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Onboarding

This post was written by Steve Ash and first appeared on the LINE blog on 20th February 2013.

Recently, a group of inductees completed their onboarding programme at a large, well-known pharmaceutical organisation. The company owns a number of iconic brands and understanding these brands, their target markets, product ranges and segmentation is a key part of what makes an employee successful and able to contribute to organisational goals. LINE was commissioned to redesign the onboarding programme, specifically to counter the failure of the existing programme to effectively tackle these issues.

As part of the work that we did, we sought to establish the characteristics that the organisation required from its employees – those things that would help reduce time-to-competence, increase levels of engagement and help them to understand and fit into the culture of the organisation quickly. One of the commercial drivers for redesigning the onboarding programme was that rate of attrition amongst new recruits was very high and this represented a serious financial drain for the company.

We established that the main reason that new hires were leaving the organisation was that, on completion of the old onboarding programme, recruits felt ill-equipped to operate in the high pressure, highly networked culture of the business. The new programme focused on ‘learning the culture by behaving the culture’ and provided the conditions through which this could happen.

The ‘Discover Programme’ removed much of the passive information transfer that formed such a core part of its predecessor. It is more exploratory, more experiential and requires far more initiative and emotional energy from the inductees than had previously been the case. One of the highlights of the new programme is a day where the new recruits work in teams both at the company’s London Head Office, and on site in retail environments in Londons’ West End.

The brief is two-fold. Each team sets out to research one of the organisations’ brands. They do this internally, making as much use as possible of the personal networks that they are encouraged to develop and also externally, looking at the brands in the retail environment and interviewing real customers. On completion, each team creates a presentation and an ‘experience’ which they give to the whole induction cohort, and although they are not warned in advance, these presentations and ‘experiences’ are attended by the Brand Managers themselves.

The use of the word ‘experience’ as well as presentation is critical. The organisation is intensely creative and to make a mark, individuals need to be able to express their own creativity in a powerful way. Using the material collected during the research phase – including photography, video, printwork, slides, artwork, etc. – the teams create experiences for their audiences ranging from businesslike to theatrical, from comedy to drama. The Brand Managers help to fill in any gaps and answer questions at the end of the session. It’s a highly memorable and often emotional moment and the first time that the new employee will have had to embody the culture they are now part of by their own behaviour.

Last year BA acquired BMI and as a result several thousand BMI employees were transferred across into the BA team. To help prepare them for the transfer, LINE developed an online portal which could be accessed by BMI employees prior to them joining BA. The portal was designed to help address any anxieties that might exist about moving to BA and to present a warm and welcoming introduction to the organisation. It formed a key part of the onboarding programme for BMI employees and was hugely successful. It presents information in a user-friendly manner with a carefully judged tone of voice designed to connect at an emotional level. It is exploratory by its very nature and contains a number of fun elements amongst more tactical information. The use of storytelling as a means of transmitting learning was a key reason for the success of the Portal.

Portals have been described as ‘the new bespoke e-learning’ and there is some truth in this notion. BP commissioned LINE to design and develop a world class, polished onboarding experience for their leadership and management inductees. We created a welcoming portal of resources designed to inspire them to productively manage their first four months in the organisation. The journey takes new employees from their first day at BP through to the end of their induction period of four months, with all resources available beyond that if needed. This online learning experience allows learners to take control of their induction as part of an ongoing process rather than a single instance. Once again, storytelling is used to great effect.

The new BP programme has been rolled out globally to 30,000 employees across 80 countries, with 10,000 employees going through the portal within the first three months of launching. Additional phases, including an end-to-end business simulation game are also planned for release this year.

In all three of these examples, the organisations involved saw onboarding as more than simply a transactional, passive process. Inductee-led exploration forms a key element in the design of each of the programmes. This focus on engaging the new recruit actively helps to better prepare them for the world of work that they are about to enter, both culturally and tactically. It provides a basis for them to explore the values of the organisation and to meld these with their own internal values. It allows them to connect at an emotional level – a critical opportunity for organisations to grasp, particularly in a working world which increasingly relies on the discretionary effort that employees will contribute (if they choose to do so) to achieve commercial success.

