Joe Ales & Jason West are joined this week by Rachel Kay, Emma Lucas, and Craig McCoy

Season 2: Episode 16 – The Future of Work: Building Capability to Thrive in a Digital World

Jason West: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation podcast. My name is Jason West.

Joe Ales: And my name is Joe Ales.

Jason West: And together we’re the founders of Underscore. This is the third episode in our bonus mini-series on the future of work and the impact that the global pandemic has had on organisations and, more importantly, on the people that work in them.

In our previous two episodes, our guests considered the pandemic in the context of an already well-established trend of digital transformation, remote working, and automation. And whilst their shared view was that the crisis has sped up an existing trend, the speed and scale on which it happened has been a major logistical and cultural challenge.

This week, we’re peeling back another layer and looking into the skills, competencies and behaviours that organisations and the HR functions that support them will need, to thrive in a post-COVID digital world. Our special guest this week, Emma Lucas, Head of Talent and Development at Marks and Spencer, Craig McCoy, HR Director and Chair of the London HR Connection, and Rachel Kay, Learning Director, at Capita. So firstly, Emma, welcome; if you’d like to introduce yourself.

Emma Lucas: Thanks, Jason. I’m Emma Lucas. As Jason said, I look after talent and development Marks and Spencer. I’ve got specific responsibilities for our stores and property teams, plus about 70,000 colleagues nationwide. And I’ve been with most services for just over a year now.

Jason West: Fantastic, thanks. Craig, if you’d like to introduce yourself, a bit about your background and also a bit about the London HR Connection.

Craig McCoy: Sure. Thank you. Hello, everybody. My name is Craig McCoy. I’m a senior group director with about 35 years’ experience. I’ve actually been HR director for 15 businesses in my career, of which the last nine essentially has been as an interim, as a consultant across various sectors, including media, telecoms, technology, health and social care. I’m also non-exec director for a couple of organisations, most notably London Connection, which is a networking group for HR professionals in London with about 3000 members. In normal times, we meet face to face for monthly events. At the moment, of course, it’s largely confined to webinars and that’s been fantastic.

Jason West: Thanks, Craig and Rachael. Welcome. You come at this from a slightly different perspective, so it would be great for you to introduce yourself and your role and background.

Rachel Key: Yeah, sure. Thanks, Jason. My name is Rachel Kay and I’m Learning Director for Capita Learning. So in our People Solutions division in Capita, I head up the learning organisation and what we do is we help not only our internal capital employees, but wider customers, both in the private and the public sector, improve both skills and capability through our solutions. And also looking at general L&D effectiveness for the L&D function. So, yeah, around about twenty-five years’ experience in learning and yet a big topic for us all to be talking about. So I’m really looking forward to today’s interview.

Jason West: Fantastic. Thanks, Rachel. And in fact, staying with you for the first question. When you look at the broad range of clients that you have in the market, what do you see as the major trends around digital transformation before the pandemic?

Rachel Kay: I think for the client groups that we’ve been working with, I think they’ve got two things on their minds, I think they’ve got the digital skills that the teams and the employees that they have, will need to develop over the next two to five years. And it’s how to make that transition quite often from existing workforces to actually do the development and the training actually in the flow of work. So very few of our customers are going to be thinking, ‘here’s an opportunity to bring in a whole different set of people with a set of digital skills.’ What they’re looking at is the processes and the procedures that they’re currently working on, within their own sectors, where the digital transformation is coming, and then tracking back and saying, so what skills and capability do we need and how then are we going to be able to up skill, reskill, cross-skill existing employees in order to meet that digitalisation?

So, for example, one of our public sector clients has done a significant digital transformation on how their customers access systems. Where before it used to be very telephone based, and even previous to that, face to face, what they’ve now done is got a complete online solution. They’ve had to very quickly upskill people in the sort of tens of thousands, in order to meet that different approach to working. So, that’s not only the physical skills that they may need from a digital point of view, but actually then how to work in a more digital environment.

And then the final thing is how do I then have a really good team of people behind us that are using all the data that we’re getting out of moving into more technology based operating model? And how can we get the really good data? So that business analyst role comes in.

