The Learning & Development Podcast: Induction That Works With Ross Stevenson

January 19, 2021

Written by Kiren Kahlon

Hello Induction Message


The Learning & Development podcast is hosted by our Chief Learning Officer David James. Featuring L&D leaders from across the globe, each conversation focuses on hot topics in the profession. This transcript is from the conversation between David and Ross Stevenson on induction that works.

Listen to episode 61 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David James: Welcome to The Learning & Development Podcast. I’m David James from Looop, and in each episode I chat with guests about what lights them up in the world of people development. In this episode, I’m going to be talking induction with Ross Stevenson, who is Senior Learning and Talent Manager at Trainline. Before we get into it, if you’re enjoying this podcast, please do give us a five star rating on your podcast app of choice to help others to find us, and thank you if you’ve done so already. Now, let’s get into it.

David: Ross, welcome to The Learning & Development Podcast.

Ross Stevenson: Thank you for having me.

David: Now, Ross, you’re Senior Learning and Talent Manager at Trainline. Can you start by telling us what you’re responsible for, and how L&D fits into your organisation?

Ross: Yes, of course. The simplest way to describe is, I’m a bit of a one-man band. I’m the A to Z of L&D at Trainline, which I’m sure some people can resonate with as well. You can imagine I am responsible for pretty much any learning initiative that appears within our business. You can look at things such as onboarding, access to learning, leadership development programmes, the whole encompassing thing that any traditional L&D team does.

That goes off in loads of different sheets on there and covers many different areas. In terms of how that fits into the wider Trainline business and the culture, it’s really imperative, I think something that’s really great about our business is that we’ve got people that are hungry to learn. There’s a real appetite for people to develop and grow.

Actually, in many ways, that makes my job a lot more easier as an L&D individual to actually bring that as part of our culture, and really look at learning and developing in general as a key piece of that employee life cycle, and looking at the value of, if we invest in our people, we can help people grow and have talented teams and have high performing teams. In terms of what we do as a business and the culture, it’s incredibly important and very highly valued within the community.

Induction Should Enable People to Navigate Their New World, Whilst Also Settling in

David: Yes, that’s brilliant. I’m with you. I’ve had the standalone roles in Learning & Development, and it could be a great deal of fun. When the pressure is on, because we’ve got a lot of problems because of course, as you say, the buck stops with you, but you have got huge license. As you said there, if you couple that with the perception in the organisation that you are integral to what it’s trying to achieve, then you’ve got an opportunity to do the stuff that really matters as well.

Now, with regards to that, I’d like to focus on one specific element today in this conversation, and that’s on induction because it’s a common concern for L&D, and one that you’re addressing very differently to many. To start with, what was the problem you were seeking to fix with induction at Trainline?

Ross: Okay, I will be succinct as possible because I’m sure many people have experienced the same thing. What we were trying to solve, in a nutshell, is giving people more of an experience and a support mechanism that lasts for what I like to call a true onboarding experience. If we look at most organisations we’ve all been a part of, your onboarding experience will fundamentally involve you turning up to a one day session for about eight or nine hours, and we can look at the different stage or the stage type delivery where someone stands up there and says, “Here’s 400 things that you need to know.” They do that on day one. Actually, that becomes very problematic because you can look at the data as well. Most people don’t retain 90-95% of what they hear in those types of sessions anyway, especially on day one when you’re probably very nervous, you’re probably very anxious. You’re not really taking anything onboard, you’re just overpowered about what’s going on.

What I was really keen to do, and I’ve been doing this at other areas I’ve worked in as well at other businesses, is to make sure that we provide people with a real whole value-add experience that touches on a human and a digital element, and to make sure that we have this support mechanism where it’s actually enabling people to navigate their new world, and also settle in.

That was a real different mindset, and a real, I suppose, different way to approach that problem as historically, and even where I’m now, most other businesses, if they go to reshape onboarding, it’s probably, “How do we half it down from five days of onboarding to one day session of onboarding?” Not coming from a perspective of, I suppose you can say from user-centered design. If I put myself in their shoes, as we all have been, of a new starter, what is the process I’m going through? What are the faults and feedings? What information do I need at the right time? How can we better support people with that?

The main issue there was really providing a mechanism that allows people to settle in, navigate their new world, and then set them up for success and provide that environment.

David: Yes, it’s not uncommon, what you described there. I think that the experience that most of us are used to as new starters, having experienced it, and then taking it on is pretty awful. I know in a previous conversation that you and I had maybe reflects that Learning & Development is used to doing stuff where they’re not really sure of the value that it adds, but it’s popular. What you described before is that this was unpopular as well, so not only was it probably not adding anything, it was unpopular.

Ross: Yes, most definitely. I think because certainly the way I work is definitely from a product background. I’m always looking at solutions as products and much as my business does, looking at how do we best put together a product and that product to evolve. I think most times I’ve spoken to peers in the industry as well, it’s just because it’s that old adage of, “Do what you’ve always done. Do what you’re comfortable with. You keep doing that same thing over and over again.” Do you actually speak to the recipients or the users of what’s being delivered there, and find out what they’re getting from that, is it of value?

