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Why the Royal Navy modernised its at-sea officer training programme

2 Sep 2021 By Jyoti Rambhai

The organisation tore up initiatives that had been in place for more than 70 years and created a learning package fit for the 21st century

Most organisations today regularly update their learning and development (L&D) initiatives, but Britain’s oldest armed service has only recently had an overhaul of its core workplace training programme and revised some practices that have been in place for more than 70 years.

The Royal Navy’s at-sea training for officers – known as Common Fleet Time – was “outdated”, and nor had the training officers been given updated guidance for “a very long time”, explains Lieutenant Alexandra Head, training manager at HMS Excellent, the Navy’s Portsmouth headquarters, who led the project.

“In some cases, the officers were relying on what they went through when they did their first at-sea training 10 to 15 years ago. And some of the practices they were using were really outdated, especially for the young workforce coming in, who have expectations in line with modern industry standards,” she says.

Head, who has served in the Royal Navy for 10 years and started her career driving destroyers before moving into HR after having family, pitched to revamp the workplace programme after taking over as career manager for young officers – those in their first year, around 450 – in 2019.

“As part of that role, one of my jobs was collating feedback from people who were either leaving or just generally unhappy,” she says. “One thing that consistently came up was that our initial workplace training was falling short of the mark. Young officers were saying they felt it wasn’t good for professional development and the way that it was done made them feel undervalued.”

Every year, around 200 officers undergo a 12-week placement at sea after completing basic training at Britannia Royal Naval College in Dartmouth. Under the old system, Head explains, officers were given a 75-page task book to complete, which included lots of copying out text from various publications. And at the end of the placement, officers “put on their smartest uniform” and had a formal sit-down question session with the ship’s captain – known as the Fleet Board assessment. The captain then decided whether they passed or failed.

“It was incredibly subjective,” Head says. “It depended on who you got [asking the questions], how long it was, what you were asked about – the syllabus was loose and it didn’t matter if it was something you hadn’t experienced. We had reports of people being asked what kind of wine you should serve if you have a foreign officer on board. There were some bizarre things and the questioning was very inconsistent between ships, so people felt it was unfair.”

With the Royal Navy partnering with a provider to update the training for its shoreside programme, Head believed it was a good opportunity to also revise the at-sea training. But she still had to rely on people’s goodwill to help her. 

Head formed an action learning group of 40 people from Navy HQ, Britannia Royal Naval College and ships at sea – many of whom were deployed at the time – to help her put together a solution. The revised 12-week training package, which was piloted with current and former students, now consists of an immersive onboard learning experience; a journal for officers to keep; an online portal and a scenario-based assessment at the end.

In the final assessment, which will still maintain its traditional name as ‘Fleet Board’, officers will be given an emergency scenario based on their experience and previous deployments 24 hours in advance. They then have to prepare and give a presentation in front of a panel detailing how they would deal with it, and answer questions at the end. Rather than simply being given a pass or fail, officers are given feedback with areas to improve on. 

“The new training package is completely unrecognisable compared to the previous one and we’ve had some incredible feedback from the pilot,” says Head. 

One of the biggest challenges was that everyone involved was completely disparate – many were deployed on warships with no access to a reliable internet connection. “Everything was done by emails and phone calls, when they had signal,” she says. “And every time we made a change, we had to make sure it was endorsed, so putting together all the documentation actually only happened in the last four months.”

Although the pandemic made conducting the training harder because the Navy had to account for quarantining before and after the placement, it also led to more flexibility, Head says. “There were some ships we just couldn’t use for training anymore, because they were being used for high-profile defence engagement missions. As a result, we had to come up with an alternative, and this led to us designing the new programme so it could take place on any platform – from aircraft carriers to offshore patrol vessels.”

With the first 80 newly commissioned officers due to go through the new-look Common Fleet Time programme at the end of August, what else is next for the Navy? According to Head, it’s looking at how it approaches learning more widely. “We’re trying to encourage people to think about L&D on a daily basis so they can improve their personal portfolio and gain transferable skills,” she explains. “This will make them more employable outside of the Navy: helpful when the time comes for them to move on.”

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