Learning Culture & Compliance – Blog 1

I spoke to a group of Compliance Officers, Managing Partners and Finance Directors from the legal sector yesterday on the topic of “how a learning culture supports compliance”.  My talk was about the legal sector, but the issues raised are relevant to any business which needs to preserve a technical edge and also move with the times.  I have captured my thoughts in a series of short blogs.

Blog 1

Learning is not merely a matter of compliance, but it helps!

Making a business case for learning at work brings us up against some fundamental questions:  Why learn?  Is it merely to satisfy a regulatory requirement?  Is learning solely to support expertise or is it for something else?  Do wider business skills require development?

Establishing purpose

All of these questions lead back to one thing, business purpose.  Being clear about what the business is trying to achieve is a pre-requisite to developing strategic plans of any kind, including learning strategy.  Once you have clarity about purpose then it is possible to make an assessment of the knowledge & skills people will demonstrate when that purpose is realised.  Are they the same as the ones they have now?   It is unlikely that they will be purely based on technical expertise; expertise is “a given”.

Muddling through

In professional service firms it can be fairly easy to establish wide-ranging learning needs, because historically there has been a tendency to promote people to managerial and leadership roles on the basis of technical expertise or even time-served.  Often those promotions have been made without preparation or development support.  And that approach has, broadly speaking,  been adequate to-date, but the gaps and tensions it creates are becoming increasingly obvious.

Expecting people to muddle through their responsibilities as leaders and managers in a business is possible when there is plenty of work about and plenty of people to do the work.  However, when there is less work, or when that work needs to be done more efficiently by fewer people, the system, and the people within it, becomes strained.  Add to that dynamic a demand to deliver big intangibles such as “client-focussed service”, issues of “retention” or “succession planning” and the old approach is found wanting.

Using compliance to get “buy-in”

So we do not need to rely on compliance to make a compelling business case for investment in learning, but considering the barriers that exist, it gives the argument leverage.  The truth is that a lot of firms want the benefits of great knowledge and skills – in terms of delivering things like client service standards, efficiency and profitability and retaining staff – but when push comes to shove, the organisation really values and recognises fee-earning.  When making the case for investing time and money in learning, compliance provides a regulatory rationale for a change in approach.  It can be the foundation on which the steps towards effective learning strategy and business transformation can be made.

Learning means business!

The shift from hours-based CPD to competence to practise presents an important opportunity for firms to reassess their learning strategy and ensure it contributes to their business needs. 

This article is based on a feature first published in Managing for Success, the magazine of the Law Society’s Law Management Section

In November 2017 all solicitors had a new experience; they applied for their practising certificate on the basis of a declaration of “competence to practise”.  This is because the concept of a “cpd hour” is now long gone from a regulatory perspective. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) moved to a competency-based model the year before.    Despite this seismic change in the way professional development is regulated, few in the profession are aware of the potential benefit to business which the new approach to learning & development makes possible.

Removing the comfort blanket of CPD hours brings firms up hard against the cold reality of the business purpose of learning. Some have dropped it like a stone, glad of an excuse to cut costs. Others see it an opportunity to take a new approach to learning at work and to ensure that professional development serves their business needs.

The rationale for change

Any learning provider will tell you that learning is not something that can be measured in hours.  Best practice in professional development now is all about delivering learning close to the work activity.  Learning at work is, after all, intended to change behaviour.  Everyone reading this article will know of the phenomenon of individuals turning up for irrelevant training sessions, just to get the hours.  Whilst the old system gave people who needed it a cast-iron reason to spend time on learning, it did nothing to address the quality of learning or the importance transferring skills into practice.

The competency-based approach

The SRA has provided a “Competency Statement” outlining four areas in which a solicitor may need to demonstrate “competence”.  It is important to note that the SRA’s version of competencies is NOT mandatory.  Indeed, it is not great!  I say that, because it is not commercially focused and the competencies are not especially well expressed.  Many firms have adopted the SRA version, but those firms are not the ones who have thought about what their businesses really need in terms of competencies, or what works for individuals; not everyone has to be able to demonstrate all the competencies.

Also worth noting is the fact that the SRA will only look into how an individual meets the competencies if there is an allegation of incompetence.  Were that to happen, both the firm and the individual solicitor would be required to produce evidence of competence, including what learning needs were identified, what learning was undertaken and how the learning was transferred into the work-place.  This reactive regulatory approach puts continuous learning at the bottom of the compliance priorities list.

