No Image Available


Read more from TrainingZone

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display(‘div-gpt-ad-1705321608055-0’); });

How Did I Get Here? Graham O’Connell, the National School of Government


Graham O'Connell Graham O'Connell offers an insight into the new National School of Government, one of Europe's largest training consultancies, and his role as Development and Training Consultant within it.

Describe your role and responsibilities.
I did away with a job description a few years ago. Things are so fluid and changeable these days you just have to change what you do continually. I advise clients on learning and development strategy and operations, I design and deliver programmes; I am a marketeer, an assessor, a writer and a learner.

How are training priorities set?
I work at the National School of Government and we work closely to match what we do to the strategic needs of government and to help bring greater professionalism in to the public sector. That is the proactive bit. But we also work reactively to provide bespoke consultancy and programmes for individual clients. If that all sounds very grand, in practice what it means is that it is our senior stakeholders and our customers who ultimately set the priorities.

How closely aligned is the training and development you provide to clients’ strategic needs?
Very. That is why we exist. That should be why any training function exists. If one of our clients needs to transform leadership in their organisation then that is the outcome we focus on. Much of what we do is to provide very practical, specialist training. At first glance it might not look strategic but every brush stroke goes towards that bigger picture. We pride ourselves on developing individuals – their capability, professionalism and confidence – as well as meeting organisational needs not instead of.

How do you help your clients and their organisation(s) stay one step ahead?
You have to stay one step ahead yourself. I read avidly. I regularly check out the web sites (especially TrainingZONE). I go to exhibitions and conferences. And I try and take a lead; to create good practice, not just follow it. If you are ahead of the game clients can learn from you. But you have to be generous with your ideas and materials for this to work.

How does your training department operate?
We run a massive training and consultancy operation – one of the biggest in Europe – but it feels more like a family. Everyone is very friendly and cooperative which is crucial for how we work. We have a loose organisational structure rather than silos. I specialise mainly in learning and development but I work in various business areas such as in our management development and international teams. We work with hundreds of associates – our extended family – which adds to our huge pool of talent and gives us incredible flexibility. Can I just add that we wouldn’t operate at all if it wasn’t for our excellent support staff – getting the right people with the right skills and attitudes is vital.

How do you evaluate training and does this vary according to the learning intervention?
I prefer not to evaluate our training. But I’d better explain that. Most of our clients have their own evaluation procedures and the last thing they want is for us to impose our systems on top. The best solution is often to help the client to refine, build or tailor the evaluation to fit the circumstances. If preferred we can do the evaluation ourselves right up to level 4. We tend to have a fairly standard reaction questionnaire so we can gain consistent performance indicator information. When you run thousands of events like we do this becomes more than just a litmus test. Higher level evaluation is nearly always tailored.

Do you feel that training and development is under-rated? If so how can training professionals improve its credibility?
No. If training and development is under-rated then you are doing something wrong. If you provide top class Training and development and manage client relationships then that is what will give you credibility. People believe what they experience, not spin. Perhaps training and development sometimes gets less profile than HR, which in turn gets less than finance. I am happy if the spotlight falls on business outcomes and the people who achieve them. Training and development is a support function and we shouldn’t get demoralised simply because we come further down the credits. If you lack credibility get a good training and development qualification (not just the CiTP), good development (especially by working alongside good colleagues) and good experience. Then you are in with a chance of providing thoroughly good training and development.

How do you prove the value of your training and development?
I can’t prove it. We charge a lot for our training and get lots of repeat business. We have hundreds of examples and stories, provided by our clients, on how they have used their learning to make a difference back at work. We have a lot of statistical information on how our customers have rated our training at the time and back in the workplace. And I can turn this data in to a value for money indicator if you want. All this is important but it is only evidence and not absolute proof. I am of the view that training and development should transparently add real value to the business, and in a way that is value for money. If you do that, nobody asks you to prove it.

What is the biggest current challenge for your department?
We have a major new initiative in the Civil Service called Professional Skills for Government. This will affect the recruitment, performance management and training of all senior civil servants and, over time, all staff including specialists. We are developing new products and services to help individuals and organisations get up to speed. Perhaps as importantly we need to help people to think differently about the competencies and standards they should be working to. Helping people to think and act differently is what trainers do but on this scale I think you might call it ‘a challenge’!

What do you see as the main challenges for training professionals in the next five years?
Facilitating stimulating and useful learning to satisfy a diverse set of demands. Facilitating being about pulling learning from people and situations not pushing it on them. Stimulating being about brain-friendly and inspiring methods. Useful – meaning full of use – is about practical application that leads to results. Diverse demands would include those of top management, line management and individuals. These are and/also not either/or.

What influences do you think have had the greatest impact on the training sector in recent years?
Thinking about learning, not just training. Thinking about learners and their managers as customers. Thinking about running the training and development function as if it were a business. The shift in thinking from centrally controlled, lengthy, standardised courses to customer focussed, bespoke interventions (where courses are just one important ingredient). Technology continues to have an impact – sometimes good, sometimes not so good – PowerPoint, for example, and e-learning.

What is the best lesson you can pass on?
I always give just one answer to this question. Learn. Learn as much as you can from every person and every situation. Learn theory (so you can conceptualise what works and why) and learn practice (the skills and artistry). And learn how to learn. As Charles Handy said: those in love with learning are in love with life.


Get the latest from TrainingZone.

Elevate your L&D expertise by subscribing to TrainingZone’s newsletter! Get curated insights, premium reports, and event updates from industry leaders.

Thank you!