Monday, December 12, 2016

Apprenticeships and the Levy – Opportunity & Challenge

Rachel Burnham writes: As you are probably aware, from April 2017, the government will be introducing the apprenticeship levy on all employers with a pay bill of more than £3 million per year.  The levy, set at 0.5% of the pay bill, will be paid through PAYE.  Employers, including those too small to pay the levy, will then be able to access funding to pay for apprenticeships through the new digital apprenticeship service.

Back in June 2016, CIPD reported on employer views of the proposals for the apprenticeship levy – my take on the research is broadly that the more employers knew about the proposals for the levy, the less they liked them!   However, the government is pressing ahead, so employers need to work out how to get the most benefit out of this new system for their organisation and for apprentices.

It was in that spirit that CIPD Manchester’s Public Policy Panel last week hosted three employers all with existing apprenticeship schemes to come and share this experience, plus their thoughts on the levy, with other HR professionals.   Our speakers were from Eurocell, AO and the General Medical Council and included two schemes with 25-30 apprentices and one scheme with 5 apprentices from the private and charitable sectors.   The range of apprenticeships offered was very varied from including engineering, HR, IT and digital marketing.  Here is a link to the Storify from that evening.

Effective apprenticeship programmes

Our speakers identified a number of elements that contributed to an effective apprenticeship programme.  These included:

·       A genuine business need for apprentices

·       Senior management sponsorship of the programme and local line management sponsorship of individual apprentices.  Line managers will benefit from preparation, clarifying their expectations of the apprentice role and how they will need to work with them, plus acknowledgement that they will need to invest time in supporting the apprentice.

·       A responsibly agreed salary.  

·       Good quality, relevant training and long term development opportunities.   This training could be provided internally with suitable accreditation or delivered by an external provider depending upon what best meets the needs of the organisation and fits within the Apprenticeship Levy requirements. One of the speakers identified that they needed to constantly work with their external training providers to ensure that the training meets their needs. It is essential that the training provided meets both the needs of the organisation and also the individual’s needs – this can mean tailoring the length of a programme to ensure that the pace fits these needs.  One of the employers was exploring the possibility of introducing degree level apprenticeships to meet organisational requirements, but also to stretch and reward individuals appropriately.

·       We heard about a range of exciting component parts of the programmes such as: including achieving a Duke of Edinburgh award; opportunities for volunteering/charity work; parents evenings to share with parents what the programme involves and the benefits to participants; and  possibilities for international links where organisations have international operations eg with Germany.   All of which help to build the confidence of apprenticeships, provide opportunities for team working and increasing responsibility plus times to celebrate these gains.

Benefits from apprenticeships

All the employers described the growth in confidence and skills shown by the apprentices – one said you can see them striding out across the workplace ‘with a sense of purpose’. 

But they also identified the benefits to the organisation particularly in relation to providing access to high quality candidates for junior roles. For example, one of the organisations described how the apprentices, when applying for roles within the organisation on completion of their apprenticeship, scored much higher than candidates from other sources and described how they had moved into much higher level roles than expected.  Another of the employers identified one of the challenges as being to remember that they are apprentices because they start adding value so quickly within their teams and they need to have their time protected to enable them to have the time to complete all their studies as well as their work.

Thoughts on the Levy

From the discussions at the session there are many different ways that organisations are approaching the levy:

·       For some it is business as usual – the organisation has already decided to invest in apprenticeships and nothing will fundamentally change.

·       Some organisations have considered the levy, but have decided not to bother with it and just pay the levy, seeing it as another tax, even though as a large organisation this will leave them with a large bill.  In an example shared during the meeting, the levy had been studied, but the organisation decided that it was not worthwhile them putting things in place to enable them to make use of the funding from the Levy. Interestingly, prior to the meeting, I had assumed that this was more likely to be the approach of small organisations, but this seems to be the case also for some large organisations.

·       Some organisations fear that the apprenticeship levy will absorb all the resources for training and that therefore all funding for learning & development will need to come through programmes supported by the Levy.  This view wasn’t expressed in the meeting, but I have heard it elsewhere.