I think something I always say to people is don’t assume you know because you have one point of view. You probably speak to a few leaders, and your HR team, like, “This is the way we should do it because that’s the way we’ve always done it for 10 years. Why would we do anything different?” Actually, when you speak to users, and I found this in my own research, when I sat with focus groups and new starters, and we really got down into the nitty gritty of what helped and what didn’t, it was quite clear to me that we were creating more problems than actually solving them, and I think for me, that was a big no no.

I think when I looked at the entire employee experience, and that’s a very big HR buzzword the last few years, how do we craft a better employee experience? Onboarding is a fundamental part of that. It’s your window into first joining the business. You’ve through the talent acquisition process, you’ve made your bet and you’ve said, “Okay, this is the place I want to take my skill to.” The onboarding process is still a little bit of a, I don’t want to call it matchmaking, but it’s a little bit of a, actually let me validate that this is the right choice. By doing that is through your onboarding programme.

Now, I think if I was to experience that myself and say, “I went into a business and they gave me a 90 day experience where I was really supported, showed investment from day one, how that environment was built for my success.” I’d feel really good about that. I’m not going to feel so good if I just go along to an event for eight hours, run by, let’s say, HR or L&D and some guest speakers, and then never hear from anyone again. Actually, I have to struggle for my next 89 days to try and figure out, what do I actually need to do?

There’s loads of little bits to consider in that, not just in the, what I like to call the binary, “We need you to know this stuff,” but actually the emotional element of, we all know the emotional cycle of change, you’re going up and down all the time, you feel in some weeks like, “God this is amazing.” Other times like, “Oh, I’m really struggling here. I just need some help.” That’s what I’m trying to solve, is bringing more of that helping hand, and although you’re using more of a digital means to do this, is to be more human and to think about it from more of a human level.

I always say this analogy, just like when you start school. When you start school, you’re really scared, you’re excited, you don’t know what to expect, and you’re meeting new people. It’s the same thing when you’re joining a business. You’re going through very similar emotions there, and we’re trying to do our best with this new approach that we’re taking now, and actually supporting people in that, and doing the right things at the right time.

Creating a Great Induction Programme Involves Thinking About Yourself as the End-User to Understand the Things They Would Want and/or Need to Know 

David: Yes, it’s often overlooked. We do say, in Learning & Development, that we’re looking to help the person, and of course, emotions are a huge part of that, but when we take a look at induction, it’s often that we deliver a service, which is probably more in service to the functions and the departments in the business that want their say in induction. I’ve been involved in inductions where the mandate was, “Go and speak with the people who supply the content, and let’s see whether that content is up to date.” We never really talked about the individual.

We’re talking about the time to deliver up-to-date content. What you’re describing there is very, very different. I’d love to just scratch the surface of that with you, Ross, because you said that we can assume what the problems are, and if anybody is delivering an induction in the way that we’ve described it with the slides representing different functions, then clearly, that isn’t about understanding the individual. How did you start to understand the real problems that employees face when they joined Trainline?

Ross: There’s probably a three-stage process to this, really. The first one involved myself, as a new starter, going through that experience. When I first joined, I was really keen on what that experience looked like, and whether rightly or wrongly, I went through that experience three times, just to make sure that I’d fully got everything that I needed out of it and understood all the nuances with that and what was involved.

David: Punishment.

Ross: I know. I know. Well, there were free croissants, so secretly, I was probably going back for those all the time, but it was a really great perspective because I think I tried with my design process. We all talk about, think about yourself as the user, I was putting myself in as the user. I was sitting there as the end-user and saying, “Right, I am new. These are the things I want to know. What is the experience that I’m going to get here”, and then continuing to do that for several months afterwards to see if I pick up anything else during my different state as I go along.

Listen to episode 61 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

The other two elements that came in were around, so the second one being one of my first initial tasks when I joined the business, let’s say the first six months, was actually seeking out new starters in the last 12 months, even before I joined them. Just sending them a very simple, you can call it survey or user insight, it’s asking basic questions around their onboarding experience. So, such things as, is it what you expected? If it’s not, what else were you looking to find out? What are some of the things you are looking for help in? Do you expect to have these fulfilled by managers or buddies and such?

The third part of this was then actually bringing together what I call task forces, or it’s more commonly called focus groups. They were new starters in the last, let’s say, three to six months. So, very, very fresh, and they were still going through their onboarding process, should I say. That was more like a human conversation. I’d sit with 10 people, and we would just sit in a room, and I would literally just throw out a bunch of questions and just assess from them where their thoughts and feelings are, what are they getting, and what are they not getting?

From each of those three channels, I got a gigantic wealth of data. On the first, of myself, I was making assumptions. Again, going back to my don’t assume you know. I made a bunch of assumptions, and in my next point of call, with the user insights, and then the focus groups, was to actually validate some of that. In terms of how I felt, did other people feel this way? What I found is actually a lot of people did feel the same way in terms of the onboarding experience.

What I was able to get, as well was a really good understanding of not just the sensual experience we provide, but then what happens to people once they jump into their team? So that most organisations, the HR and L&D team will provide a, most notably a very comprehensive or organisation induction day or a few days and whatnot, and it’s very standard.

Whereas actually, with the teams, what happens once those people go into their team and then they’re working with their manager? What happens at that point because onboarding carries on from there in their team. To actually see, were they getting questions answered? Were they struggling? Did they know where to go for certain things? Taking those three elements, I was able to get just a real wealth of data, and sit there, and just take it all in and start to go for it and really gather insights and say, “Right, I need to pull out here, what are my let’s say 8 to 10 core things I’m hearing people say?”

