From education to employment

Employer engagement success: culture vs strategy

Although the employer-responsive agenda has been around for many years, the need for an organisation-wide approach appears to be more acute than ever. The external drivers are well documented and significant. Changes to funding, government priorities, Area Reviews, pleas from the Skills Minister, devolution, the Apprenticeship Levy and general increases in competition and contestability have all struck at the heart of the skills sector, creating a renewed purpose.

The origin of this article came from our reflections on the common attributes shared by successful employer responsive providers. Our inquiry was founded on a commonly accepted formula for successful organisational change –  that it’s achieved through a combination of developing an appropriate culture, a solid strategy, and a focus on building internal capability.

However, we had noticed that – when looking to respond to external pressures or maximise opportunities – providers often defaulted to the comfort of strategy and policy as the ‘silver bullet’. Culture change and capability was sometimes seen as too difficult or long term – whereas a new business strategy might provide the solution alone.

Our proposition is that a focus on developing the right culture is every bit as important as developing the correct strategy to cope with the future. Or as expressed by Peter Drucker – “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” It’s our belief that that culture and capability should receive the necessary attention in order to deliver success with employers – strategy alone is not enough to lead to success.


Reducing Reliance On Strategy Alone

So why is developing ever more and newer business strategies often the favoured approach by organisations? It seems that developing a new strategy is often the first organisational response to an external pressure. In an industry so influenced by government policy, it may be that providers feel the need to counter threats by providing policies of their own as a kind of ‘antidote’. Of course, it’s comforting to have a strategy and a plan – it breeds confidence.

However, it’s often said that anyone can copy your strategy, but no one can copy your culture. An over-focus on getting the strategy right can leave things unbalanced. No matter how good the business strategy is, if the organisational culture isn’t right then it it likely to fail – and we wondered why this happens so frequently. (It will probably not stretch you to think of a 3-year strategy that has failed 6 months in, or was never reviewed or monitored to check progress against the end goal). Reliance on strategy alone can put you on the reactive back foot – with plans proliferating to meet every conceivable external challenge and opportunity. There will always be something new to deal with, and organisations need to find a sustainable way to build in flexibility and resilience.


Culture: What Is It, And Why Is It Sometimes Overlooked?

Our earlier proposition was that culture development (including building staff capability) is as important as strategy, but often overlooked. It’s not an overnight task, and requires investment, risk and commitment – difficult in straitened times with reduced budgets and increasingly short lead times to deliver results. Developing an employer-responsive culture may take a period of months or years. However, for the most successful providers it’s a commitment that pays huge dividends. We believe that creating a flexible and adaptable workforce establishes the environment to cope with change and opportunity – one that strategy alone cannot. Developing permanent attributes such as competitiveness, enterprise, resilience, creativity and positivity into the corporate personality will enable faster change – and is an essential prerequisite for future-proofing and success. Our recommendation is not to put it into the drawer marked ‘too difficult’ – every step towards a desired culture will deliver positive results.

The FE and skills sector is often encouraged (or instructed) to develop a more ‘commercial culture’. But what does that mean? A simple definition of culture is just ‘how we do things around here’. Classically, culture may be defined by the approach to the following aspects:

  • Behaviours: Which do you promote, recognise, reward or performance manage?
  • Values: Three or more meaningful values that typify your attitudes to learners and employers, values that everyone within the organisation can buy into.
  • Relationships: How do you communicate with each other and the external world? What is preferred, and what is not acceptable?
  • Attitudes: What are employees’ attitudes to challenges, change and opportunity? How do you infect the organisation with positive attitudes that drive success?
  • Environment: What does it look and feel like to work there?

Your individual approach to these otherwise generic concepts defines the unique recipe that comprises your organisations personality. In turn, the culture you create and maintain defines part of your competitive advantage.

Five Cultural Characteristics of Employer-Responsive Providers

In our work, we have focused on some common characteristics that typify successful organisations in this space. Successful providers normally have the following elements in common, and it may be useful to consider these objectives:

  1. Create a shared vision for Employer Engagement. Developing a clear (and easily communicated) vision and purpose for your employer business, one that connects everyone working across the organisation, is essential.
  2. Define ‘preferred’ values, behaviours and attitudes. This helps define your corporate culture and your brand – it’s part of what makes you different in your approach.
  3. Involve the whole organisation. The two objectives above should not be created in a laboratory by the senior team. They should be constructed and policed by the whole workforce, to ensure commitment and a genuine reflection of your own capabilities and aims.
  4. Publicise and share the ‘magic numbers’. There may be four or five key metrics that are important for you all to achieve as an organisation. For example, revenue, contribution rates, success rates, operating surplus, number of employer customers. Every should know these headline targets, and importantly – how you are progressing against these at every stage.
  5. Celebrate success (and failures!). Successes need to be publicised internally and externally, binding colleagues together in successful joint enterprise. An element of measured risk is necessary for growth. If there are no failures, there is no risk – and therefore few significant wins.

Building an employer-focused culture is vital. It will help providers to be less reactive and vulnerable to whimsical government and market changes, taking greater control over their own futures. Whilst many of the aspects are well recorded and familiar, creating your own unique recipe will help you to differentiate the organisation from competitors. It’s a reasonable commitment, but it needs to start somewhere.

FE Business is the market leader in employer engagement consultancy, training and recruitment, and we have worked with over 40 colleges and training providers in the last 18 months, supporting them to grow and diversify through developing effective business models, change management, commercial skills and culture.

If you would like an informal chat about how FE Business can work with you to find practical solutions to developing employer engagement growth and effectiveness, please contact us at [email protected]


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