·       A number of organisations in the meeting were identifying that they will only be able to spend a proportion (eg two thirds) of the funding for apprentices that their organisation will be eligible for, because not all costs are recoverable such as apprentice salaries.

·       Some organisations were still working out how they will approach the Levy and how this will affect their work with apprentices.

·       One of the opportunities touched on is the potential for organisations to work together  to deliver apprenticeships eg organisations from a similar sector either in partnership or perhaps a larger organisation opening up their scheme in some way to smaller organisations in the same field or within their supply chain particularly where this is in a specialist field.

Challenges with the Levy

One of the key challenges with the Levy for organisations is that there is still a lot of uncertainty about how various elements will work in practice.  A particular aspect of this is whether the relevant qualification frameworks for your organisation will be available in time – a large number of new frameworks are being developed quite quickly and there are some questions about whether the process for developing these has been sufficiently robust to ensure that each framework meets the needs of a sector and not just an individual organisation.   One of the employers shared how the Level 4 qualification that some of their apprentices need to move on to during the year is unlikely to be ready in time and what the implications of this are for those individuals.

A different issue was the opportunity to have apprenticeships not just for young people, but also for people of all ages, including apprenticeships to support career changes later in life.  Two specific challenges were mentioned in this connection, paying the right level of salary for this to be feasible and the issue of English and Maths qualifications in the final assessment process - older apprentices qualifications may be regarded as earned too long ago to be counted, meaning they may need to requalify in order to complete the apprenticeship.  This will need to be handled sensitively in order for this not to become a barrier.

The overall public perception of apprenticeships was discussed and whether the branding of apprenticeships needs to be changed or just our perceptions – the parents evenings mentioned previously and similar events could play a part in this.   Interestingly one of the employers describes their apprenticeship work under the banner of ‘emerging talent’, whilst other people suggested a broader skills development or grassroots programme as better labels.

Finally, we touched on a specific challenge in the public sector following on from the requirement placed by the government to have 2.3% of staff as apprentices, year on year.  This may contradict the advice that apprenticeships are most effective when they meet a real need within the organisation. 

There are clearly a great many benefits to be gained from a positive engagement with apprenticeships both for organisations and for individual apprenticeships.  However, there are many challenges to making the Apprenticeship Levy work both for individual organisations and in terms of its overall impact on the UK workforce and economy.   We are only at the start of identifying the what these challenges are, never mind finding the answers.

What issues has your organisation identified with the Levy?  How prepared is your organisation for April 2017?  Why not share your thoughts on this topic?

Rachel Burnham


Rachel is CIPD Manchester’s Public Policy Adviser in a voluntary capacity and is the Director of Burnham L&D Consultancy.

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Five (ish) books about performance, learning and working out loud

Rachel Burnham writes: Here are some reviews of recent books I have been reading for work over the last few months – some of them I read because of particular projects I was working on and some because they might be of interest to the students I work with on the CIPD Foundation Certificate in L&D. 

‘Conversations at Work: Promoting a Culture of Conversation in the Changing Workplace’ Tim Baker & Aubrey Warren (2015) Palgrave Macmillan

‘5 Conversations: How to transform trust, engagement and performance at work’ Nick Cowley & Nigel Purse with Lynn Allison (2014) Panoma Press

Both of these books are written against the backdrop of an increasing dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of traditional approaches to performance management and in particular the annual performance review and at the same time an increasing interest in introducing a more informal, frequent and conversational approach to managing performance at work.  There is a lot of overlap between these two books – they are the reason for the 5ish element in the title of this blog. Both books argue for the centrality and value of conversations in the workplace and set out the benefits of this approach to individuals, managers and organisations.   Each book has much to offer in terms of frameworks for different kinds of conversations in the context of a managerial relationship and skills development.  

The Palgrave book has more on barriers to communication and more specific sections on different elements that make up the skills of conversation such as listening, perceptual positions and the art of inquiry.  The Panoma Press book links conversation more broadly into the development of engagement and trust in organisations and so goes beyond performance management and the line manager relationship.

