Alex Dawson - University of East Anglia

"I think good L&D is about experience design and we can learn a great deal from the master storytellers and the structures and tools they use to delight and move their audiences."

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For the latest in the series, we sat down for a fascinating and insightful chat with Alex Dawson, Organisational Development Partner at University of East Anglia - a world leading research institution based in Norwich, England and renowned for student experience.

We learnt about Alex’s varied L&D career to date (one that spans a number of different industries and work cultures including pharmaceutical, not-for-profit and consulting) as well as founding his own successful training consultancy.

Alex explains how his passion for football has played an influential role in his professional life, his views on the metaverse, and why the L&D community must collaborate to successfully overcome the challenges of the pandemic. Plus, why you can never ask too many questions…

We also learn who Alex looks to for inspiration as a self-described ‘incurable nerd’, why he’s enjoying a podcast that dissects the key cultural moments of his formative decade, and why having a good laugh with his family, as well as some precious thinking time, is essential fuel for his working day.

Alex Dawson - University of East Anglia

It’s great to talk to you, Alex. Please tell us a little about the University of East Anglia.

Hello! I see an optimistic and forward-thinking community of students, academics and staff, nestled on a beautiful campus in a very Fine City. It’s a great place to work.

In a nutshell, what are your key responsibilities in your role as Organisational Development Partner?

I’m here to support (and challenge) individuals and teams in discovering how they can learn and work better together, for the benefit of an institution that is experiencing rapid change.

Where and how did you start your career in L&D? Were there any key roles along the way?

After university I half-heartedly applied for a few graduate schemes, but I didn’t have a strong idea of what I wanted to do.

I found myself temping for a big pharmaceutical firm in the London Docklands, doing a job I didn’t really understand. By chance, I was sat next to the HR office and would watch that team come and go. I liked the fact that they seemed to be interacting with everyone else in the organisation, so I approached their newly appointed L&D Manager and asked him for some advice on how to get to where he was sitting. He told me to get a Training Administrator job and then study for my first CIPD qualification. I followed his advice.

I was drawn to L&D, rather than core HR, due to football. I had played for my university club and became involved with coaching after graduating. Football coaching was my introduction to the array of mindsets, tools and approaches you need to help people develop.

This far, I’ve been lucky to enjoy a really varied and interesting career doing something I still feel very passionate about. Every role has given me something different, but the ten years I spent split between Breast Cancer Care (now merged with Breast Cancer Now) and PA Consulting were fundamental.

At Breast Cancer Care, I worked within a close-knit and hard-working HR team, led by a great manager and supporting an organisation with an amazing spirit and sense of purpose. I was given the chance to develop the skills and gain the experience needed to be able to design, deliver and coach. That’s our equivalent of singing, dancing, and acting — the triple threat! If you can do all three to a good level, you can get paid and build a career.

Moving to PA Consulting was a culture shock and I lost the sense of purpose and togetherness that I’d enjoyed at Breast Cancer Care. However, I’d joined an organisation that had a really enlightened attitude to learning and was prepared to back it up with resources.

I joined a big L&D team, which gave me the chance to collaborate with people who shared my passions and come up with some really innovative and impactful solutions.

How do you keep your skills fresh and ensure you focus on your own learning as well as others’?

I’m not someone who keeps their CPD rigorously updated on a weekly, monthly or even yearly basis. I’ve had the opportunity to have had semi-regular doses of proper study and qualifications, but that pattern took a hit in recent years through needing to concentrate on our children. I’ll be taking a new qualification in Organisational Development practice later this year, which I’m really looking forward to.

What I do well is keep an eye on the bigger picture. I like picking up bits and pieces from a wide range of sources and trying to get a feel for what the future trends are - the ones that will end up impacting on the organisation that I work for.

I’m not passionate about technology for the sake of technology, but I subscribe to Wired magazine because it always provides a perspective on what happens when technology collides with humans.

What’s been your most memorable career ‘up’, and ‘down’? Why, and what did you learn from them?