In my view, however, learning is much too important to be a matter for compliance alone.  Getting people engaged and equipped to rise to the challenges of immense change is far more important.

The business case for change

It made be difficult to believe, but the SRA has done a good thing by freeing up the learning agenda.  We do not need to rely on pedagogical arguments to defend a competency-based approach.  The change brings very real business benefits for firms.

First, sustainable growth can only come from a strong internal base of well-managed, highly performing individuals; otherwise, there is an ever-present risk of failure to deliver consistently, or at all.

Second, market pressures and the ever accelerating pace of technological development make the ability to change an imperative. Adaptable people working in agile organisations will be more likely to survive and thrive.

Finally, law firms of the future will need to be creative about the way they deliver services. An organisation which values people who are willing to be creative must embrace the attendant risks and be able to manage and mitigate failure. That can only be achieved in an atmosphere of openness, dialogue and commitment to constant improvement. Creating that kind of culture requires a genuine commitment to skills-training as well as technical expertise.

Being released from the need to clock up CPD hours in order to comply with regulations enables firms to use professional development to rise to these challenges.

Managing the new regime also has the potential to bring positive change. Building an understanding of the purpose of learning ensures it is relevant to the strategy of your business and contributes to business need. Using a competency-based approach provides an excellent mechanism to make performance management genuinely meaningful and significantly increases the possibility of enhancing day-to-day performance.

Bringing a competency-based approach alive

Below are some tips for firms wanting to improve the quality and impact of learning, for their people and their business.


Take a strategic view

A good learning strategy defines the purpose of learning for the business; it is, by definition, ‘outcomes-focused’. Developing or reviewing learning strategy will provide evidence of a proactive approach to ensuring competence at an organisational level. It is also the first step in working out how to plan and prioritise training and measure return on investment for any learning initiative.


Use competencies

 Competencies are widely used across business and commerce. Put simply, they describe ‘what good looks like’. For example, it might be thought desirable for a lawyer to possess intellectual flexibility and technical knowledge. A competency-based approach would put some detail behind that statement to describe the desired behaviours, such as;

  • demonstrates intellectual curiosity in a variety of ways;
  • shares relevant information with colleagues across departments;
  • quickly and accurately grasps key issues in any legal problem; and
  • reflects and develops own thinking including discussion and debate with colleagues.

For some law firms, this kind of approach is well established. For others, however, it opens a Pandora’s Box of issues, including accountability for behaviour as well as financial output, ruffling the feathers of established expertise by shifting the focus to performance management.

Mark Briegal, partner at solicitors Aaron & Partners, ran a highly successful learning and development business before moving into the law; he describes the competency-based approach as a “no-brainer” in the legal sector, since “performance is not just about legal knowledge; it’s about competencies as well”. He describes competencies as fundamental to the performance management process: “If you cannot describe the behaviour you want to encourage, how can you begin to assess development needs?”

Providing evidence of competence throws a spotlight on the performance management process. Many lawyers who are required to manage appraisals are too busy or lack the skills to make them really effective. Yet giving individuals the opportunity to think purposefully about their development needs is an important starting point in the process of determining “competence”. Setting people up for success means getting to grips with performance management and making it work well.


 Capture learning in the workplace

 People learn most when they are doing their jobs, day-to-day. Arguably, lawyers do this more than most, as the law changes constantly and the work gets progressively more complex. But often, little is invested in maximising the opportunities to capture learning at work:

CILEx moved to an outcomes-based approach to CPD long before the SRA.  They require their members to capture a wide range of learning activities. Barbara Hamilton-Bruce, Head of Client at Slater & Gordon (UK) and a former council member at CILEx, says found the experience of recording learning outcomes to be a good one, “It made me think about my learning and, probably more importantly, about where I was unconsciously learning through the tasks that I was completing.”

The SRA’s approach to learning allows lawyers to utilise work-based learning (WBL) principles. Instead of losing the learning value of work activities in the noise and pressure of daily life, WBL takes a structured approach:

  1. identifying learning opportunities, such as making a presentation to a client or senior partners;
  2. recording the challenges faced and what it is hoped will be learned from the experience (this is a way for the learner to set their own learning outcomes); and
  3. once the task is completed, recording reflections on what was learned and identifying ways to build on the experience to further improve knowledge and skills.