Jason West: Yes, and that was something you mentioned that around. I think it was training in the flow of work. And that’s something that I’ve heard around the place quite a lot. Can you just unpack that a little bit?

Rachel Kay: Yes. Where we’re seeing this manifesting itself is probably where organisations are investing in new tools and technologies in order to speed up the processing of the work, whether it’s manufacturing, whether it’s customer management from a from a call centre point of view. And, typically, what you would have seen historically, is an organisation would have thought ‘here’s this new piece of software that we’re going to deploy in the organisation, we’re going to write some training material, we’re going to put everybody through perhaps a number of modules in order to build up the skill level or probably do some training. We’ll probably do some train the trainer will create some super users and that’s how we roll out.’ And that’s an absolute fine way to do things. It’s worked for a number of years. But what we need to do now is the speed to competency needs to be improved.

And one of the ways that we’re doing that is working with organisations to use the technology that’s embedded into the new software that they might be rolling out. So actually, the learning is done live. I am working on a new system and it’s actually training me how to do the keystrokes and the processes whilst I’m working on an opportunity or on a customer query, rather than taking it offline and putting me through training. So, learning in the flow of work, that’s one example.

And then the other thing that we’re seeing with our customers is really encouraging continually, it’s not a new trend, but that coaching and mentoring and that for us is another example of learning in the flow of work, of using self-reflection and perhaps eventually looking at some technology of how can technology look at the impact of how people are retaining knowledge? And then how can the L&D function say, ‘well, if we make all materials more focused like this, it’s had an impact on speed to competency, enables us to get our product out to market quicker.’ So that’s, I guess, the use of technology in learning, to get learning in the flow of work.

Jason West: So, Emma, turning to you, as you look across Marks and Spencer, where is the organisation in terms of digital transformation? Is that an official programme of change, have you kind of called it something, or is this just part of incremental business improvements?

Emma Lucas: Yeah, I think quite luckily, actually, we’ve been quite a long way down our digital first journey. We’ve partnered very closely with Microsoft, so we have a Microsoft team on site and we’d been very active in rolling out both Surface Pros, and Surface Go, to our stores and store manager teams using teams, but more knowledge sharing: sharing files, sharing data and putting power in the hands of our store managers so they can walk around the store, have the their fingertips in terms of store performance. Rather than being holed up in their office, try to go through reams of paper and spreadsheets. So, we’ve been quite a long way down that journey. We actually also, at the start of the new year, encouraged colleagues to start bringing their own devices onto the shop floors as well, so they could get some of the apps that we’ve got and use that knowledge to sell, they could get access to information.

What we hadn’t really got to, ahead of the pandemic, I think, was using Teams etc. for active communication tools. And that’s also been the big shift that’s happened for us. So, using those applications and our technology to both communicate more regularly, engage colleagues as well, and then reach out to our furloughed colleagues, we had about 20,000 colleagues on furlough. So Teams became a really important part of that regular drumbeat of communication and engagement with furloughed colleagues as well.

So luckily, quite a long way along the line. I think what the pandemic has helped us with is building the confidence of colleagues to use the technology. We’ve got a very multigenerational workforce in our stores, as you could probably imagine. And whilst the technology has become more widely available, I think quite often confidence is one of the been one of the biggest barriers. We’ve had digital champions in stores, and as Rachel said, they’re really on hand to help people learn in the flow of the work, learn with the technology and the applications, and engage the customers as well. But I think the pandemic and all of the ways in which we as society are being asked to use technology more and more to engage has started to build the confidence of our colleagues, which has been, I think, really helpful in terms of the next set of shifts in this transformation.

Jason West: Fantastic. And Craig, from your perspective, as you look back on digital transformation across your HR network, it would be interesting to get that kind of broad, broader view from a kind of senior HR practitioner perspective.

Craig McCoy: Yeah, sure. So, I think most of the organisations who participate in the HR Connection are going through some form of digital transformation, in some cases pretty major, both in terms of their customer experience, but also their internal employee experience. And one of the clients I’ve been working with most recently is actually an elderly care business, which is obviously been very challenged through COVID-19 in terms of the safety and welfare of its residents, but also as employees. They were already going through a significant digital intervention with essentially the digitisation of all of their resident records, their care plans, history, treatment plans, moving to a kiosk based entry system, where every care worker, every nurse could update and access the resident care records through kiosks at point of delivery.