I found myself both in agreement with the basic argument of these two books, but then rather dissatisfied by the way that each book set out a series of specific conversations each with a distinctive focus.  This seemed to over-complicate and introduce almost a ‘management by checklist approach’, rather detracting from their simple central point about the need for more effective conversations in the workplace. 

‘Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to apply neuroscience & psychology for improved learning & training’ Stella Collins (2016) Kogan Page

Stella Collins very quickly explains that this book is not just looking at what we can learn from neuroscience to improve learning, but much more broadly at lessons from behavioural, cognitive & social psychology.  It is written specifically for an L&D audience and aims to both inform and also to suggest practical actions that can improve the way we design and deliver L&D programmes.

The book is broken down into accessible sections and makes good use of diagrams, mind maps and practical insights from practitioners.  It includes a helpful section to challenge our thinking on how we react when something is labelled neuroscience so that we are able to respond more critically. 

I think this is a very practical addition to the material available on neuroscience and psychology for L&D practitioners and would recommend it enthusiastically.

‘The Mentoring Manual: Your Step by Step Guide to Being a Better Mentor’ Julie Starr (2014) Pearson

I bought this as I had been mentoring a fellow L&D practitioner for a number of months and thought it would help me to reflect on how this mentoring was going and what I could do to be more effective.  And it did.

It is a detailed guide to the whole process of being a mentor or even to setting up and managing a mentoring programme. It is both accessible if you are brand new to mentoring, but also provides enough to get you thinking more deeply if you have already some understanding of mentoring. 

The book is well structured, so that you can either read cover to cover or dip into particular sections that meet a particular need.  There is a very practical section on the various stages of a mentoring relationship including very detailed material on how to structure initial meetings.  My favourite parts of the book though were the sections on principles and on what good mentors do well.

Though at times I felt slightly over ‘checklisted’, I found this a helpful book that got me to do some useful self-questionning.

‘More than Blended Learning: Designing World-Class Learning Interventions’ Clive Shepherd (2015) The More Than Blended Learning Company

This is essentially a guide to designing learning programmes effectively and these days this is always going to include some consideration of how the learning might be blended to be as effective as it possibly can be.  It is both an introduction to designing for those new to the whole process of putting together a programme from start to finish and also provides a challenge to think more broadly about what effective learning programmes involve for those already with some experience of designing.

It has some great case studies with practical examples of how organisations have put programmes together and also considers a broad range of design elements including both learning methods and choice of media.  I also liked the way it looks at the type of learning – skills, knowledge or what Shepherd refers to as ‘big ideas’ such as new approaches.

If you are relatively new to designing L&D programmes or want to design more effectively beyond workshops then this is a good place to start.

‘Working Out Loud – For a better career and life’ John Stepper 2015 Ikigai Press

This is an introduction to the idea and practice of ‘Working Out Loud’ (WOL) – it is almost a course in a book, with practical activities and ideas to get you started.

If you haven’t come across the ‘Working Out Loud’ approach before, it is the practice of sharing either with colleagues or more widely, what you are working on in a spirit of generosity.  This is often done whilst your work is still at the ‘half-baked’ stage, so that you can incorporate ideas and contributions from other people.  And it is also about you contributing to other people’s work.

John Stepper’s approach to Working Out Loud very much links this concept with building a network.  I was a little surprised by how much of the book was about the process of networking through Working Out Loud and the use of social media.  Initially this rather threw me – I hadn’t expected this emphasis on networking.  However, the approach has gradually grown on me and I can see its value.   It very much links to the idea of networking as a tool for learning and so has contributed to my understanding of Personal Learning Networks.   

Whilst some people may find the approach taken by the book to be too instructional, others may find it provides a helpful step by step approach.  If you are new to ‘Working Out Loud’ or want to develop your networking skills this may be just the book to guide you.

So, these are my views on these books – I would love to hear your views. Why not share these by adding a comment?

