questions, just to give us a sense for what you do and give our audience a sense for what you do. So the first question is, can you give us a quick overview of the British Red Cross, its mission and purpose?
So the British Red Cross is one of the Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies; it’s one of 192 across the globe. We are one of the oldest we've been in formation for 151 years this year. Our overarching statement is that we connect human kindness with human crisis. Our configurement, it really is about 5,000 staff and about 20,000 volunteers who give us up to sort of 35 hours a week, if not more. Then in addition to that, because of the sort of circumstances we live in, we have really grown our light-touch volunteers, which we call ‘community reserve volunteers,’ probably around the 80,000 mark. Our kind of overarching connection with the global movement is very much that we all around the corner and across the globe.
What do you do specifically for the Red Cross—what’s your job title, and how would you describe your work?
So I am the director of learning and organization development; I am responsible for the learning and L&D aspect for all of the British Red Cross, that's from everybody who's working with us to our light-touch volunteer. So we do all of the L&D offers. Yeah, so that's kind of us in a nutshell.
Okay! And what problems are you trying to solve?
What problems aren't we trying to solve is the question, I think. We do everything from introducing the kind of basic suite for mandated training all the way to that sort of expert level of learning and specifically role-specific learning, everything in between and the developments that we have.
It's been an exceptional time for us globally. So for us at the moment, it's very much about ensuring that we are reaching out to everybody that we can reach to, and that we are supporting them. So programs that we've been involved in have been very much around that voluntary within your national community, to your domestic environment, around supporting food deliveries, vaccination, all of those things—they’ve been passed the new kind of portfolio that we've been supporting people with.
We're doing a lot of work around building that, bringing our motto about connecting human kindness, recognizing that all of us are going through crisis in a different sort of way, so our very much our training framework has been about supporting yourself first and then supporting others. And that's where we've been in the last few months and the space that we've been in the last year, definitely. Parallel to that, we are also supporting every initiative that comes out, because every initiative seems to have a learning angle attached to it—whether that's the kind of very proactive Zoom and virtual learning environment that we're all in down to bite size and down to supporting our CEO, our leadership with how to take that in. And in addition to that, I'm also the wellbeing lead for the organization, which again, brings a lot to that narrative forward.
Right on—so you're not busy at all! Just a quick clarifying question; are you responsible for the 5,000 employees of British Red Cross as well as the 100,000 thousand volunteers there that are learning? Okay, great; what do you find the most challenging aspect of your work is?
It varies on a day-to-day basis, and we've got lots of things and constantly the business's appetite to have change and continuous improvement, which often means that you need to be connected at some point. And I would say in the last couple of years, we've got much better off me being in part of that conversation, so I'm actually currently leading a change program in the people space which is looking at culture, it's lifting up skills and capabilities, it looks at retention, so it's good to have been part of that question from the very beginning.
But the other challenge, as people know, is that any development still seems to be seen as ‘training' in some aspects, which won’t be new to any of your listeners. It's not new to anybody else, our culture’s growing to accept that that's not the case. So it's supporting that, and hence very much that conversation of leading my peers and our executive leadership through all of that.
But I would say there has been a challenge within 2020 and the kind of portfolio of work that we want to achieve going forward is one of the things that is probably imperative in many people's lives, but more so within the Red Cross is what we call digital poverty. That's been a substantive part of our organization, and how do we support people who are volunteering with us and who actually don't have access to broadband—all of the areas that come on digital poverty, and in particular, the conversations that we're now having by education, you know, people, children that are able to succeed are because they’ve got those available, but that is also recognized in our work and not just volunteers, our staff.
So if you think of what we do in the refugee space, how do we support people who don't have that? We've got a quote that says, you know, we're asking people to survive on 22 UK pence a day [$0.30], and what does that look like? So that is the humanitarian challenge, and that challenge is also there for our people; our people are also at home, and any humanitarian organizations, we are not renowned for our paycheck. So again, how are we supporting our infrastructure, and we don't want to create layers of those that have technology and those don't. So it's been the one that's been our biggest challenge.
