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A case study on the use of blended performances supports

An interview with Melanie Hawkins from BECA about a project that she has been working on which is a great example of a learning ecosystem.

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BECA Diagram

Transcript

Robin:
It's Robin here, the host of the Learning While Working podcast. I recently met with Melanie Hawkins from BECA and found what she was doing was a really exciting example of a learning ecosystem in action. This podcast is a case study of a program Melanie has been working on.

During the interview, Melanie talks about a diagram that gives an overview of the program she is talking about. We've included this in the blog post that goes along with the podcast (see above). Also, if you're interested in talking more with Melanie, one of the best ways to get in contact with her is on LinkedIn.

Melanie, thank you for joining me today on the Learning While Working Podcast.

Melanie:
It's a pleasure to be here.

Robin:
To start with, could you just talk a little bit about what BECA does? It's not a brand that I was familiar with before I met you.

Melanie:
BECA is a consultancy service largely in the area of engineering consultancy, but we do everything from defence force to software engineering to designing buildings and bridges and things like that. We are based throughout Asia and the Pacific. Our head office is in Auckland, New Zealand. We are rapidly approaching our 100th anniversary, so we've been around for quite some time. It started as a small engineering company in Auckland and has grown from there.

We have main offices throughout New Zealand, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, some more offices in Canberra and also latter offices through Singapore, Indonesia, and now Thailand. They came on board about a year ago.

Robin:
Just quickly, what's your role in the organisation?

Melanie:
My role is the Learning and Development Business Partner. I'm actually part of the change management team, so we work on the strategic direction for BECA. We look at how we deliver all of our jobs to our clients and look at how we can improve consistency and quality in our delivery across all of our business groups and countries.

Robin:
Thank you for that really good introduction to BECA. To sort of open it up, previously when we talked you talked about the really exciting learning challenge you've been working on. What's been a really big project you've been working on recently?

Melanie:
As I said, we're a change team, and we're looking at how we deliver to our client, so it doesn't matter whether someone is designing a bridge, a building, or a new software service. We want to have really high-quality delivery to our clients, the ability to meet the expectations, deal with scope changes, and do things efficiently and very effectively.

As a company that's evolved over 100 years, obviously we've brought on more and more people on board, so everything traditionally has worked in a very siloed fashion. What we found is that as a company to work more efficiently around the world, we need to work more as a global business, which means we're working with clients potentially in more than one country at a time or even more than one business line at a time, so we might be working in power and in structural engineering, for example, and building services across multiple countries.

What this meant was we kind of had to take that McDonald's view of—regardless of who in BECA our clients are interacting with, they need to know what to expect, and they need to expect that to be high quality. We needed a delivery training for our main staff who manage all of our jobs to ensure that we get that consistency that we all worked for the same best practice, that we take on board cultural differences of the location or the environment that we operate in, but that we have that level of polish as we deliver to our clients.

Robin:
So it's sort of really about sort of a consistently standardised way of working in, actually working through that, was it a process or was it figuring out what best practise actually is?

Melanie:
Absolutely, and you get that a lot in the L&D as you start asking the questions on why do we do this. There's a lot of discussion on why do we do this? It's been looking at what works effectively in each country as well and trying to bring the best of BECA together into one set of best practise standards and then ensuring that they're used consistently throughout the business.

Robin:
Yeah. I think that's one of the really exciting things about the new world order in L&D . It's not just about taking quite often a practice. It's actually about interrogating it, trying to figure out, build the capability, actually resolve what a really good idea is before you can then start to actually implement and build that as well. It's just a little bit shifting. You have to help the business figure out what they want to take place.

Melanie:
Yeah, and I think that's the power of being good at L&D is that you are confident enough to challenge in areas that you're not the expert in, but by asking the right questions overall we're adding value to the business.

Robin:
Yeah, it's interesting I've ended up being in a spot where I'm enjoying podcasting as my format because I think that almost all I do is sometimes do in life is ask questions and not have many answers. That is actually the ability to be able to ask a really good question is so critical.

Melanie:
Absolutely, and it does add time to the development process when you go through multiple iterations changing practice as you go, but overall our outcomes have been great, and we're starting to get awards for that, which is a good reflection of the work that we've put in.

Robin:
Cool. What we might do is just talk a little bit about what that actual end solution that you're currently working on is looking like, and then come back a little bit to your process because essentially as you say you've ended up with an award-winning solution that's winning awards across the region as well as globally.