It was going through that process to bring it up as a map and go, “Right, this is where I need to focus my time.” I need to look at these 10 core elements and say, “These are the things that we need to get right.” They’re really basic things, in order to make sure that people feel settled, they know how to navigate their world, and they’re generally having a good experience in our business.

David: It’s really interesting there that you’ve taken it upon yourself to explore their experience when they’ve gone back to where they’re working with their line manager and with their team, because it’s a common phrase that you hear in Learning & Development, that that’s the line manager’s job. I think when it comes to the working within the context, whether it be the performance on the job, whether it be the results, and as you’ve just described there, when somebody goes back to where they’re actually going to be working, L&D would say, “That’s the line manager’s job.”

You’ve taken it on yourself. First of all, what’s your response to “it’s the line manager’s job”, and what did you find out or encounter when you were there?

Ross: Yes, good question. I think I’ve heard many line managers, they encounter that and go, “It’s HR’s job.” In many organisations that I’ve been in, probably many people have experienced the same thing. The way I tackled it is by really looking at it as a collaborative approach. I’ve taken a two-tier structure of it. One tier is that we’ve built this kind of, in our opinion, a really value-add central onboarding experience, but then what we’ve discovered through research externally and even internally, is that the real success factor here is the managers. Because we can affect so much from the world of L&D and HR.

Of course, that range is far wide across the organisation, you can never really get deep down and tailor everything to a minute level where you say, “John Smith joins, and this is exactly what you’re going to do that relates just to you.” We need line managers to support with that. Again, it’s the typical L&D thing, and maybe not so for everyone, to an extent, but on my part, it involved a lot of talking about the why, and getting people to buy into the why and storytelling piece. A lot of that was actually done around presenting data to line managers, and looking at, what is the cost or the loss if we don’t get this right?

A lot of people talk about onboarding and how it’s really great to have, really great for employee experience, but if we get this wrong, what’s the consequence of that? A lot of things are gaps in the team, people leaving in the first three, six months, it hits your employer reputation, it then means you’ve got to go out and re-recruit people, that means even bigger gaps in your team, and skills gap. There’s a whole host of stuff.

Again, going back to my conversations around the emotional element, it’s showing people how that can affect you as a manager, and your team, from an emotional standpoint, in terms of especially if you’re bringing in people to support with more work, or bigger projects. If you don’t get onboarding right, and you don’t help these people settle in and become operationally effective, which is shown through research from companies like Gartner and Harvard, it takes about six to eight months.

It’s a massive detriment to that, so a lot of my work in that, and still to this day, has been doing a lot of storytelling, and I suppose informalism of line manages to say, “Let us take you on this journey, and let’s show you that if we get this right, here are the benefits.” Bringing teams to operational effectiveness quicker, getting people to deliver quicker, people were happier because they’ve had an experience where they feel like, “Oh, okay, I feel really settled, I’ve got what I need, and actually, I can crack on.”

What I’ve seen with that is the psychology of line managers starts to change. Whereas some of the behavior, not just where I am now, but even at most businesses I’ve worked at has always been, “It’s a HR thing, leave it to HR, they’ll sort it out.” It’s actually started to change. I’ve seen a lot of people where I am now really starting to get involved with, “Okay, how can I create a great welcome experience for a new person on my team? I know if I do this, that I can get a lot of benefits out of this, and I can have someone who’s really talented and really great to be part of my team for years to come.”

I’ve seen this with Simon Sinek, in his most recent book, but it’s not having that finite approach, and looking at the infinite approach about, don’t just look at it as a couple of weeks with someone coming in. Actually, look at it as if I’m investing now, what can that yield for the next months and years in terms of accomplishing what we need to have? The big bits there of line managers is that journey. We know they’re time-poor, we know they’re not having all these opportunities to look at loads of stuff, but it’s building solutions, not just for the new starter, but the line manager as well, in terms of bringing that all together.

There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Solution For Induction. You Need to Experiment, Measure and Build on What Works

David: You do your exploration with the employees, and you seek to understand the problems that they are experiencing as they enter your organisation, and as they begin to work. What’s your approach to finding the right solutions?

Ross: Great question in terms of that. There’s probably a couple of ways I can answer that. So, we look at a couple of metrics with that. One, what is the culture that we’ve built already in terms of the content strategy and what we’ve seen work? Then in itself, speaking and taking from that research, looking at what new starters previously have engaged with.

An example being if we want them to find out a little bit more about our senior leadership team, perhaps that’s a short video that can encompass that instead of doing a massive written resource, which to be quite frank, people aren’t going to read, or maybe there’s checklists where people can– People love checklists, that they can tick off and say, “I’ve done this, and I’ve gone through that.” It’s very, very simple. It sounds very basic, but actually, they are one of the most loved resources that people go to.

A lot of it is, as I said, looking at the previous data that you’ve got, looking at how users are engaging with the different content you’re pushing out, whether that’s video, whether that’s short-form podcasts, whether that is the more different digital products that we’ve built, and just understanding what best fits that delivery. Something that I’ve always done is even, and I’ve mentioned this a little bit previously in this conversation, is testing with existing teams.