I love that because you're supporting volunteers as well as full-time people. And sometimes we think of communities like yours, NGOs like yours, as completely different from the business world. But I'm actually hearing that challenge from a lot of business leaders as well; like not everybody has the same access to bandwidth, not everybody has the same access to technology. And so how are we solving that problem? So we're really excited to get some of your insights on that.
Let's switch gears just a little bit and talk about skills more broadly. You mentioned skills and knowledge; you know, it's a pretty broad concept, we’re doing some research on it right now—skills are just very broad. What does that word mean to you?
I think in the classic sense, if we were to draw back, it's the kind of thing I wrote on my CV is probably still in a, in a version of my CV or my LinkedIn, you know, the skills that I have. And the reason I start with that is because that's probably how the world perceives skills, and when you're in this world of learning and development, it's a complete game changer, and we all know it's a multifaceted layer of how we support.
And that's where having that element of organization development is really keen to me. So I've just submitted a product page that goes to our board on Tuesday on the skills and capabilities that we need
to support our strategy for 2030, but also how do we continue to evolve in this world that is asking so much of us?
So there are portfolios of capabilities in the first instance, and they have great grand was like deductibility, empowering leadership, all of those fantastic titles. But in essence, what's needed is the infrastructure and cultural mindset to support that. And so our work is really about, we recognize that we need to be in the adaptability space and within that, there's a portfolio of skill sets. You know, there's a portfolio of skill sets from agile leadership, growth mindset, design thinking, critical thinking, you know, decision-making—all of that, that suite of things that we as L&D professionals would put under that, but what does that actually mean for everybody? And what does everybody need to know?
And if I was to really take something like adaptability, our biggest thing that we need to do is build that digital literacy in our organization. And that comes from the conversation we just had, which is around how do we support everybody, understand that level? And a great insight that we're doing is, almost to kind of say, this piece of training or learning is supported by—you know, how you're on your phone, it says is only supported by if you've got an app on iOS or Android, we want to do that kind of simple language for people, so that everybody knows. And that also from my kind of higher-up organizational perspective, we get the funding to support that, we can get the funding, that people can go and get what you're not going to have all of this old tech that doesn't support.
So that's the real granular level. And that's what we will call building sound foundations. And then we've segmented it into three phases, so building sound foundations is kind of like, just let us get the face line, right? And then there's maturing the baseline—so where do we need to be? And too often we found that skills are often something that ends up on your appraisal, you’d make tenuous links and connect it through adaptability strain.
But what we want to do is, you know, say, forget about it for year one. We're going to build the infrastructure you need year two, we need to assess you and kind of say, where are we? And it's no bad thing to be a novice or beginner. And where do we need to be as an organization ? Do we need to be at an expert level or are we effectively at that sort of beginner level?
Then that's maturing that baseline, so for us that skills portfolio has been stretched into understanding how do we implement that kind of development at infrastructure level at a cultural mindset level. And that's really when you'll get that buy-in and too often in the past, what we've done is sort of said, you need this course con decision-making. So go and do a course, tick the box. You've done the decision-making… Oh, nothing's changed in the organization. So this is really turning it on its head and kind of going, where are we culturally? Are we ready culturally? What cell culture now, what is it? If this is where we need to be, how do we get to the ‘B’?
I liked that—I like the fact that you're flipping it on its head. It seems like a lot of organizations are able to identify the skills that they need, but they put those skills in a culture that doesn't support it, which causes it to fail.
You talked a little bit about skills and capabilities; we’ve heard a lot of conversations about skills and competencies as well. Is there a difference between those for you, or are they one and the same?
I think in classic L&D language, there is a difference. Capabilities, that kind of family skills is more of that kind of, one of the elements of growing that capability. And in fact, we've got so much literature that covers that approach, so capability is very much seen—if you could grow it capability, you would grow it through the 70:10 methodology. If we were to talk about all our CVs and all our portfolios, most of us will put on a personal point, I learnt less through my academic qualification and I've learned more through my on the job experience. And so a capability has grown through that methodology just genuinely around that whole kind of area.