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

‘Google It: The Secret Online Lives of UK Managers’ Sketchnote

Rachel Burnham writes: Last week I was fortunate to be one of a number of L&Ders to be at the launch, on board HMS Belfast, of a new research report from GoodPractice.  The new report ‘Google It: The Secret Online Lives of UK Managers’ explores the way that managers are addressing their learning needs.  This new report builds on a report from 2015, also from GoodPractice, called the ‘Secret Learning Life of UK Managers’.  The research carried out with ComRes digs into a number of ways that managers say they are using to respond to workplace challenges and in particular the way they are using online searches for this.

The launch involved a presentation of key points from the research by Owen Ferguson, one of the authors.  The report can be found here and a storify of the tweets from the launch which was put together by Martin Couzins will give you an outline of the key points.  Here is my Sketchnote of the event:

Donald Taylor was in the chair for the launch and he began the event by reminding us that this report was important, firstly because it was based on research.  He made the point that we have comparatively little research to base our L&D work on and so it is great when new work is done.  When many of the old models used within L&D are being questioned, we need new evidence based ideas to replace them with.  

Secondly, this report is important because it is about managers and they play a crucial part in the effectiveness of the L&D work with other employees.  I would also add that anything that helps us to understand how to better enable effective management is important, because effective line management is so vital for improving productivity – this is something I have written about in a previous blog 'Productivity, fairy dust and developing effective managers'

The third point I would make is that this research raises a number of interesting questions for those of us in L&D, such as:

·       How do we encourage managers and others using online searches to do this effectively and critically evaluate what they find?  How does this fit with broader ideas of curation and Personal Knowledge Mastery?

·       Are external social networks relevant for all occupational groups?  Where they are relevant, where are these networks to be found?  How do we help employees find relevant networks?

·       Have we been too quick to see internal social networks as established ways of working – when actually they are still struggling to get going in many organisations?  What approaches can be used to nurture the effective use of internal social networks?

This research has certainly got me thinking and has got me questioning a few aspects of my own practice.   Have a read for yourself and see what questions it raises for you.   I’d love to hear what you think?

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

New Technology: Twas ever thus...?

Rachel Burnham writes: When I was 10 and in the final year at my junior school, we followed a series of television programmes about communication through the ages – I remember enjoying the mix of history and science.  There were two episodes that stood out for me.  The first concerned the puzzle to understand and translate Egyptian hieroglyphs and how the finding of the Rosetta Stone, which contained the same text in three languages: hieroglyphs; demotic script; and Ancient Greek, allowed the former to be translated.  The second was the very final episode which concerned communication in the future - my abiding memory from this, is of people talking to each other at a distance and being able to see other through a device like a television screen.  This seemed like an impossible dream then!  And for years afterwards it seemed to me as though this would always be a fantasy, akin to Star Trek’s voyages.

And as I continued on in education, nothing much seemed to change.  There were no signs of computers at all throughout the whole of the rest of my schooling.  After school I took a year out and worked for the Open University here in Manchester – there I did get to see and even use a computer – of course the OU were and are pioneers in the use of technology – I remember the row of terminals which we used to access student records down the line from the main frame at the OU headquarters.  At university, I was lucky to be able to type all my assignments, unlike most of my peers who had to hand write theirs – on a portable manual typewriter!   We did get to do some computing in one course, where we learnt to write a program to order numbers (if I remember rightly?).    So, nothing much seemed to be changing for a very long time and the idea of talking to someone, whilst seeing them, still seemed an impossible dream.

Working in a series of voluntary organisations in the first part of my career, computers were around, but few and far between.  Then suddenly we all had one, and they were networked, and overnight everything changed.  The future happened all in a rush!  Now what once seemed an impossible dream is a daily commonplace and computers pervade every aspect of our lives, not just work.  And this technology is changing and developing constantly.

