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Rethinking learning is finally paying off for the British Red Cross

22 Aug 2019 By Robert Jeffery

The charity has introduced a new learning management system to over 7,000 staff and volunteers so far

There are plenty of organisations we don’t understand as well as we imagine. But few are the subject of quite as many misconceptions as the British Red Cross. Far from supplying disaster relief in far-flung lands, the celebrated charity is – as its name suggests – resolutely focused on the UK, with a remarkable footprint spanning everything from caring for vulnerable people in their homes to managing refugee reception centres and maintaining a network of charity shops.

British Red Cross personnel run ambulance services at public events and train thousands of people every year in basic first aid. But most of all, says director of learning Dr Satnam Sagoo, the organisation exists to alleviate crisis, no matter how and where it occurs. 

“When someone comes to one of our shops, they might be dropping off a [recently deceased] loved one’s clothing and they could just have a breakdown,” says Sagoo. “We have to deal with that moment of crisis and support our own person dealing with that situation.”

Sagoo defines this as “connecting human kindness with human crisis” and views learning as an essential tool in making this mission possible across 4,000 staff and a volunteer base of up to 60,000 people. When she joined in late 2017, the organisation had spent a year without a dedicated learning leader and was running what she describes as a “very lean function”, but she adds: “The challenge was having a blank sheet of paper – and that’s a great opportunity, because we had a chance to go out and find out exactly what our people wanted.”

The key innovation she has introduced since is to extend learning to encompass the volunteer base in the name of creating an “equitable” organisation – a major undertaking that distinguishes the British Red Cross from many of its peers and which has been marketed internally under the ‘developing our people’ banner.

It’s been made possible by a new learning management system that has been rolled out across employees, retail stores and – where connectivity allows – field-based volunteers, with more than 7,000 people on board so far. It’s practical and social applications that have helped drive adoption: stores loved using the system to showcase their Christmas displays and, by providing rudimentary information on how to handle card payments, huge numbers of volunteers were engaged.

The next stage, says Sagoo, is to encourage them to deepen their involvement in learning by studying online modules, as part of a deliberate focus on broadening what the notion of talent means: “We don’t just want a staff focus on talent. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, in 10 years’ time, our CEO was someone we were supporting or who was volunteering today? 

“Nobody comes to us as an empty vessel. They bring their skillset to us, and to be a true learning organisation we need to recognise talent is everywhere – not just something we identify through appraisals or other classic routes.”

Increased coaching and networking opportunities for volunteers will follow. For employees, meanwhile, the redefinition of talent means ditching traditional management courses based around away-day training in favour of shorter sessions available more widely and covering essentials such as recruitment and performance management. 

“I’d love to say we’ve done a massive leadership and management programme, but it’s much more about giving people something that’s useful and accessible and that makes a difference to them day to day,” says Sagoo, who joined the charity after nine years in various roles at Public Health England. “Often when we do these large programmes, a select few go on them and the trickle-down effect may not happen. We’ve been really proactive about changing that.”

But that hasn’t meant reinventing every aspect of learning, she adds. In fact, Sagoo has recognised that the organisation historically had a number of popular training programmes that were particularly effective in onboarding and engaging volunteers and actively sought out and reintroduced several of them, particularly those that emphasised the role of values.

Such ideas have connected because they have been co-created with the organisation; volunteer representatives have acted as ‘critical friends’ to test learning ideas, and most of the L&D team now undertakes reverse mentoring with a colleague on the front line. The charity’s trustees have been actively encouraged to give feedback, and to market learning.

The overall shift, says Sagoo, is towards curation of resources and the use of shorter bursts of digital learning. “We haven’t got rid of face to face,” she adds. “We’ve made it leaner and more accessible. I want to be in the classroom sometimes because it gets me away from my desk, and why shouldn’t I do that? But we took away that whole language around 70:20:10 – we empower people to learn in whatever way is best for them.”

There are still issues, says Sagoo, particularly around the availability of technology to truly maximise digital learning, and there are still plenty of plans to further embed coaching and mentoring that have yet to come to fruition. But this is an organisation that is clear about its limitations while also being hugely ambitious in the change it believes learning can catalyse.

“At times it’s been busy,” she says. “It feels like I’ve come along and emptied the loft out and now we’re living in all that mess. But what we’ve got is the value of what the Red Cross does – each and every one of us lives and breathes that. No other organisation I have been in has anything like that.”

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