And even each other’s skills are broken down; so for example, if you think of something like decision-making, which we focus on quite a lot in the British Red Cross, is very much about what does that mean? What does that mean to you as a leader? What does that mean to you as an individual? And so for us, anything around equality, diversity and inclusion is part of that decision-making, and so those portfolios, each of those skills, is even broader, but for us it would be the capabilities that is the kind of overarching family that skill belongs to—and that we will endeavor to do it, deliver that through a much more blended approach.
So I went in to connect the dots between what you're talking about, kind of broadly with skills and specifically the mission around human kindness with human crisis. So what role do you see skills playing in the operations and mission of the Red Cross specifically?
Ultimately, we're an organization that's supported by donor funding. And what we see is that, as with every organization, we want to be able to deliver more with what we've got. We've been fortunate that during this time that we’ve been supported continuously from our donors and government, but we still want to be able to do that, and ultimately the goal of the organization is that purpose is efficiency in its broadest sense, but the reason behind that is so that we can reach more people. We need to be more aware of how many people we can reach, and as we go into the kind of fallout of what 2020 and 21 has seen to be, we know that our services will continue to be needed more and more. So for us, the whole upskilling and supporting our people is very much around how much more are we able to do with that resource—we want to make the organization efficient, so that doesn't necessarily mean in different ways, but we want to be able to utilize our resource. So really for us, it is being able to be the best we can to support those people in crisis.
And to maybe build on what I think I heard you say, it sounds like there may be a sense that with Red Cross, particularly because you can have so many volunteers who are donating their time, that there may not be kind of a big focus on, for lack of a better term, it's almost skill efficiency, which we certainly do have in the, in the private sector. But it sounds like they're very much so because, you know, just like any other organization you're constrained by resources and you're also constrained by people's sense of impact. And they want to be making an impact with the skills that they're contributing, so it sounds like there's some of the same constraints around skills and aligning to mission that we hear kind of in the traditional corporate sector.
Yeah, definitely. And I would say that we're no different from any other large organization of our size. The difference between a humanitarian organization is that you find your way to our organization through your connection of the heart, that value like an organization like the Red Cross brings is that connection to the heart.
And we have so many applications and I could talk about, you know, I was helped by the Red Cross I've met and my team takes pictures of wherever they see a Red Cross sign. So again, I think to me fundamentally, that is the difference—that there is such a strong connection to your personal values and your heart; that’s what a humanitarian organization offers outside of the normal organizations. And we have the same issues.
We also have some areas that, you know, we are supported by volunteers, but one of the things that we do as an organization is often think of them or anybody joining us as an organizer, as an empty vessel: you come to us, a bit like the Men in Black pen, someone wipes your brain out at Reception, you come through and then we upskill you. We forget you come with a commodity of a vast array of skills; that’s why we hired you, that's why you're supporting us—all of those things that we so much want to look for people, and we don't have a way of actually capturing that; we don't have a way of supporting that as a network. We have a phenomenal amount of people that come join us.
So a classic example of late, where we began to turn that around in the head is we've had to make all our buildings, which is not, I'm sure it's the same for many people, COVID-safe, and we have a very small health and safety team. So what we did was we actually wrote to people and said, is there anybody in the organization, within our staff and volunteers who has health and safety background, current kind of accreditation, all of that. And we had all 40 volunteers who had, who had run health and safety teams, and we were directors of health and safety, and they just said, of course I'll do this!
So we often as organizations forget that people come to us with a massive skillset. And for us, it's really about going, how does it work for you as an individual? How do I respect what you already bring? And we're working on a mechanism where we can support that and capture that. So for us, it's really about you coming to us as a full suite person—so let's utilize that.