Melanie:
Absolutely. We decided to start with probably our most influential group in that delivery aspect. We have a number of delivery roles. So while you might be a structural engineer or an electrical engineer we have delivery roles. We have what we call job managers who are essentially project managers for our part of work for the client.

Underneath them we have work package managers who might deal with one small part of that project to manage that process. Above the job manager or project manager, we also have a job director who is overall responsible for the higher level of things, the client relationship, managing risks throughout the project, making sure that the contracts and everything are correct as well.

In terms of delivering to our clients, our first area focus was at those job managers, the project managers of the jobs. They can make the biggest difference to whether a job is successful or not successful. That's why we decided to start there. A large number of people in that role have come up through BECA. We have a lot of staff here. We've been here for more than 20 years. It is a place where you tend to come and stay, which is great. We also have people come in new at that level, so we needed some training which would work for both people who'd evolved throughout BECA and also people coming in off the street.

 

What we also realised, and what's common through L&D is we all know that upfront training, especially classroom-based training doesn't necessarily have a stickability to it. We all know that if you are in a workshop or a full-day conference you tend to forget about 70% by the end of the week, so the approach that we took with this was to look at how do we have a full training platform that supported someone through the entire life of their role and rather than something that just relied on upfront training in how to be a job manager? That was our premise, and that's what led to us bringing together a full blended support package essentially for that job manager role.

Robin:
Blended support is a really nice description, a nice tagline for what I think you're doing. It's not just about performance support. It also has this really nice little layer of activities as well. What do you think is sort of the core or actually even when you started designing it, what did you decide was the core bit of the actual—?

Melanie:
—We did start by going, "We have a need to define what best practice is across all of our groups," so we did start with traditional e-learning modules which increased our accessibility, didn't rely on specific times or facilitators being available to just develop, what is our best practice about delivery? We package those up in two groups.

One is around getting ready to deliver your job. We call that planning to deliver. That's everything from pursuing a job, winning a job, sorting out the contract, getting your work plan together, and getting your team established. All of those modules give you best practise. Again, there's obviously grey areas and some refinement that needs to take place depending on your specific project operating environment, things like that, but it gives that nice standard of this is what it looks like for BECA.

The second package is once the job is up and running, how do we manage that? What is our approach for best managing things like scope changes? How do we monitor our progress? How do we learn lessons from what we do and share those? And obviously how do we manage the financials throughout the project? We did start with a pretty traditional "let's just get some e-learning out there and get it started", but we also realised that that wasn't enough on its own.

Robin:
So it was sort of an iterative approach. What was for you the indicator that it wasn't actually enough?

Melanie:
I think, again, it's that idea that we all know that upfront training in any format is not going to be enough on its own. You have to find a way to reinforce it in practice and keep it going and living in the real world. We were looking at putting support structures in place around that. Our e-learning is designed so that it's not locked down to try and encourage people to go back into it and have a look at it when they need to.

There's nothing quite as frustrating as trying to get to a certain place in an e-learning module and having to complete all the activities to get there again just because we've made it impossible for you to move on.

Robin:
Yeah, that's really interesting in terms of you'd never build a website that had a linear structure to it.

Melanie:
Yes.

Robin:
I'm not quite sure why we've ended up in this spot, or I actually do know. It's because it's slide-based, and knowledge-testing based approach. We ended up in this approach where, this linear approach for things. That's just not how people especially access things.

Melanie:
Absolutely, and I think it's also sometimes we have a slight tendency to forget that in a corporate environment we're dealing with grownups who can make decisions. We're relying on them to design these multi-story massive buildings and things like that without sanity checking—have you actually done every floor? Yet when it comes to learning, there's still a lot of traditional views of hand-holding people through it and teaching them how to do e-learning and then making sure that they've looked at every single thing on every page before they can move on.

I think we took it from a point of view of: this is establishing best practice across the group, and it doesn't automatically assume that you don't know what the best practice is by giving you some freedom of access and freedom of how and when you go through the modules. We expect you to make your own decisions about what you need to pull out of that and how you need to apply that.

Robin:
That's a really nice sentiment: Make your own decisions even not doing the whole technical thing of making it highly adaptive, just actually sitting there doing a whole: get what you need out of it. You're grownups. That's a nice way to think about it.

Melanie:
I think it is something that's often forgotten. We get so precious about: but I designed this, so damn it, everyone is going to go through every single piece of it. The reality is they don't need to.

