The Importance of Organisational Culture in Developing Talent

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To deliver the railway of the future, we need highly skilled individuals to want to come and work for us. We need them to feel comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, adapt, be resilient, be creative and lead. We want them to learn and create new knowledge throughout their career and we want organisations to use new technologies and approaches to attract, develop and retain talent.

How can organisational culture help us achieve this?

Organisational culture is the shared beliefs, values, and assumptions within an organisation. It influences the structure of the organisation you work in, the systems you work with, the type of people you work with, and the procedures you work to. It influences the decisions and actions you take and can have a big impact on how organisations attract, select, develop and retain talent.

Within our industry there is a common perception that we are compliance-driven. Organisations identify legal requirements and focus attention on complying with these through technical requirements, rules and standards.

This can have a number of implications for the way these organisations attract, select, train and retain talent.
Firstly, within a compliance-driven organisation, qualities such as resilience, desire to learn, adaptability and innovation can be considered much less desirable compared to the qualities that help achieve compliance.

Secondly, within these organisations there can be the perception that the aim of training is to help achieve compliance and so training can often be instructor-led, classroom-based and focused on carrying out tasks within normal operations. This is in contrast to training that utilises a mixture of learning methods, encourages the individual to take responsibility for learning and considers in detail the tasks and conditions associated with degraded and emergency situations.

Thirdly, these organisations can see competence assessment as another method to help demonstrate compliance. Assessments can therefore focus heavily on assessing and confirming existing technical knowledge and skill as opposed to being used to support continued development by assessing existing and new knowledge and skills.

People working in compliance-driven organisations may well place greater value on their technical competence. The training they receive may remind them of being in school and they may feel that the training is something “being done to them” rather than something they can actively participate in and take responsibility for. They may also see refresher training and competence assessment as tick box exercises rather than opportunities to enhance their knowledge and skills.

ARRIVA Trains Wales conductor

Let’s contrast this with what we think we need in the future, to deliver a sustainable and successful railway:

  1. Highly skilled individuals who want to come and work for us. Will highly skilled individuals be attracted to organisations that predominately value the technical skills and knowledge required to achieve compliance?
  2. Individuals who feel comfortable with complexity and uncertainty, adapt, be resilient, be creative and lead. Can we expect people to do this, if we focus on developing competence only to achieve compliance?
  3. People who can learn and create new knowledge throughout their career. Do we expect people to take responsibility for their learning and demonstrate a desire to learn, if they are passive in the learning process and believe their organisation does not value or require such qualities?
  4. Organisations that use new technologies and approaches to help achieve the above. Will organisations who are focused on achieving compliance invest time, effort and money in new technologies?

Considering all these points compliance-driven organisations may find it harder to attract, select, develop and retain the rail talent we need.

What type of organisation do we need?

High Reliability Organisations (HRO) provide an example of the type of organisation we may need, because they have a number of characteristics that could help the industry attract, select, develop and retain the rail talent we need to deliver the railway of the future.

HROs are defined as “organisations that work in situations that have the potential for large-scale risk and harm, but which manage to balance effectiveness, efficiency and safety.” (The Health Foundation 2011).

These organisations see knowledge as a valuable commodity and are focused on creating, acquiring and transferring new knowledge. They strive to understand ‘what they don’t know’ and use this information to inform the way they train, develop and operate. Managers want to learn, seeking development opportunities for themselves, their teams and the organisation.

HROs strive to create a fair culture, where there is tolerance for failure and error and processes are in place to understand the individual, job, workplace and organisational factors associated with these failures and errors and share this learning and knowledge.

Technical skills

They focus on developing technical and non-technical skills. Learning and development emphasises the use problem solving and experimentation and uses different approaches such as on the job training, job rotation, self-discovery learning, and learning tours. People are expected to take responsibility for their learning and through training needs analysis HROs assess whether systems and processes might affect the extent to which someone is able to apply learning.

HROs are considered attractive to employees as they offer the opportunity to develop and enhance skills and work in an environment that is changing and challenging. Selection assesses a range of skills needed to work in this environment, such as resilience, adaptability, problem solving and desire to learn.

People working in HROs are also likely to spend less time in the class room, instead immersing themselves in the organisation to learn. They will probably use different technologies to learn different skills and experience training and exposure, through simulation, to abnormal, degraded and emergency events, both at individual and team level. Their training is likely to better mirror their work context and they may well feel more able to question and challenge and seek and share new learning.