Can I ask a question here? I'm really fascinated about the difference between if there is a difference between engaging and working with volunteers versus employees—and you do both, so you have a sort of unique view into that. There's something from the corporate world that makes me anxious about the lack of command and control, and I use those words very advisedly! Do you get volunteers who just say at the end of the day, look, I'm sorry, I can't do this, I'm walking away: what’s your observations on the different modes of engagement between a volunteer workforce in a paid workforce?
I think in the paid workforce, you always have the carrot and stick kind of approach that you can do. Thankfully, we do very little of the stick, I would say in the BRC which is always a positive; we can reach those people and we can get to them, we'd get information out. And then with volunteers, each individual is different. Some join us because they want a spirit of community and they want to be part of a team, some join us because they have a small amount of time available they want to use up, and then we have these layers of infrastructure people who fall in between.
What we have found, particularly because I'm analyzing my space, is we are looking at what we call collectively the people experience or the people's journey into the organization. And that's where we have the things that apply to everybody; it doesn't matter if you're a volunteer or a member of staff, and then the things that are sort of slightly different, which is the volunteer experience and the staff experience.
And what we have found is that through the organization, in what a volunteer wants from us is one point of contact, which we don't do; sometimes they might get 18 emails from different people in an organization where it says, do this, do that. In the learning experience, point to gate, they get lots of handoffs, and if you are already giving one day of your time a month, what you don't want is a deluge of stuff—what you want is one connection.
And that's what we get the most; we get please, make it simple, relevant to me, and then give me some sort of platform or an opportunity where I can go in and learn better. And our volunteers vote with their feet; If I don't like something, I can just go, I will go—I‘ll write to the CEO and then go, that’s a different conversation in its entirety—but I think it is what we all want; we want that great customer service, and we are growing, and that's one of the must-do skill sets that we want to ensure is that everybody gets a good customer service, internal and external, but recognizing that people have come to you as a volunteer because they've got an allegiance above anything else to this wonderful organization. And some will only want to learn a little bit; they’ll only want to know what's specific for their role; others will want to grow, and want to be part of that team. So it's really individual, but it's very much for us it’s supporting that people experience.
I think it's a really interesting sentiment. I know we've talked about this before, we were all in Switzerland a couple of years ago and we talked about some of the similarities between the Red Cross and working for a volunteer organization and working for the private sector, but kind of what you said, just drove that home.
We also work with organizations who are trying to provide a single point of contact, as you said through a lot of them are doing it through technology, but that's what individuals want and their learning experience is, Hey, tell me what I need to know and make it easier for me to find stuff and let me learn on my own. And I'll rise to the level that's appropriate for me and my role, or I'll rise to the level that's appropriate for me in my career. I think it's really interesting that even though the Red Cross may not use all of the technology that a lot of these organizations do to accomplish the same thing, the need is the same, which is striking to me.
And I think it's that there are words that we now use too much, and I think it's that having that empowered individual and often what we do is our infrastructure takes away that power, and then people begin to lose that instinct. So we go from a kind of very much a proactive learner, to a much more culture of can't do/won’t do, because we haven't supported people on that journey. Nobody turns up at your doorstep in an organization as an empty vessel, and nobody turns up to work intent to do a bad job. And in essence, that’s the heart of it, and we need to build as organizations, we need to build on that and to empower people and create a culture of that empowerment and where people can sustain, but often all organizations put in these barriers that disempower people, and we get a culture of helplessness.
That's really interesting, and I’m not sure I've ever put it together exactly like that, but some of the ways that we've done learning in the past have disempowered people; they've come to depend on the organization and expect the organization to spoon feed them, whereas most people learn naturally. And so if we could feed that from the beginning, we wouldn't have some of the problems that we currently have.
We've probably all been guilty of developing products like that, as well as just click here, do that three times over. It's also very human nature; we had a team of people who was supporting Reception, and someone would say, where are the bathrooms? And you'd get one of my Reception people would pretty much take you there, walk you to it, and then another would sit back and go you go down there, turn left, and you realize the different type of person they were.
