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Innovation Profile: Sky

Ripping Up The Rule Book Of People Development

Sky is an organisation that has undergone significant transformation since its inception nearly 30 years ago to become Europe’s leading entertainment and communication business. To keep up with the pace of change and the huge impact digital technology has on its people, Sky’s approach to learning and development has undergone a transformation of its own. This Innovation Profile explores:

  • Digital transformation; drivers, dilemmas and opportunities
  • The shift to agile; how and why it has worked successfully
  • Partner selection and implementation
  • Impact and lessons learned


A traditional approach

Sky is a leading European entertainment and communication company, serving nearly 23 million customers. It is a powerful brand, delivering high end production values across a wide range of broadcast media, as well as services including broadband, telephony and, more recently, mobile. Innovation has always been important to Sky – from its days as the first 24-hour broadcaster or launching the first dedicated sports channel – to today when the competition for people’s attention in the digital age offering a plethora of choice is intense. Transformation has become a watchword in recent years and developments such as Sky Q enable its customers to watch Sky content seamlessly, wherever they are, on a variety of devices.

But as with so many organisations, the internal reality of the content and systems its people were experiencing was sometimes removed from its glossy brand.

Sky’s UK & Ireland People Development team cover a broad remit of leadership skills and management development, professional skills and graduate induction. And until 2016, face-to-face training had been the primary learning and development method. Even after the implementation of a new Learning Management System (LMS) in 2014 and investment into online courses, the People Development team were still not getting the results they wanted. Access to TED Talks and webinars became about as innovative as it got. Evaluation metrics still focused on attendance and completion rates, unlike the rest of the business which had switched to more meaningful feedback around customer reach, engagement and NPS (Net Promotor Score).

Fast Facts: Sky

• Europe’s leading entertainment company
• 31,000 employees across seven territories
• 8000 people at UK HQ
• 2500 managers
• 2017 revenue: £12.9bn

Analogue mindset

The challenge faced by Sky was two-fold. Firstly, its People Development team knew it needed to change its approach and align itself better with Sky’s brand values and digital transformation. Secondly, it needed to shift the mindset of its people: “There was a belief from our employees that if they hadn’t been on a course or received some sort of formal training, then they hadn’t really been developed” comments James Perez, Digital Learning Manager. This is a commonly held mindset that Fosway analysts encounter when working in corporate organisations. Talk of transformation is easy but in reality, there is a battle for hearts and minds across the whole organisation, not just within L&D or HR. And at Sky, the perception of learning and development needed to transform too.

Catalyst for change

Change came in early 2016 when training budgets were under pressure. But this actually became a catalyst for change. Necessity became the mother of invention and with it, the permission to act and drive through some radical innovations in People Development; from how it operated, how it talked to its ‘users’ (not learners, but Sky’s people) and the solutions used to support learning.

“Looking back, it was a lucky break. The budget constraints enabled us to accelerate conversations about transforming learning and gave us space to drastically change what we were doing.”
- Tracey Waters, Head of People Development, Sky.

The People Development team recognised a need to both put digital at the heart of their approach and to move from training courses to conversation-based experiences. These were intended to create a way of moving faster, building more engagement, offering greater reach and driving greater advocacy across key business areas; leadership, management development, graduate development and professional skills. Critical questions were raised which could apply to any organisation transforming its L&D function:

  • What if training isn’t the answer?
  • What if training really is wasteful, because large parts of it are not what a person needs right now – and most of it will be forgotten by the time it is needed?
  • Could we focus more on supporting people at their point of need?
  • What do we replace existing solutions with?
  • How do we shift the learning culture so that learning becomes a verb not a noun?

The Innovation

Out with the old…

Despite the fact Sky’s broader HR function still follows an Ulrich approach using business partners to interact with different departments and stakeholders, the L&D team now operates very differently. Central to this was the strategic decision to stop using the traditional define-design-deliver model, often experienced as ‘order taking’.

This was a big step; one the team was able to make thanks to its senior stakeholder engagement at a time when training budgets had been reduced. The combination provided powerful ammunition.

The other part of this shift involved moving away from using competency and capability frameworks: “They are an HR relic – outdated immediately after they are published and the competency model thinking just isn’t 21st century. Ultimately, these frameworks would have got in the way of us focusing with laser precision on designing a brilliantly simple and relevant user experience.”

These significant changes in how People Development operates were, unsurprisingly, accompanied by some push back from the rest of the business. However, the team was given the opportunity to prove itself and its new approach.