At this week’s CIPD Annual Conference I attended a number of sessions which explicitly focused on work and the future – the theme of the conference.   My Sketchnotes from the conference can be found in a previous postIn one of these sessions Dr Almuth McDowell and Dr Richard Mackinnon discussed with David D’Sousa ‘Digital Work’.  They began by focusing on now, rather than the future, partly because we are so bad at predicting the future, but also because now is just so interesting – there is so much happening right now, that we need to get our heads around.   Though Richard Mackinnon reminded us that all through the 60’s and 70’s people commented on the huge pace of change and the way that technology was central to this, so this isn’t new.   So, perhaps this has always been the case down the ages as each ‘new technology’ has been introduced – for that generation, for that age, the change was huge.  May be these changes feel huge to us, because they are our changes – the changes and the challenges for our generations.

This panel talked about the way that technology was replacing some jobs and at the same time leading to the creation of new jobs.  Whilst other jobs are transforming from one thing to something very different eg fighter pilot to drone pilot.  These sorts of changes have many implications in terms of the cognitive requirements of jobs, the implications for managing the ethics of this and how to help people to learn & develop into these changing roles.  The panel identified a series of skills that will continue to be vital for the future amidst all this change such as adaptability, resilience, problem-solving, emotional intelligence and not information, but where & how to find it.

In a similar vein, Daniel Susskind spoke about technology and the future of the professions.  This was based upon the research that he and his father have carried out and written up in their book ‘The Future of the Professions’.  Based on his session, I would highly recommend reading this book. 

He explored with us why we have professions and why they are challenged by the way that technology is developing.  He identified that the professions are facing four key challenges: cost; antiquated ways of working; opaque ways of working and simply underperforming.  It is clear that there are massive changes afoot for a great many professions and that these changes are already here and happening now.

Linking back to the previous session, if we had been called on to predict which jobs would be affected by technology, we would most likely have focused on low skills jobs being replaced by automation.  However, Susskind, explored the ways which technology is affecting professional work, so that high skilled roles are being replaced by lower skilled roles supported by technology.  For example, rather than a specialist doctor needing to diagnose a condition, a nurse (so still a skilled role, but not so specialist a role) could undertake this, when supported with technology to aid diagnosis - with the possible additional advantage to the patient, that the nurse has the people and empathetic skills lacking in many doctors.

Susskind explained that one of the reasons we have found it so hard to predict how technology can develop, is that we have often assumed that machines will need to tackle tasks in the way that humans do.  When actually they don’t.  Once this mental hurdle had been crossed, there have been found many ways of using technology to tackle tasks that could previously only be done by skilled people. 

Actually, it occurs to me, that actually not only do machines not need to do things in the way we have done them, neither do we.

Which brings me, to the final keynote of the conference, which was delivered by Gianpiero Petriglieri, from INSEAD on leadership.  He was exploring why leadership is about more than just competences, particularly in what he called this ‘age of nomadic professionalism’.  He discussed that way that effective leaders make us feel and that involves ‘a cocktail of skills and passion’.  He spoke about how effective leaders create meaning for others through the way they convey and live a story which converts anxiety to hope.  He spoke of how they are prepared to sacrifice for that story.  He looked at leadership as having two aspects of performance – achieving aims, but also embodying shared values.  So he was suggesting that leadership does not need to be done as it has been done in the past.  He defined global leadership now as:

‘the courage, capacity, curiosity and commitment


work with, learn from and give ‘voice’ to the other’.

This was a hopeful and inspiring note to close the conference on.   We need courage, capacity, curiosity and commitment to respond to the changes that our world and our workplaces are facing both from technology and the other economic and political challenges.  We will need to hear and work with other ‘voices’ to do that.  This view of leadership is very different to that which most of us have experienced in the workplace to date – and it seems a very long way from the model being expressed in the political sphere at present. 

There are challenges a-plenty for us all here, whether in relation to digital work, the impact of technology on professions, including our own and the kind of leadership that is needed.  And the future is here and now!

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sketchnotes from CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition 2016

Rachel Burnham writes: I have spent the last couple of days exploring the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition.  Here is my collection of Sketchnotes from the event, including one from the Leaders in Learning event which preceded the main conference.



Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Networking: What is a Personal Learning Network?

