Rebooting the classroom

Frances Howat explains BP's move to transform its finance learning operation.
Frances Howat, ACMA, CGMA, BP’s head of capability development for finance
Frances Howat, ACMA, CGMA, says technology helps standardise learning in the finance function.

Global energy company BP has been working to reinvent learning for its employees. Frances Howat, ACMA, CGMA, BP's head of capability development for finance, has been heavily involved with the change.

Howat rejoined BP, where she had spent some of her early career, in 2013 after working at a learning consultancy running courses for clients such as Unilever, HP, GSK, and Shell. BP was then forming its "university", which has simplified the talent and learning landscape for BP people and pulls together tools and resources under one roof. BP University brought together many teams to form six academies that provide all of BP's talent and learning solutions. Finance itself is included within one of the six — the Functions Academy. "By bringing all the organisations together, we've created synergies that allow us to invest more wisely in creating bigger programmes of activity rather than the more fragmented approach before," she said.

The company also invested in a new platform — the first point of contact for people to discover the learning resources available to them. Within it, a learning management system allows staff to plan learning and book courses, view their learning records, and, for managers, keep track of their team's learning. It also simplified the talent management process across BP and put it online, making it more accessible for line managers and HR, including replacing its previous personal development plan with My Profile — a BP version of a LinkedIn profile for every employee. Digital has also been embraced to launch BP apps and portals supporting on-the-job learning, accessible anywhere and at anytime from mobile devices.

BP has modernised further by moving to virtual, instructor-led training using the Adobe Connect platform. Aside from the cost savings to be made, this overcomes the problem of lengthy travel time for members of small finance teams, co-located within the different businesses.

Through working with virtual classrooms at her position prior to BP, Howat really began to understand that technology could be used very powerfully in learning. "If it's well designed and well delivered," she explained, "you can actually replicate all of the benefits of the face-to-face classroom in a live, interactive experience."

This includes moving people virtually into breakout rooms, running exercises, and then debriefing the exercises in a plenary session "just like you would in an ordinary face-to-face classroom". Virtual whiteboards, a classroom's chat facility, and the ability to vote anonymously are also advantages. "People might feel a little bit timid about putting forward their view, but if they're anonymously voting A, B, C, or D, then you can get better engagement," Howat said.

A further benefit of this type of learning, Howat highlighted, is standardisation: "Virtual classrooms can take a lot of investment to get right, ensuring that classroom design is really well thought through and engaging, and gives lots of opportunities for interaction. With a virtual platform, you have more control of quality and can standardise on this optimal classroom design across all learning sessions."

Some BP engineering staff and contractors use augmented reality when carrying out repairs to equipment, and this technology is used in training engineers in several parts of the business. For example, the use of a simulated drilling rig environment allows engineers to safely practise replacing rig equipment, multiple times, before they have to perform the task in a real-life situation in the middle of an ocean with swell and high winds.

BP created the game Fuel Station Ville to help induct new members of its global business services group who may not have previously worked in the oil industry. Players can earn virtual rewards, as well as real rewards such as a team breakfast.
BP created the game Fuel Station Ville to help induct new members of its global business services group who may not have previously worked in the oil industry. Players can earn virtual rewards, as well as real rewards such as a team breakfast.


Finance, instead, is using a gamification approach. BP's global business services (GBS) organisation is based in five centres and includes a large team based in Budapest, Hungary. Looking for a fast way to induct new joiners who may not have previously worked in the oil industry, a game — Fuel Station Ville — has been created for GBS's largely Millennial workforce. The game, which dishes out virtual rewards to individuals, as well as real rewards such as team breakfasts, won a silver award in the UK's 2017 Learning Technologies Awards.

BP, Howat explained, also makes extensive use of podcasts and video (several recently around agile project methodology) and also encourages user-generated content in the learning space.

Howat said informal learning as set out in the 70:20:10 paradigm is crucial with an estimated 70% of skills learned on the job, 20% through networking with others, and only 10% through formal learning.

Howat then explained the ratio in terms of a car-driving metaphor. "What makes you a really proficient driver is the fact that you've had real-life practice. ... We've all had the instances where somebody has suddenly pulled out in front of us in a way we weren't expecting, and you learn that, actually, you've got to anticipate things.

"So, I think learning in business is actually very similar, but classroom learning is very important, and in a discipline like finance, when we need to learn technical topics, there's a real role for professional qualifications like CIMA and also for keeping ourselves updated."

