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'Unlearning' Makes Headlines at Reuters

July 24, 2007
As global head of learning for Reuters Group, Charles Jennings puts great stock in employee training. He just doesn’t care whether they remember everything they learn.

    It’s an unusual stance for a learning chief, especially considering that London-based Reuters budgets $30 million to $40 million a year on training and development. But Jennings is nothing if not provocative.

    Unlike many learning professionals, Jennings dismisses skills-based training as a "mistake," saying its approach is backward. Skills development may help employees execute tasks, he says, but it does little to cultivate the attitudes and behaviors needed to elevate their performance.

    Nor is he a big believer in the carrot-and-stick approach of dangling training to recruit and retain employees. He says he could not care less about learning.

    "What I am passionate about is performance," says Jennings, who joined Reuters’ executive team full time in 2001.

    Employees at Reuters are encouraged to "unlearn" what they know, rather than store every conceivable piece of information in their heads. Employees participate in learning through various methods, which may include creating user content, taking on stretch assignments and rotating to work on different project teams.

    "The unlearning concept revolves around employees finding the knowledge they need at the point they need it, so they can put it into action. But there isn’t a necessity for them to remember it, especially since the information may soon become outdated," Jennings says.

    Reuters’ learning strategy could face changes in coming months. In May, Reuters and Thomson Corp. announced plans to merge. The proposed $17.5 billion deal must clear regulatory hurdles, but if approved, the merger would create one of the largest financial news providers in the world. Jennings says it’s too soon to tell whether the merger might affect Reuters’ approach to training and development, but Jennings says the company is conducting "business as usual" while regulators pore over the details.

    Jennings first brought his iconoclastic thinking to Reuters as an independent paid consultant in 2001, charged with developing a companywide learning strategy. Six months into the assignment, he jokes of having a consultant’s worst nightmare: "They offered me the job to execute it."

    Since taking over, Jennings has pushed an aggressive training agenda to build competencies across Reuters’ workforce of nearly 17,000 employees, but particularly those working in its financial services division.

    Founded in 1857, Reuters is best known for providing wire stories and information to newspapers and media outlets around the world. Less well known is that Reuters also supplies software and technology services to global investment banks, brokerages, pension companies, insurers and related companies.

    In today’s fast-paced knowledge economy, that segment accounts for about 90 percent of Reuters’ annual revenue, which in 2006 topped $5 billion. Included among Reuters’ 1,000 customizable applications are trading platforms, live data feeds, stock charts and tools for compliance and risk management.

    To continuously deliver this breaking financial data and do it reliably, Reuters relies on sophisticated computer networks capable of updating data 22,000 times per second. Software developers and network engineers keep the technical wheels rolling.

    But when Jennings came aboard, Reuters had already been losing ground to Bloomberg Inc., its chief competitor and the largest provider of financial news. Several factors accounted for Reuters’ slide, including the burst of the dot-com bubble and the consolidation of currency brought about by the founding of the European Union.

    When Tom Glocer took over as CEO in 2001, becoming the first American to lead Reuters, he immediately emphasized training as the key to shore up deficient areas.

    "There was a realization that the knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviors all needed to be addressed," Jennings says. Even though Reuters has a very strong news brand, the company needed to focus on customers in its financial products division, he says.

    Chucking more formal training in favor of just-in-time approaches, Jennings champions a learning culture in which Reuters’ employees take greater responsibility for acquiring the knowledge they need to perform their jobs.

    Rather than pouring them full of required information, the media and communications giant has eliminated most classroom training and instead empowers its employees to seek out the dynamic business information they need only when they need it.

    For example, rather than attending vendor workshops to learn about new hardware and software upgrades, Reuters’ computer programmers gain knowledge through online tutorials, peer networking, user groups, books or white papers.

    This enables them to learn at their convenience and to apply knowledge as soon as they acquire it—not to mention freeing them from sitting in classes for days. As a result, technology staffers are learning new competencies that promise far greater value to the company, such as interacting directly with customers to anticipate their needs and engineering solutions for them.

    "We’ve got people dealing with very complex systems that have a rapid rate of change," Jennings says. "The traditional model of sending them through structured training just doesn’t hold up anymore."

    The Internet certainly has caused companies like Reuters to adjust their thinking about employee training. According to a 2006 report by McKinsey & Co., 70 percent of the jobs created in the U.S. during the past decade require employees to exercise accurate judgment. Those knowledge-based jobs also account for more than 40 percent of the U.S. labor market.

    Greater attention also is being paid to making sure training efforts support actual business needs, experts say. That often means using more versatile delivery mechanisms to reach employees.

    "When people have resources at their fingertips that match the way they prefer to learn, they are motivated to perform well," says John Ambrose, the vice president of strategy and emerging business for Skillsoft, an e-learning and performance-support company based in Nashua, New Hampshire.

    The evolution of Reuters from a buttoned-down bureaucracy is far from complete, but the company has changed its approach to employee development.

    In place of traditional learning metrics—number of training hours per employee, completion of required coursework or reuse of content—Reuters measures employee performance against business goals. Training that fails to directly support Reuters’ business objectives is being eliminated.

    Reuters embeds as much learning as possible within individual business units. A 13-member governance board composed of senior managers provides direction and guidance for corporate training along the way.

    Reuters is allocating its training resources to deliver 70 percent of knowledge informally; 20 percent through coaching, feedback and networking; and 10 percent through formal structures. That is in line with widely published research that suggests employees acquire most of their knowledge on the job. Estimates place the figure between 70 percent and 90 percent.

    Likewise, employees are being given a greater say in the types of training they want. Self-directed learning that pertains to a person’s job is the norm, not the exception.

    Employees and supervisors work up individual development plans based on specific annual objectives, with periodic measurement to ensure progress toward the goals.

    Using questionnaires and interviews with managers and employees, Reuters attempts to gather feedback on how its employees prefer to learn on the job and, more important, whether training has improved their workplace performance.

    "We do not run any program that doesn’t have a formal assessment of knowledge at the end of it. And we run quite a few programs in which we give people the option to demonstrate their knowledge," Jennings says.

    He says Reuters tends to "cherry-pick" examples of how training provides a direct return on investment. One such instance is in the company’s use of Skillsoft’s Books24x7 library, an online archive that provides full texts of computer programming and other technical books. References include user guides, code libraries and related books on how to prepare for technical-certification exams.

    About 4,000 users took advantage when Reuters piloted the program. Jennings says Reuters realized a productivity gain of about
2,000 percent, since programmers did not have to spend time thumbing through textbooks or attending workshops.

    Reuters tries to tie learning to employee development, but that sometimes makes for tough calls. When one employee recently expressed interest in pursuing an outside course in project management, the company declined to pay for it. The employee was interested in a course in project management using the Prince2 methodology, a trademarked technique developed by the Office of Government Commerce in the United Kingdom.

    Instead, the employee was encouraged to learn methodologies of the Newtown, Pennsylvania-based Project Management Institute, which Reuters prefers. The message was clear: "If you want to develop project management skills, we will support you and help you," Jennings says, "but you’ll do it against what our business priorities are."