Rachel Burnham writes: Thank you very much for all the comments and feedback on the blog post I wrote last week ‘Networking: How my perceptions and practice have changed’.  It seemed to reflect a lot of people’s experiences both with  ‘traditional networking’ and how this has been changing to a more positive and helpful approach to networking as a vehicle for learning.

So, I thought it might be useful to explore in a bit more detail what a ‘Personal Learning Network’  or PLN means to me.  For me, a personal learning network is ‘those people who you learn from and with’. 

It is a network, which is loose and open, rather than a defined group of individuals.  Some of the connections are close and frequent, some more fleeting and transient.

The first part of that definition, ‘those people who you learn from’ is perhaps what we might immediately think of when focusing on networking for learning.  People who we learn from because they share useful information, put us in touch with resources or other people that are helpful or share articles and ideas that help us to become better informed or extend our networks. It can also include people who inspire us, who we may seek to emulate in some respect – perhaps to try out a specific tool that they have used, or to develop some aspect of a skill that they excel at or to adopt a behavior or approach they use.  These are people who are role models, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small ways.

One of the people who responded to my previous post was @MJCarty, who had previously written in his blog that the idea of PLNs made him feel uncomfortable or twitchy and that the concept of a PLN ‘could be interpreted as a framework for consciously using people for just one purpose’.  This got me to question my thinking about PLNs more – could you use a PLN to ‘suck the learning out of other people’? Perhaps as it was Halloween this week, I heard this in more of a blood-sucking way than I would have done otherwise.  But it made me realise, just how integral for me to a personal learning network are the values of generosity and mutuality.

I think what makes me ‘twitchy’ is the idea of ‘thought leadership’. That there are some people set up – by themselves, by other people, by particular platforms – I’m not quite sure – but I know that it doesn’t sit well with me.  That setting apart of some individuals to lead the thinking of others is in my view, almost completely the opposite to the idea of a personal learning network.

I think the most important part of a personal learning network is the learning with other people.  It isn’t enough to just take learning from others, I think the joy – the magic, if you like – really happens when you are also contributing.

That may be through sharing resources; helping people to make connections; acknowledging others contributions and through this encouraging them in their explorations; and sharing from your own experience.  This links it with the idea of Working Out Loud (WOL).

I think that learning with others is at the heart of a personal learning network and this involves dialogue and doing.  The dialogue can come in many forms – in person conversations over a cup of tea, a quick tweet or two, exchanges within a twitter chat – I know I learn so much from participating in the regular Friday 8am – 9am (GMT) #LDInsight twitter chat.   Dialogue can be quite spaced out - reading someone’s blog, reflecting on it and some way down the line writing your own take on that topic - that is a conversation too – with more time for reflection than we usually allow within an in person conversation and it may be all the better for that! 

A conversation may begin with one group of people and continue with someone else in a different setting. Some of my learning has come about from dialogue that started out in MOOCs or other on-line courses that I’ve participated in and have spilled out into other forums and conversations.  There are colleagues who I work with who I rarely see in person, but we share ideas, offer feedback and just talk through an almost seamless mix of texts, phone calls, emails, tweets and Dropbox inclusions.  Through this dialogue the focus may transmute, the prism through which you see a question or topic may change and something quite different can emerge.

Just as important, is learning by doing. Taking some insight or idea and incorporating into your practice or experimenting with it. Our personal learning networks include our colleagues and clients who we work with on a daily or occasional basis. The trusted practice partners who we try out new approaches with.  The people we seek feedback from and those who generously offer it, even when we haven’t asked. The colleagues or clients who are willing to take a risk or who sometimes place demands on us that push us into learning something new.   

So, for me my Personal Learning Network is all those who I learn from and with.  And that includes you! 

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Networking: How my perceptions & practice have changed

Rachel Burnham writes: I am writing this post about networking, as a number of the L&D practitioners I am currently working with have recently raised the topic of networking and its value.

