SML in Sainsbury’s

The CSML Network event of March 27th

Sainsbury’s kindly provided their Blackfriars office as an appropriate venue for us to hear about their experiences with Self Managed Learning. It is a massive programme which, when completed, will have embraced the whole of the Personnel function, – more than 600 people. Ian chaired the event and Sally Booth, along with two of her colleagues, gave the inside perspective. They had all had the experience of being both a set member and a set adviser.

Sally began by giving us an overview of the programme. She was well-placed to do so having not only her set experiences, but having also conducted an evaluation of the first phase of the programme.

The initial stimulus had been an organisational restructuring which signalled a need for the Personnel function to rethink their role. It was recognised that they needed to become what is usually termed ‘internal consultants’, though the term was not readily understood in Sainsbury’s. Whatever it might be called, if they were all to shift toward this type of role then there needed to be some learning. The SML mode was chosen as the means to do this because Judith Evans, Director of Personnel Policy, had been with British Airways when it was used for their high-flying Young Professional Programme.

The evaluation of the first phase showed “very positive benefits”. 74% felt the programme had helped in clarifying their role and 83% felt they had improved their level of competence. Nine general criteria had been identified against which participants and their line managers could evaluate the extent to which individuals had developed. The degree of movement on these nine criteria “indicates a very positive outcome to the programme overall”.

Highlighted as particularly valuable was the role played by the Learning Contract “which although difficult to put together, was seen as vital to the learning process.” On the minus side, the evaluation identified “the need for more support from the individuals’ line manager.”

Although the contribution of set members was widely appreciated, the response to set advisers was mixed, Though many were found to be “very effective” there was some wry embarrassment at having to say that some who weren’t were fairly senior people. The evaluation identified effective set advisers as being supportive and helpful yet challenging, while ineffective set advisers were not that engaged with the process, having a tendency to push their own agenda rather than that for participants’ learning.

We were able to hear more abut the set experience from the set advisers who were with us. One significant point was that they began as set advisers while only halfway through the life of their own sets. Being part of two sets was a heavy time commitment. Nonetheless, this was offset by the benefit in having their own set in which to talk through the challenges they were coming up against as new set advisers.

Judith Evans popped in to join us and give her comments on the programme. Later, chatting over tea, she said that the changes in the Personnel function had even been remarked upon by her fellow directors. As Ian mentioned, this is rather unusual. People are not given to being charitable about Personnel. It seems that it in some cases the changes were recognised more outside the function that within. Judith Evans had been amused to hear, during one individual’s performance review used to identify the participant’s development against the nine criteria, a line manager protesting that she had underestimated her own degree of development. Now, that has a familiar ring. It is all to commson for participants to be too close to see themselves clearly.

Graham Dawes