We've actually taken the assessment piece out of it because the assessment for us is, "Are you performing on the job? Are you using our best practice? Are you using our tools and our processes and methodology?" If you're not, our e-learning as a way for you to learn what those tools and processes and best practice are. It's not a test in itself.

Robin:
That's interesting. What sort of things have you got in place to measure that?

Melanie:
All of this was designed based on business outcomes. We measure things like we have chargeable hours. We know how much time is spent on every job. We can tie that down to how much time is spent in re-work, on mistakes, or essentially freebies that we're giving away because we've over-delivered rather than just performed to spec. We can measure PI claims. We measure client satisfaction on the job regularly, and all of these things have been shown to change based on these modules going out.

Robin:
So you got a set of measurables that have high impact on the business.

Melanie:
Yeah, and ultimately I think it's another thing that in L&D we tend to get too focused on how many people have done our modules rather than going, "We had a business requirement for this. The business requirement is changing." It actually doesn't matter how many people are doing your modules. The modules are there as a tool to help the performance. They're not there as a be all and end all in themself.

Robin:
When we talked about this before, there was a performance support aspect to this as well. What does that mean?

Melanie:
There is. We have a bespoke project management system which goes beyond just your more traditional Microsoft project. We can manage everything through our system from health and safety, our risk management, our client feedback, our development. We can move work around the business globally and locally through best bespoke system.

Obviously it's quite a complex online system, so need a lot of support for that. We have a little couple of upfront training modules and that too, which is more to get a familiarity of what are you seeing on each screen? What information is it giving you? How do you move from one to another? How does it talk to our other systems like our finance systems and our resourcing, employee management systems?

What we've built into that system because we own it and we built it from scratch is what we've called on-call tool kits. For every activity within our project management system, there's a small button in the top right-hand corner which if you click on it gives you immediate help as you need it. We have built it in e-learning but it doesn't look like an e-learning module. We measure how many people click on it and launch it. We don't measure completions because, again, it's an on-call tool, not a training that needs to be completed.

Each one has the same general layout as well, so we have one part is about hints and tips. How can you do this more efficiently? How can you do this well? What are things to look out for? We have a second category which is 'watch outs' or warnings. As with any project management system, there are things that you could do, and if you set it up wrong you may not find out for three months that it screwed everything up.

We thought it was best to give people a heads up while they're doing their activities, so there's things to watch out for, things that you need to really pay attention to. We also have a small step-by-step video for each activity, something that everybody was looking for as that sort of YouTube generation—how to actually do this, so that's built in there too, and it's really fast for us to update when we update the system.

The last part is "Where can I go for more help? I still don't get this. Who can I see?" That links through to our best practice e-learning modules. It also links through to our delivery support champions who are face to face people who are experts to support and it goes through to our deliver teams and our PDS project system team to help.

Robin:
I think this is one of the nicest examples I've actually heard someone talk about of actually what a performance support really looks like, and I think that layering is just a really nice way of doing it. Essentially the YouTube style video is about the software, but the rest is actually about what you're doing with the software. Is that right?

Melanie:
Yeah. We have the modules, which is what's my big picture best practice and how I deliver my jobs, and then specifically within our system we have activities like, how do I do my risk assessment? The video is how do I actually use the system? What buttons do I push? Everything else is make sure you've done this before you put this in here, or make sure you remember to involve these people in your risk review. It's little hints and tips like that. It's that halfway point between the best practice modules and the system itself.

Robin:
Alright, cool. That's really nice. Actually, have you ever drawn this out as a diagram, Mel?

Melanie:
We actually did. We put together the diagram for our submission for the Brandon Hall awards. It's pretty rough and ready diagram. We did it pretty last minute, but we're actually using that internally now to show the whole support from how someone comes in as a first job manager, and to be fair, they don't get upfront training. They get partnered up with experts and walked through and handheld through this job. Then the training comes in to support them and go, "Okay, here's some help."

Robin:
As you were talking, I was just starting to see these layers and pathway stuff that happened. We quite often found it really useful to use that sort of visual, upfront, let's give an overview to people. It's interesting how that sometimes clarify it for something like award submissions and then helps to communicate it internally as well.

Melanie:
It does, and we have to be very clear when we're doing the awards submissions to not use any of our internal jargon or colloquialisms and sort of pull back against it, calling people project managers rather than job managers and explaining any nuances we have, which helps us to get a bit more clear on what we're thinking as well.

Robin:
There was another element to this. It was around a sort of practice simulation activity. How does that fit into this?