Just testing types of content and saying, pretty much A-B testing, “So if I gave you the same content, but here’s a video for two minutes, and here’s a written resource, that might be five minutes, what works better for you? What’s applicable? What do you take away? How do you apply that immediately?” That’s really how I go about, it’s not like I have a magic formula where I sit there and have some kind of science lab where I figure it all out, it’s not the case. It was very much a workflow element, and it’s generally different for different areas. It’s never a one-size-fits-all. 

Even with the onboarding experience, we treat it as MVP. It’s consistently evolving. We’re consistently gathering used data now and looking at that feedback and saying, “If something is not getting the engagement that we expect, actually, why is it not getting that? Is that something that we potentially need to adapt into a different form of content, and then look to understand what is more engaging?” Because, to me, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. I know people rave on about video, a lot of it is podcasts recently. I think it works for different stuff, right?

You have to look at what works for that content. As I say, sometimes it can be a checklist, sometimes it can be a video, or sometimes it can be a couple of paragraphs. In my experience, what the design of it is, you look at the content that you’ve got, again, put yourself in the user’s shoes, talking to other people, how does that best work in terms of delivery that you would expect to a consumer and make it easier? Because at the end of the day, what we want to do within the content strategy game is make it easy and accessible for people to use.

Now, to wrap it up, it’s not a one-size-fits-all, it’s just consistently keeping close to it, looking at how the engagement evolves, and adapting to it because even our experience now, I guarantee in six months’ time, it won’t look the same. It will definitely evolve. There will be different pieces. I’m probably not going to be in front of any TikTok videos, I don’t think, anytime soon, but there’s going to be different elements that we need to consider to engage those different audiences.

We flow with that and make sure that we’re keeping ahead of that trend, and not falling into those old patterns that you may see at other organisations, and shall I call it traditional L&D functions, where it’s like, “We’ll just continue to refresh our slides every six months with new department changes, and push the same thing out.” That is the philosophy we’re completely avoiding, and we’re really pushing that innovation to say, “What can we do differently, but not so differently, what could we take away?”

It’s not always about, do we need to add more stuff? It may be, do we need to take away more stuff? How do we make that journey even simpler for people who are part of that overall experience?

David: I like what you’ve just described there. It’s the MVP approach, you’re experimenting. The way I like to consider it is, you want to go for the lowest production value that meets the needs of the user. A bit of text is the lowest possible production.

Ross: 100%.

Listen to episode 61 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

David: If you can just tell people what they need to know in a very concise format, and that delivers you results, then that’s good enough. Sometimes you need to show them. You might do a screen recording. Sometimes when there is sensitivity around a particular issue, I remember one resource we created for a particular client around, how do you manage someone who doesn’t like you? Now, there’s nothing over-simplistic around that.

We decided to do video head montages of experienced managers talking about just how bloody hard that is, and that it isn’t a technique that gets you through, but it’s consistency, and it’s reflection, it’s self-appraisal, and it’s about showing up and being the adult every day. All of the rich stuff that you can’t really convey in another way. You have to challenge yourself and think, what’s the lowest possible production value we can get away with in order to help to get results, where do we really need to push it out in order to affect people, perhaps as much on an emotional level as we do on a logical?

Ross: Yes, definitely. I would agree with that wholeheartedly. Even anything I do in the L&D realm, obviously from my product background, is always around the MVP because, and maybe you’ve seen it yourself with your experience, I know some L&D teams or some peers spend months and years working on it. I’ve been part of massive corporations where they spend a year to 18 months on one programme, and then by the time that actually reaches any market, it’s obsolete, and then it’s shocking.

Whereas the realm that I work in now, people will probably class it as agile, but I try and stay away from the word because it’s so trendy in HR and L&D. It is, to an extent, where I work in, two to three weeks sprints, and it is very much the MVP model of if we’ve got a problem, what are we trying to solve? What can we push out to plug that gap and make sure people have access and can apply it? That’s exactly how we treat onboarding.

We have this always on feedback mechanism where it may be week two, we’ve discovered this, and then by the end of week three or start of week four, we’ve already deployed that solution, and we can see it in that environment already, and we’ve got that space to do that. I think it doesn’t work for everyone, of course, depending upon the structure that you have in your business, but I think in my world and what we’re doing, and the fast paceness, it works very well, and we can get that real-time feedback and really bring value.

Because we don’t want to be someone saying, “Here’s a problem,” and sit behind closed doors for four months, and then figure out that problem way later, which is actually not really going to help anyone, and then our backlog becomes bigger and bigger because there’s even more issues that have come through. Being really adaptable and listening to your audience is a really, really big thing.

Resources Rather Than Courses Saves Time and Delivers Training in a Real-World Context

David: It sounds as if you’re an advocate of resources rather than courses, is that right?

Ross: That’s correct. Yes, I am. I am on that bandwagon for sure. Although some people hate me for saying it all the time, but yes, I think, again, this is a bit more deeper, but if you go off and you look at things like neuroscience and psychology around learning and how people learn, and there’s far better people like Nick Shackleton-Jones, who does this stuff, but you’re going to read all that stuff, and it’s pretty clear to understand, I think, that mentality that I try and get away from completely, and I get it from a lot of people and businesses where it’s preaching about, “I need to put someone on a course. They need to have a course.”

It feels like the be-all and end-all solution, and some of my conversations have started off with a stakeholder coming to me and saying, “I need a course to get people to do X, Y, and Z.” The conversation ends up being an hour, whereas actually the solutions then ended up being a paragraph, on a document somewhere, that informs people how to do a process instead of a, shall we say the most hated word I have in my vocabulary, e-learning module, that then goes out to 200 people that don’t need to do it.