A recent example of this has been the learning programme for IFRS 16, Leases. Howat said that the implementation of the lease accounting standard is going to have "very radical consequences for BP and our financial statements. So, the core of that has to be through formal learning."

She explained the importance of networking — the 20%. "I think it's also important to look externally from the organisation that you work in. So, outside of your immediate team, outside of your own company — and I suppose ... something I learned from stepping out from BP and taking a role at Comet [the former UK-based electrical retailer] was that I had become very internally focused. And now, I deliberately look for external networks to engage with."

Fuel Station Ville, which was created for BP global business services organisation’s largely Millennial workforce, won a silver award in the UK’s 2017 Learning Technologies Awards.
Fuel Station Ville, which was created for BP global business services organisation’s largely Millennial workforce, won a silver award in the UK’s 2017 Learning Technologies Awards.

Tech focus

Along with the shared service centres, recent change within BP has been digitally led. Howat explained that robotic process automation, already in place in many of BP's accounting processes, means "you need fewer people and fewer human resources, and can shift the focus of human resources to business partnering and data analytics".

She added: "Increasingly, we've got the ability ... to create huge data lakes, and we've got the tools to analyse [them]. I think it allows us to really add value as finance professionals." Learning is concentrated on three main areas of tech: blockchain, data visualisation, and artificial intelligence, which is already being used to do some finance forecasting.

Howat explained: "There's an opportunity to either build these skills or buy them in from outside, and the core of our strategy is to build the skills from within our team. So, it's not to say that we wouldn't hire — you know, we might choose to hire maybe a data scientist here or there — but the core of our strategy is to develop those skills with our people."

Part of this strategy has been to introduce a four- to six-week "digital boot camp" of virtual courses across finance, for first-stage leaders in their early to mid-careers, with an opportunity for some to further develop data science skills.

There is also, she said, an important business partnering role for finance professionals "to upskill others in the organisation about the commercial realities".

She explained: "It's now partly recovered, but when the oil price declined, it led to a reduction in the operating cash flow out of our upstream businesses. And one of the roles of the finance teams was to make sure that their nonfinance counterparts understood the implications of working capital and cash."

For example, engineers may like to keep a large inventory of all the parts they might need, but this can be financially unhelpful, Howat said, adding: "In an environment where the oil price is low, BP still needs cash to pay dividends, and we need cash to fund future investments .... So, where we have opportunities, we want the free cash to be able to do that."

Stretching staff

BP employees can self-nominate for stretch projects that are completed in tandem with their day jobs. These are "real-life" strategic projects, each sponsored by a senior leadership team member, Howat explained.

"We apply a diversity and inclusion lens, so ensure a good gender mix, but also look for a good global mix. Participants work on six-month projects that address real business challenges and feed directly into BP's thinking and future focus. It's a unique way for employees to develop whilst helping shape BP's ongoing strategy, thinking, and perspective. They develop as part of a global team and get great exposure to people and other parts of the business."

The final question for Howat is how finance staff will learn in the future — say, in 2030.

Recognising that apps used today were unknown ten years ago, she ventured: "I think that, outside of work, we've already become accustomed to learning in radically new ways, and it's happened incredibly fast. So, we're taking into account the way people now use social learning, like with Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. And we're reacting to employees' needs for options and more personalised, self-directed, on-demand learning, when and how they want it.

"In a fast-moving and digitally advancing world, we continue to question what the best way is to use the learner's time to embed a particular skill or capability and continue to offer people learning options."

She gave an example of BP's internal conversation about training needed to introduce a new expenses system. She said: "No one takes a training course to learn how to use Facebook. Similarly, you don't actually need a training course to learn a new expenses system. You need the logon ID, and ... if there is some new terminology, you might need a glossary, or if there's any process changes. You watch a two-minute video outlining the changes, and then away you go, learning by doing, at your own pace, with the backup of support resources if needed."

Referring to Excel, she suggested more powerful options to formal learning might be peer or online learning. "Say you wanted to create a lookup table for the first time. You might ask a colleague to show you a model they've built using lookups. Or you might watch a short video on creating lookup tables or data tables versus lookup tables, or ask for help via one of the BP Yammer groups. Then just learn by doing. With a growingly diverse and digitally savvy workforce, it's all about creating the most valuable and intuitive learning options for people, anytime, anywhere, in the ways they need."

Oliver Rowe is external affairs content manager for FM magazine. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at