Melanie:
We have the online modules for best practice, but obviously they work with that assumed ideal universe, which we all know doesn't exist. After each of the two packaging modules, the planning to deliver package and then the managing delivery package, we have a face to face workshop for one day. For the planning to deliver workshop, what we do is we come through and go, "Okay, you've looked at best practice. Now let's talk about some real-life examples where it moves into the grey and how things overlap and where things might not be exactly as you thought according to plan, and how do you deal with those situations?"

There's a lot of discussion and shared experience. The job managers, and that's why we don't role this training out to brand new job managers because it helps for them to have a little bit of experience. Maybe that's six months to one year's experience. For the managing delivery, we also take that just one extra step further, and we look at pulling everything together. Everything they've learned across the modules and from doing the job day to day.

We run a simple paper-based simulated project. The room is split into two groups. One facilitator takes each group, so there's a bit of competition happening. They all get to as a group act as the job manager, the facilitator, act as the client, and work package managers, and anyone else they may interact with in the job.

They have a real-life job that they have to get a deliverable out the door and to the client successfully, and in the meantime real things will come up. People will leave the job because they go on holiday or leave BECA, or the client will change their mind about something, or some things will slightly drift off track. If they're not paying attention or having the right conversations or using the right best practice, they start losing points and the job can go horribly, horribly wrong.

It's quite entertaining watching that play out. It's designed very simply, literally by using pieces of paper. Often there are reports that would actually be generated by our systems, so they get practise in just pulling all this information together and thinking the right things at the right time.

Robin:
I think it's a really lovely example of a really simple, low-tech, high experiential, high learning environment, just the whole doing assimilation on paper or role play on paper. In fact, it's just such an elegant thing. It's a nice learning experience.

Melanie:
Yeah, not everything has to be the highest tech. As a company we are dealing with visual reality and augmented reality and design for our clients, and yet internally we do everything from high-tech advanced e-learning solutions through to moving pieces of paper around in a face to face workshop. It's about using the right tool for the experience that you want your learners to have.

Robin:
It's a multi-layered, complex solution for delivering an outcome. I'm really interested to hear you talk a little bit about what sort of thinking processes you went through to design the solution.

Melanie:
I come from a background where my previous job to this was working for an e-learning provider, so I did have a background in doing fast turnaround e-learning development. That has definitely been beneficial for helping to pull those modules together, but also I have a very eclectic background where I've worked in everything from fast-moving consumer goods to casinos, so I'm good at seeing things in weird environments and making weird connections into new environments.

I think part of it too is sitting in conferences, and often it's a conference topic where you're bored or not fully engaged. That gives your brain a chance to just sit back and make its own ideas a little bit, and you come up with the “aha!” out-of-the-box things. I think that's where our tool kits came from. We're sitting in a conference about performance support and going, "That's not really performance support, but wait, I have an idea."

Robin:
Actually that's also really interesting because quite often one of the things I think, and I sort of get a little bit annoyed with people doing copycat approaches and not really thinking about how they work in your particular organisation, but that sense of actually that's not what we want to do. You're proving something that's the complete opposite, so a really nice example of creative thinking.

Melanie:
Yeah, and I think we needed that blend of easy accessibility to theory. What is our best practice? We work across multiple time zones. We have chargeable hours, so we needed to reduce the amount of time that people are off the floor. That was that part of the solution. Our operating system is that project management system is a huge system. It's relatively complicated, and we're always trying to improve it.

It updates every three months or so. We can't realistically build e-learning modules to support that rate of change, but what we can do is build really simple tool kits that just need to swap out. This has changed, so we swap out the video. We swap out a couple of extra hints and tips. There might be a new watch out, or there might be a new go-to for help. Underpinning that, ultimately it's our people as we said we have a group of delivery and support champions who are located in every one of our office locations who if they aren't the expert themselves in the system, know where to get help.

Sometimes no matter how good your technology is or your e-learning is, people want to talk to someone. They want that personal touch. They want that face to face support.

Robin:
I sometimes think of it almost like the foundation level of making sure you've got the people layer to actually be in place as well as all the other bits and pieces. It's also interesting how you talked about that bringing together of eclectic things like—I'm trying to remember the quote—I actually heard someone recently, a business person talk about the fact that creativity was almost collecting multiple inputs together.

Melanie:
Completely.

Robin:
Cool. Melanie, thank you so much for talking to me through that really rich, really exciting case study. It's so much that other people can learn from that and hopefully it sparks some really interesting ideas. Thank you so much.

Melanie:
I hope so too. Thank you, it's been great to be able to share.