Robin Hoyle - Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Robin shares with us the many facets of his established career in L&D, which includes being Chair of the World of Learning Conference, a contributor for Learning Now TV and a published author of books and magazine articles.

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We sat down for a fascinating chat with Robin Hoyle, Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International, an international training provider and behaviour change specialist. It helps organisations to transform their sales and negotiation outcomes by helping to permanently change the behaviour of their teams.

Robin shares with us the many facets of his established career in L&D, which includes being Chair of the World of Learning Conference, a contributor for Learning Now TV and a published author of books and magazine articles.

A self-described magpie with an appetite to keep learning, Robin passes on some invaluable advice for anyone looking to advance their career in L&D, provides insight on the latest trends and innovations and tells us why he is inspired by activists and local campaigners as well as leading professionals in the L&D community.

Finally, we get the chance to delve into Robin’s eclectic music playlists (including ska, electronic dance and Malian blues to name a few), and find out why grand parenting, cooking, gardening, painting and more, fuelled by a daily espresso, keeps him happily occupied in his spare time…

Robin Hoyle  - Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

We’re delighted to have you on board, Robin. Can you please tell us a little about Huthwaite International?

Huthwaite International is the training arm of Huthwaite Research Group. Over the past 40 plus years, Huthwaite has been carrying out observational research to find out what successful people do when they are being successful.

Specifically we look at verbal behaviours — what people say and when — in order to achieve their goals and successful outcomes in their interactions with others.

Our main area of work is in commercial skills and behavioural development — sales, negotiations and communications. We work across the world in around 30 languages.

You can find out more about us in this short video.

In a nutshell, what are your key responsibilities as Head of Learning Innovation?

I lead on projects which are different from things we have done before. This might mean using a brand new technology solution or platform, designing a programme to meet a specific client requirement or providing consultancy to our clients about how best to prepare for or implement a project based on our research.

I also undertake ongoing research — including Impact Studies with our clients — focusing primarily on how we can best support behaviour change at work. The outcomes of this research informs the development of future solutions and also informs the guidance and support we provide to our global clients.

I have been Chair of the World of Learning Conference for the last nine years and I really enjoy bringing an eclectic group of speakers and L&D people together to debate, to present their experiences and to share their stories. It feels like I’m contributing to the community.

I also contribute a monthly piece to Learning Now TV - a live-streamed internet channel for all learning and performance professionals, and I write regular articles for Training Zone – again to add to the breadth of understanding in the industry.

I‘ve also written two books published by Kogan Page; Informal Learning in Organizations and Complete Training.

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

I graduated in the early ’80’s when there were no jobs for graduates! Consequently, my first role out of university was in a Community Programme scheme, working with people who had been long term unemployed, via the museums department of a local authority. We created publications, ran events for schools and community groups and trained and supported volunteers.

I transferred into their Youth Training Scheme and managed a department providing opportunities for young people with various barriers to finding work — from learning disabilities to young women working in non-traditional roles, young people from minoritised ethnic backgrounds battling discrimination and those who just needed higher level qualifications.

I quickly shifted into training trainers to work in these varied and demanding environments and the rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been in L&D in some form or other ever since – 38 years and counting!

Had you always intended to work in L&D, or did you explore any other routes?

At university I studied Drama and attended Behavioural Science classes. Without realising, I had accidentally chosen a career in learning and development.

I was fortunate to have been given opportunities to lead teams and departments from a young age; I was only 23 when I first managed a team. My then boss invested in my development and skills — and that hunger to learn has continued ever since.

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

As well as participating in learning events whenever I can, I find that my best learning comes from continued research, whether that’s for our work in Huthwaite or to provide information for a video or article.

I consider myself a self-directed learner but, like anyone with a hunger to learn, I'm a magpie and take unexpected learning from several different experiences. I learn a lot from my colleagues and clients and I hope they never get tired of me debating issues and picking their brains.

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

In terms of career ‘ups’, I went to work for an economic development and training consultancy called Lancashire Enterprises PLC in my early 30s. The company had recently acquired Executive Business Channel which provided management education programmes to the BBC. I transferred to the newly acquired business and, after a couple of years, I was involved in a management buyout team. Three years on, we converted the company into an e-learning production company. That was a massive learning opportunity and a complete roller coaster. Many of my career ups were there — and most of the downs too!

