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Capability Uplift: A Powerful Innovation Strategy

By Daryl Antony

You can’t do well unless you do well for your employees.

Those were Pamela Tate’s (CEO of CAEL) closing remarks during an interactive event broadcast in April 2016. The live session brought together employers and industry leaders to discuss the benefits of upskilling employees.

Upskilling, i.e. elevating the skills of a company’s existing workforce, addresses a lot of issues within a company. Besides helping drive innovation, upskilling helps companies retain talent and boost employee productivity. Companies that use more collaborative approaches to innovation like upskilling are twice as likely as their counterparts to expect growth rates of 15% or more.

A lot of companies are already aware that their workforce is a key driver of innovation strategy. Last month’s PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) innovation benchmark report revealed that over 60% of companies view their employees as their most important partners for innovation. Yet despite the high percentage, a lot of companies still struggle to innovate.

So we set out to discover why.

Why Is Innovation Hard?

We conducted several interviews to find out why companies had difficulty innovating.

Most of the companies we spoke with struggled with a lack of capability when it came to innovation, which is a common problem among non-tech and legacy companies. Many organisations associate innovation with a massive overhaul of…well, everything. When they say lack of capability, they think all the old systems must go. They want an overhaul of their company’s technology, processes, and workforce, all at once. And that is where a lot of it goes wrong.

Changing too much at once leaves a lot of companies feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, and rightfully so. Innovation doesn’t happen overnight. It is exceptionally difficult for a non-technology company to instantly undertake cutting-edge technology development.

Encouraging innovative thinking among employees motivates them. In turn, motivated employees share their knowledge, experience, skills, and suggestions, which encourages others to do the same. Creating a collaborative space for your employees, offering opportunities and training, and investing in the right capability are all steps that can help propel you in the right direction.

While promoting a culture of innovation might sound like a pipe dream for non-tech or legacy companies with a massive workforce, it doesn’t have to be.

Reece Group: A Case Study of Innovation through Upskilling and Capability

The Reece Group has an almost 100 year history of growth and success — it evolved from Harold Joseph Reece selling hardware products from the back of his truck to Australia’s most successful supplier of plumbing and bathroom products.

The Reece Group are supported by their own software division, reecetech, which comprises 140+ people who are always looking for new ways of powering the growth of the Reece Group.

The Reece Group are modernising and simplifying their core business system, and were looking for a new back-end language that would integrate well with the current tech stack (i.e. the set of software that provides the infrastructure for a computer) and would be easy for their developers to learn. Python fit the criteria, so reecetech proceeded with a test case.

In the past, reecetech found that using an internal trainer for upskilling required a lot of time and effort on the part of the trainer. This became more difficult if the trainer also had to support another role in the company. For this reason, they decided to seek a vendor for the Python training.

“We were looking at potential vendors’ with experience using Python as a back-end language,” Catherine Quinn, program manager at reecetech, told us during an interview. “But we were also really interested in their experience with upskilling and coaching developers.”

Experience was a deciding factor in choosing the right vendor.

“Other companies didn’t really have as many experienced people,” Ms. Quinn said. “They had maybe one expert and a few intermediate developers. Common Code had more experienced people.”

reecetech hired Common Code to introduce Python to the reecetech development team through Django, the web-development framework. In addition, Common Code would successfully train multiple teams to a level that would allow them to continue Python development on their own.

How We Did It

We opened our talent pool to reecetech as a community of practice. Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning. At Common Code, we make a commitment to communities of practice through meet-ups, especially on Django and Python

Our 6-week training plan introduced Python and Django to the reecetech development team. We covered multiple modules that covered Python and Django basics, Django models and views, Docker basics, and more.

Every week, the Common Code team conducted a morning training session. After the session, reecetech developers worked on a small project related to what they had learned. In the afternoon, they presented their projects to the Common Code team and each other. This learning structure allowed the reecetech team to ask questions and receive immediate feedback on their projects.

“Tailoring Common Code’s lessons based on weekly feedback was a crucial part in allowing the team to become skilled in Python to proceed to build software on their own,” said John Dooley, one of the reecetech developers.

Blending the two teams allowed for a smooth transfer of information, as Common Code was always readily available to answer any questions from the reecetech team.

“I thoroughly enjoyed working with Common Code on Python POC,” Catherine Thum, another reecetech team member, told us. “They are very knowledgeable in Python and Django. The way they impart the knowledge is very nurturing and not prescriptive. Their coaching method has a good balance of teaching and code challenges and kept the learning engaging and interesting.”

Outcome: The Case for Upskilling

When we asked about the impact the Python training had on her team, Ms. Quinn cited collaboration as one of the key benefits of the training.

“One of the key benefits that has come out of the training is that there is a lot more pair programming happening,” Ms. Quinn said. “It’s second nature now for the team to pair up on tasks, sharing their experiences and knowledge resulting in continued learning and higher quality software.”

Common Code’s influence upon the reecetech delivery team has also had a positive impact on their skills, confidence, and working knowledge in Python and Django. Darren Edgerton, reecetech head of core business systems development, announced that “Python is now a first-class language for reecetech.”

Hosting Common Code staff in a blended on-site team facilitated communication, sped up the development process, and provided the team with the necessary knowledge and skills moving forward. By introducing Python and upskilling the team, Common Code helped promote a culture of innovation within reecetech.

“The course covered a lot of ground in software development best practices and recommendations,” Mr. Dooley said. “I think these were important when approaching a new technology instead of just learning language syntax. I would recommend Common Code for future courses of this kind.”

The path to innovation lies in an organisation’s capability. Having upskilled developers and adding another language in their tech stack, Ms. Quinn confirmed that reecetech is now approaching problems in new ways, by leveraging open source libraries and community knowledge.

Implementing changes to your company’s culture and processes doesn’t have to be an onerous task. Simply investing in your employees through upskilling can have a tremendous impact on your company’s innovation efforts.

Talk to us to learn how adopting new capabilities like Python can help your company develop an innovation practice. Book a time to chat with us.