The Brief

North Yorkshire County Council senior managers understand money and have lead the elimination of any fat in the system during years of austerity and to go further they saw a clear need to develop middle managers to make efficient and sound business decisions on behalf of people and communities, and their services. This accountable organisation therefore also needed to shift any learning interventions away from ‘spoon fed learning’ towards an ‘empowered learning culture’. Moreover, as a lean and keen organisation and yet one that is spread across a large geographical area, it was also important to keep abstraction from the workplace to a minimum and not to incur the normal training course costs unless there was a genuine business case for doing so.

The Response

 Q. Learning has worked with many local authorities and also all its partners, such as health and police, and so understood both the context these managers were working in and its challenges, and also the methods that could be employed to create new practices and behaviours. Using that set of lenses, we based the development programme around middle managers developing their approach to service and performance plans so that they became an engaging, vital and living methodology to making services truly customer centric.

We agreed a process that was interactive and supported middle managers whilst they developed their customer centric approach. We recognised that our help needed to role model customer centricity, i.e. that middle managers would need different amounts of help, at different times, and/or repetitively until it became a habit. Tomodel management capability and customer centricity, we started with an ‘as is’ diagnostic and each middle manager received in-depth feedback through 360 degree reporting. This 360 degree Q. Learning diagnostic tool is written to reflect the specific needs of the organisation and its customers. This increases the chance that any resultant changes or initiatives would pass the reality test i.e. did the people of Yorkshire experience better services?

Part of being based in reality meant that the programme needed to be owned by the directors and senior managers, not by Q. Learning consultants ‘crying in the wilderness’. The CEO therefore diarised his attendance at the launch event of each cohort and stayed involved – and middle managers attended with their line managers both at the launch and the closure. Directors each sponsored cohorts and self-reflected on their performance as sponsors, making improvements each time including doing a better job in prioritising their own time management for supporting managers and attending action meetings. Each cohort was a mix of services because of the need to be geographically based locally to each other (reducing time from work and enabling peer support). The timing of the development was chosen to be around the organisational planning cycle so that the middle managers worked on their service and performance plans in real time.

The support given was a mixture of in-person and on-line. There was a very good case for webinar and remote input: it reduced abstraction from the workplace and associated time and cost; it was both repeated and recorded so it could be caught up and re-watched as many times or in different places/times as appropriate to the learners’ needs; and it broke down learning into bite-size learning chunks to maximise usability. There was also a very good case for being with someone in person or as part of a complete cohort: most learning increases when people are in rapport and feel inspired and supported to take risks; knowing other people were engaged increased the chance that an individual would take action too; it was possible to challenge and question to find out how an individual’s approach fitted with others’.

So it was a mixture, sensitively and cost-effectively applied, that worked best: with modules spilt into topic webinars each followed by tasks, which helped embed ‘plan, do, review’ at all stages. Interestingly, NYCC soon learned that any time is a good time to do a service review! Each cohort undertook three modules of learning over about 9 months, entitled ‘Plan; Do; and Review. All service and performance plans were written after the first module (and agreed in the system with line managers) and the other modules/webinars were about implementation (Do) and reviewing progress and performance (Review). The emphasis was that what truly mattered was that things improved, not that middle managers were up on the latest theories (although those did help!) and the choice of webinar topics has been varied to meet perceived needs and shifting contexts – some examples of webinars were: judgement & decision making; managing change; coaching & mentoring; performance management; collaboration; influencing; leadership for middle managers; and personal development planning.

The Outcome

Approximately 250 middle managers have completed the programme, with a waiting list for the next cohort. There has been near universally high approval for the programme from delegates, senior line managers and the Chief Executive (both anecdotally and through a rigorous internal survey and feedback process).

Delegates have reported initiating conversations about their own learning and development and then feeling confident to talk to others about theirs.

All middle managers have engaged with customers and staff and written service and performance plans – and implemented changes to improve customer centricity.

Key Benefits of the Q. Learning Approach 

  • Webinars were timed to fit around the working day (no need for delegates to be removed from their working environment for days on end)
  • Ability to manage larger cohorts for similar cost (1 Trainer to 20 via webinar vs 1 Trainer to 10 face to face)
  • All managed through a web browser (no need for special software)
  • Webinars were recorded to allow catch up and review
  • Reduction of travel and meeting room / day rate costs
  • Real learning that benefited delegates, their teams and their service through the ‘course’ being linked to how the organis
    ation makes decisions and plans

Middle managers felt supported and listened to through customer centricity being modelled at all times and have used that approach in real time.

For an example of how our webinars look and sound like, please take a look at this video. The topic is Coaching in a Hurry.