Yet, whether up or down, I felt I was learning and no two days were ever the same. I shudder when I look back at some of the mistakes I made in my naivety; but I also know that we produced some great work. When we sold the company in 2006, I thought we had built a great business with some great clients.

I continued to work with some of those clients for a number of years and I was fortunate enough to travel the world on projects on their behalf, which broadened both my horizons and my business skills.

My most important learning? Be open minded and learn to listen. (I’m sure my colleagues will agree, it’s a lesson I’m still learning!)

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

First, do your research. There’s plenty of evidence to support what we do — but there’s also a lot of nonsense masquerading as evidence. The ability to sort the robust and evidence-based practice from the fluff, fashion and fad is vital if we are to be taken seriously by people who think, somehow, that L&D is not ‘proper business’.

Second, reflect. I advocate the Rolfe reflective model (Rolfe, G et al. 2001); and the three key questions, “What?” “So, what?” and “What Next?”, as a simple way of thinking about each experience and wringing the learning from it. I’ve used this technique with 16-year-olds with learning disabilities and CEOs of FTSE 100 companies and it never fails (although accountants seem to find it too simplistic)!

How has the pandemic impacted Huthwaite International, its work, and/or your role in particular?

When the pandemic first hit, we suddenly faced a tsunami of course cancellations as clients across the globe went into lockdown.

Within six weeks we had completely redesigned our programmes to involve virtual sessions and had accelerated the roll out of our collaborative platform. This is a recently introduced approach to supporting programme participants as they navigate a learning journey, combining social learning elements (peer-to-peer learning) with digital resources, classroom sessions and workplace transfer activities and assignments.

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

We were lucky. Huthwaite International first started using virtual classrooms in 2007 and the collaborative platform, although relatively little used, had already won awards.

Through 2020, we completely redesigned all our core programmes and continuously innovated to make the most of the different media available to us. We created over 200 videos, tens of new digital modules and translated everything to work in the main languages our clients use. We trained our network of around 400 facilitators to work in the new environment alongside conducting research into how successful interactions worked when required to use video conferencing and remote conversations.

Most importantly, we took our clients with us. Although the transition from being essentially classroom-focused to being learning journey-focused using a range of digital technologies was far from easy, it worked. As we emerge from the pandemic we are a stronger and more robust company as a result.

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

We are in the process of reverse engineering what we learned during the pandemic into the solutions we now provide to clients who may want some face-to-face elements in their learning journey.

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’?

There is no ‘new normal’; I think we can expect a continued period of change and ongoing demand for more flexible learning interventions to meet the challenges that people in work now face.

As an industry we have shown we can adapt and be flexible. We must resist attempts to put us back into the event-based, course mindset. Instead, we need to focus on how we best enable people to build capability and develop their skills and behaviours for whatever the next challenge will be.

Face-to-face will continue to have a role to play, but only when it can demonstrate that it adds value to capability development challenges and opportunities. In the twenty-first century, with several ways to connect with others, it was madness that it remained the default mode for L&D and that the pain, heartache and upheaval of a global pandemic was required before we woke up and made the changes. Now we have, let’s make the good stuff stick.

Some may believe that people can’t work remotely or in a hybrid environment and will advocate that training needs to involve a face-to-face classroom. Sometimes it might — but I believe we should explore less expensive and less disruptive options first.

We have more tools in our tool bag than ever before; and I want to keep using them and perfecting how they help people change their behaviour for the better.

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

Realigned. The skills of people in organisations were put under a spotlight during the pandemic. We found, to our surprise (and shame in some cases), that there were people in important and influential roles who couldn’t communicate very well, couldn’t articulate a vision and couldn’t inspire others. We also found that others, once released from micro-management and the daily drudgery of the office cubicle, were able to do wonderful and amazing things!

So, what we have also learned is that we need different roles, different skills and changed mindsets. During the pandemic, training and learning moved centre-stage — and I’m not yet ready to take a bow and back away from the spotlight. There’s much to do!

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 inspired by my colleagues, who constantly surprise and challenge me with the questions they ask. I’m inspired by my partner who is involved in teacher education and works with people who have started on new careers having never believed what they were capable of doing.