Sunrise Senior Living is actually an elderly care business with about 300 care homes in the US and about 50 in the UK. A significant employer with about 30,000 people on their books. So, this was a significant learning exercise to basically improve the residence experience. And then just before COVID happened, there was also significant projects which was well underway to basically refresh all of the systems across the organisation. That’s the core H.R. system, time and attendance, rostering systems and all of the other ancillary systems that would support the HR experience. And this this was unfortunately put on hold, just be just as COVID came to pass. But essentially, Sunrise had a legacy of non-connected, non-integrated systems, some acquired through the acquisition of companies, which had never been integrated. A significant project which would have taken probably a year, 18 months plus, and the aim was to leapfrog from quite old and rapidly out of date technology to the latest technology. So, I think most businesses, Sunrise had realised the benefits of investing in technology, both from a user point of view internally, but also from a customer and resident point of view. Unfortunately, COVID has set things back somewhat, but I’m sure it’ll pick up again in the near future.

Jason West: And just as a broad summary, you’ve all touched on points around making service delivery more efficient, connecting people, providing access to data directly to individuals kind of on the floor, if you like. What does this do in terms of the impact on the skills, competencies and behaviours that businesses need to develop in this transformed world? Turning to you, Rachel, just as you look across all the thousands of clients that Capita has, what are you seeing as these macro trends around skills, competencies and behaviours?

Rachel Kay: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because with many of our clients at the moment, they are really keen to start a debate and the discussion over we need to improve the technical skills of our workforce and the digital skills. And actually, when you break them down, the skills that are going to be really important to those organisations that are successful in their digital transformation are actually some of what we would have historically called ‘soft skills,’ which there’s nothing soft about them. In fact, they are the skills that help organisations perform better. But the areas where we’re being asked to support our customers more are around things like creative thinking, problem solving, and almost some of the skills that you would use for companies in start-up mode. So how do you get an organisation to be operating using that creative thinking approach to problem solving? And we’re seeing a lot of organisations become very interested in things like design thinking and also taking a systems approach to solving problems. Whether it’s an engineering company or whether it’s a utility company, how do their processes and procedures knit together to deliver a smooth service for their customer?

And what are the skills that the people need in each of those functions in order to ensure that the customer sees this journey?

It’s the softer side of the digital skills that our customers are focused on. In addition to that, I would say that they’re particularly interested in still programme management skills, software testing, looking at dev-ops, looking at business analysis skills. And what we’re looking at the moment is that our customers are very clear in terms of what the skills are. The challenge for the L&D function, for the organisation, is ‘how do I get that content in a really smooth way out to my employees?’ And that’s where the whole Learning Management System, the learner experience, platforms, organisations integrating, are really actually having trouble because what they’ve effectively got is so much content around all of these great skills that they want to deploy, and actually, how do they ensure that for each individual role there is a clear pathway to help the organisation develop? And then what outcomes and measures do they need to put in? So, actually, our work is much more about creating the pathway, the learning pathway journey for those technical skills, rather than supporting our customers in what the technical skills are. Because actually they’re quite confident that they know what that is. But how do I get that great access to great content when I want it? And it’s going to be a blended content, not just because of COVID, but because that’s the best way that people learn. How do I get it in the flow of work? So, I want to be able to pick it up. How do I get my social application around in order to drive those new skills?

I think in summary, the digital skills are all the things that you’d expect to hear around business analytics, programme management from large technical programmes and then the creative thinking, design thinking skills. But more importantly is how do you package all of that learning program together in order to drive a change in capability?

[Intermission: You’re listening to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. To find out more about our Crisis Management and Leadership programme, visit]

Jason West: And what you’re describing there, almost kind of engineering skills or systems engineering skills are kind of a plus programme management. And Craig, from your perspective, as you look at that kind of set of skills, is quite broadly engineering, are you seeing that also applied across non engineering functions and support functions and sales into other areas of the business?