There is significant scope for producing evidence of the application of professional ethics in this way – for example, by using WBL principles to learn from a forthcoming negotiation, transaction or proposal.


 Harness technology

 Learning technology is now key in learning delivery, offering both innovative learning opportunities and tools for tracking and evidencing learning.

It may come as a surprise to find that the number one online learning tool for personal & professional learning, and for work-place learning, in 2017 was YouTube (see Jane Hart’s survey at www.c4lpt.co.uk), because it provides a way to tap into a huge range of expertise in an immediate and engaging way. All kinds of online learning can be translated into recognisable units of activity, and captured through platforms such as the Learning Locker (www.learninglocker.net ).

Lawyers evidence their learning, for example, by using a training record. There is no reason in principle why that record should not be in pen and ink, or individuals can use an online record such as the one provided by the Law Society’s CPD Centre (www.lawsociety.org.uk/cpdcentre). The opportunities for capturing a range of learning activity, as well as the benefits of having a centralised way of tracking learning in the firm, will also make a centralised, and also potentially online, recording system attractive.


Focus on quality

The SRA no longer accredits CPD providers and it now recognises all sorts of learning activities. This throws the onus onto firms to be discerning about investing in training which delivers real impact.  Here are three things to look out for;

  1. Use purely didactic learning judiciously – many lawyers are comfortable being lectured, but that approach does not lend itself to transformational learning which changes behaviour
  2. Look for how much experiential learning is on offer, e. learning by doing, not listening – learning is an activity; it is not passive
  3. Always use providers who identify learning outcomes and, ideally, provide opportunities to consolidate learning after a face-to-face events with coaching or online resources

Firms with a clear understanding of the learning process will be able to provide the motivation, resources and support for individuals to progress their own professional development in a wide range of ways. The competency-based approach is intended to move away from rigid measures of learning, and towards a focus on the quality of learning and the potential to change behaviour as a result of training.

The wider context

There are excellent business reasons why a robust approach to individual and organisational performance should involve more than just metrics, whether those are learning hours or monthly budgets. If the move to an outcome-focused approach to CPD brings that prospect into focus, then I for one count it as a blessing.

Implementing learning strategy

  1. Make sure learning strategy is aligned with business goals
  2. Assess learning needs – what knowledge, skills and attitudes do you need in place to deliver on your strategy?
  3. Communicate the learning strategy
  4. Check there are no other organisational issues which will prevent people from using their new knowledge and skills –such as an unclear line management structure
  5. Prioritise learning activities in the light of business need
  6. Make a business case for learning activity – learning should always be more than “a good idea”
  7. Identify desired learning outcomes – these should accord with business need
  8. Consider a “blended learning” approach using different learning activities over time to establish and embed ideas and promote the transfer of learning to work
  9. Decide how and when to measure the impact of learning activities
  10. Measure the impact of learning activities in terms of hard and soft outcomes
  11. Generate evidence of success and use it to support the business case for future learning
  12. promote and support the integration of new knowledge and skills into day-to-day work to embed learning and create evidence of competence

Athena Professional is an award-winning consultancy which can help you to get the best value from your investment in learning.  Do get in touch if you would like to have a chat about your organisation’s needs.

French ban on phones in school – is it too late to manage the march of digital technology?

Recently the French Minister for Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced that from September 2018 secondary school children under the age of 15 will not be allowed to have smartphones with them in school at any time, not even at break or at lunch-times.  Reading responses to this ban prompted me to think about the French perspective and this post captures those thoughts.

Is this about attention spans and focus or is it something else?  The French have a fierce history of protecting their identity as a secular, intellectual republic (massive generalisations aside, I make no comment about whether they achieve this – but it is my impression of how they like to see themselves).  Perhaps they perceive their unique identity as being under threat in some way.

The huge optimism which existed about the use of digital technology to democratise our lives has given way, under a wave of populism, to fear that it is merely another way of driving consumerism.  We cannot ignore the fact that children are being exploited as online consumers any more than we can ignore the fact that digital technology provides great opportunities.