And actually I would use that; that was one of my fundamental examples I used because it's so easy besides that one was empowering. One was seen as the most helpful because they took you there, but you wouldn't find your way again, cause you have to go through multiple layers of doors. So it's that style that we naturally fall to as well. We talk about empowering our people. But too often, we have created a culture of learning helpfulness because we've said, let me make it that easy for you that you don't even have to think.
Yeah, I like that a lot. I'd love to turn us a little bit back specifically to this skills topic, and maybe kind of raise this up a little bit. I want to kind of begin at one level and then we'll maybe dive down a little bit more deeply; we’re obviously doing this podcast called The Skills Obsession, and I have a question which is your take on why skills as a topic is so hot right now. Why are we talking about this—all of us in the industry, not just us here on the podcast?
I think it's because we've hit that wall of helplessness. So we've now got to this notion that actually what they're missing is this still, we haven't addressed the culture, but saying what they're missing is a skill. So of course, L&D that's your game, isn't it, that's what you do. So what you're going to do is you're going to give me a skills framework, you're going to take into that culture and you're going to build this skill for me because in two years time, they'll all come out and it’ll be fantastic. Won’t they?
But nobody’s spoken to L&D, but we're all building frameworks—I’m sure all of you are—and we're going, what? This is how we're going to fit in. Ultimately, we need to address how we are treating our people. Are we empowering them or taking that power away? And these obsession with skills is because five people can't work Zoom, they can't do this, or they can't do that, and now all of a sudden we've had this pandemic, it's requiring us to work in an agile and growth mindset: you’re hearing those words, aren't you, my skills, my looks at the same, you know, decision-making, design thinking or design thinking is another one, critical thinking, strategic thinking,—you know, all of these great titles and why are we doing that? Have I suddenly lost all ability to do any skills? Have we lost the ability to suddenly do online shopping. We've all done it, we’re all adapting, so I think it's really about how do we well skiing because of the recent kind of pandemic, which is only really, if you think about it, it's been a 12 month journey and we're all asking people to change their ecosystem, their behavior, their culture, by upskilling them. Now some will be ahead of the curve and already up-skilled, but actually you're not going to get to the majority, and you're going to have to say, the skilling is there, we will support you, but there is an element of change that we need to bring for everybody. That’s my kind of thinking,
Can I ask you, Satnam, do you think sort of the skills thing is a trend, or is it just relabelling a problem that we’ve always had?
So it's the Trojan Horse, you know, that's what it is; it’s been there always, you know, the growth for the people's family, HR learning and development has been massive, but what we didn't grow is the ability to say no. And we've always said yes—anybody who's in the people space of that HR family never says no to the leaders, because we're so scared that if we say no, they won't come back to us, and this is the first time that top tables are talking to us. So we want to say, yes, we want to give them what they want to give.
But we want to also say, actually now is the time to have that conversation. Is it a skill—and we know that skills are changing rapidly, what we were learning two years ago is now not needed. So how are we gonna address them? So, yeah, I think there is a trend and we're scared to push back and myself included. I'm not gonna say I do that, but I think we need to bring that I'm joyful that we have organizational development as part of my role, but we need to bring that bedrock with it.
Where I was going to go is maybe a little bit of a pushback on that. Not that I disagree with anything you've said, but I think there may be something bigger also happening, which is through the example of the Receptionist, right? I think that for many years—decades, really—our thinking has been, particularly as it is with regard to skills, we'll show you what to do. Then you just do it, like the Receptionist who takes you to the bathroom. And fundamentally, we've kind of moved to this economy where we need people to give them some direction and for them to go find the bathroom.
There’s only a small portion of the population that we've focused on, on developing that capability, and so all of this stuff, I think may just be a proxy for enabling a broader portion of the population to find the bathroom on their own. So maybe it isn't just relabelling it—maybe it is kind of more about this enabling of what it is that we're asking people to do. And if we haven't been asking them to do it and to have those structures in place for 20, 30, 50 years, however long, they're going to need some guidance—potentially.