Craig McCoy: Yeah, definitely. I mean, if I talk briefly about care workers, for example, historically records were kept on paper, manual records and the level of technology usage was actually very limited. Care workers were simply not allowed to use mobile phones whilst they’re actually delivering care. And as part of the sort of technology revolution that was envisaged at sunrise, we’re looking to equip every care worker with a fully enabled mobile phone to enable them to do their work on an ongoing basis to update records at their fingertips. And this this provided a huge learning need for 30,000 employees globally, which needed to be met.

But it also, in many ways highlighted shortfalls in management process, particularly around things like resource scheduling and rostering, which obviously in a care environment is hugely important. And it can make or break a business in terms of profitability, with hard to fill jobs, high absence rates, high levels of staff turnover, a constant training need, but also a constant need to roster and schedule employees effectively. And the digital solution was intended to basically move away from spreadsheets and pieces of paper to actually enable managers to be much more efficient and effective in rostering staff. I suppose the combined impact of covid-19 and digitization are both pointing towards the same thing, which is about process optimisation versus automation and digital in terms of the employee perspective, but also in terms of the right perspective. And I think that applies across all old job groups.

Rachel Kay: Jason, I think that’s a really interesting point, actually, because what we’ve both talked about, whether it was Emma giving, you know, the store managers tools that they can be on the shop floor looking at data in a live environment, or in the homes with looking at the analysis from the introduction of technical systems, one of the core skills that are going to have to develop is how you do analytics against that data in a really short time. And that is a skill that I think organisations, over time, are really going to have to be able to, first of all, develop their team members to be able to do, and then what are the measurable outcomes that organisations will then benefit from once people are able to analyse data in quick time? Because most of us have probably been looking at used to be looking at Excel spreadsheets for a number of years. And I think now with some of the data tools, actually, it’s not just giving us a spreadsheet, but it’s actually giving us some outcomes and perhaps linking to KPIs and how we’re performing. So, I think all the three things that we’ve just talked about are actually joining up quite nicely together and describing a skill, certainly from a leadership point of view that you’re going to need in a digital environment.

Jason West: Absolutely. And have you have you kind of gone some way down the path of solving that particular challenge?

Emma Lucas: I don’t know if we’ve solved it, but I think we’re definitely we’re definitely feeling it. So, we’re trying to wean our managers off of their spreadsheets and getting them to trust what the system and the data is telling them. Then they need to be able to work with that and understand what that means for their store. But I think, as Rachel mentioned at the beginning, that it’s what they do with that data then, and how they engage colleagues in the change activity that needs to come as a result of that data. So, the data’s telling you this particular line’s not selling or these are your hot lines, and you need to move them forward. It’s about that sort of change and engagement project management, as you’ve mentioned, that that comes from that data and insight. So, less time back office working through your spreadsheets, more time trusting the data that’s in front of you, making the decisions and then implementing those sort of change plans. I suppose the other piece in terms of the skills then that we see are managers needing more of in this sort of digital transformation, and the transformation that’s happening in society as a whole is the ability to engage with customers coming into the stores who have got much more insight and awareness than they’ve ever had before about product lines, about what’s trending, about, you know, the environmental credentials of our products. And so, both our managers and customer assistants need to be on the front foot in terms of who’s promoting what on Instagram, what’s the latest bit of noise or feedback that we’ve got in social media – positive or negative. Everything is moving at such a pace, so, you know, we need to have our teams able to integrate all of the sort of technology advances that are going on and bring that integrated experience into the store for our customers to engage with. And we’re very much thinking about how is this going to play out for the future of stores? Where is technology going to go? We’ve got mobile Paygo, in our stores there where you can literally do all your purchasing online on your phone, pay for it on your phone and walk out of the store. And you never need to hear a checkout. It’s great. But then customer assistance needs to be able to help you offer service in that setting because it’s not a typical sales point. You have to be able to go to the customer and engage with them where they are and the security around that as well, obviously, this is a factor for us. So there’s quite a lot that’s going on in terms of the colleague and manager skills, and the support that they need to get and give.

