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Informal and social learning in the workplace – Allstate Northern Ireland (NI)

Dwyer Gorman, Learning & Development Manager Allstate NI, shares the companies ‘Own it’ initiative which empowers employees to take ownership of their career and development.

Allstate Seminar: Communities of Practice

Allstate is the second largest personal lines insurer in the US. Besides the US the company has a presence in Northern Ireland and India, ensuring the technology is up and running 24/7. During the past 2 years, there has been a focus in the technology space (Allstate Technology & Strategic Ventures - ATSV) on leading from any seat with a particular emphasis on five values. Relevant to Learning & Development is the value ‘Each Other’ which states that we have a growth and development focused mindset. Linked to the values are High Priority Initiatives (HPI) that help move us from strategy to action, two of which concern employee development and organisation culture.

The values and HPI help as we embark on turning ANI into a learning organisation in the coming years. To move to a workplace that nurtures learning the role of the L&D team needs to evolve. Allstate NI has an initiative called ‘Own It’, which empowers employees to take ownership of their career and development. Now into its 2nd year the initiative has started to change how we do things. While classroom training is still fundamental to learning, we now employ a 70:20:10 model for most of our technical training (10% formal, 20% social and 70% experiential). A good example of this model is a Web Technologies course we have recently developed in conjunction with the University of Ulster. For an employee to gain 15 credits at post graduate level they need to complete 150 hours of learning, with just a small part completed in the classroom. While we got the ‘10’ more or less right we have much to do on the ‘20’. We tried to develop informal and social learning with the participants on the course, but it didn’t work well with our intervening. However, those that attended the course showed a great appetite for learning and they now wish to complete a second module.

The post-graduate course is just one example of where the L&D team has moved from ‘controlling’ learning in the business to becoming more of a facilitator, helping to create the right learning environment. Three examples of how we are doing this in the coming months, through informal and social learning, are: Communities of Practice, Learn Day and Coaching framework.

In Q1 of this year we worked with a number of employees from all levels of the organisation to gauge interest in an internal based Communities of Practice (CoP ). A ‘Community of Practice’ is a group of people who share a concern, a set of problems or a passion about a topic – the domain – and who deepen their knowledge and expertise through ongoing collaboration.  We wanted to see if any were interested in setting up one, with the L&D team merely providing support. While we wanted senior leadership to back the initiative we did not want them to take it over. The CoPs would only work if employee driven. It was agreed that a senior manager would sponsor all communities. They could help set up the CoP and drive it at the initial stages, but then should take a back seat and let a ‘core group’ of 4-6 people run the community. We had a launch day in May for the CoPs across our three sites in Belfast, Derry and Strabane. We were overwhelmed by the response on the day with over 400 employees attending. By year end we had hoped to have six CoPs up and running. By launch day we already had six set up with two more in the pipeline. We also set up CoP Connect which supports the CoPs, providing them with guidelines on how to run a CoP, giving them a portal to advertise and connect with their members and help them to source speakers, run events etc.

In June we piloted a ‘Learn Day’ event in Northern Ireland across our three sites. The concept was designed and executed to help instil a continuous, self-driven learning culture in ATSV. We decided on bite-size talks, giving people just enough information to get excited on a topic that hopefully they would investigate further in their own time. The 15-30 minute talks were also to entice employees to volunteer to present in an informal, relaxed environment. The event was a great success with 33 talks and, again around 400 attendees. Talks were a mix of technical and hobbies with topics ranging from Holiday Spanish to the Amazon Echo and from Archaeology to Innovation. While many employees were left asking for more, some of the presenters enjoyed their first venture into public speaking so much they wanted to know if they could speak at the next Learn Day. Plans/Discussions are now underway to roll the program out across Allstate sites in the US and India.

Allstate: Coaching

The third, and possibly most important aspect, to building a culture of continuous learning is through coaching. We have just embarked on a leadership programme which has coaching at its core.  Starting with senior managers, we are looking to embed coaching at that level which will then help the model to proliferate throughout the organisation. Coaching will be around developing people, all the time linking it back to the company values.

Using a model such as 70:20:10, or any model for that matter, does not in itself bring about a learning culture. More important is empowering employees to take ownership of their learning. L&D should be there to support and perhaps even assist employees in 'learning how to learn'. We need to ensure that people at every level of the organisation see the importance of learning and appreciate that training does not just happen in the classroom. On-the-job learning is critical to this company like many others and this highlights the importance of informal and social learning.  Our challenge remains largely around selling learning to employees in ‘every seat’. I am still never sure whether I should laugh or cry when I hear an employee say ‘I have been here for x years and never once been trained.’  I tend to wonder how they put their day in.

Author: Dwyer Gorman

Allstate NI logo
Dwyer Gorman has worked in Allstate NI for over 13 years, his current role is as Learning & Development Manager. This involves organising internal and external training for Allstate employees located throughout Northern Ireland and collaborating with Learning & Development teams in India and the US. Allstate NI has over 2,200 employees with offices in the Belfast, Strabane and Derry. Part of this role involves liaising with local colleges, universities and training providers to source technical and soft skills training.
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