I’m very much around resources and experiences because we know from the data there, and again, this is a Nick Shackleton-Jones, completely stolen here, so credit to him, but the whole emotional side and the feelings, The biggest change that I’ve seen in people, in any kind of learning programme, is when you go out and you really connect with people on an emotional level, and you show them the real-world context. To me, that doesn’t matter if it’s onboarding, if it’s leadership, if it’s diversity inclusion, if you– We’re all emotional people, right?

We’re social in terms of the human spectrum, and if you can connect with people’s feelings and really get them to feel something about that, and actually show them, if we can make this change, this is how things could improve, it’s one of the most powerful things. It’s not– People probably don’t call that traditional L&D, they expect L&D to be doing digital modules, and e-learning courses, and stick me on a training thing outside for three or four days a week, but actually, for me, it’s more about taking people on a journey and bringing about real change, and adding that value and that performance value.

David: You talked earlier about the partnership between new starters and line managers, and you’ve got two halves of the same solution. Can you describe how that works from an end-user perspective, perhaps on both those sides–

Ross: Yes, most definitely.

David: — from a new starter, but also from an L&D admin perspective?

Ross: Yes, 100%. In terms of the new hire, or the new starter and the manager, how it basically works is we give both of them a 90-day experience, and they get a little bit as well before with pre-boarding, and then what happens is as soon as a new person enters our door, pretty much the workflows kickoff for both a new hire and a line manager. They become part of this campaign where they receive the general welcome emails, glad to have you here, all that great stuff, and we start connecting a new hire with the resources they need from day one.

We’ve mapped this out, and back to my emotional point, we’ve mapped this out to take into account, how does a new starter feel in their first few weeks and months? You’re pretty anxious, you’re pretty nervous, we’re not going to bombard you with a lot of stuff in the first week. It’s really just going to be around, “This is who we are, this is what we do, let’s get you set up for the first few weeks.” We really take that into account in terms of how people feel, and we’ve got that from the data as well, and then we mirror that on the line manager side.

Every kind of communication or contact point a new starter gets, their line manager will get the reverse of that, and it will be, if I say, for example, a new starter gets a, “Welcome to Trainline,” kind of communication, the line manager will get, “Hey, your newbie has started. Here’s some stuff that’s going to help them get off to the right foot for the first week, and here’s what we’ve shared with them.” We go forth and we do that over the 90 days. We have this nudging mechanism where it’s more for the new starter in terms of inform, educate, and apply.

For the line manager, it’s more around a nudge to say, “This is what we’re giving to your new starter.” It may be, “By the way, it’s been four weeks since they’ve been here. Have a catch up over coffee. Here’s some basic questions you can ask people.” Again, it’s more that blend of, we’re trying to be more human, and I keep saying that because I feel sometimes that this process can be very binary, and it’s more about you can fall into the black hole of, “We’re just going to tell you what we need you to know.” As opposed to saying, “How do we use digital technology to create more human connections and conversations?” 

That’s what we try and do with line managers because that portion for line managers, to me, is that part of support. It’s partnering with their new starter to say, “Oh, have you received this information? Did you understand it? Have you been able to apply it? What more can I do to help you?” What we do know is that we provide very simple toolkits to managers, and they’ve gone down very well in terms of just helping managers understand the journey of a new starter. The kind of things that they’re going to go through, how they may be affected during those 90 days, and how they can best support them.

Those two streams have worked very, very well in allowing the relationship to be built earlier between those two people, and actually strengthen that. Then show that the manager has investment, the company has investment, and the new hire. It feels more like, we can talk about psychological safety, to an extent, they feel more safe, they feel more like, “Oh, I’ve been prepped. My manager is really invested in me.” That’s all done from a perspective of we’ve taken a very much campaign approach. We’re in the background, like a helping hand.

Like that school teacher, where you’re pushing people and going, “Oh, go speak to so and so about this,” or, “Be friends and go have lunch together.” It does feel like that, but we’re doing it in a very automated way. Making the best use of digital technology to provide a more human experience, and really make it valuable because you probably see stuff on LinkedIn where people go for their first day or first week, and they get a swag bag of all their t-shirts and stuff, and people go, “Oh, this is amazing. I’ve got all of this on day one.”

That’s great, but I think the real secret ingredient, and the real key to it is that continuing relationship between manager and team member, and to help those people build that relationship. In most businesses, you’ll find that’s the most important relationship. It’s to feel comfortable in your team, with your manager, having those conversations. If we can help managers, from day one, see the why in it, see the benefits, and then give them a few tools and templates to help them with that, then it’s fantastic. Having that mirror the new hire process is great because then we can nudge both parties at the same time, and then craft that conversation to come together.

Again, we can measure the resources that are going out, and how people are engaging with them. If it’s not quite clicking, then we can adapt, and we can make sure that there’s more there. As I said before, we continue to do that now. I think the manager portion, I think that’s the bit where a lot of people fall down with onboarding, where they focus so much on the new hire, and doing a new hire campaign, which is great, but then they forget about the other party, which is managers. My experience has been that managers form the biggest part of success because they are the touchpoint day-to-day.

