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  1. Analysis
September 2, 2010

Accelerated Learning

Those entering the oil and gas industry stand to rise further faster than ever before. This demands accelerated learning programmes and an ability to retain as well as attract talent. Lawrence Pope, Halliburton’s vice-president of administration and chief human resources officer, tells Phin Foster why any successful strategy must empower employees to control their own destinies.

By Lawrence Pope

There are no magic formulas when it comes to retaining and motivating one’s workforce, but that does not prevent those responsible trying to simplify things. Lawrence Pope blames his background in economics for compelling him to frame an answer in the form of an equation and the executive vice-president of administration and chief human resources officer for Halliburton is adamant that such clarity of vision lies at the very heart of any successful strategy.

“Employee competency plus employee engagement equals employee performance,” he declares. “Employee performance is what enables a company’s business strategy, so it comes down to how you accelerate those two essential factors. Training and development are vital components in coming up with an answer.”

Learning programmes are therefore a fundamental ingredient but, when you’re talking about an organisation with 52,500 people spread across some 70 countries, merely committing to such an agenda will never be enough; it needs focus and constant refinement.

“One of the classic mistakes a lot of organisations make when there are performance issues is that their immediate fallback position is to simply to opt for more training,” Pope explains. “But that doesn’t get to the crux of why there is a performance issue in the first place – perhaps it is the training itself. There are specific competencies an individual needs to possess and demonstrate in a role to be successful.

“The holy grail is compressing the curriculum without reducing quality: leveraging technology, enabling people to seize control of their careers and accelerate faster.”

“Our starting point is looking at all the roles within the company and defining those competencies that are deemed critical to yield better performance. We’ve customised our training programmes to focus on those essentials and sought to remove any superfluous items that add no real value. The holy grail is compressing the curriculum without reducing quality: leveraging technology, enabling people to seize control of their careers and accelerate faster.”

This final aspiration is driven as much by historical legacy as staff engagement. Pope refers to “a bi-modal distribution of demographics” – another indication of his former posting as director of finance and administration for Halliburton’s Drilling and Formation Evaluation division, perhaps – as the biggest challenge facing the oil and gas sector from a learning and development standpoint. Human resources has a vital role in finding answers.

“A large contingency of the employee population are in the latter stages of their career and a large contingency somewhere near the beginning,” he explains. “The problem we see is a large gap in the middle. Go back a decade, when the sector as a whole was struggling due to external macro-economic conditions. A lot of ‘right-sizing’ was going on and many industry players suspended hiring programmes. People were released but very little new talent was brought in.”

The fast track

The talent gap has posed fundamental questions concerning the retention, transference and acceleration of knowledge. Individuals entering the business stand to rise through its ranks faster than ever before. While this places great pressure upon development programmes that are both speedy and comprehensive, Pope acknowledges that it can also be leveraged as a great recruiting tool.

“Oh it’s absolutely a selling point,” he agrees. “New college entry personnel, particularly those with technical undergraduate degrees who display leadership qualities, have the ability to progress at speed and gain responsibility in roles where they’ll be leading people and projects much sooner than they could have ever imagined.”

The challenge of getting people’s competencies up to speed is clear, but one could argue that this makes employee engagement less of a struggle. With the promise of accelerated career progression there for those willing to seize it, the sector can more easily navigate the pitfalls that ensnare other industries.

“So many people focus on money as the key driver,” begins Pope. “But for me that is not the answer. You have to have a great place to work, colleagues you admire, a sense of team and, most importantly, an organisation where individuals can learn and develop themselves. When you look at the way we need to develop talent, I believe that that is something you will find here.”

But tackling this successfully involves placing one’s human resources department at the very heart of the organisation. Pope acknowledges that he and his team do not have the technical expertise to proceed alone and this demands a great degree of collaboration across the company.

“You’ve got to have an HR function that has moved beyond the traditional administrative and policing role to become a valued business partner,” he explains. “What you’re ultimately trying to do is solve business issues and increase business performance. HR needs to have an extremely close working relationship with all individuals within the organisation that possess the requisite knowledge to develop those effective competency models and develop a curriculum guaranteed to accelerate development.”

Fieldwork

Employees average around 65 hours of training a year and Pope describes the structure within which this takes place using an analogy that any one of his recent graduate recruits would recognise. He compares Halliburton to a university, below which one finds a number of colleges – “directional drilling, cementing, fracturing and so on”. Each of these contains its own HR professionals as well as an advisory board comprising senior level technical expertise from the appropriate field.

“We work very hard making sure that our supervisors and managers have the requisite skills and competencies so that they can manage people as well as meet operational requirements.”

The company’s 12 training centres he cites as campuses, bricks and mortar containing classrooms, test wells and other face-to-face learning opportunities. The centres’ facility managers report directly to a global training and development organisation and below them are the technical instructors. Halliburton also boasts a home-grown system, i-Learn, which hosts curricula of courses that can be taken online and tracks employee progress and qualifications. When it comes to emphasis upon ongoing professional development, nobody is exempt.

“Sure, I am required to take courses on a periodic basis,” Pope reveals enthusiastically. “There are also voluntary programmes I take to advance my own career. It starts at the very top of the business and goes all the way down to entry level. It’s a mature system that has been customised to meet the needs of our business and has been constantly updated over time.”

Such an ability for management and employees to both request and track progress makes it difficult for anyone to fall through the gaps, but that does not prevent other problems arising. Pope cites disliking one’s boss and a perceived lack of career development opportunities as the two main factors in leaving an organisation and both issues are at least partially addressed by learning programmes.

“The replacement cost of individuals is astronomical,” he says. “We work very hard making sure that our supervisors and managers have the requisite skills and competencies so that they can manage people as well as meet operational requirements.

“A lot of effort has also been invested providing employees with career roadmaps. We’ve a system, Metro, that looks a little like a London tube network. You pick the point where you are at today and can instantly see the various paths that are open to you. At each stop you can drill down and see the core competencies required and the training interventions involved in acquiring them. That may be an i-Learn course, face-to-face or on the job training, but it paints a clear picture that allows people to control their own destiny.”

This sense of ownership is a theme Pope returns to time and again. Despite a lack of magic formulas, there are certainly a great number of simple truths.

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