The learning technology advocate

Charles Jennings

Charles Jennings, global head of learning at Reuters, is responsible for the learning of almost 17,000 employees, taking a particular interest in how new technologies can be used to improve performance. He talked to IT Training about the job, the route that led him there, and offered some gems of career advice.

What does your job entail?
I'm responsible for the approach we take for learning across the company, setting the strategy; developing the infrastructure, developing my own skills, and working with business managers.

I sit in the corporate HR function. Each of our four major divisions has a head of learning, who reports to a senior manager in the business, and across functions to me.

There are about 150 people in learning and development in Reuters, which includes trainers, learning consultants and learning managers, who between them analyse performance gaps, design and develop learning solutions, and deliver workshops. We do a huge amount of e-learning development, evaluation (including certification programmes), and have to manage around 1,000 external training providers.

Does Reuters do a lot of IT training?
Yes, we do. A lot of it is around Reuters' own technologies as well as generic skills in IT, such as vendor qualifications and certification. There are a large number of IT specialists in the company. 

Most people know Reuters for its news and images, but only about 5 per cent of our revenue comes from that; 95 per cent comes from Reuters providing data and technology to the world's financial services industry.

For example when an investment bank opens a new trading floor, Reuters will often supply the terminals, networks, training and so on. Some of it is supplied through our network of partners, such as BT, HP and Fujitsu.

That means we have about 3,000 software developers - 1,800 of them are in Bangkok, others are in Paris, Geneva, London, New York, and elsewhere and we are building a community in China. When you include networking and support staff and so on, our technologists total around 5,000, out of 17,000 employees.

One example of what we do is that we've just finished a pilot project in Bangkok and Beijing using the Microsoft Official Distance Learning (MODL) approach. This uses virtual labs - which use real servers, not simulations - accessed remotely across the internet, and a tutor on the West Coast of the USA running sessions for learners in Asia.

Are you using many web 2.0 technologies for training?
We have not yet got into using web 2.0 for training in a big way, although as a company we are very interested and active in web 2.0. For example, Reuters has a virtual news agency in Second Life, with a journalist who reports in Second Life full time, and the company tracks the currency, the Linden Dollar, against the US dollar.

I recently took part in a meeting in Second Life and I found that my concentration didn't waver - very different from a two hour teleconference call! Virtual environments have huge potential for things such as simulations for high quality engagement, and they cost much less to set up than flying people in to take part in simulations. Plus you can do stuff without breaking anything - a good example is aircraft simulations. I know various companies are now starting to look at using Second Life and other virtual worlds for training.

I think web 2.0 technologies will become really vital. We are doing some podcasting for training and just starting blogs and wikis. As a company I think we can do more in exploring them.

What advice would you give someone keen to move into a role similar to yours?
Firstly, I'd say you need to develop business skills and, alongside, learn to communicate with senior business people at peer level. So, for example, learn to understand a balance sheet and the language that senior business people use. Most senior business people don’t see the connection between some of the aspects of training and, for example, improved sales, unless it is presented to them in their language.

Training is often just seen as a service. You need to ask business managers if they've thought about getting the best value for money from training.

My second piece of advice is to be open to new approaches but to be logical and base actions on evidence rather than whim. Learning and development heads often get buried in training and don't look outwards at what is going on in the business, and beyond.

Also, a lot of the last few years' developments, such as performance support systems, have passed over their heads. Some haven't even registered what is happening with e-learning, browser-based learning and virtual simulations.

Looking at how techniques and technologies can help you is a skill that learning and development heads need. I don't think a person in my type of role can be really effective if they don't understand the technology.

Here at Reuters we're lucky as our CEO is very forward-thinking and interested in new technologies. He has an avatar in Second Life and is very enthusiastic about new approaches. For instance, our innovation team has just launched a new service for Indian farmers where pricing is sent to their mobile phones.

Have you got managers to see the importance of training in Reuters?
We've done it to some extent - the key is to get trust, which is often as important as providing data.

You have to set a structure that allow managers to be engaged and try to engage them at all levels. You have to help them understand the importance of learning and its core purpose, which it to add value to the business, make it more responsive to changing market conditions and developments.

Getting the right talent and helping them grow is important because we're living with a world shortage of talent. It is so difficult and expensive to get the right people that you need to give them as many opportunities to grow as possible.

What sort of personality is needed for a job such as yours?
You need to be a bit of risk taker, inquisitive, and to understand learning and development and the research into it. Part of my job every day is talking to managers about how people learn.

Because of my academic background, I tend to use research to prove points, for instance I use a presentation around Harold Stolovitch's research on the effectiveness of different approaches for knowledge transfer, and we use other research to support our 70:20:10 approach to organisational learning - that 70 per cent of learning is on the job, 20 per cent through coaching and networks, and 10 per cent through formal training. 90 per cent therefore involves the manager.