Jason West: What you’re describing is a massive increase in the level of complexity of the roles of people working in a store. I hadn’t appreciated the need for complex problem solving and understanding how the whole system works is way in excess of anything it was 10 years ago or even five years ago.

Emma Lucas: Yeah. And I think that hyper-awareness that we talk about in leadership agility is something that we really need to start dialing up for our leaders. And these are leaders that typically been quite operational. They’re looking at compliance service standards, really great service for customers. It’s a very different mindset for them as well.

Rachel Kay: Yeah, and it does lead to that challenge, I think, within the L&D function, as well as trying to create a personalised learning journey for each of those different roles Emma was describing. What content am I going to be pushing to those new store managers around the ability to do some complex problem solving? How is that going to be personalised for them? Because just like as a consumer, we want everything personalised now. That is the challenge for me in the digital transformation; I don’t want you to flood everything to me as a learner. I want to only receive the things that are going to help me move on in the role of which I’m in. So, I think, I was seeing a lot of customers using things like chat-bots in order to make, that learning a little bit more efficient and effective. And that’s probably where that new technology helps the personalisation agenda.

Emma Lucas: Well, I keep talking about the Netflix of learning. So, how are we really bringing it to you where you, are also adding in stuff you didn’t know you needed? I think that’s a real challenge. And then really making sure that the learning that we offer can really embed behavioural or mindset shifts as well. You know, it’s not just knowledge sharing or at best some kind of new skill. There’s some of the behavioural elements we need to go deeper with. How do we do that? Via online learning solutions? I think where we’re still wrestling with that one a little bit to.

Jason West: How far have you gone down the path? I think you mentioned chat-bots, what other technology is there to provide this ‘Netflix of learning?’ What have you looked out of? You implemented anything as yet, or are you still  assessing the market?

Emma Lucas: So I guess from my point of view, it’s more of a sort of a dream. I haven’t seen anything that I think is offering that’s just now, but I’m hoping we don’t have to sort of build our own. Maybe Rachel might have more ideas for me.

Rachel Kay: Yeah, definitely. So that’s where your learner experience platform will come in. And I guess that’s where technology is really supporting the learning function of creating those simple learner journeys by role, where effectively at the moment lots of organisations are certainly post-COVID looking at having a lot of digital content that you can eat all you want from the buffet.

The challenge for all organisations is that if you open up the buffet and people only hamburgers and chips and you need them to eat some spinach, broccoli, here’s my analogy. You’ve got to make sure that we have a balanced diet. So it’s the same in learning. So I think the challenge, I guess, probably for Emma at Marks and Spencer and certainly within our customers is the technology that helps you create that smooth learning journey to drive those digital skills. You know, you’ve got to work in partnership with your technology. And, yeah, there’s lots of great systems out there that will allow you to give that personalised learning journey.

But just picking up a what I think it was mentioned there around the human need, because it’s not just all about technology, because as humans, we do have a desire to have really clear meaning. We want to connect with others. And certainly, at the moment, I think wellbeing is a priority for many of our customers. So how do we ensure that the technology and the humans can actually work in in harmony together and making the learner almost feel a little bit like a consumer? I don’t mind having some of my interactions online. But I also want to have a balance of being able to talk and discuss and debate and reflect, because that’s also how you learn in the flow of work.

Jason West: Yeah. And Craig, I know you mentioned you’ve literally just been through a kind of procurement process, looking at the HR technology. What did you actually find in the market fresh from from doing that review? How close is the technology to delivering on this kind of promise of learning in the flow of work and the Netflix of learning? Is there a gap?

