“There’s nothing like that ‘oh s***’ moment when you realise a dog is going to bite you and there’s nothing you can do about it. It makes it very real,” says James Barton, Royal Mail’s digital learning manager. He’s describing a 2012 incident when he was working in a summer job for Parcelforce, a subsidiary of his current employer. “It wasn’t so much the pain, it was the realisation I’d made a mistake and couldn’t recover.”
Fortunately, Barton’s physical injuries healed relatively quickly. And the story had a happy ending – seven years later, it proved the inspiration for a virtual reality (VR) learning programme he hopes will greatly reduce the 2,200 postal workers who are attacked by dogs each year.
The innovative, but surprisingly frugal, deployment of technology epitomises the user-centric approach Barton has tried to introduce since he helped form the organisation’s digital learning team in 2015. He has now taken on responsibility for all learning in a complex business that is far from cash rich – Royal Mail’s sliding profitability and rampant cost-cutting have been well-documented – but which needs to encourage both compliance and innovation.
The prevailing ethos, says Barton, has been to centralise learning, switching off individual platforms and congregating materials on the learning management system, as well as dramatically reducing the number of suppliers so that up to 90 per cent of all learning content can either be curated or created internally.
“The past few years have been a story of substantially regrowing infrastructure, against a backdrop of ever-decreasing management headcount, greater commercial pressures and having to do more with less in terms of learning budget,” says Barton. “But for people in the digital world, that’s our time to shine.”
If that sounds like it could be reductive, the results have been revolutionary. Barton and his team have examined how and – crucially – why learning takes place across the business, and have been prepared to deconstruct their output to better meet employees’ needs.
Out has gone a costly management development curriculum, supplanted by summaries of business books and a primarily digital learning programme that has enjoyed far larger uptake among managers. Poorly received fire safety videos were replaced with a blended approach allowing leaders to create their own scripts and truly engage employees. A new social learning platform has ensured remote staff in smaller depots can connect with colleagues and co-create answers to common queries.
It reverses an ethos Barton says was often “back to front” and prioritised the learning team’s convenience ahead of staff needs. He cites a tendency to roll out training automatically across the business rather than to ask where it was needed. “Take our operational managers – there are 5,500 of them and every time we ask them to do something, it takes them time and also the time someone needs to take to cover them. It adds up quickly.
“We were doing things that simply didn’t add value. Our core safety induction training for managers had been moved online but it was still nine hour-long modules, plus a one-hour test and a half-day classroom workshop as a follow-up. The reality is that as an operational manager, there’s only so much you need to have instant recall of and an awful lot that can be addressed through performance support or seeking advice.”
Changing the way such training is addressed, he adds, has saved more than £1 million over four years, and there are plenty of other instances where managers have been able to learn online in a ‘golden period’ while deliveries are taking place, rather than leaving the office. “It’s about respecting their time because at the end of the day, postal workers and operational managers are the people driving business value, not us.”
Classroom learning still has its place – two of Barton’s learning designers are face-to-face specialists – but it has to be focused where it’s truly needed. The VR project is indicative of how he would prefer to work. After discovering one of Royal Mail’s trade unions was keen to address dog safety, he worked with a supplier to use technology to counter one of the biggest problems in safety training – that in a macho culture, individuals taught in ‘one to many’ classes are unwilling to engage, show vulnerability and ask questions.
Barton’s team came up with an immersive video based around a week in the life of a new joiner who must face dangerous situations involving dogs. Employees wearing headsets ‘guide’ their new colleague around the hazards, learning as they go. It sends a message, says Barton, that the business takes safety seriously, but because it can be deployed using smartphones and cheap VR headsets it doesn’t represent a huge investment and utilises existing regional safety managers as trainers. Best of all, because it has been shot with real uniforms and real situations, it resonates.
It sets a template for where Barton would like learning to go – creating powerful content within the business to address real problems rather than have L&D “put its arms around everything”.
“I have a lot of conversations with colleagues from expert functions who don’t understand why their message isn’t landing. I always say ‘change the message’ because invariably, it is wrong. You need to understand what drives people… we can give people guidance on that.”
In fact, he adds, the success of the approach has led to an unexpected issue: some content creators have become so enthusiastic about learning, their managers feel they are neglecting their day jobs. It’s something Barton admits he will need to address – but right now, it’s a nice problem to have.