Case studies

Why digitisation is helping Pearson improve L&D and increase diversity

23 Aug 2018 By Robert Jeffery

The education giant is reaching out to a broader range of talent

On the face of it, overseeing the development of employees at Pearson sounds like one of the most enticing HR jobs going. “We see ourselves as the world’s largest learning company,” says Kevin Lyons, the company’s senior HR manager, as he welcomes People Management into 
its warren-like headquarters yards from the banks of the River Thames.

The numbers certainly back this up. With 32,000 employees, and historic roots in the UK, Pearson is a blue chip FTSE 100 stalwart with annual revenues around the £4.5bn mark and an international reach. It provides learning resources to schools and educational institutions in every corner of the globe and develops curricula, examinations, professional and vocational education affecting millions of learners

But in common with the rest of its sector, this 174-year-old business has seen itself thoroughly disrupted by the shift to digital. Having divested itself of non-core businesses such as the Financial Times (which it sold in 2015) to concentrate on education, it underwent a significant restructuring and since 2016 has been embarked on what Lyons describes as “digital transformation and simplification”. Once the biggest publisher of books in the world, Pearson now produces an array of innovative digital products, from digital courseware to e-books, all of which means it needs new skill sets and an evolving outlook.

Being digital, says Lyons, isn’t just about being conversant with tools: “Yes, we need employees that are comfortable in a digital environment, but increasingly they are anyway, because everybody is using technology to a large degree in their lives. We need employees with specific capabilities – to problem solve, innovate and develop the business.”

That’s crystallised, from an HR perspective, into two areas Lyons views as “twin pillars” of talent management. The first is diversity and inclusion – which means reaching out to a broader range of talent. It has become a strategic priority for the business, exemplified by a range of employee resource groups covering LGBT+ staff, women in leadership, Pearson Able (which tackles disability issues) and, soon, BAME. 

Those networks are important, says Lyons, because they offer advice and guidance to HR and act as “centres of excellence” to tackle intersectional issues such as neurodiversity. But he is mindful to ensure that they are not restricted to certain groups: “We want allies – men in our Women in Leadership group, we want straight employees to sign up to our LGBT group… and the focus has increasingly been on partnering between different areas of diversity.”

Gender has also become a determined focus, aided by the recent reporting regime – the business recorded a median gap of 15 per cent in hourly pay. “One of our aspirations is to have a gender balance,” says Lyons. “That may take time, but it’s where we want to be. 
We’re going to extend our gender pay reporting to the greater [international] organisation by 2020.

“We have said that for every senior role there needs to be a woman on the shortlist. But the whole diversity issue is about talent. Society is diverse – we must find talent wherever it is. I believe that if you are outwardly inclusive, it gives you an edge in the market. Employees are increasingly looking for that.”

The second area of focus has been L&D – because while an inclusion strategy can help attract new employees, learning is the lever that upskills those you’ve already got. “We have a development plan for everyone,” says Lyons. “Critical to that has been the idea of personal brand. What excites and motivates you as an employee, and what is it that’s individual about you that should be part of your development? The development planning discussions haven’t just been about career opportunities but about skills and abilities. A vanilla approach to learning and development isn’t the answer – it’s about individuals.”

A new learning hub is full of resources, courses and activities and shows employees how much is on offer. A leadership development programme for middle managers has benefited from being created and led by executives. But the team has also taken its message on the road, running lunch and learn sessions that have so far reached more than 5,000 employees, with a focus on coaching, mentoring, resilience and other areas.

Pearson’s core business is, of course, the provision of learning content, but it takes a deliberately inclusive view of the term. Real-time learning, podcasts, blogs and other bite-size forms of learning are in demand: “You have fewer employees who say ‘I need a five-day course on how to be a manager’ – that’s not relevant anymore.”

This shift has been led by the business partnering team. The lunch and learns, for example, would once have been handled by a centre of excellence, says Lyons, “but the business partners are closest to the front line and have the best relationships to take that on”.

The key to making such an approach work is to change the nature of the conversation, he adds: “I personally believe HR has concentrated too much in the past on employee relations. Talking to the business has to mean talking about talent management. You’re talking about taking the organisation forward, skills and capabilities, development, recruitment and enablement of talent. The business partnering team, working in conjunction with others, should be having those conversations.”

The proof of the approach’s success comes in reduced employee turnover and increased innovation. It will also hopefully be reflected in financial performance, says Lyons – which means business partners will be enabled to explore how technology can expand their roles (already, Pearson is using ‘intelligent’ chatbot mentors). As the HR team knows only too well, it’s premature to say the job is done. But in a hugely disruptive environment, it must be good to say you’re on the front foot.

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