If you can enable managers, and empower them with the right content at the right time to support those people, you’re going to make a change from two fronts. You’re going to make a change in terms of they’re seeing investment from L&D, so they see it as actually it’s a really great performance support portion here that my L&D team is offering. We then also enable that greater communication, and building relationships, and really helping people come together.

David: Yes, I can really see how that happens. When you described that, it made me think that, of course, well-intended line managers would always want to do the right stuff. That nudge can help them in the right direction. It’s like when my Fitbit goes off once an hour at 10 to the hour, to remind me that I should walk, and I should do 250 steps. Now, I know how to walk, and I know that it’s good for me to walk, but that nudge reminds me that that’s important right now.

That’s something that you’re doing there. Your line managers, your well-intended and experienced line managers will know that this is the right stuff, but it won’t always be on their radar. It won’t be on their calendar.

Ross: 100%. Yes, 100%. I think it’s that structure, as you’ve alluded to there, right? Just having a more structured approach, because everyone has the best intentions. I’ve always seen that. They really want to do the best and create an experience, but they need that support themselves, and they need that structure. Sometimes just getting that very short email or Slack message which is like, “The new starter has been here for six weeks now. Here’s some things you can help them with.” Setting objectives, all that kind of good stuff.

It’s just the kind of spark people need, and although simple, it’s actually really effective in terms of actually making things happen, instead of stuff getting lost, and then actually those things not being attended to. That’s what we want to avoid.

David: How’s this been received then by your new starters and line managers, and I suppose just as importantly, those stakeholders that you needed to convince to buy into this new approach?

Listen to episode 61 of the Learning & Development podcast here.

Partner With Senior Stakeholders and Managers — They Want to be Involved

Ross: I’m not going to say it’s all been rainbows and roses, or whatever the saying is, because there is a great deal of change, right? When you’re effectively coming in, and you’re disrupting the norm of a model that I don’t know, it’s probably existed even before I started my career. A model that’s been around for so long with onboarding, you’re going to get a few raised eyebrows, right? People think, “Okay, what’s this chap talking about? Why are we going to do all of this stuff? This sounds like a massive investment. Are we going to have the ability to do that?”

I think in terms of how it’s been received and continue to receive at the moment because obviously it’s a little bit in infancy and we continue to develop it. We’ve had very positive feedback, definitely from an anecdotal standpoint, and even early data, to see how people are connecting with it from a level of doing the right stuff at the right time, feeling more empowered has been some of the feedback that we’ve had in terms of even designing their own pathway a little bit, and feeling a bit more assured because of the support and what happened there.

From the end-user perspective, it’s interesting to see, especially people who’ve gone through what I call traditional onboarding, where they expect to come in, and expect, “Oh, I’m going to get shoved into a room for a day and stuff thrown at me for nine hours.” They don’t get that, and they think, “Oh, this is strange.” They ask questions around that, but then they can start to see the benefits probably a number of weeks in, when they start seeing the messages come through, they see the on-demand resources, they’re part of our Slack communities.

They start to say, “Oh, okay, this is something different, but it’s something that’s actually benefiting me, and I’m getting this continuous support and connection of other new starters.” More of the, should I say, influencing part and bringing people on board that journey with you, and people probably guessed this from what we’ve discussed about so far, has been with line managers and senior stakeholders. It’s always an interesting conversation, right?

We walk into a room, and you find them saying, “We’re going to stop doing this. We should do all of this, which you’ve never seen before, and you’ve probably never seen many companies do, but I assure you it’s going to work. It’s going to do something completely different.” I think kudos to the people I work with because they’ve let me run free with it very much, and be very innovative. That’s not to say there weren’t raised eyebrows. A lot of that, again, is going back to that piece of connecting in to people with a story, and really talking to them about, what are the benefits if we don’t get this right? What can it look like if we do get it right?

Then looking at case studies of companies that have been doing it. Especially in my sector of technology, and when it has gone right, looking at those benefits, bringing that together and showcasing, what can we do? When I spoke about the data and experimentation points, and we kept collating data through the test groups, bringing that back to those people and showing them, “We’ve done a couple of things here, and we’re already seeing the differences. We’re still doing the A-B testing, and we’re running one alongside each other, but we can start to see the benefits.”

I think that’s where it lays. I think it’s really partnering with those senior stakeholders and managers. I think, again, it’s probably a little bit of a pitfall with HR teams and L&D teams to not be siloed. Just take away a project, and just talk to no one, build a number of things, and then come back with the final solution. From my experiences over the last decade and a bit, I can guarantee you, that is the easiest way for people to kick your idea out of the room because they want to feel part of it. They want to be involved, they want to have input.

If you bring people on that journey and you’re showing them the results, and you’re taking on board what they’re saying and making it a collaborative effort, then it can really change it. That’s what I found. I get more people now, especially further down the line in this process being launched and more people being part of it, where they’re really coming up and saying, “Wow, this is something different. I wasn’t too sure about it at first, but this is really helping me.”

I can definitely see that from the people, especially from the manager’s side, who experience it and going, “I’ve never heard this before at our company. Usually, it will just be, I get an email from HR that says so and so started, they’re invited to this day, and that was the end of it. Now I’m getting emails around questions to ask people over coffee. How do I feel about this? Here’s a checklist to help my new starter in week seven, or eight. How do I deal with the career development plan?” It’s a whole new world for these people.