…in with Agile

Organisations often get side tracked by the technology when thinking about digital transformation. But Sky recognised that the real challenge – the real transformation – would come from key shifts in mindset. In order to successfully redefine the relationship between People Development and their users, the traditional approach of waiting three months or longer for a training programme – e-learning or face-to-face – had to go. It wasn’t responsive or flexible enough to be of any value in a fast-paced, on-demand digital business. As Tracey Waters explains, “The real need for learning often comes from a point of anxiety, triggered by change. Because the business is moving at such speed, people often find themselves doing different tasks or activities from one quarter to the next. We needed to weave learning into the workflow, into those points of need, so that we were adding the most value.”

The team streamlined its approach and stopped ‘trying to be all things to all people’. They adopted Agile as a way of thinking with the aim of delivering faster, putting the learner at the centre of everything they did and providing learning at the moment of need.

“Agile changed my job. It moved it away from being a programme manager to being a product owner” – Angela McPhillips, People Development Manager

Fast Facts: Agile

• Agile is a mindset taken from software development that emphasises being data driven, transparent, collaborative, and user-centric.
• Sky’s aim was to remove silos and single points of failure or bottle necks on its L&D delivery.
• Agile ceremonies replace traditional project meetings – these range from planning ceremonies to ‘daily stand-ups’ that aim to maintain momentum.
• Scrum teams work as a collective, rather than as individuals with defined roles and responsibilities
• Sprints are short time periods with clearly defined outputs and are designed to speed up delivery

Shift to digital

At the core of this team’s transformation has been a shift away from traditional learning technologies and practices. Sky believed a new technology enabler was required to deliver a more user-focused experience. When the search began for a partner, the requirements were not fully formed, partly because it involved products that were unfamiliar to the team. The People Development team kept open minds so they could see which next generation learning solutions could best support their change journey. But they did know they were looking beyond SCORM and content catalogues.

Partner Selection

Having researched the market, Sky created a shortlist of potential providers who claimed to offer a next gen experience in learning. Rather than the usual beauty parade of demos and presentations, the team began to explore these in a different way; through the eyes of the end user. This is a step Fosway analysts are encouraged to see during the partner selection and procurement process. Sky’s aim was to create a solution that had user experience and engagement at its core, so it made sense that user testing helped drive the final selection decision.

Somewhat uniquely, Sky has a team of professional research psychologists at its Tech Hub in Leeds, who evaluate the usability of Sky’s own consumer products. Fortunately, this team supported the user testing with People Development to ensure it was rigorous, scientific and based on pure user experience.

The testing of four solutions took place over three days. The researchers used ‘Think Aloud’ interviews and cameras with eye tracking to follow the test subjects’ every move on screen. They were able to observe what people did, where they navigated to, what they found and where they got lost. Not all organisations are so lucky, but this involvement of end users is valuable inspiration for any organisation involved in procuring a new solution. All Sky’s test data was collated into an independent overall report and usability score.

“The usability scoring that came out in the lab test report was a revelation. We could actually see what our people really valued!”

Looop clearly emerged as the best performing solution with Sky’s people, based on the team’s transformation agenda. And the team unanimously selected it as their digital learning tool of choice.


The key to this Agile-led approach is the integration of People Development activity with the broader business and its core audience of leaders, managers and professional employees. They have achieved this by tapping into existing communications channels and aligning themselves with major triggers that require performance support or learning at the moment of need.

By examining their own employee life cycle, nine key pain points for Sky’s managers have been defined from onboarding to performance reviews and exits. These drive the structure of its solution and determine the priority of the learning resources created in Looop.

For example, when a manager raises a request for a new hire in the HR system, they are steered towards the Looop resources that will help them create the best hiring experience to represent the Sky brand and values.

Communications are segmented and targeted appropriately. Resources are embedded into the organisation’s monthly manager emails for example. And if people start to look at content but then drop off, analytics are gathered and data processed with a view to how they can improve engagement (or change the product!). The success of initiatives is measured by actual user behaviour: examining click through rates, messaging timing, patterns of engagement and consumption to drive higher adoption.

Even more recent leader and manager solutions from the People Development team use platforms like Looop to create continuous learning experiences with micro-practice nudges and targeted events built around peer conversations. This approach aims to help people choose the simplest action that will deliver the biggest impact at their point of need.

And with the Agile mindset in place, this is being done iteratively with the view that they will keep running useful ‘experiments’ and trials – not over engineered programmes. This way, messaging and content can be adjusted based on feedback if it isn’t driving as much engagement or having the impact that was expected.

“Being data driven has really shifted the argument. We are able to respond to the business without being told what the solution needs to be. We verify issues and challenge back, asking what data there is to show there’s a genuine need.”