For some reason humans do tend to end up making everything about power. Where that power is shared through some medium, like art, science, sex etc. the outcomes are perceived as positive. Where power is centralised with the objective of gaining control, whether of a market, behaviour or mind-set, then the outcomes are often ugly.

Which is holding sway now?  The bewildering pace of change means that the constant lure of the internet our children experience can be seen as a massive experiment.  Are things going to turn out well for the “click bait” generation?  Whilst positive outcomes are possible, to-date the digital age has facilitated the rise of extremism and provided a mechanism for terror.  Are the French are trying to draw a line in the sand at some level?

When I talk about the impact of digital technology with clients I like to put it in historical context. The printing press arrived in the UK in the 1470s – the first book was produced in 1473. In 1870 the Education Act was passed which made primary school education mandatory for all. Such was the degree of social & political control it took four hundred years to achieve universal entitlement to literacy.  In comparison, the reach, speed and extent of the impact of technology is staggering.  It is unlike anything we have seen before.

Braudel argued that History is not the product of human endeavour.  History is shaped first by geology and geography, he argued, then by economic cycles lasting many decades or centuries, and finally by individuals who dance on pin-heads and think themselves important.  I wonder where he would put digital technology in that story.  In the second bracket, I suspect, although the pace of change drives it towards the immediate individualistic level.  Old orthodoxies, even the historical theories by which we understand our past and our progress, are falling away in the face of the rapidity of change.

Do we just let this play out and see what happens or is it too late?  Digital technology exists and it is in the hands of big corporations who intend to make it pay, even more so now that net-neutrality appears doomed.  It was ever thus.  How do we make the most of the opportunities for learning whilst preserving a space in which children are not prey to the next click or image?  I can understand the French idea that smartphones are not essential in school, but ensuring that future generations are discerning, critical thinkers is absolutely crucial.

The horizon and the here & now

In recent months I have been reading, thinking and speaking about the future of work, more specifically, the future of learning at work.  At the same time, I work with professional people on basic skills, like the ability to have a structured conversation, to listen, and to allow a colleague to explore their ideas for themselves.  In other words, how to get to grips with the messy and difficult bits of working with people.

Horizon-scanning and working with people on practical skills form two strands of my work activity which are challenging in different ways.  Some of the time I am diving in, searching out ideas, identifying what matters and trying to create some understanding, for example, what does Artificial Intelligence mean for learning?  Are jobs for “newbies” going to exist in the future?  If not, how will people gain experience and practise skills?  These issues are intriguing.  Being informed about them allows me to present a rounded view to clients.

All the time, I’m doing my day job as a Learning & Development consultant too; talking with people about learning strategy, designing learning activities (online and experiential) and delivering face-to-face learning.  I also coach individuals, so I come close to what makes a fellow human-being tick, what troubles them and what makes them laugh.

Each day and each week I move back and forth from horizon-scanning, through to thinking about the particulars of a client organisation, to group dynamics, and individual, immediate human needs.  I try to help people make sense of one aspect or another as I go.

I read, see and hear a lot of things about how people work within organisations and how organisations view people.  I have a lot of ideas about the flow between the two.  I have been educated to think that I ought to come up with something original and brilliant to say before I publish my thoughts, but here and now I am going to just offer what I’m thinking, rather than some perfectly expressed solution.

What is emerging for me at the moment is the idea that our notion of “managers” is probably unhelpful.  Among professional people, informed self-management is eminently possible.  Note please the word “informed”.  I need to write about that more on another occasion, for now let me say I think that begins with first understanding yourself and your impact on others, as well as having clarity about your purpose at work.

Another thought that I am living with just now is that everything depends on context.  Our current world context is remarkable; I am writing at the time of a General Election, just after a major terrorist attack in Manchester, and as war and famine rage in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.  My life spans the certainties of the Cold War and the current time, when old social and political fractures have opened up, and new ones created by the digital age have emerged to generate a cocktail of expectation and possibility hither-to unknown to humanity.

In a challenging and often frightening world we look for people who make sense of things for us, and this brings me back to the two strands of my working life.

As I stand at the front of the training room, Heads of Department, architects, solicitors and sales managers look to me and seem to say, “Make this easier for me!”  I share with them my enthusiasm and knowledge and help them to learn about their own abilities by getting them doing things which are slightly outside their comfort-zone.  That’s what I do; I try and make sense of some things for them and I set them going on a task which will help them realise that they are already capable of helping others to work effectively in many ways.

