INTERNAL COMMS: Empowering people - Making staff comfortable with the concept of responsibility for career development is an internal communications challenge. Ben Bold looks at how corporate UK is handling the issue

Training is an ongoing process and communicating this to staff often falls to the internal communications department. But telling employees that they themselves are responsible for their own career development requires a particularly sensitive touch.

On the one hand, the message is one of empowerment but, if it is not communicated appropriately, it can appear as a threat to job security. As Andraea Dawson-Shepherd, director at internal communications agency Hedron, says: 'Now the job for life has gone it's a question of making the workforce more mobilised'.

In February, the then-Minister for Adult Skills John Healey launched a Government-funded initiative called the Matrix Standard. It is run by the Guidance Council, the national body for organisations in the UK concerned with information, advice and guidance (IAG) about learning and work. At the launch, the Standard received endorsement from Confederation of British Industry deputy director-general John Cridland.

The Matrix is an enhancement of schemes such as Investors in People, and previous standards set by the Guidance Council. It aims to get companies and organisations to seek accreditation for their provision of IAG to help staff develop their careers. It's a benchmarking tool that only forms half the story. The rest is about how it is communicated.

Internal comms is of paramount importance to a company that wishes to qualify for the Matrix Standard. The scheme's principles of information, advice and guidance are best handled as communications issues say human resources and internal comms managers, and the positioning of this and other career development issues needs careful internal communication.

For schemes that offer staff opportunities to improve their skills, internal communications must ensure messages are consistent with delivery and, also, that staff are made aware that training is beneficial to both themselves and the company.

Karen Drury, a partner at brand consultancy Fe3 Consulting, comments on the Matrix Standard: 'The Standard provides some sensible pointers, but what is important is ensuring people know where to get the service, how to access it, what responsibility they have in the process, and so on.

'It is not just that organisations communicate about it - it's the way they communicate it. For example, if people are looking to improve literary skills, how will this be communicated? Not, presumably, by using printed materials,' she adds.

The Matrix website (www.guidancecouncil.com/matrix) outlines the ten principles of the scheme. At the core of this is communication - how are you telling staff about what's available to them? Each of the ten principles has a set of criteria that must be met in order to qualify - they refer to the 'service' that the company provides, meaning the provision of information, advice and guidance.

The principles are broken down into two halves. The first five concern the delivery of the service elements: that people are made aware of the service; that people understand its nature; that their use of the service is agreed; that they have access to information relevant to the service; and that people are supported in exploring other options.

The remaining five principles concern management of the service elements: that delivery of the service is planned and maintained; that premises and equipment are sufficient to deliver the service; that those staff responsible for providing the service are competent and sufficiently supported; that feedback on the service is obtained; and that continuous improvement is sought through constant monitoring of its effectiveness. All of the above are intrinsically comms issues - if a company gains accreditation it has met the required standards of communication.

As with similar initiatives, the Matrix Standard is broad in its definition.

So, what's the message that internal communications must convey? 'If you say you want people to have a good business sense, that we'll make training available and support you in that, what's needed is transparency and honesty and a mature positioning,' says Dawson-Shepherd.

Joint MD of internal communications consultancy Item, and national chairman of the British Association of Communicators in Business, Alison Crossley agrees. 'It's about winning people's hearts and minds - if you can show what it can do for staff, in increasing job satisfaction and providing opportunities to do different things, then you can increase employee loyalty,' she says.

Two very different companies, which have embraced the scheme and are seeking accreditation, provide an illustration of the way companies are using such schemes to ensure their staff know where they stand.

PPG Industries is a US-based fibre-glass manufacturer with plants in the north-west of England, employing more than 500 staff. PPG contract training manager Silka Lyon-Fraser says the Matrix Standard enables the company to benchmark the first step in empowering staff - the provision of information, advice and guidance.

PPG already has an onsite facility called the Learning Room, which provides courses for people in a sector that attracts a high percentage without educational or professional qualifications. Employees are informed of what the Learning Room offers in their pre-shift briefings and in their team brief sheets, which contain articles on the theme of learning and development.

Lyon-Fraser says the company is aiming to get accreditation 'some time this summer'. Although it is the HR department that implements the Standard, the success of the programme depends on how it is communicated. Lyon-Fraser says the Matrix Standard allows the company to ensure it is communicating its educational services effectively.

'We believe that it's important that we benchmark ourselves in the context of IAG. Perhaps in the past we have focused more on the delivery of development activities rather than on the crucial first stage of advice and guidance,' she says.

Courses - funded by PPG - are run outside of employee shifts and include sessions on IT and aromatherapy. The Matrix Standard, itself, hasn't meant that PPG has changed its employee services, just that it is looking closer at the way it provides information.

'The Standard focuses on advice and guidance rather than delivery,' Lyon-Fraser says.

Lloyds TSB is also using the Matrix Standard on a trial basis. The company has already passed the Guidance Council's previous incarnation of the Matrix Standard, the National Quality Standards for Learning at Work.

Internal communication is a priority to Lloyds TSB, says HR manager of career management Angie Charles. She says a 1999 staff survey revealed that 70 per cent of Lloyds TSB's 70,000 workforce were dissatisfied with their career opportunities. As a result of that finding, in 2000 the company developed a career management strategy.

'(Its aim) was to provide IAG to all and to create an environment where everyone can learn and talent can emerge,' Charles says.

A corporate career management intranet was launched, a series of presentations was held across the company's business units, explaining to staff what the service offers. An advice and guidance call-centre was also set up.

Lloyds TSB's 2001 staff survey revealed that 60 per cent of staff were satisfied with their career opportunities. 'We'd like to get that to 70 to 80 per cent,' says Charles. Of the people who have used the service in 2001, research showed that 78 per cent of them had their career management expectations met.

Charles says that communications is essential in driving awareness of the bank's training scheme throughout the whole company. Once the core message is disseminated, then it is up to line managers to ensure their staff are fully aware of the scheme.

Fear for job security is a given in the current environment, therefore internal communications must highlight that career development undermines the basis of that fear.

As Edelman PR Worldwide joint MD Stuart Smith says: 'The message to employees should be that this is really important to you individually.

We want you to become the best skilled workforce while increasing your employability.' Communicating that message is the first step for companies serious about upgrading employee skills.

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