Interview with David Willett & Jane Daly


During the CIPD Learning and Development Show we were fortunate to be able to sit down with David Willett, Corporate Director at The Open University and Jane Daly, Head of Strategic Insights at Towards Maturity, who have recently been involved in the publication of a report on the learning preferences of apprentices – In Focus: The Work-Based Learning Dividend. We spoke to them about some of their findings and what this means for businesses.

What was the motivation behind the report?

David: I think one of the motivations for us was we’d been seeing a real disparity in terms of what was happening in organisations in ‘main stream’ learning and what was happening in apprenticeship learning.  That just led us to a conversation with Towards Maturity about the fact that actually nobody’s done any real research in this area, or taken time to actually ask apprentices about the types of learning they like to consume and the benefits to business.   That was our starting point and is why we’re here today.

Jane: Towards Maturity are an independent research company and we ask the learners and leaders themselves about their experience and while we’ve done lots of different benchmark studies, and had a pool of data,  we wanted to add to this further.  This is a really important topic to the people we link with in business.

What insights did the research reveal about the current state and also the future requirements of learning?

Jane: What we did was to interview apprentices themselves, as well as leaders, policy makers, providers, experts like the OU and also L&D leaders to hear their account.  There is this huge issue around talent shortages and talent pipelines, and how are we going to cope with this.  The workplace of the future is very different, which means leaders of the future need to be different and setting up apprentices for success in that environment means also learning about them.  That gives us a great opportunity to learn from this particular, diverse population and what we learnt was two things: one is that leaders in business today need to understand that people need support and guidance; the second thing is that it’s a two way process. 

David: There’s no doubt that the nature of work is changing and it’s vastly different to yesterday, and I think in the apprenticeship space often the L&D strategy is not reflective of the that change.  I was talking to a large employer recently and we were talking about their engineering programme and they were delivering very much via the ‘traditional’ apprenticeship approach for the industry.  Yet the nature of the job has changed massively in the last 25 years; people are no longer manufacturing parts like they used to, they are using computers to design, and diagnostic tools to find faults, and yet they were still training them and developing them to do some of the very basic engineering functions, that although in many traditionalists’ views would be the right thing to do it’s not required as part of the job.  They were still investing lots of time, energy and money in developing skills that didn’t relate to the job.  So I think it’s really important that we are there to help employers understand what is really required from a job – what skills, knowledge and behaviours do you need to develop in your talent pipeline, and then explore how to develop programmes that addresses those needs.

J: The only thing I would add to that is that in the report it talks about integrating learning in work, and that really is the future.  We’ve been talking about the new learning organisation, and looking at what is required in business today.  For an apprenticeship to work we’re talking about work based learning programmes and that could be very different to what someone in L&D has ever designed before. 

D: One of the most important things from the OU’s perspective is to really embed workplace learning; really ensure workplace learning is engrained into the culture.  It’s about combining the academic knowledge that’s required, with substantial chunks of time where they’re using workplace learning in practice.  We’ve specifically designed modules of work-based learning and out of our student base of 176,000 students, 76% of them are in work, so we know we have 20 years of experience in how to design successful workplace learning.  Another element is building support around line managers and mentors as they are a crucial part of an apprenticeship programme.  In all the successful, award winning programmes you see, the common features will be great line manager training, where line managers understand how apprentices like to work and learn, and you’ll also see mentoring programmes, and efforts to make sure the workforce knows and understands the benefits that apprentices bring to organisations.

In your view do you think this challenge arises because line-managers don’t have the necessary management skills in general, or is it because apprentices are a different type of worker who need a unique level of support?

Jane: What the evidence tells us is that management today needs something different; managers today need to be guides and coaches.  But within that, what we’re seeing is that we have to pull back a little bit as well and recognise that awareness within businesses about apprenticeships and work-based learning is often very low, so the first thing is to get that right.  But in terms of supporting the manager themselves, it’s about raising that awareness of what they need to be doing.

David: I also think managers require a lot of guidance and support around the pastoral element, particularly when developing young talent. Of course apprentices aren’t just about young people any more, they can be people of any age, but we see evidence from employers that managers say ‘actually I’ve never had an 18 year old in my business before, how do I manage them?’ Equipping them with the skills and arming them with the information that apprentices will be late, they will run out of money, and get involved with various stressful scenarios is important.  But it’s also about saying to them; ‘those things happen in of the rest of your workforce as well, it’s always happening.’  Often what’s happening in an apprenticeship population is that they appear to be magnified because there’s a spotlight on them: there’s a smaller group of apprentices, and they’re often high profile in the business.  But in a large organisation these things will be happening in the general population of the workforce every day, and being dealt with by managers or HR, yet when they happen to an apprentice or young person, managers panic.  We’ve actually built training called ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ which is all about line manager training and equipping them with the skills; and once they know the information and what their legal requirements are, and how to support in the right way, they feel much more comfortable with it and better equipped to go on and get the benefits from the apprentices.

J: I think the other thing is to connect your managers together, because as David said, these things are happening across the business, so connect people up and get them to learn from each other.  It’s an opportunity, which we see from the evidence, is not being taken, and when it is being taken we see benefits for everyone.

One of the other areas highlighted in your report is the prevalence of technology in learning within apprentice populations – what were your main findings around this?

Jane: We’ve invested a lot in technology in learning, and in our everyday lives we’re using technology comfortably, yet often people find they go to the workplace and they are told ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’. For us, when technology is used, what we see is the number one reason people use it is to be able to do their job better and faster, and this is across the board, not just apprentices.  Leaders and managers need to stop worrying because workers’ number one motivation for using technology is to connect, to learn, to share best practice; and there’s a real opportunity to leverage technology as part of these programmes.

David: The report shows that over three quarters of apprentices want to use technology to help them learn, with 84% of them saying they’re happy to learn unprompted online.  If they want to find something out, they will go to Google or YouTube; it’s what they would do in their normal, everyday lives, so makes sense to do it at work too, and I think our job as supporters of learning is to help employers integrate those forms.  That real blend of formal and informal learning is really important and helping employers embrace that will help them find the benefits.

Why do you think there’s such an on-going resistance to using technology for learning?

Jane: I think in learning, in particular, there have been so many different opportunities to use technology and people have tried things and they haven’t worked, which then impacts resistance.  But what our data shows is that it’s not actually the technology itself; it’s what you put around that so it’s the support network, and it’s the blend.  It’s not the actual technology.  It’s about what happens pre and post and we have to remind ourselves that when it comes to learning, the learning can happen anytime, anyplace, on demand, but actually getting to competence is about the experience.  So it’s great to have the technology, but those sort of things about how ‘do I know that I am now where I need to be, what’s different, what’s changed, what am I doing that’s changed, what can people around me see changed?’ is key, because if that hasn’t changed, it doesn’t matter what technology you use, you haven’t actually achieved your goal of meeting that standard. 

David: And that speed to competence is really important and employers are really focussed on that.  Apprenticeships aren’t about the skills of today, they are about the skills of the future, but still apprentices can become very effective and efficient in an organisation very quickly via their development of skills and acquisition of knowledge and combining those things together really does help people to become more competent and effective more quickly. Apprenticeships are a bit like learning to drive; acquiring knowledge and demonstrating skills in a real environment, in lots of different situations, using lots of different techniques is how you become competent.

J: You can do that by integrating learning and work, and as L&D professionals it’s really important.  The evidence tells you that you are five times more likely to show higher performance and agility skills, and what business wouldn’t want that?