I spent five years as a freelancer and I will never forget the buzz from making my first sale. There’s always the fear when you set out on your own that the market won’t place enough importance on your skills and experience to ensure you can get paid, so that was a big moment.

That piece of work was also memorable for another reason. It was a two-day programme that involved actors, external experts, and a detailed simulation. It took a lot of crafting. But, it landed perfectly and I will never forget the feeling in the room at the very end, when trainers and delegates shared their reflections. I felt a tangible electricity in that room. I’ve really missed that feeling over the last couple of years!

I suppose that what I learnt from this is that there is inherent value in what we do. Humans have a desire to connect, with themselves, with ideas and with each other. If you can facilitate that connection, you have value — and you should get paid for it.

And in terms of downs, redundancy is the big one! That happened fairly early in my career and I bounced back very quickly. The early opportunity to build some resilience has proven very useful. It creates a little bit of extra courage. This is the reality of our industry though, we’re an overhead. No matter how hard you work to make yourself invaluable, no matter how connected you are to an organisation, you always have to keep half an eye on what’s next.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start a career in L&D or to progress further?

Listen, listen, and listen. Ask very simple and open questions, listen to the responses and then ask another question. Fight the desire to show off your expertise and knowledge by offering a quick solution. Build the solution together.

Coaching gave me the chance to practice these kinds of ‘scoping’ skills and they are the bedrock of my working life. If you’re someone who has the ability to have a rich conversation with anyone in an organisation, you will always be appreciated.

Also, keep working on your design skills. Good learning design is not about what you put in, but what you strip out. As a good friend once told me, ‘it’s in the spaces where the magic happens’.

How has the current pandemic impacted the University of East Anglia, its work, and/or your role in particular?

It’s impacted us in all the ways you would expect and that we are all familiar with. There is a deep fatigue, and it’s going to be a while before we really understand the full breadth of the impact.

On the positive side, there’s obviously been a shared resilience and there’s also a growing appetite for change. On an individual level, I think more and more people are examining and investigating their relationship with work (that is a privilege that not everyone in the country shared though) and at a team and organisational level, there’s a burgeoning understanding that a lot of traditional ways of working need to change — and change fast. That’s exciting!

On a personal level, I’ve really enjoyed seeing what’s possible in a remote setting. It confirmed my belief that if you use a strong narrative in your design, you can bring people together, make them feel connected and create the energy that helps carry them through a shared programme. It’s also cheaper!

How do you think the L&D industry will need to adapt and flex to overcome the challenges?

I have an inbuilt cynicism towards the industry. I think the community needs to adapt and flex by coming together. To lean on one another, and to help each other cut through the buzz generated by the thousands of thought leaders and learning tech providers, working out which tools will work for their specific audiences. Let’s be pragmatic and keep it simple.

With the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, what are your views on returning to face-to-face training?

Not everyone is going to feel ready to return to the classic ‘training room’ set-up too soon. So let’s tread carefully.

Hybrid sessions are possible, but will need to be designed with a great deal of care and attention. We always need to be asking ourselves what the rationale is for bringing people together in the same space. What can be done remotely? If we are bringing people together, it has to be special and it has to be a real experience that creates shared energy and connection. Otherwise, it just won’t be worth any additional anxiety that it might be causing.

I also think we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the classic meeting space when thinking about bringing people together. We can use our urban and rural landscapes to create new learning spaces. Can we have this coaching session on a walk round the lake? Could we run this workshop in the park? Yes, we can.

Are you making plans for in-person training or will the changes brought on by the pandemic linger on, with virtual training becoming the ‘new normal’?

We’ll be doing it on a case-by-case basis. Some teams are ready to go. Others aren’t there yet. I have no idea what the ‘new normal’ is yet, but I think the organisations who will do this well are the ones who establish a culture where learning is shared across teams, instead of focusing solely on individual needs.

Are you and other senior leaders asking for training plans to be scaled back or realigned, as a result of the pandemic?

