posted 31 May 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 8
The knowledge | Nigel Paine
As the pace of change continues to increase and companies strive to maintain competitive advantage, talent is becoming the key differential. Technologist Nigel Paine talks about the roles of knowledge management, learning, innovation and creativity.
By Sandra Higgison
After five years modernising training and development at broadcaster the BBC, Nigel Paine is taking his passion for learning and technology to a wider audience. If, as he believes, talent has become the key differential between successful and merely competent organisations, then most have a long way to go.
Left unchecked, their long-running complacency and under-investment in people will keep them from staying competitive. But companies cannot focus on talent in isolation; to be successful it has to be part of an overall approach to knowledge management, learning, innovation and creativity, areas that are often paid little more than lip service and consequently given fragmented ownership.
Paine can pinpoint when he became a learning technologist. “My obsession with the power of technology began with the launch of the Apple Mac’ in 1984,” he says. “It struck me as something magical that could enhance learning and would be of intrinsic interest to companies.” At the time he was working on what would now be called an open-learning project. “We were looking at ways we could open up corporate training, further education and university short courses to larger numbers of people by getting away from the need to turn up at a particular place, at a particular time, for a particular duration.” He knew that the personal computer would enhance the process, but, at the time, was not sure how.
This has formed the crux of much of his work since then. “I spent about ten years explaining what the future would look like: that we’d be able to develop exciting materials cheaply; that we’d learn from machines and use them to bring people together, distribute content and much more. And now we’re practically there. We can do almost anything we want.” With his sights constantly set at least a step ahead of most corporate learning and development teams, it is not surprising that he was appointed to transform training at the BBC in 2002.
His responsibilities covered all areas of learning and development, which included managing the intranet, supporting knowledge management and helping create the College of Journalism. Soon after joining he set up the Learning Board, chaired by Greg Dyke, then director-general of the BBC. “It sat at the highest level of the organisation and was made up entirely of divisional directors. I gave away my budget and made sure the board owned all the policy decisions. I set up groups focused on creativity, leadership, journalism and production, which allowed us to think about and develop the big picture.”
Much has been written in recent years about the BBC intranet, but when Paine joined employees hardly ever used the site and Dyke wanted to close it down and start again. Persuading him that it just needed fixing and after working to do so, usage increased to around 85-90 per cent within a year. “We made the architecture consistent, the site more attractive and ensured all news broke on it,” he says. “Learning Gateway, the learning and development site, became one of the most popular as it was the only place to manage your performance or book any face-to-face or online training.”
Working with Euan Semple (profiled in this magazine in 2005), Paine helped to bring blogs, wikis and podcasts to the BBC. “One of the great things about working with Euan’s team was that we could set up a ‘skunk works’ to build these tools off the network and then trickle them on informally. This was a big advantage as it meant they weren’t owned by the big establishment.”
Indeed, there was little formal in the way these so-called Web 2.0 tools swept the BBC intranet. Word of mouth proved to be the most effective form of communication. “When the discussion forums started off with just 60 people discussing the quality of water in the watercoolers, I thought I’d be out of a job if Greg saw them. But this soon jumped to 10,000 people engaged in hundreds of forums. We had 200-300 people blogging internally with a readership of 8,000-9,000. We created heroes out of some unlikely people, which was a good message.” The intranet showed people that the BBC was an open organisation, bubbling with creativity and ideas, which supported the corporation’s overriding goal: to be the most creative organisation in the world.
Another objective that is often taken as read is that the BBC provides the public with accurate, responsible and impartial journalism. But these tenets were thrown into doubt with the death of biological-weapons expert Dr David Kelly. In 2003, the BBC published stories based on unnamed sources alleging government involvement in a report justifying the invasion of Iraq – the so-called 'dodgy dossier'. Kelly was later named as a source and was forced to appear before a House of Commons select committee. The next day, he was found dead in woodland near his home and the government launched the Hutton Inquiry. One of its outcomes was a recommendation that that BBC strengthen its editorial standards by establishing a college of journalism.
Paine says being part of the team that set up the college was one of his biggest achievements while at the broadcasting corporation. The college is almost entirely virtual and leverages the huge expertise there is amongst the BBC journalist community. They are encouraged to share their experiences and have time built into their objectives for sharing their knowledge. As well as production skills, the college ensures everyone understands the organisation’s editorial policy and runs courses on journalistic ethics, sources, scripts and note taking.
Leaving the BBC in October 2006, Paine has been working with companies around the world that are serious about developing their talent. “My job is to make organisations effective in the way they use their people,” he says. “For the past 20-30 years we’ve had a talent glut. As we move into a talent shortage, candidates will decide which companies they want to work with based not only on money, but also on what the company will do for them during their life there. Most people want to be treated well, operate at their maximum potential and feel they’re making a difference, otherwise they’ll leave.”
As he says, creating and managing a talent strategy is not just about finding your three per cent of high performers and focusing on them. “Talent starts at recruitment and the way you hire people, it moves on to how you bring together induction, training and performance management and, eventually, on succession planning and how you manage their exit from the company. These stages are often managed independently so it’s not surprising that individuals feel confused; you need a holistic view of your talent.
Among the things guaranteed to annoy Paine (and there’s a list of eight on his blog) are companies that say people are their greatest assets, but ignore them until they’re considering redundancies. “You see where investment in people sits in the pecking order when you try to get resources,” he says. Despite this obstacle, Paine has been successful in persuading companies to put money into people and learning technologies. “I don’t tell businesses to make new investments, but to leverage the infrastructure they already have and make it focus on learning and development. If they’ve already spent £3m on IT, it’s not a bad argument to suggest they spend another £10,000 for a raft of training tools and increased effectiveness.”
Companies slow to pick up on these messages will find themselves at a disadvantage. Having worked with so many different organisations in the private and public sectors, Paine is struck by how the pace of change is almost outstripping the pace of learning. “We have to increase our speed of learning and knowledge sharing. Our existing systems are just too slow. On Concorde, the flight engineer was responsible for making sure fuel kept moving around its multiple fuel tanks to stop it from vaporising. Knowledge needs to be pumped around organisations in the same way otherwise it will vanish, but most people don’t see that.”
Paine points to Google as a company that understands the importance of knowledge management, creativity, learning and innovation. “It’s a hive of creativity from the moment you walk in; everyone’s proud and passionate about the company. It’s partly because of the people they recruit but it’s also the culture. People are given one day a week to work on their own ideas. I do believe in the wisdom of crowds. If you have a diverse enough group, it’ll solve any problem and come up with all sorts of solutions for the future. Out of all these ideas came Google Maps; it had nothing to do with Google’s mainstream business at the time, but it makes perfect sense. A more orthodox company would have missed it by miles.”
Having the luxury to work only with companies that share his ethos, Paine is now travelling around the world helping them make the most of their investment in people. From Lithuania to Australia and the US, the talent challenge is the thread that links them all. And if Paine has his way, we’ll soon see companies putting real investment behind their people, which can only benefit us all.
Contact Nigel Paine at firstname.lastname@example.org.