Tick-box learning programmes and an incoherent L&D offering had caused staff at Farne Salmon & Trout, a seafood wholesaler in the Scottish borders, to disengage with change projects and the wider business.
“Our L&D was effectively just training – we’d deliver courses but wouldn’t measure their impact on the business and staff,” says head of HR Linda Dickson, who joined Farne in 2012. “Things were done ‘to’ staff rather than the leadership and HR teams getting them involved. Even when we brought in external providers to offer L&D, it was done as a one-off and there was no link or follow-on. Employees were becoming quite sceptical because there was no cohesion.”
It was clear the organisation needed to overhaul its L&D provision and create a learning culture that engaged staff and supported business goals – before its future growth was compromised.
Farne has been on a five-year process to develop its learning culture, says HR business partner Anna Nesbit. Change began in 2012 when the business appointed one employee per department to its senior management team: “We envisioned staff becoming completely engaged in the business and understanding their role within it.”
HR representatives then met with each of Farne’s 700 employees to discuss their individual career aspirations and how change to the business might affect them. “What emerged was how much staff wanted to be involved in the business,” says Nesbit. “The meetings helped them understand how they could do that.”
A key priority that emerged from these discussions was the need for English language classes; half of Farne’s workers were born outside the UK. “The classes have boosted employees’ confidence and encouraged them to apply for internal roles,” Nesbit says.
The L&D team has also designed comprehensive, learning-focused inductions for new starters, so they understand the role that learning plays in the organisation. Farne’s ‘open door’ L&D offering gives learners the chance to study courses that are relevant to their professional development, including CIPD and CIMA courses, and two-year Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQs).
This formal learning is complemented by more informal support, including mentoring and confidential coaching, which employees can take advantage of to develop skills or attributes. “Employees are much more hungry to learn now because we have created that environment for them,” says Dickson.
The L&D team’s efforts have rekindled the bond of trust between staff and employer, and led to employees being more closely involved in company decisions. Investments in learning (as well as new equipment) have generated a “staggering” increase in productivity and revenue per factory worker of 300 per cent since 2013-14, says Dickson. Sickness absence rates have fallen to 2-3 per cent from 5 per cent over the same period.
An unexpected – but pleasant – challenge has been managing employees’ expectations around learning. Applications for SVQs have been much higher than expected; more than 30 applications have been received so far this year, compared to just 13 four years ago.
And there’s been a 50 per cent rise in overall internal recruitment applications, which Dickson says reflects how well staff have “responded to being given opportunities to move up within the business. If we’ve got the skills internally, why would we recruit elsewhere?”