Budget is tight but demand from teams (to help them change and to adapt) is high. There’s no shortage of work to be done!

Who do you look up to or reach out to for inspiration — either in the L&D industry, your networks or in general — and why?

I’m an incurable nerd and I think I’m more likely to be inspired by listening to the score from a Star Wars trailer or thinking about how JK Rowling structured the Harry Potter plot than reading something from an L&D expert.

I think good L&D is about experience design and we can learn a great deal from the master storytellers and the structures and tools they use to delight and move their audiences.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given and why has it remained with you?

I worked with a very wise and benevolent colleague at PA Consulting named Murray. He loved to talk about Covey’s ideas on the journey from dependence to independence and then interdependence. I think about that dynamic a lot and I think a lot of what we do in L&D is about helping individuals and teams move across that continuum.

What or who motivates you to get out of bed in the morning and get working?


What are the latest L&D trends and innovations you think we need to know about?

The metaverse is coming! The metaverse is coming!

We have to work out which parts of it are re-packaged bluff and which bits might be genuinely useful to the people we support. But we can’t ignore it. I feel that the L&D community wasted a lot of time and energy over the last ten years trying to re-create the tools developed by the big tech companies. We can’t make the same mistake again.

We’re all aware of the Digital Skills gap in the UK. Is this an issue in your organisation? If so, how are you recruiting and upskilling staff to overcome this challenge?

Yes, and yes! The big challenge here is job design. If we are to avoid death by silo and create genuine collaboration and innovation, we have to create the hard structures to support it.

What do you think needs to be done to retain the human side when considering digital learning?

Balance synchronous and asynchronous learning interventions through great design! We can make a genuine connection remotely, through narrative and shared experience.

Are you aware of the ‘B Corp movement’, and if so, is this something that you and the University of East Anglia supports? In what way?

I’m aware of it and can see that it’s steadily gaining traction. It’s not reached the UEA yet, but let’s see.

Can you think of an example where companies have balanced purpose and profit to build a better business?

I’m always interested in those organisations who are firmly rooted in their communities and make it a priority to create jobs that pay people a fair wage for their craft. I think Community Clothing is a great example of this kind of business.

We need to find new ways of re-igniting our engineering and manufacturing heritage in this country. I truly believe that our diversity as a nation gives us the chance to be a leader in innovation and design.

Are there any B Corps or businesses with a strong CSR strategy that you find inspiring? If so, why?

Grimsby Town F.C. is the first football club in this country to be working towards B Corp certification and I hope they’re not the last. Our football clubs are community assets and they belong to the people in the villages, towns and cities that support them, not oligarchs or nation states.

What time does your alarm go off? Do you snooze or leap out of bed?

Both of our boys are early risers and we have a beagle who likes to let us know that he’s ready for his breakfast. I genuinely haven’t had to set a morning alarm since 2010.

What would be your dream breakfast and where would you eat it? (And what is your actual breakfast and location!)

Scrambled eggs. Bacon. Toast. Coffee. In New York City, please. The reality isn’t too bad though. My wife makes excellent coffee and eggs. And Norwich is a fine city.

What are you reading, watching or listening to at the moment?

I’m reading Will Smith’s autobiography, Will, which is a delight.

I’ve discovered a new guilty pleasure and I’m slowly working my way through Friday Night Lights.

I’m listening to a podcast called You’re Wrong About, in which the journalist hosts Mike and Sarah reconsider an event, person, or phenomenon that’s been miscast in the public imagination.

The nineties were my coming of age years, so it’s been interesting and rewarding to have some of that era’s key cultural moments and figures dissected and reappraised.

What can’t you get through the day without?

Laughter with my family, a walk with the dog, and thinking time.

What’s the best part of your job — and the most challenging?

The best — hearing what changed after the result of something you worked on.

The worst — ill-prepared meetings without a clear goal.

Would you like to feature in the series?

Our interviews are conducted by Nicola Greenbrook, a highly experienced HR specialist-turned-writer.

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