I would fundamentally agree with you. And I think I use marketing analogies quite a lot in the work that we do, because I think they know how to target you all. When we all walk into a shop or when we do walk into a shop for the online mechanisms that we used for, we want to be signposted. But the click that we do to buy, to put in our shopping trolley or the patches that we do physically is where we are empowered ourselves to do it, but what we want is that lovely signposting that says all of the books on, I don't know, geography or in this area that's labeled well, you know. A lot of people have talked about that curated learning experience to me, that's, you know, that is the signposting—and what our people experience tells us is firstly, when you overs signpost or tell me that, tell it puts me off because you're not treating me like I've got my own initiative, but then I turn up in a room, there’s no signposting, so you do too much in the beginning and then you leave me stranded.
I didn't know why that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to help all people be that signposting, that curated journey. And the nudge approach is also working with us. And so I can tell you that we had a piece of work, which was just looking at our mandated training and we weren't able to get the compliance high and we couldn't understand why everybody needed it. And then we got to go out to people and said, why isn't this working for you? You know, why aren't you doing it? And I would say that the majority of people, about 70% said, I thought I had done it. So I know I once told me what the suit was. And I think it's almost thought that bit of work that you do use, you read it so many times that you can't see your own gaps. And in a way, we also need to take a sight of what is our role, my role and my team's role.
So again, I think that signposting is really important, which is, you know, the experience we should get from anything that we do in all our lives, really.
One of the themes that we've seen in the skills discussion is kind of her and we've talked about now is around supply and demand—so this idea that we do have some deficiencies in some skill sets and over-abundance and others. How do you think we should be kind of thinking about this holistically?
There's something that we did this year, which I'm happy to say more of the data with you, which was that when we went into the UK first Lockdown, there was an appetite to support people with wellbeing, support people with their learning, support leaders, support their managers, you know, you can see the portfolio growing. And what we did as my team was flooding the market—we gave them every option they could possibly want and we allowed choice, but we allowed that choice, we allowed a streaming of trimming it down to what was really needed. And we didn't become precious about our material, because we got someone else to build the initial first round. Often when you're a small team, a learning and development team, you spend months developing something—and when it doesn't work, it's kind of pride and ego in a way that takes over because you don't hours of hard work that you do not want to, what you really want me to remove that slide that I spent 15 hours trying to save so much emotional attachment with all our products.
And in a way, we removed the emotional attachment. We bought in an expert in that area, and he created a portfolio of products that they had, that they could create, and we created a choice. And then those that were the most high-hitting we did in-house, we built those and we built, we kind of continued to evolve them. Each of our sessions is supported by what we call the Living Program. So the living program is very much around evaluation, both immediate off the sheet, got the happy sheets kind of process, and then kind of a couple of weeks and like, have you applied for it? If you haven't, why haven't you applied it? So the Living Program is almost that need not to kind of visit a product in two years time, it's more need to do it here and now, but we took to it, the product development side of it because we needed a menu very quickly so that people could pick and choose, and then when we got that menu a bit more refined that's when we took it in-house.
And so my experience of this is bringing in someone who doesn't have the emotional connection to it, get them to do that early work so if it didn't work, it didn't work. And then you can have a much stronger connection with the relevant products.
That's interesting—it’s sort of easier to experiment if it's somebody else's work, and you can observe dispassionately, measure the data and see what happens. I have a quick question where you said you'd submitted your paper on your skill strategy for 2023, I think you said: how do you think the conversation is going to go with leaders? And have you had any feedback yet? These are questions that we're all struggling with a little bit. Do you think leaders are in a position to engage in really useful dialogue around this topic?
What I'm submitting next week is the kind of completion of the change design phase; our overarching change program is called Fit for the Future. And I would say the fact that we're doing this, that we're looking through that microscopic lens, and in particular, the focus that we beat on what is the as is, is that our leaders may not necessarily be comfortable, but they are happy to investigate it. They’ve said, we know there are areas of improvement. So we need to hear this, as is because some areas aren't working some phenomenally good at this.So yes, I would say definitely the British Red Cross, our board and our executive leadership is very keen to have this. They've seen versions up until now So they know where we're coming. We even did a kind of, we applied the Dreyfus capability model to kind of give them a level of maturity as well, recognizing the limitations of that product.
