Profile: Niall Gavin, head of HR and learning technologies, FirstGroup

Niall Gavin joined First Group seven years ago as IT training manager. That was a new role. Fast forward seven years and he finds himself in a much changed organisation and getting to grips with his most recent promotion.

When Gavin joined the company it provided train and bus services in the UK and also ran a coach business, with a small presence in North America, mostly in ‘Yellow Bus’ student transport. Each part of the business had its own business model – for example the trains were franchised and First Group owned the buses.

‘The IT Training Department was expected  to service the learning requirements that were coming out of the organisational learning strategy. But, with no budget or resources, I spent the first year working within the IT department and their staff, making sure there was an appraisal process and that people who needed certain skills and qualifications, such as Prince project management skills, got them,’ says Gavin.

Out of an IT change programme, he got a new boss and some resource – a couple of trainers. With a dispersed workforce he made sure they did not get involved in delivering Microsoft Office type training. Instead he focused on where they could make a difference – supporting IT projects.

As it became too expensive to send trainers off around the country to deliver training, he started to look at newer technologies for delivery such as videoconferencing and elearning. That led him to consider how the organisation could address the same learning needs with the same content but delivered in different ways.

Two years ago he was head hunted out of IT and into HR and is now reporting to the group director of HR, sitting alongside the head of employee engagement, head of talent development and head of resourcing on the management team. Last year he became head of HR and learning technologies.

The learning challenges at First Group
Gavin’s ascent through the organisation has come during a challenging time for the business as it moved to providing deregulated public transport services with a commercial imperative – in other words, public services with commercial value.

The organisation had a traditional expectation of what learning looked like – a cost. This has made it challenging to get buy-in to do interesting and new things, which meant Gavin and his team had to challenge perceptions and show that things could be done differently.

A more commercially minded senior management team has brought with it an interest in how to be innovative and for the first time Gavin will be able to invest in learning. The challenge now is to add value.

‘We demonstrated what we could do with nothing and had success. Now it is about taking a leap of faith and really getting into it and showing what can be done.’

His priorities are developing a new global employee portal and reviewing global elearning, And with only 25% of the 120,000+ staff globally based in an office, he will be looking at multi-channel delivery. This will include virtual classrooms and mobile delivery too.

‘We are not ready to go from formal to informal learning just yet. We have to blend in the informal approach and track the impact. We need to get learning seen as a benefit which provides value to the business.’

Gavin says the intranet and collaborative technology will play a part and that he hopes he will be able to demonstrate the potential of the technology and show there are communities of practice in the business that are benefitting from it.

‘The employee portal provides us with opportunity to be more collaborative. It is up to us to find the groups who are likely to engage around more collaborative tools.’

First Group is also trying out Windows 8 enabled devices. In asset management , for example, colleagues are using handsets to scan barcodes and Gavin’s team is  putting video clips into that process, making the learning content more personal to the person and their handset.

He says this is an experiment but sees mobile as an opportunity to try something new. ‘If we can demonstrate what’s possible then we can share the success.’

In seven years, Gavin’s approach of making the most of what’s available has been rewarded with more responsibility and resource. But he still sees his role as working with the business to demonstrate the value of technology and to spread the word.

‘It’s not all about the tools,’ he says. ‘It is also about shifting mentality from command and control to a more open and flexible approach. It’s about culture and reassurance and showing what collaborative technology can do.’

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