Javed Khan: Charities can learn from the England football team

More organisations need to make learning central to everything they do

Javed Khan
Javed Khan

For the past few weeks in England, we’ve been basking in the splendour of our football team.

But as the World Cup glory fades, it’s given me a chance to reflect on how such an inexperienced team managed to get to the semi-finals – far further than they were ever expected to go.

Answer? They acted as a learning organisation.

At Barnardo’s we’ve aspired to become a learning organisation since we launched our 10-year corporate strategy in 2016, and we’re already a fair way along our journey.

Just like the England football team, we aim to make learning central to everything we do. That means we capture and share our collective knowledge, we celebrate our impact and we manage risk, rather than avoid it.

Embracing these principles has helped England manager Gareth Southgate to work with his team to ensure they are greater than the sum of their parts, and to translate this into real success.

In our corporate strategy we didn’t limit ourselves to supporting children, young people and families to overcome the problems they face today (important though that is). We also wanted to invest in preventing and pre-empting the problems of tomorrow.

We know that prevention is always better than cure, so thinking ahead gives us the best possible chance of achieving our ultimate aim – better outcomes for more children. 

To achieve this, we set up three strands of work: "digital", taking advantage of new technologies; "diverse", so we can reach all the communities in the UK who need our help; and "learning", which is now a thread running through everything we do as a charity.

Learning is especially important in today’s environment. Sadly, we know demand for our services is increasing, but at the same time budgets are tight and fundraising is getting more competitive. So how do we thrive in the face of these growing challenges? We have to learn, adapt and change as a charity – and as individuals – if we want to continue to achieve our mission.

So how do you become a learning organisation?

Learning can’t just be done in one team. It has to be everyone’s business – each colleague’s right and their responsibility.

That’s why we introduced a three-day learning commitment for our 8,000-plus staff.

I’m really proud that in the first year of this programme our annual appraisal process showed that some 90 per cent of staff had completed their three days of learning.  

It’s not about courses, formal training or cramming in webinars; it’s about practical, everyday learning, reflection and expanding our horizons.

For example, if you work in the IT department, you might spend a day at a service for care leavers, seeing how support is delivered on the ground. 

Learning is critical across all parts of Barnardo’s, from our corporate services to our children’s services and our charity shops. It could be developing a specialism, coaching or mentoring a colleague or embracing mistakes – it all counts.

Another aspect of our journey towards becoming a learning organisation is our new Talent Management Scheme. We set this up in response to feedback from staff who said we needed to strengthen how we nurture skills and grow talent in the charity.

We have also welcomed the first cohort of "emerging leaders", who were selected based on a robust process that identified leadership potential, strong values and behaviours, and the capability and commitment we will need in the future. The process also reflects our commitment to increasing diversity, especially at a senior level.

Ultimately, becoming a learning organisation is about overcoming challenges and improving our effectiveness so that we can achieve even better outcomes for even more children who need our help.

Like all large organisations, at times we can be vulnerable to silo working. It’s natural that you work closely with your own team and that you form relationships with other people in your building, or those with whom you speak regularly. But it can also mean that we miss out on the connections between teams, across disciplines and around the UK that help us learn from each other, develop new thinking and become even better at what we do.

As exemplified by the England football team, learning organisations are all about the journey, not the destination.

We’re still on our journey, but we’ve made a really promising start and we’ll continue to make progress as long as we have forward momentum, stay true to our values and are thoughtful about the changing world around us.

Scoring a few goals along the way will help too. 

Javed Khan is the chief executive of Barnardo’s

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