So, it’s exciting, and it’s exciting to see that all the assumptions we’ve made, and the data collected, how do they work in the real world? I think so far, we’re seeing really good results from that, and to move from that as we’ve built it as a promotional standpoint, from a one-day event to a 90-day experience, I think that really brings people on board. Being in the tech sector, we’re all about the user experience. It’s all about the experience you get. It’s that end-user. I think people can connect to that.

My advice on that is going to be, bring people on board early, bring them in on the vision, collaborate with them, get their ideas, make them a part of that design process, do not do that thing where the order taking, I like to call it the McDonald’s drive-through analogy, where you go there and someone says, “I want a hamburger,” and then you walk off for six months and you go create that hamburger and come back and go, “There’s your hamburger.” Instead of actually, someone gives you an order, actually just have a discussion around that.

How can we map this out? What are the things we’re looking at? Continually bringing those people on that journey, as part of, let’s call it a task force, then you’ll get a lot more people getting involved in it. Although I don’t like the word, evangelising it, and bringing that all together. Those people, for me, actually, have been my biggest advocates. Once we’ve brought this to a larger stage, I have not had to have done so much on the marketing and promotional side. We’ve got senior stakeholders, and managers who are so excited about it, they’re doing that work for me, which is great. That’s a good benefit of the process as well. 

I’d say change takes time. It’s not going to be an overnight thing. I think that’s the thing I have to hold out on my– I do say it with any of the teams that I work with. This is not going to be an overnight sensation. Behavioral change, you may be looking at six months plus, and it’s just bringing people on that journey and continuing to show those benefits and then where we are now, as opposed to where we are in 12 months time could be huge, but we have to give it the time, and we have to cultivate it, and we can’t just be looking at what I call vanity metrics of, “Let’s look at the first six weeks and then determine success of that in the first six weeks,” because that’s not really how life works.

When we look at the MVP model, it’s about continual iterations and you get to a standpoint where it may be six months down the line, it may be a year down the line, but you’re going to have a real game-changing product, and you’re going to have a world-class service. The collaboration piece and partnering, those would be my big lessons there.

Get Comfortable With Technology Because it’s Not Going Away

David: Yes, brilliant. Just as a reminder, you started this conversation saying you’re a one-man band here, and yet you’ve taken a one-day event and you’ve turned it into a 90-day experience, using automation, using campaigns, and overall, you’re data-driven. You’re laser-focused on the real problems, which leads me nicely to my next question, do you see further applications for this campaign and data-driven approach with higher levels of automation at Trainline?

Ross: Yes, everything, to be fair. I’m a big techie geek. This is going to be a bit biased on my end here, but I think definitely. Again, it comes back to even speaking peers in our industry, really around not being scared of technology, and making better use of workplace tech, and people have probably seen me speak about this on different social channels, but it’s a really big thing for me.

In most of our organisations today, we’re working with Slack, or Teams, or G Suite or something of that kind of ilk, and I think many people under utilise these tools, and they don’t really look at actually, how can maybe bringing this into my workflow aid that? Now, I understand there may be a bit of fear, because in the traditional L&D world, trainers like to have that control of the classroom, and deliver stuff and do that, I fully appreciate that, but actually, you can use technology to supplement that, and you can use existing technology to actually, if you apply it mindfully, it can be very powerful.

You don’t need to be going out and buying, I see people buying 20 bits of tech to do one thing. You don’t need to do that. You may have what you already need, but you need to investigate that. The big thing, for me, being a one-man band, has been really investing in my digital skills and technology know-how, and really understanding when I’m looking at L&D, I’m looking at building, let’s call it a digital learning architecture, being a one-man band, and only being able to do so much, how can I use that technology ecosystem to get the best bang for my buck? What are the features that can be used from a campaign element to do that?

I think the campaign element, for me, is so powerful because it allows you to manage your time and priorities better. Let’s say it’s me as someone who’s strategising and consulting, I can do more of that, and build automated workflows, which are very simple things like conversational pieces through collaboration tools, or email, to actually work with different users on different projects, whether that’s at DNI project, whether that’s a leadership development project, it doesn’t need to be– Let me give you a case in point of leadership development.

Most businesses say, “We’ll get people together in a classroom for four days over four months.” That’s your leadership development programme. That’s it. Actually, what you can do with a campaign approach and automation is say, “Well, actually, I can build a campaign with touchpoints through different bits of technology, where I can set it and then forget it. Then I can set up all these activities, and then people can do that.” You, as an individual, don’t need to be involved in it. Which is perfect for me because as a one-man band, I cannot sit there and go through hundreds and hundreds of different touchpoints for people to do that.

The campaign element allows me to do that, and then focus more on the strategy and the human side of, when we do bring people together, in a human-to-human experience, how do we make that as beneficial as possible? Technology, for me, is the massive enabler for that. It’s really understanding the tools at your disposal, how would you build them into that learning architecture, and how do they communicate and connect with each other and provide that simple experience? As a one-man band, again, for anyone listening to this and is in the same one-person band or a couple of people in a small team with a limited budget, you can do a hell of a lot with a lot of those tools, and bring that together, and create really great experiences. 

