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Water works: Language and L&D at Thames Water

Matt McAllister

Teresa Ewington, Thames Water

The last three years have seen Thames Water revitalise its approach to learning and development. The shift has resulted in a greater focus on sharing knowledge, building confidence and using jargon-free language in its training programmes. Learning and development manager Teresa Ewington tells Matt McAllister why the company has great expectations – and how staff are working to exceed them

Planning projects for a year or two ahead can be tricky enough, but many employees at Thames Water are working on projects designed to meet demand over the next 150 years. Other staff face day-to-day emergencies that can be equally extreme – such as dealing with the burst water main that flooded London’s Regent Street earlier this year.

To meet such large-scale challenges in a positive way, employees need to be equipped with both the right skills and the right attitudes. This is where Teresa Ewington and her learning colleagues come in. Ewington is learning and development manager at Thames Water, and she and her team are tasked with designing bespoke L&D programmes, implementing them and making sure they’re effective long after the programmes themselves have ended.

“Thames Water’s challenges are extreme, and we need clever thinking to help solve those challenges,” says Ewington. “We draw on our expertise and ideas to make a real difference to the service Thames Water provides – both in terms of long-term projects and short-term fixes. My team and I have no doubt of our value here, and we’ve seen the trust and respect of who we are and what we do strengthen over the last few years.”

Before joining Thames Water in 2010, Ewington held a number of roles in the policing sector, including inspection support manager at the Inspectorate of Constabulary, where she reviewed the impact of police training across the UK. She also worked for Surrey Police, firstly as deputy head of L&D and then head of crime training. Helping to develop L&D programmes in such a large and complex institution stood her in good stead for joining Thames Water, where she was brought in to head up a new team under the banner of ‘talent management’ – a fact that highlights how Thames Water sees talent and L&D as inextricably linked.

There’s now more recognition that expertise in the field of L&D is as necessary as expertise in our science labs.

“Thames Water has always been very good at looking to the future from a water and waste perspective, but I think historically it has had more done ‘to’ it rather than done ‘with’ it as far as training is concerned,” she says. “When the company set up the talent management team, it was an acknowledgement that learning and development wasn’t just about training people how to do things, but was a vital part of strengthening our talent. The company decided that in order to do that it needed to bring in dedicated people who worked in learning and development for a living and understood what other companies are doing.”

Watch your language

In the three years since Ewington’s team were established, they have made a number of changes to the way they approach learning and development across the board. One important way they have done this is to reassess the way it approaches the language used in its talent team programmes.

For instance, employees used to grade their values and performance using a series of numbers and letters. The problem was that most people seemed to choose an option in the middle such as ‘B2’, meaning that performance and attitudes were “about right” – not especially helpful in determining how any anything could be improved. This has now been replaced with four much more straightforward statements: Below expectations; Approaching Expectations; Meeting Expectations and Exceeding Expectations.

“Words are much more important than letters and numbers,” says Ewington. “People understand what ‘expectations’ means. There are expectations on Thames Water from our customers, our shareholders, our stakeholders, our regulator – and our employees. So using the word ‘expectations’ is much clearer – and of course, people understand that in our business we need to exceed expectations.”

Emphasising the word ‘expectations’ is just one example Ewington gives of how crucial it is to use the right language within L&D. She points out that in a sector like the water industry, technical (as well as corporate) jargon can easily slip in – detracting from both the real problem and the real people behind it.

“What we’re working on now is being normal, not formal,” she says. “Just think about the word ‘ensure’. It’s a corporate word we’ve invented! When was the last time you said to your partner, ‘Please ensure you get the milk on your way home.’ If we mean ‘make sure’ then let’s say this. We’re doing much more of saying what we mean during our programmes, and it’s definitely helping.”

The change in the language used within L&D programmes hasn’t just resulted from a desire to become less formal, though. It’s also evolved as ideas about L&D have changed, both within the company and across the private and public sectors.

One example of this is the way that the word ‘confidence’ is now used right from the start in Thames Water’s new management programme – whereas once, Ewington points out, only the word ‘competence’ would have been used. There is now recognition within the company that training programmes need to give managers the confidence to deliver a great performance before they focus on performance management itself. It’s why the first module of their management programme centres on style and self-esteem.

“If managers aren’t dealing with performance, it’s rarely because they don’t know how or don’t care,” argues Ewington. “In my experience it’s often because they don’t have the confidence to do so. Even if you’re not sure how something is going to go, you need to approach something with the self-belief that you can manage it. So we’re now talking about confidence and competence going hand in hand. We’re doing this by working with people rather just designing programmes for them.”

This change in approach is proving popular with employees enrolled on the programmes if the feedback is anything to go by. Learners have said that the emphasis on confidence-building has given them practical skills they can use straight away, while Ewington points to one learner who calls it “the best course I’ve had at Thames Water in 20 years.”

Sharing knowledge

Perhaps inevitably, the economic downturn has brought about change too – not least to team budgets. With less money to spend on training, the L&D team has had to find new ways to impart knowledge and skills to employees in a wide variety of job roles. But this has led to some smart and focused solutions.

“We’re now trying to share not spend,” Ewington explains. “That’s helped us appreciate the fact that we’ve got a lot of really good knowledge within the business. The default position has often been, ‘Oh, I need an external course in something’ rather than looking at who else within the business could teach you something. So there’s no ‘course badge collecting’ anymore. But we’ve learnt to trust ourselves and the skills of our people to a greater extent.”

While training budgets may be tighter, this has been combined with a greater realisation across the company (and indeed across business as a whole) that L&D is a vital asset in commercial terms – a “serious solution rather than something pink and fluffy ” as Ewington puts in.

“There’s more recognition that expertise in the field of L&D is as necessary as expertise in our science labs,” she says. “Stakeholders are starting to see the return on investment that L&D provides. For instance, if you give me someone who gets paid £25,000 and can process six things, my job is to give you someone back who can process 12 things and it’ll still only cost £25,000 – there’s the return on investment.”

At the same time, Ewington is keen to emphasise that L&D isn’t simply about measuring the difference between before someone goes on a learning programme and after. She sees L&D as being “the middle of the pie” – a continuous process of creating opportunities to learn new things and put them into practice, all the time with impact on their customers in mind. She adds that their programmes also help employees develop skills that they can apply outside of work (“One of our learners on our negotiations course took the learning home and got money off her insurance renewal – plus a voucher to go shopping!”).

Essentially, Ewington sees her job as helping people to overcome problems – whether that’s around confidence or competence – so they have a strong sense of pride about what they’re achieving.

“I’m an idealist at heart – I need to do something that makes a difference,” she says. “It’s why my job is brilliant – I get to push the boundaries of what’s possible with learning in a company with such variety in skills, experience and expectations. No two days are the same unless you let them –  and I never let them!”

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