How do we get there?

There are a range of approaches available. Some rail organisations have started to incorporate the concept of fair culture into the way they learn and develop. South West Trains (now South Western Railway), working with ASLEF, imbedded fair culture into their competence development plan process. Operational incidents, where driver error was identified as one of the causes, were reduced by over 21% in the 12 months that followed the introduction of this new process. South West Trains were also able to remove 79 drivers from their driver support programme and reduce additional monitoring, by over 11,844 days.

Non-technical skills are social, cognitive and personal skills, such as communication and building situation awareness, that can enhance the way people carry out tasks within our industry. The training, development and measurement of these skills requires individuals to take responsibility for their learning and analyse, question and challenge. It requires organisations to use different methods for training and development. For example, Arriva Train Wales and VR Simulation Systems Ltd, created the Computer Augmented Virtual Environment (CAVE), simulator, so staff experience a range of normal, degraded and emergency situations on platforms during dispatch and practice applying technical and non-technical skills.

The work by the National Training Academy for Rail, such as apprenticeship schemes, and the National Skills Academy Rail promotes the concept of lifelong learners and that knowledge is a valuable commodity. SkillsID provides an online record of an individual’s skills, qualifications and training plans, accessible to the employer and the individual. This record is built up over the course of an individual’s career and is transferable between employers.

Risk Based Training Needs Analysis provides an opportunity to assess how systems and processes might affect learning. The analysis helps organisations identify, for any given role, the tasks and competencies required, the priority of tasks for training and assessment and the training and assessment options available. Relevant systems and procedures could be considered when identifying training and assessment options, so that changes to systems and procedures can be made to facilitate learning.

Research of HROs provides more examples. Paranhos et al (2017) and Lekka and Sugden (2011) identified approaches in the Oil and Gas industry. These included:

  • Mentoring programmes where trainees are paired with an experienced member of the team for on-the-job training. Training objectives are developed and assessed by the mentor using on the job and written assessments.
  • Hazard and awareness workshops to help people understand risk and practice and develop the skills to challenge undesirable behaviours and coach peers.
  • Safety training and observation programs where staff make site observations and discuss observed behaviour. These are shared across the company.
  • Trial and error learning using simulators and mock-ups to help people anticipate problems and deal competently with unexpected events.
  • Visible management commitment, with front-line managers spending most of their time out in the field, middle managers spending half their time and senior managers spending a quarter of their time.

Organisations within the rail industry could adapt and adopt these types of approaches to help them move towards becoming a high reliability organisation. For example:

  • Mentoring programmes could become part of initial training. Trainees would be able to immerse themselves in the organisation to learn and spend less time in the class-room.
  • Hazard and awareness workshops could be used to develop new knowledge and skills and be run as part of initial and refresher training. The content of these workshops could also be used in team briefings, site briefings and safety briefings to help encourage staff to challenge undesirable behaviours and coach peers.
  • Observation programs could be integrated into existing hazard spotting and reporting systems to encourage staff to make more safety observations, report concerns and also feel comfortable talking about these concerns with their colleagues and managers. The hazard and awareness workshops would help this.
  • Initial and on-going training could include more activities and scenarios that allow learning through problem solving and experimentation. Desk top scenarios, case studies, videos, mock-ups, role-play and simulations could all be used to help people experience unexpected events and learn through trial and error in a safe environment.
  • Managers, particular front line managers, could be provided with better leadership training so they are able and feel comfortable leading their teams. Their role could also be reviewed and potentially refined so that they have more time to be out in the field.

To deliver a sustainable and successful railway we need to foster a culture of learning and continuous improvement. High Reliability Organisations offer a potential vision for how rail organisations could look in the future, because they exhibit such a culture. These organisations believe that:

  • Business success is underpinned by creating, acquiring and transferring new knowledge
  • A fair culture and tolerance for failure and error is needed to help acquire this knowledge
  • Learning and development is an active and continual process focused on developing technical and non-technical skills
  • Managers at all levels must demonstrate that they want to learn and actively seek opportunities to improve.

The industry has started to lay the foundations for change. It’s now time to embrace High Reliability Organisations.

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Paul Leach
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