I want those people to know that they often don’t have to try as hard as they think they do.  Offering guidance and support, or even holding a colleague to account, is perhaps easier than they imagine.  They do not need to learn to be “other” or different.  In fact, they probably need to be more themselves.  A manager is not someone who makes other people do things; they are the person who makes it possible for other people to do things.  By thinking of the manager’s role as being a facilitator or enabler, the idea becomes less onerous.  It requires skill and that’s ok, because we are all more capable than we think and we can all learn.

Can we become facilitators and enablers now?  I think it would be a good time to try.  Just around the corner is a world of data analytics which will enable us all to see at a glance how colleagues are performing; how much time they spent on a project, or working in a team activity or communicating with a customer or client.  Perhaps you have that information already.  If not, it won’t be too long before we are all informed by more metrics than we can shake a stick at.  But there is more to working with people than that; now would be a good time to make sure we can still all be human too.



Strategy, expectation and … action?

I keep hearing the same story from all sorts of different businesses; we’ve done the thinking, we’ve got a strategy that everyone agrees with… but nothing has changed!  Amongst those who are leading changes in business structure and profile there is bafflement:  Surely people can see the imperative?  Why do they keep doing the same things they have always done?

It reminds me of the old joke; how many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but the light bulb has got to want to change.

And there is the conundrum; getting people to change behaviour ought to be easy.  No one is being asked to get into astrophysics overnight.  It should not be that difficult.  But it is.  Moving beyond rhetoric and into action requires individuals to choose to do something differently.

I’m special

OccasionallOld professor with a green apple on top of his head.y I hear about an individual who is driving everyone mad by simply not towing
the line.  Perhaps they refuse to use a new management system or they never turn up to events.  This person believes themselves to be special or different from everyone else.  They are convinced that in some way their situation is exceptional, i.e. change should apply to everyone except them.

Dealing with this person is hard, because fundamentally it means trespassing on the individual’s sense of who they are.  If they are rigidly adhering to a particular practice or excluding themselves from something, then it is likely that the behaviour serves some underpinning value or belief which will need to be tackled if they are to stay in the business.  Not an easy prospect.

The long grass

However challenging the maverick individual is, at least they are visible and the way to manage the situation is fairly easily identified, even if it is unappealing.

Perhaps a more difficult challenge arises when the majority of people pay lip service to the importance of change.  Quite quickly a kind of organisational paralysis sets in.  Those championing change get frustrated; those resisting change may be unaware of the impact of their intransigence, because don’t see the connection between agreeing to a strategy and implementing it through the way they think and act on a daily basis.  Soon the idea of change begins to be a drag.

Creatures of habit

I habitually Habits Trianglemake tea using a teapot.  I am aware that there are other (inferior) ways of making tea, but left to my own devices I’ll do what I always do.  I know that the tea tastes better if brewed in a pot.  I know that reduces the temperature of the liquid.  I have learned that if I warm the pot and the cup I can keep my tea hot.  Doing those things is easy and I chose to do them.  I like making tea this way, because I like hot tea.  I have the knowledge, the skills and the attitude required to make a really good cup of hot tea.  I routinely adapt when I’m out and about.  I can drink tea made in the mug.  I change my expectations and behaviour to suit the occasion.

Ok, there’s not much at stake in my example.   It is true though, that we default to our behavioural preferences most of the time whatever the activity in question is.  Being able to flex our behaviour to adapt to new demands involves being aware of our default position and consciously choosing to shift our ground.  Being self-aware and aware of impact of one’s behaviour on others is a starting point for change.

Time & investment

Creating changes in behaviour takes time and investment.  It requires a planned approach.  People need the opportunity to make changes in their daily work, and they need their efforts rewarded when they do.  Individual and collective evidence of success is crucial.

Bringing strategy alive

Our best successes in bringing strategy alive have been with organisations which are willing to address knowledge, skills and attitudes.  That openness enables us to use online learning, class-room based experiential learning and coaching to ensure that people;

  1. Know what they need to know and
  2. Have a chance to try out new skills and
  3. Are challenged and supported as individuals to make changes

Usually when we are delivering these programmes I have to make my tea in the cup, but you can’t have everything.