I used to see networking as one of those things I ‘ought’ to do as a professional.  It was always listed as one of those things that an effective and well-rounded professional ‘should’ do. And like many things one feels one ought to do, I could never quite see the real benefit – and just like cleaning out the cupboard under the sink, it was a task that I would put off until I really had to do it.  I saw it as a necessary evil, part of the downside of freelance work, as one strand of developing potential new clients. 

I always associated it with rather awkward events where a lot of strangers would gather eat canapes, exchange business cards and try to sell to one another.  (Or possibly exchange canapes, sell cards and eat … well may be not!) Definitely not part of my comfort zone.  Made worse, by a combination of introversion and lack of practice.  Rather a self-fullfilling, downward spiral.  Hideous.

But no more! Now I see networking rather differently.  Now, it is part of my day to day work.  And I even enjoy it!

So what has changed?

The key shift for me was when I started to see the purpose of networking differently and started to see it first and foremost as about learning.   More and more people are seeing the value of their personal network for learning and you now often hear people refer to their PLN or Personal Learning Network. Why not check out #PLN for many interesting links and references?

This shift enabled me to let go of a lot of baggage and distaste towards networking, as being all about selling yourself and seeking business benefit.  Instead I am able to focus on networking as learning, which fits far better with my values.   Paradoxically, this has also allowed me to reap immediate and ongoing benefits from networking, from the exposure to new information, exchange of ideas, access to resources and opportunity to test out my own experiences against other professionals in the same field.

I have also changed the way that I network.  Using social media is a big part of this.  Using social media to network and particularly Twitter, has enabled me to come into contact with a much greater variety of L&D and HR professionals than before, both here in the UK and across the world.   And, also to make contact with people in other fields too.

I find using social media works well for me as an introvert.  I have been able to build relationships with people at my own pace and switch off when I want to.  It gives me time to reflect before responding  to comments.  And it means when I do meet people in person, I feel far more relaxed and have much more interesting conversations that I ever did before, because we are often building on an existing relationship.  The foundation has already been laid.

One of the things I do now as I network, is to share what I am currently working on. This Working Out Loud (WOL) can give networking much more value and interest.  For me this changes networking from a ‘promotional’ activity in which a glossy front is maintained, with perhaps rather superficial exchanges, to something that is a bit more real, messy and hair let down.  Not that every networking conversation is a deep exchange about L&D practice – sometimes I’m discussing growing carrots or dandelions in the lawn or what music I’ve been listening to (‘cause I’m into gardening & jazz)  – but often when we do talk work it is a bit more honest in my experience, than in those traditional networking events.

My other revelation in relation to networking, is that it is possible to network and meet up one to one!  Not sure quite why the penny took so long to drop for me with this!  I now have lots of one to one networking meet ups for tea/coffee and cake or lunch.  I find I have much more productive conversations one to one or in a small group.

But the funny peculiar thing is, now I have made those changes, I now am much happier in group networking events and so now participate in far more than I ever did before! 
I will write more on this topic shortly and explore the second part of my Sketchnote, which covers some practical tips for networking.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Line managers - what are they good for?

Rachel Burnham writes: About a fortnight ago, I participated in the ‘Northern Powerhouse: People and You’ conference organised jointly by the Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire Branches of CIPD.  The event involved a mix of speakers and facilitated discussions amongst participants – if you would like to find out more here is a link to the Storify of the event and to my blog with all the Sketchnotes I created from the speaker led sessions.

Looking back over a very busy event, what stood out for me were the keynote presentations from two very different organisations and what they had to say about line management.  These two presentations were about The Contact Company, who provide out-sourced contact centre services, based in the Merseyside area and SLH Group, which is a housing association, based in South Liverpool and winner of the Sunday Times 2015 best not-for-profit organisation to work for.

Kevin Horgan of The Contact Company spoke about how important skilled line managers are to the way they manage people in their growing organisation.  He talked about how the organisation has decided that these roles should focus on managing their teams, with other staff holding the technical expertise, so that line managers can concentrate on managing people.  In recruiting these managers, they had come to the realisation that ‘a good agent doesn’t necessarily make a good manager’.  He also talked about the importance of conversations in the way they tackle their role – ‘talent management through talking to people’.