Craig McCoy: There is significant gap year. I mean, I suppose that the procurement process we went through had a very significant brief and had a very demanding set of requirements. And we looked at all the major providers out there all the kind of names that you’d be familiar with. And we couldn’t find any single provider that could provide one integrated, complete solution to the range of our needs, which were flying across core HR performance management, reward, learning and development, and also payroll time and attendance rostering. The list goes on. So, it was a complete reinvention of the at the HR environment and technology in very broad sense and the solutions that we were looking to implement were all integrated behind the scenes. We couldn’t find one single provider that could meet the range of requirements. And I think that’s my experience generally in the market, that I suppose it’s the legacy of some of the major enterprise software providers points in directions. And everyone is in the same journey to try to get more integrated solutions, but to a greater or lesser extent getting there. But I’ve not come across any single provider who can really provide a one stop shop to organisations in a way that really fulfil the needs of those businesses. I think that’s that that was a significant learning to me as I went through that procurement exercise, which lasted well over six months. And we did a very comprehensive review of the market and we were quite disappointed by what we found. I mean, we did find a solution in the end. But to say it was joined together behind the scenes, it wasn’t certainly wasn’t completely integrated.

Jason West: And I guess that the vision and the ambition is running ahead of the technical capability at the moment, to a certain extent, by the sounds of things.

Joe Ales: This is putting a great, great demand on the suppliers, isn’t there, to engineer and be innovative in a way to deliver people solutions, whether it’s whether it’s our systems or even finance systems, for that matter, you know, the way people do their expenses and so on, and the way people purchase orders. All of that experience needs to be very, very different in the future. And I think what the pandemic would have done would have put an enormous amount of pressure on organisations to deliver those solutions because clients like Marks and Spencer are putting those demands on those service providers to go, ‘hey, guys, you need to be more innovative. You need to give us more of a of a consumer type experience for our employees.’ You know, our employees are used to accessing content as they wish on Netflix. Why can’t we deliver training solutions like that? So it will be interesting over the course of the next three to and unfortunately, this is not something that will happen overnight or be something that we’ll probably see in the next sort of three to five years, probably at the earliest before we get that real experience around Netflix and series linking it and content being recommended to you based on all the things you’ve like, 98% matches and all those great things that makes Netflix such a great product to use. The interesting to see if we see that in the enterprise world.

Jason West: Yeah, it sounds like the demand is definitely there.

Emma Lucas: Yeah. I think, just the final point really around this kind of user experience and personalisation piece for me, and Rachel, you touched on wellbeing as well. I think when it comes to wellbeing, when it comes to rewards, when it comes to learning, certainly, with a multigenerational – five generations at work – there is very little opportunity for a ‘one size fits all’ solution anymore. And I think we really need help in terms of the systems and in terms of our policies, and in terms of our mindset as an HR function as to how you really design and deliver for the multiple users that we’ve got, rather than just relying on a kind of ‘one size fits all’ good practice or being good practice policy. And then I suppose where we’re going and thinking more around our maturity in terms of diversity and inclusion, that only reinforces the need to bring that kind of personalization of experience into our HR practice.

Jason West: So we’re going to leave it there for this week. What a great debate, Jack.

Joe Ales: You know the highlights for me, Jason, I didn’t appreciate just how tech savvy Marks and Spencer shop floor needed to be. So that was really interesting, wasn’t it, how, you know, manages and and the systems. And as Emma put, their colleagues need to be aware of the ins and outs of all their products, because actually a lot of their consumers will probably know the ins and outs of their products, too. So that was that was interesting. And how they’re using technology to drive all of our insight to individuals in across their stores. So that was an interesting point.

Sunrise was also interesting. So, Craig talking a little bit about Sunrise at digitalising their infrastructure and their technology, whether it’s both a systems level, but also on a care side. So that was a highlight for me. And then lastly, on Capita and Capita’s insights were interesting because obviously it is much broader. It’s not just one organisation. So, they’ve got a range of their client base and they’re seeing a demand from their customers around delivering training in a different way. And she talked about learning in the flow of work, which brings into play the fact that people are learning a lot on a job as well. So they need some tools and techniques to get them going. But individuals have also the ability to self-learn. And again, that was that was interesting.

Jason West: Yeah. So next week, we’re going to look a little deeper into the skills that HR functions need to develop to keep up in this rapidly changing world. And how our guests have begun to overcome some of the key learning challenges posed by COVID-19.

Joe Ales: Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on next week’s episode. And if you found this conversation useful, please share this podcast with your colleagues and your network.

Jason West: And if you have time to leave, a review would really love to hear your thoughts. So, thank you for listening. And we’ll catch up with Emma, Rachel and Craig next week.