The following interview is with Dan Pontefract, the Senior Director of Learning and Collaboration at TELUS, a major provider of telecommunications products and services in Canada. TELUS spends 1 million dollars annually on tuition reimbursement for its employees. This year, the company expects approximately three percent of its employees to actually take advantage of it. In this interview, Pontefract explains how employee learning and development is managed at TELUS and how he thinks higher education institutions could shape themselves to better suit employer needs.
1. A recent research study found that, when it comes to employees taking advantage of tuition reimbursement, a participation rate of 10% was considered very high; this is evident in the participation numbers at TELUS. Why do you think so few employees take advantage of tuition reimbursement programs?
I’m not sure what recent research study that was, but I know that we look at tuition as really a full package within the environment and community of TELUS. So yes there’s external learning—which we coined external learning financial assistance (ELFA)—and then on top of that TELUS spends roughly $30 million on operating expenditure per year on its internal programs and those might be with various vendors that are academic partners as well.
Really, at the end of the day, TELUS has a community whereby employees are participating in learning in various different ways, of which a percentage of our portion goes to ELFA and we’re really proud of that investment. But in terms of commenting on why perhaps other employees aren’t taking advantage of it, it could be a range of issues; promotion opportunities for other organizations, employees not knowing the difference between what is considered an external learning opportunity versus an internal one. There are a myriad of different ways to crack the nut but that’s my first cut at that question.
2. What are the differences between the materials that are covered in an internal program and an external one? Does TELUS have more handle on the material that’s covered in an internal program?
We have roughly $30-odd million a year invested in our people, of which about a million of that is what we call external learning; that’s a team member applying through a formal process to take an MBA or a bachelor’s degree or specific courses at a community college or technical institute or university. That’s usually in participation with their manager who is going to have the career-development conversation with the individual on whether or not, based on the process we’ve developed, whether there’s merit there and ultimately if that makes sense for the purposes of that individual’s job inside of TELUS.
With the other $29-odd million that we invest in our people, that’s usually role-specific or future-role specific and that’s where we control the curricula. When I say control the curricula, I mean we’re developing learning paths that might be formal, informal or social in nature with the employee in mind. … That 97-odd percent of the budget going towards internal programs does not necessarily mean that we’re not using academic partners—in fact in Canada we have several academic partners across the country we use to help us offset some of our…development.
It’s just the delineation there is between an individual employee that would like to perhaps attain some sort of credential—and that’s what we consider the ELFA—versus what’s in-role or future-role development which is where we take a specific leadership message and building of that curricula for our employees.
3. Is the internal learning mandatory or is that also voluntary?
It sort of depends. As we like to say around here, “In-role development is a right, future-role development is earned.” Meaning, we as an organization provide all the necessary learning… for people to do their jobs. That’s our responsibility; we’ve taken a corporate oath if you will to ensure that our people are prepared to do their roles.
But when we’re talking about future roles, when we’re talking about the next step in an organization, we believe that’s earned. So when you’re thinking about “How do we reward TELUS team members for investing in them?”, which we may do through the avocation of ELFA program like an MBA or through pre-defined, pre-meditated learning paths that are for future-role opportunities, that’s when we will have career-development conversations with people and say either “You’re not ready yet,” or “You are ready and here’s a couple of paths that we might recommend for you.”
4. How does TELUS reward employees who complete accredited external programs? Do they have a better chance for raises or promotions?
We at TELUS don’t see it as binary. It’s not, “if you complete a program, there’s a promotion,” or “if you complete a program, there’s remuneration increase.”
We look at performance development much more holistically, meaning, sure, learning competencies and education upgrades are looked at and included in the holistic representation of an individual team member. It’s not a binary decision of, “Sally or Henry completed X course or X degree, ergo there is not a trigger in a process that suggests that she or he is going to be promoted or she or he is going to have extra remunerative pay.”
Performance development at TELUS is a much more holistic process in which learning is part of the equation, but there are other factors such as your objectives, your retention, your value to strategy and a bunch of other factors that we have in play.
5. Are there any changes employers could make in order to make continuing education a more enticing option for their employees? Especially given the lack of binary between completing education and moving forward.
I truly believe higher education plays a role in the development of employees in any organization. I think it’s foolish—and if not foolish it’s foolhardy—of a company like TELUS not to be partnering with institutions… to help us with our quest to become future-friendly and to create a very competitive culture.
If there’s any way in which to entice team members, it’s really more about ensuring that the organization is aware of what it is holistically we’re doing, from an in-role development and future-role development perspective, and making sure that people see the paths to apply for things like ELFA. We take that opportunity in much of our promotion and marketing of education of reminding people that the ELFA program does invest about a million dollars a year on our people. We’ve got a database of records that showcase where people have gone, what institutions they’ve been a part of, the number of unique people we may have helped, the number of programs or courses we’ve reimbursed. We make these data points available on something we call our Learning and Collaboration Analytics Dashboard.
I guess it’s sort of a case of Moneyball, where you’re surfacing the data for people to see and promoting that is a way which to also entice. So I think organizations could be less exclusive and less recluse in surfacing the data, let alone just promoting the opportunities that may be at their fingertips.
6. What about higher education institutions? What do you think they could do to make continuing education and ongoing learning more appealing to professionals?
On the whole I would say most Canadian-based higher education institutions are doing a pretty good job marketing their continuing study opportunities. …
I think two things need to happen, one of which is… these institutions need to become slightly better aligned. There are still fiefdoms and silos within the various faculties and if they want to present a unified case to a company like TELUS, it’s easier to manage a relationship when we’re thinking about the technology folks and sales and business folks and leadership folks, etc, we need more of a commonality in a go-to-market strategy of how we might partner with that organization to bring some of that customized curricula into a place like TELUS.
It’s just one avenue that they might focus on, that is unifying themselves and even finding better ways to customize.
The second bucket would be, I think there’s still a reticence to utilize informal and social learning opportunities in higher education. It’s inching towards an evolution but in essence it’s still a lot of classroom, instructor-led, face-to-face. TELUS as an example is an organization that believes learning leadership is part formal, part informal and social. I think higher education institutions need to see that as the new way in which learning happens—it’s continuous, it’s collaborative and it’s connected—and they need to fit in with that strategy as opposed to saying “You will come to our course.”
Depth inside of a subject matter expert-led course is very important, don’t get me wrong, and we’d like to tap into that higher education expertise, that goes without saying. But there is some enhancements that could be made in terms of how some of these education opportunities—whether they’re courses or bachelor’s or master’s degrees—can be offered such that TELUS team members don’t see a dissimilarity between what’s offered inside the organization as it might be when you’re at a local community college, university or institute.
7. Is there anything you’d like to add about how continuing education opportunities could see higher participation rates from employees?
I think it’s incumbent upon higher education to reach out and partner with organizations as opposed to “build-it-and-they-will-come” syndrome. I think that’s one step.
Offering perhaps customized bachelor’s or master’s programs for the working team member is slowly beginning to happen, and I like what I see in some of the higher education institutions out there but I think more could be done in that vein. Particularly when we’re referring to places where we can learn like edX, or MITx, or Coursera or Khan Academy, there’s a lot of neat, open-source learning that’s going on out there. I think we’re at an inflection point for higher education if they want to see their business increase as to what changes they might need to make ultimately to cater to the customer.
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