Julie Fadden gave an inspirational talk about many features of people management in SHL Group.  Early on she made the point that ‘if you don’t sort out the leadership, you won’t be able to sort out the frontline service’.  She too spoke of the importance of conversations in managing staff – emphasising ‘honesty & integrity’ in those conversations, whether managing sickness, performance or providing feedback.  She shared many examples of these types of conversations where honest, even blunt conversations are also tempered with care.  In my view it takes not only integrity to have those kinds of conversations, but real skill on the part of the manager to be able to do this and to move away from the rule-following and tick box approach that seems to be favoured in so many organisations.  And it also requires trust from the organisation in those line managers to enable or ‘permit’ this approach to be taken.

At the lunch break, I sat beside a HR person from one of my clients and we were reflecting on what we had heard from the speakers.  We were particularly impressed with how The Contact Company had decided to focus the work of the line managers on people management, and also have separate technical experts.  Often in my experience people feel that to have career progression, they need to move into management roles, even if this doesn’t fit with their own strengths. Having separate roles, can allow organisations to benefit from making the best use of individuals’ particular strengths whether this is working with people or in a more technical role.  This echoed a positive experience that my lunch partner had had within her own organisation.  Within one of the areas of their work, two distinct career paths had been developed: one for technical specialists and one for people managers and this is working well both from a career development point of view and even more importantly from the impact on effectiveness of the day to day work.

The way that line managers’ roles are designed is a crucial component, alongside the effectiveness of their skills and the organisational culture, in determing how effective they can be.  This reminded me of hearing John Purcell speak a number of years ago about some research he had done into line management in the health service and how unrealistic were the demands placed on first line managers, with large teams to manage, plus conflicting demands in terms of direct patient care and administration.  I remember him saying that many first line managers saw management as being about the pile of paperwork that had to be completed at home, as there was never time to do it in work hours!

That is a very different picture of line management responsibilities to this people focused, conversation-holding, enabling role described above.

Yesterday, I read a blog by Sukh Pabial 'Line Managers and the Learning Conundrum', which was asking challenging questions about how those of us in L&D see our relationship with line managers.   And this made me think again, about the different expectations that are held within organisations about line managers.  About the different expectations that people in HR and in L&D roles have of line managers.  About the different expectations that are held of whether we should work together and how we should work together.

From my point of view, as an L&D professional it is wonderful to be able to work in partnership with line managers and together, to work with individuals and teams who are also taking responsibility for their own development.  And there are things we can do in L&D to build that positive partnership.  But when line managers don’t live up to this ideal, perhaps we should look more closely at what the realities of their role are and whether our expectations are realistic?

Sukh Pabial argues that we in L&D don’t have to be dependent upon having a supportive relationship with line managers and that there are many other ways we can be as effective in working directly with employees – and I agree with this. Nor is there just one model of what effective line management should look like – it will be different for different organisations and even within organisations. 

What effective line management requires is more than just developing the skills of the individuals – though this is a helpful step and a challenge in its own right that I have written about before.  It also requires organisations to be clear about the expectations for line managers, to design roles that allow line managers to be effective and for this to be within an organisational structure and culture that work together.

Returning to the ‘Northern Powerhouse: People and You’ conference, at the end of the day we had a reminder from John McGurk about some of the key challenges that we are facing in making the Northern Powerhouse a reality.  A key one of these is the lower level of productivity overall in the North compared to London and the South East.

‘… the North has an entrenched productivity problem. The UK as a whole underperforms compared to countries such as Germany, France, the Netherlands and Belgium by between 23 and 32 per cent (Dolphin and Hatfield 2015), but the North underperforms the UK’s national productivity rate by 11.1 per cent.’ (‘The State of the North2015’ IPPR North)

Effective management is one of the components of improving productivity. If we want start tackling this productivity gap, then we have to take the issue of improving line management effectiveness seriously.  And that means not just developing skills, but looking at what the expectations of managers are and developing line manager roles that work.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals update and refresh their skills.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.