This approach is often as challenging for the tutor/manager as it is for the employee. They take on much more of the role of coach or facilitator rather than teacher. Organisations need to acknowledge and deal with this change of role, ensuring appropriate levels of support and development for those in charge of new recruits.

Creative blending of learner interventions is another feature of the three programmes, each of which uses technology in different ways. For our pharmaceutical client, technology is used as a vehicle for inductees to express creativity for the presentations and experiences that they have to design and deliver. At BA it was used to reach a large group of people prior to them formally joining the organisation to ease the journey from one organisational structure and culture into another. And at BP, the highly sophisticated blend of technologies (together with a host of non-technological interventions) created a journey which supports the inductee through their first months with the company. The technology enabled elements of the programme include social media, e-learning, gaming (business simulation), portals, digital communications, scenarios, checklists, videos and downloadable fact sheets.

With so many technological options to choose from it’s essential to ensure that the choices made add to and enhance the learner experience. It’s also critical that these are presented in a coherent way to the learner, to provide a journey that is seamless and meaningful. Of equal importance is that the technologies are connected in such a way that the organisation can obtain management information from them in a comprehensive manner. LINE has pioneered the concept of learning architectures and this is an essential backbone to complex blended programmes such as the BP example.

One of the key things that using technology in onboarding programmes brings to the table is the ability to deliver consistency at scale and, if required, in multiple language variants. Where this is a requirement, technology also supports the localisation of content where necessary.

All three programmes also take advantage of the power of storytelling. It’s basic human instinct to respond to and learn from stories. Books, theatre, films, podcasts, etc. touch us all in a range of ways including at an emotional level. Stories (or scenarios or games) can help provide context around organisational procedures and values. Used well, they are particularly effective at embedding behaviour change or, in the case of onboarding, helping to ensure that the new employee fully understands what an organisation’s values mean in practical terms. From simple ‘A day in the life of…’ video clips to gaming, storylines can help to make emotional connections between people and the themes contained in the narrative. These can be powerful motivators and have proven to be highly effective as part of an overall onboarding experience.

My colleague Ed Lines wrote a blog piece on onboarding late last year. In it he cites research from Bersin & Associates which states that 90% of employees make a decision to stay within the first 6 months. In addition, the research found that:

  • full productivity takes time and support: on average, 6 months for more senior roles
  • failure is costly: an unsuccessful transition costs companies 1.5 to 5 times annual salary

This latter point is important, not just from a financial point of view but also because not everyone who is disengaged during the transitional phase will leave. Many will stay and remain disengaged and be in high-risk positions, putting in jeopardy people’s safety and the company’s integrity and business.

In the Towards Maturity 2012 Benchmark Survey 90% of respondents claim that they are seeking to improve their onboarding programmes with learning technologies (but only 46% actually use them right now for this purpose). This is an interesting metric and there will be many drivers behind the desire for improvement in the existing programmes. Whilst I’ve drawn out some common themes from the three programmes I’ve chosen to cite, each is actually a highly individual programme, tailored to the specific needs of the organisation. The ‘one size fits all’ approach simply doesn’t work for onboarding. What’s required is a critical look at what the organisation is trying to achieve from its onboarding programme. Once this is understood in depth, the next step involves creating the optimal mix of interventions that will create the specific learner journey to provide the result that the organisation seeks.

In summary, effective onboarding is an essential element in the journey of an employee becoming a fully competent and fully productive member of an organisation. Research undertaken by the CIPD and Kingston Business School confirms that emotionally engaged employees perform better and are more likely to be retained by the organisations that they work for. Onboarding provides the perfect vehicle to begin this emotional connection, but it is not enough on its own. A recent blog post that I read defined emotional engagement as “The good of the employee and the good of the organisation, in tandem”. This is a powerful and elegant definition and suggests that engagement itself is more of a journey than a single event such as the result of an employee satisfaction survey or indeed an onboarding programme. The research also supports the view that the role of management and leadership is critical to securing this engagement, and it is this ‘buy in’ which will drive the discretionary effort that so many organisations need in order to succeed.