And again, we've been talking about change for a long time, but there is an element of that we really want to get it right this time around. And not really sings true cause I lead a wellbeing, so we've had lots of feedback about how our managers are feeling. And we had 93% of managers tell us that they were having check-ins, that they felt the organization was more honest than it's ever been through it's communications, and that people are sharing more about their life, and that was really useful.
And you know, people were talking about how my child has cut my hair, so excuse what it looks like to the kind of, you know, I've had something really horrendous happen in my life, or I need to take time out. And in a way this world that we've lived in that's allowed us to go into your home, has allowed us maybe to drop that guard—that you know, that kind of, I need to be a certain way. So I would say that through this journey, we've learned a lot of that positive feedback about just being real, tell me as it is, has really helped. And I think our leadership is very much like how do we capitalize on that, because that did really work. So come and tell us where the barriers are and we want to learn and work with you.
One of the conversations that always comes up when we talk about skills and capabilities or competencies or whatever you want to call them, is the data surrounding those, because the data helps us make inferences and it also helps us sort of intersect with some of those other things. And one of the things that we're seeing, interestingly, that skills are intersecting with is diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So I’d love to understand how you're thinking about skills in the access to the data about skills and how that impacts diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
Oh, you didn't use my favorite sentence that comes with that normally, which is return on investment: don’t you just love that one?
I’m an epidemiologist by background, that’s a different life long time ago, but I love data. So it's not something. And often when we think about metrics and what we're measuring, my question is why are we measuring it? And that's what I always say to my team. My team dreads it. I say, don't tell me that you've got great Excel skills because Oh, you can do power BI. Everybody loves a power BI dashboard up to my minimize anymore. You know, you can do a great dashboard, but what are you telling me?
And within our metrics, the things that we're using is obviously the kind of who's done it and not done it, you know, that sort of stuff, but also the engagement and the repeated engagement. The mechanisms that we're using are around also the connection to wellbeing as well. Are their measures that we haven't looked on to support individuals? We’ve now introduced that airport checking, you know, you go in or you have pizza today, so we're doing wellbeing checking every quarter, which I think many organizations are doing, but we kind of connect it to the L&D portfolio because obviously I lead on that as well. So we're trying to connect where that journey is, our happiness connected to the metrics that we're measuring, so that we've layered that happiness metric, but how are you as an individual feeling how you supported and how does that connect with how much learning and development that you are able to do at this very moment?
I'm sure in many parts of the world, we've got people who are now homeschooling managing three of the people in the office, and if I expect them to suddenly go off and do their whole suite of mandated training because they didn't do it. And of course we've had those emails being sent to them, you know, thou shall do this or thy system will be disconnected, but way we've found that we've got a small percentage that we, we need to find out why, and could they have a huddle, which is someone just calling them. We’ve also tried to connect return on investment; one of the things we've also set up an in-house support nine for all Red Cross people to understand how they're being impacted by the pandemic. So again, we ease different layers of metrics. So we want to give you the complete picture of an individual and the complete picture of the organization.
Well kind of along with that, one of the other big conversations we're hearing is this idea of skills credentialing or skills verification—like, you say you have this skill, but do you really have this skill?
Lots of organizations are struggling with that, and I wonder, two questions, first of all, how is the British Red Cross handling that? And the second thing is, does it vary between your employees and your volunteers?