I’ve worked with charities (and the Charity Learning Consortium) and found inspiration in the stories of people making a real difference. I’m inspired by activists and campaigners — whether working on Black Lives Matter, MeToo or Everyday Sexism or by local campaigns to reduce knife crime and drug abuse. I support campaigns to get the local council to re-open the library in the face of savage government cutbacks by people who have never had to worry about whether their kids can access books.

I’m also inspired by people in our industry that I’ve had the good fortune to meet or work with. John Amaechi OBE is a shining light of common sense and demonstrates a tireless commitment to making life fairer and workplaces better.

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

One of my early bosses once said to me, “You don’t get a salary and a round of applause”.

I think that was the best advice I ever received because, when I was younger, I may have been waiting for the plaudits and the congratulations. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate those around us; but if we do what we do for the recognition and the awards, we’re probably not working with the integrity necessary or focusing on adding value to the organisations who invest in our capabilities.

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

For me to get out of bed every day I need to feel like I’m making a difference somewhere.

Sometimes that’s a small difference; if I can persuade a client to invest in a learning journey, that may help their people approach future learning in a slightly different way. Maybe it means we have a longer term relationship with the client and the mutual value of that relationship ensures we can employ another person or provide job security to a colleague.

It’s not always about revolutionising the way learning happens, sometimes it's just the quiet satisfaction of doing something that works.

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

The most important change in recent times has been the focus on workflow learning. For years we put people through courses without considering whether it enabled them to do things differently or do different things, and no way of monitoring whether behaviour change or skills application happened.

However, workflow learning doesn’t just happen; it needs sculpting and directing and it requires insights which sometimes are counter-intuitive. These things don’t just emerge from the ether — some expertise, research or evidence base is required.

The kind of behaviour change organisations need now requires hard thinking about what good looks like, how governance is going to happen, how individuals most effectively and efficiently learn what is needed and how they apply essential skills at critical moments. That doesn’t exclude learning from each other — in fact it’s vital — but it’s not the whole story.

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

When I used to work almost exclusively with Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies (FMCG) this was a hot topic. Now I tend to work with more obscure Business-to-to Business companies, this is not a topic which regularly raises its head.

Our approach to virtual learning has been marketed extensively as the ‘sustainable choice’ particularly as many of our international clients regularly fly people to events.

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

Internally, Huthwaite is focused on local organisations, local sourcing and on being a good employer who gives back to the communities of which it is part; but that comes from an intrinsic desire to be a force for good rather than a grand statement of intent.

I think CSR and business as a force for good has taken a back seat recently which is regrettable. Unfortunately, when we have a pandemic, war and a cost of living crisis, I can’t see CSR moving up the priority list any time soon or our current government doing anything positive to change things.

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

Alarm is rarely necessary! I get up, get the chickens up and return to bed with a cup of tea and read the news so I’ll know what to think today.

What would be your dream breakfast and where would you eat it?

Too many to list — spicy soup on the banks of the Mekong was pretty special, and good coffee and bread pastries in Naples are terrific.

Wonderful! What is your actual breakfast and location?

Generally, toast and espresso while standing up and sorting out my day in the kitchen, I’m afraid. Because we keep hens, lots of eggs.

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

I've just finished Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – very well written but depressing as anything.

I’m now reading The Gallows Pole by Ben Myers. It’s set locally and follows a historical period which is fascinating. Starkly beautiful and immediate prose.

I’m also a sucker for crime fiction and love police procedurals on TV. I am teased by my colleagues for my love of foreign films — like Hive, about beekeepers and set in Kosovo – tick!

My music playlists span folk to jazz to Malian blues and (lots of) ska and reggae. I’m very fond of a bit of electronic dance music – Underworld, Chemical Brothers etc — especially when driving.

What can’t you get through the day without?


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

Best: When the scales fall and people get what I’m talking about. Challenging: immediately before the scales fall….

What do you do in your spare time / after work?

Grand parenting takes up a fair bit of time and is good fun. I do all the cooking, including baking bread, which I love and is therapeutic. We have a wild and unruly garden which is being tamed but only so far as it can sustain birds, insects and grow veg (for cooking — see above).

I’m learning to paint (watercolours) and I’m happily dreadful at it.

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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