Case study: United Utilities removes the stigma of reskilling

As more HRDs are turning their attention to reskilling their workforces HR magazine hears from four organisations already embracing L&D to create agile learners

To reskill its field-based workforce HR at United Utilities (UU) has taken both an internal view of the organisation’s needs and an external view of world trends

“It is critical that HR properly understands what the current skill requirements are and also the medium- and long-term needs of the business,” says Elaine Billington, director of HR operations at UU.

“The HR team works hand in glove with our operational colleagues to continually assess skill requirements and, in particular, to understand how new and emerging technology will change these needs going forward.”

In addition to this, says Billington, HR looks outside the organisation to understand what is happening in the worlds of education, technology and innovation. This, coupled with an internal assessment, informs and shapes the training and development strategy. Through this approach UU aims to develop and deliver effective training programmes to ensure it has the skilled and capable workforce needed to drive performance over the long term.

“Our One Curriculum programme is a great example where we have reskilled approximately 1,000 field-based staff through understanding the business needs and regulatory drives to then deliver innovative development schemes,” says Billington. “Another success has been the training and upskilling needed to deploy a new process for managing maintenance on our assets.”

The latter – called MARS (Mobile, Asset and Resource Scheduling) –is a fully-connected, technology-enabled, end-to-end process for managing UU’s asset base between its integrated central control team and field operations. It makes the most of mobile working, reducing reliance on paper so workers are not tied to control rooms or offices and are able to share information in real time.

MARS was deployed across four releases, affecting 2,000 employees and involving the recruitment and development of more than 40 change agents from across the business, who went through a comprehensive training programme.

“All of this helped to better prepare everyone for the significant change to their ways of working,” says Billington, adding that these changes continue to be embedded.

But, she explains, they also had their work cut out to remove the stigma of reskilling and to adapt learning to suit the various needs of people affected by these ongoing changes to the business.

“We have worked hard to build a learning culture in our organisation and to remove the stigma of retraining by positively prompting and delivering targeted development,” Billington says. “We recognise that one size doesn’t fit all and different groups of staff have very different learning styles and requirements.” This has involved investing heavily in practical aids and systems to suit many learning styles as well as a move away from conventional classroom approaches.

“Our aim is to move completely to ‘always available’ learning platforms to fully support all our colleagues to perform to the highest level possible,” she adds.

Creating agile learners able to continually reskill in line with changing business demands is going to be an ongoing challenge for the firm, but it’s something Billington says they can’t shy away from.

Many of UU’s key operational roles have changed significantly over the past 10 years and the company is investing in its people and their managers to successfully move them through this change with the new skills they need.

Technology is a key part of future plans, with AI being applied in some teams to free up employees’ time to work differently and focus on more value-added and interesting activities.

“Our L&D team is continually looking at the future skills and capability needs of our business and then looking at the appropriate solutions,” says Billington. “We need an agile training curriculum that is continually refreshed and enhanced through creative technologies. We are currently looking at new data analytics and digital apprenticeships as critical skill requirements of the future.

“The organisation is continually embracing technology and different ways of learning, for example using virtual reality when we design new assets and buildings. We have also used short amateur videos to help on-the-job training, which is more effective with remote-based field teams. Looking further ahead we aim to use intelligent eyewear to facilitate on-the-job learning.”

Further reading

Agile learning-focused L&D

Case study: Self-directed learning at EY