So it's good because we're going to introduce a digital passport this year. There's two facets to that; firstly, we kind of had so many old systems that we're bringing together, so record loss and everything else. And also in the wider UK kind of context is we've got lots of volunteers who volunteer for many different organizations, and there are significant transferable skills. What happens is they'll go and volunteer for say Amnesty, and then they'll come to volunteer for us, and we'll make them do the same thing—we’ll make them do like an information governance, we’ll make them do all of that. So we've got an ask within the organization around looking at what that means. So that's all kinds of first approach to it. And our first approach to that is going to be you itself telling us what you've got, all my stock, not LinkedIn's approach of kind of being what you've got: if you've got a certificate, as you put that in. And then our view is the moment. This is our view that as it is, when we need a bit, like I said, the example of the health and safety question, and that's to staff and volunteers, we may have credentials that point when we ask for it, so that's all first kind of interpretation. We haven't drilled down any farther on the kind of key skills and capabilities that we want to support. We will have different markers, but on that kind of passporting, we want to empower individuals, but that in, and when those opportunities come, we then could they to the level they're at and kind of go, you've turned up really keen, and so we all testing that approach with a group, for people that we are going to call the change influences, and that's thought to take forward the change program.
That's really interesting, so right now you're using some sort of self-verification. Talk to me a little bit about this digital passport you mentioned; is it for the British Red Cross or is it BRC, or more broadly?
So for now we're going to be testing it in the British Red Cross. We are working as an organization to test it within ourselves, but in the UK, so outside of the kind of Red Cross family; we're going to test it within the voluntary sector so that volunteers across the UK don't feel like they have to duplicate. So there are layers, which is a kind of national level that we're doing with the volunteer board, but all of the UK. And then there's obviously us testing out in the organization.
I think we're getting close to time. So in the British Red Cross, sort of broadly, what are some of the skills that are quite unquote ‘hot’ right now?
I think definitely that sort of agile mindset—it’s really having that. And there is a change in capability build which we're looking at and we’re looking at the narrative of that. And then area of that, we've done a commitment to, so the British Red Cross has committed to being at an anti-racist organization, and that has meant that our portfolio of equality, diversity and inclusion has grown and I can send some stuff through you about that, but that's been really inspiring to see challenging all of the above—it’s been really interesting to see that growth.
Adaptability as our kind of whole thing is massive now about how do we kind of bring that in? And then we are still at the ground, we’re still doing that whole kind of digital data literacy. What does it mean? And one that's coming up that we haven't seen for a while, but it's revisiting and I've heard from other colleagues in different organizations is about succession planning—that kind of whole driver around succession and developing professions as well. So those are kind of our hot topics.
I think it's interesting that you mentioned agility, and the kind of the way that you're handling learning within the organization seems to speak to that. So you talked a lot about, I don't want to put words in your mouth, but teaching people to learn rather than teaching people the thing, and making sure that they're agile enough to adapt to their environments and find out what they need to know in order to deliver what they need to deliver. I think that’s pretty forward-thinking; I think organizations are getting there, but not as fast as they probably should.
So just to wrap up, is there anything else we should have asked you about that we didn't?
My portfolio has grown so much that I kind of feel like there's areas that we could talk about different elements on this so much. We all still growing; as I said, the EDI portfolio, the wellbeing experience, the fear that if we send out a survey now that we've gone into our third lockdown we won't get the high results we got in the last one one—you know, all of those things that are the kind of worry of a person who leads on any of the learning stuff. So yeah, I mean, I think we've covered a lot.
Yeah, we definitely have. Two more questions; how can people connect with you and your work?
Quite simple. They can either go through my LinkedIn profile, which is readily available, or they can even contact me at British Red Cross: that's fine.
Perfect. And then the last question, and this is a question that Chris taught us to ask that we love, and it's one that I think is particularly pertinent to you: why do you do what you do?
Because I'm a lifelong learner. and where else would I want to be? And that's really it. I'm a classic 45-year old person that is in that kind of area of life where I've done my two career changes—I’m textbook! But ultimately I'm a lifelong learner, and where would we want to be but leading this journey?
Thank you, Satnam, so much for your time; it's been a fascinating discussion.
Thanks for everything you do, Satnam—thanks for all your work; I can't imagine how busy you've been over the last 14 months!
I was up till three am like Monday and Tuesday just finishing this thing off. It’s kind of emotional, but I'm really inspired by some other things that we do as an organization.
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