Fast Facts: Transformation

1. No more instructor-led training.
2. Choosing learning suppliers who make analytics self-service as standard
3. Being led by real-time and future needs, rather than a competency framework (Sky has never had one).
4. Keeping e-learning courses limited to compliance training that legally requires tracking and completion data.

People Development at Sky is now executed in three channels:

1.    LinkedIn Learning: provides the high level on-demand generic content for everyone, with regular targeted marketing and communications.

2.    Looop: provides Sky’s contextually-specific performance support for leaders and managers, both as on-demand resources and guided continuous development experiences (or ‘campaigns’).

3.   90 Minute Face to Face Experiences: these allow leaders and managers to talk openly about live issues and challenges. These are highly personalised and take a small group coaching design. This channel surfaces other points of need and enables Sky people to tap into immediate advice and support around them


Success is measured broadly though GLINT, a regular employee engagement survey used to track and focus Sky’s People Development agenda. Since moving to the new approach, the people engagement numbers on growth (i.e. the perception that people have opportunities to learn) have improved two points after just six months. This is a meaningful shift (and don’t forget those training budgets were squeezed at the same time). The People Development team is reaching more people around the issues they care about. For example, in just two months in 2018, more people had a manager development experience and consumed more resources on Looop than the entire period of 2016. The average employee in Sky is also consuming an hour of self-directed learning each month. Interestingly, whilst the training budgets across the business units have not been fully replenished, the People Development team maintained theirs in full; this was given in acknowledgement of their innovative efforts.

“I would say we are now more closely aligned to the technology and marketing functions, than HR, in the way we think and work. This is in large part because every day we put digital, data and the user experience at the heart of what we do.”

By being aligned to the employee survey (and an increasing number of people metrics like diversity and attraction), the People Development agenda is also becoming more strategically important. With learning more explicitly supporting the leadership team’s people agenda, and being able to deliver a great user experience at pace, there is also a clear line of sight between what L&D does and what is important to the highest levels of Sky’s Executive team.

Tellingly, the team has earned the trust and respect of their HR colleagues, who at first found the lack of corporate training solutions difficult to ‘sell’ to the business. They are now better equipped with data about actual learning consumption and engagement, and more confident to challenge the business towards identifying points of need.

Lessons learned

The experiences gained by Sky’s People Development team are invaluable and could help other teams and organisations looking to change what they do and become more digital, more Agile and more business focused. Here are the key insights and lessons learned in their own words.

Lessons Learned

• Look beyond learning as a noun. Focus on performance and the workflow so you better understand the points of need of your end users
• Get started by focusing on something that is very real to the business. Manager development and induction lend themselves well to experiments and trials.
• Experiment with solutions that are purposefully not courses. Digital resources and guided conversations can get you moving at the speed of business to solve performance challenges in real-time.
• Be passionate about data. It trumps the opinion of high paid people almost any day of the week. Look outside L&D for the answers – try your tech and marketing teams. They will ask the cold, hard, critical questions about why you are doing it like that; what do users really need?
• Have faith, be persistent and learn from failure – Agile isn’t about giving up at the first hurdle.
• Be disruptive! Think radically about how you can compete with yourself and, like Sky, believe in better.

Fosway’s View

At a time when digital transformation is one of the biggest challenges facing organisations today, there are valuable lessons to be learned from Sky.
By shifting not only its technology, but also its mindset, it is truly changing how learning takes place.

Technology alone is only ever part of the solution. But by responding innovatively to a business driver of budget restrictions that could have easily been seen as a negative, Sky is showing that the rule book can be re-written.

Stakeholder management is critical to the success of this transformation. The People Development team has been clear about why it is making changes and invested time and effort in understanding the business challenges it is trying to solve.

The Agile approach has enabled iteration rather than demanded perfection up front. Whilst choosing a specific audience group from across its employees, has provided more focus and ultimately, more insight around what has worked (and what hasn’t) which should better support a broader roll-out across the rest of the organisation.

The access to the user testing facilities at its Tech Hub is fairly unique, but this ethos is one that more L&D teams should adopt. Trialling solutions with users before procurement decisions are made could save wasted time and investment.

This part of the process again sidesteps the traditional rule book of selection panels, but provided Sky with valuable data on which to base the decision to select Looop as its partner of choice. And the fact that data has become so central to the new operating model is another useful lesson that organisations can take away from Sky’s story. Employee engagement continues to be a critical measure of success for HR and learning – but without tapping into data that examines user behaviour and usage of resources and going beyond traditional completion rates, organisations cannot truly start to measure it.

Ultimately, the aims of this transformation also align well with the rest of what the business is trying to achieve – being customer centric, creating a strong user experience and focusing on repeat customer value. There are important insights here for most L&D functions to take inspiration from as they seek to transform themselves and embrace next gen learning.

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