It just needs that bit of innovation. I don’t like saying step out of the box or whatever it is, thinking out of the box, but it’s really about taking a step back and looking into other worlds, and at what you can borrow. If you’re in tech like me, there’s product teams, there’s different engineering teams that you can speak to and think about how can you do things differently? If you’re on a low budget, there’s many free tools that you can use, and you can experiment and do this, but I really say get comfortable with technology because it’s not going away.

I think there’s been some in our industry, for whatever reason, there’s a big resistance to, “I don’t want to use the technology because I don’t understand it.” The way we’re going, if we don’t bring it into the world of L&D, we’re going to be really far behind in terms of working with different audiences. It can be a great enabler. It can really change if you apply it mindfully. I would say, investigate what you’ve got, acquire tools with purpose. Don’t just be buying stuff because everyone else is buying stuff and it’s the hot thing right now, have purpose and intent behind it.

What’s the problem it’s going to solve? How is it going to support you? You can do just so much with technology and automation. To your point and the original question around how I work, with previous businesses and even where I am now, that’s how I take my approach. I don’t look at anything as a one-off event. I look at everything as a campaign approach. So, I don’t have the one day or a few sessions. It’s like, what does six months look like? Then how do we build everything in there to say, engage, learn, and apply? Because the real learning as hopefully, you all know, is in the doing.

It’s when people are in the day-to-day, and they’re actually doing the stuff. We try to build as much as possible in that workflow of doing, and use technology to do that, which in my opinion, is a better approach than you doing the on a stage classroom experience because I think most feedback that I’ve seen in my career, people go, “Great, I’ve been to that. Never actually used any of it, never had the opportunity to use it.” We want to change that and actually make it performance-led as opposed to, “It was nice that I was out for a day, but I never actually did anything afterwards.”

David: Yes, there’s loads of gold in there. Ross, I think that what you’ve just described there about L&D being left behind as far as digital is concerned, is backed up in skills gap reports. Not only are digital skills, and basic digital skills, the biggest deficit across the workforce right now. Considering that 80% of the workforce of 2030 are now in the workforce, this isn’t going to get better by accident. Of the four pillars when it comes to the skills gap, and again, government reports, the fourth one is teaching and training.

That people in teaching and training do not have the skills in order to help plug the skills gap. So L&D are actually contributing to the problem rather than being part of the problem. A big part of that is our reticence to get involved with digital, beyond outsourcing the online element to vendors because that’s not going to help us to gain the skills and make the required difference in our organisations. With a view to wrapping up, I thought we were going to be able to leave it with your last response there on what the listener would be able to do if they like what they hear from you, and the like, but your response there was full and complete in response to my last one.

If you could say to people, if there was one, two, or three things that somebody who wasn’t where you are, in terms of looking to develop campaigns that are data-driven and the like, in relation to induction, where would you suggest they start?

Ross: Yes, I think I’m not too dissimilar to what we’ve already said, some of the points is that don’t be afraid to experiment. Start with small little groups, gather your own assumptions and validate them. As I said before, don’t assume you know because you’ve seen one view, go out and have those conversations. Don’t be afraid to experiment and show your findings, and do something a little different, right? Then if you need to speak to people like me, or reach out into the industry, there’s a bunch of people that I’ve spoken to as well on a similar journey, and I just connect to them with understanding what they’ve done.

I’d say go and speak to some of those people too, if you need to get more of a deep dive for sure. Your business itself is, I get it’s different for different businesses, but don’t be afraid to innovate. Because I think things don’t become traditional until someone changes something. Something that is traditional now, wasn’t always traditional. Someone started that at some point in the past, and now it’s become tradition. You can change that over time.

Definitely look to run those experiments, you gather your data, your data is the big piece, the data and evidence. As for my points before, just start small. Start small. Scale from there. See what comes back, and then keep evolving. Go through that MVP methodology,

David: Wonderful. Ross, if people wish to follow your work or connect with you online, how can they do so?

Ross: Yes, the easiest thing is LinkedIn. I’m all over LinkedIn, and I’m on Twitter as well. On LinkedIn, if you search for Ross Stevenson, L&D, I think I come up near the top somewhere. Twitter, again, you’ll find me as well. I haven’t got a clue what my username is on Twitter, but–

David: —That’s all right. We’ll put the link on the show notes. 

Ross: – Awesome. There you go. Yes, that’s it.

David: Wonderful. Thank you very much, Ross, this has been hugely insightful, and thank you for being a guest on The Learning & Development Podcast.

Ross: Thank you for having me.

David: Despite it being a common problem for L&D, so many organisations still deliver that awful death by PowerPoint experience that we discussed in this podcast, but we must all know it doesn’t cut it. As Ross explained, by making the experience employee-centric rather than topic-centric, and automate it, run it as a campaign, and be data-driven, we can all make the difference required to welcome new starters and prepare them to perform.

If you’d like to get in touch with me, perhaps to suggest topics you’d like to hear discussed, you can tweet me @davidinlearning, and connect on LinkedIn for which you’ll find the links in the show notes. Goodbye for now.

Listen to episode 61 of the Learning & Development podcast here or book a free demo to find out more about developing an onboarding strategy that works.

About Ross Stevenson

Ross is Senior Learning & Talent Development Manager at, having previously been Digital Learning Manager at Tesco. He is an advocate of progressive L&D practices that impact individual and organisational performance. 

In addition, Ross is author of the Steal These Thoughts blog and podcast.

Connect with Ross on Twitter and LinkedIn

Connect with David on LinkedIn and Twitter

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