Why Sky needed a radical rethink of L&D

The changing needs of its learners meant Europe's biggest media business went back to the drawing board

Why Sky needed a radical rethink of L&D

The concept of workplace learning today bears almost no relation to what most organisations were practising even a decade ago. Classroom cohorts have given way to user-centricity. Textbooks have been replaced by smartphones. Peers are as likely to take the lead as trainers.

But while it is easy to talk about reinventing L&D roles, the reality of initiating such a shift is daunting, even in an organisation as inured to change as Sky, Europe’s largest media business with 30,000 employees and revenues of almost £13bn.

Five years ago, says Tracey Waters, the business’s head of people engagement and development, it took 12 months to design a leadership development programme before it could even be piloted. Most soft skills and onboarding was handled in classrooms. In a business that had begun a broad digital transformation, that meant learning was in danger of lagging behind. “It wasn’t responsive,” as Waters puts it.

The L&D team set out to shift the way learning was delivered, doing away with cohort-based, scheduled programmes and instead introducing a mindset focused primarily on solving employees’ problems, where staff could take control of their own development. 

That meant L&D had to borrow both processes and practices from digital development, going from what Waters calls a ‘waterfall’ mentality of cascading information, to an agile world where ideas are prototyped and iterated to succeed fast.

“We needed to embrace a mindset around user-centricity, data-driven decisions and iterative development,” she says. “That is so far removed from how most L&D teams work. You have to get used to products that might feel a lot less polished, rather than delaying a release until it is a complete solution.”

The new vision was necessary because Sky was facing a fresh array of nimble rivals – not just the likes of Amazon and Netflix taking on its core TV business, but YouTube and social networks competing for customers’ attention. The business had also recently launched Sky Mobile and was continuing to grow its other divisions.

“We need to be fast, and so does our L&D,” says Joanna Lewis, director of HR for the UK and Ireland. “That’s not easy in such a varied business. We’re a creative business, a customer service business, a technology business. We are constantly innovating.

“The wrong answer would be a development offering that takes people away from their work for long periods – it’s not effective and it would be almost impossible, and impossibly expensive, to create a learning catalogue that covers all the company’s existing and future skills requirements.”

The primary answer is to identify and target ‘points of need’ rather than broad topics. Instead of creating a management development programme, for example, the L&D team focuses on a specific pinch point such as onboarding a new team member or having a positive end-of-year review conversation, and backs this with digital resources and small group coaching workshops.

Automation helps too. Emails target newly recruited or promoted managers to show them the depth of resources available in their first 90 days. Specialist content, meanwhile, is mostly covered by third party, on-demand solutions.

“We’ve tried to remove the bottleneck that L&D can become,” says Waters. “The idea that in this day and age you can have an L&D team who are experts in the learning needs of a company like Sky is a recipe for failure. We have to unlock a whole company of people who are much better informed about their learning needs than we are.”

Sky has been helped in this by working with its own UX lab and consumer psychologists to help hone digital products. And the HR team has approached its work with a marketing mindset, helping encourage the adoption of products.

This measurability piqued the attention of HR industry analyst Fosway Group, which praised Sky’s focus on metrics: “Without tapping into data that examines user behaviour and usage of resources, and going beyond traditional completion rates, organisations cannot start to measure engagement [from L&D initiatives].”

The overall aim, says Waters, is to put the onus on individuals to learn in ways, and at times, that are comfortable for them. But that isn’t straightforward: “A digital learning solution is much harder to help people navigate than you expect. We thought we’d switch this thing on, people would have amazing access and they would get on with it. But it’s a product, and you have to market that in the same way as you would market to your customers.” 

For Lewis, what’s also becoming clear is that much traditional L&D activity doesn’t deal with ‘real’ problems. Instead, she says, it is used as a proxy to solve a lack of recognition or issues around status or networking. By making learning about real, definable skills and behaviours, some of these other issues are now being solved.

The human-to-human is still critical at Sky – popular 90-minute seminars bring together groups of six to eight people to learn from each other through appreciative inquiry, for example – but it’s clear being more employee-centric and data-driven has struck a chord with a progressive workforce. Already, engagement surveys are showing employees feel they have more development opportunities, and L&D is looking at how it can add genuine value in a role where it isn’t at the centre of the learning experience. It’s a process that’s never likely to end – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.