Because so much learning is on the job, the manager's role is vital, and it's down to us to support them. There are a lot of tools available to us to do this for example via electronic performance support systems, little 'bite-sized chunks' of eLearning, simulations and step-throughs. One problem, though, can be getting thorough and up-to-date academic research.

With new projects, you either need to have evidence that it's been tried before and will work, try it yourself, or use your professional network to hook into others who are trying it.

How did you initially get into the industry?
In 1983 I was asked to manage the further and higher education section with The Times Network System (TTNS), run by Rupert Murdoch's News International and BT. It was very innovative at the time as it provided Prestel-type databases and electronic mailboxes for every student in the country, and this was what really got me into computers in education.

I had done some work earlier using computers such as the Sinclair ZX-81s, Spectrum, Apple II and BBC micro for supporting learning in classrooms and laboratories which sparked an interest and made me realise that technology and education were powerful partners.

Before that I had worked as an academic, initially as a lecturer in the UK after coming here from Australia - my first degree was in natural sciences and my second in chemical engineering. It was only when studying for my third degree that I focused on education.

Which job have you enjoyed most?
CECOMM - the Centre for Electronic Communication and Open Support Systems in Education - it was exciting because we were pushing the boundaries, right at the forefront of developments in network-based learning. Initially it was often a matter of configuring X25 pads to set up learning systems. Then we moved onto IP networks.

The people at CECOMM were very interested in collaborative learning - we were involved in organising collaborative games for colleges and universities in England, France and Germany, and Canada and the US. And the technologies were coming thick and fast. We were involved in an early BT research project running video conferencing over ISDN - I had a huge video conferencing box on my desk at the time, with virtually no-one to connect to.

What motivates you?
Challenges. I want to do new things and am interested in pushing the boundaries. That said, I'm not as interested as I used to be in new technologies and gizmos. I'm more interested in how they can fit in what I want to do with improving employee performance.

At the moment, for example, I think performance tools are really exciting. These are systems that can provide support to people whose jobs involve a lot of process. They've been around for years, but are just coming into their own. We've all spent a lot of time and effort trying to teach people detailed task-based activities in classrooms.

However, the research tells us that approach simply doesn't work and is a waste of time and money. We can't, and don't, retain the information. We need on-the-job help and support. It's only after we have carried out a task in a work situation that we embed the process steps. We are looking at using performance support tools - called ePSS - instead of traditional training.

So, for example, the people who take customer orders at Reuters and process them, which is often complex and requires a large number of process steps and systems, are using a performance support tool that provides on-screen support, rules, process flow information and details on how to complete tasks.

To be honest, I'm not terribly passionate about training as an activity, but I am passionate about helping improve performance. I think the training environment would be a better place if trainers showed more interested in business outcomes rather than just training outcomes.

Who do you admire?
I tend to admire people who have pushed the barriers: Nigel Paine is one who did very innovative things at the BBC and the BBC continues to be a leading light in learning and development. Jay Cross who first coined the term 'e-learning' has also made all us aware of something we have had a hunch about for years - that most adult learning is informal. Jay’s books and articles have made that very clear.

Others I admire are those who pushed our understanding of the potential of 'doing things differently' and using technology in education and learning in the early days of the personal computer era.

There were just a handful of people in the UK and across Europe in the early 1980s who saw the huge potential of PCs and networks for learning and continued to research and pilot, test and trail, and were often considered to be playing with 'toys' by IT managers who spent most of their time fanning their mainframes.

Career milestones

1973: Left Australia for post-graduate study in the UK, followed by stints teaching and lecturing in UK and Australia.

Early 80s: Settled permanently in the UK, initially as an academic. Began experimenting with early personal computer applications in learning and development, using Sinclair ZX-81, Apple IIe, IBM, BBC and other systems

1983-8: Managed the further and higher education section within the Times Network System (TTNS), run by the News International and British Telecom and sat on the TTNS National Advisory Board.

1983/4: Developed early eLearning courses delivered over networks using collaborative technologies and approaches.

1983-1988: The Hampshire IT Project, working with teachers and lecturers to show them how IT could help them in non-IT fields, for example in setting up history and health databases, using computers with students in classrooms and working with networks for learning and development. 

1988-1995 CECOMM - the Centre for Electronic Communications and Open Support Systems in Education, based within Southampton Business School - it had a national role to support the use of networks in education. Extensive work with learning and development departments in government organisations and corporates

1994: Developed and launched first MBA delivered purely over the internet for Southampton Business School.

1995-1997: A learning specialist and director of strategic technology for Dow Jones Markets, developing learning and performance systems, tools and technologies.

1997-2002 business consultant for learning solutions, eLearning and learning content management systems

2002: Joined Reuters.

August 2007