When Dan Pontefract was getting ready for college, his father — an English immigrant who had settled the family in southern Ontario, just outside of Toronto — made a simple yet stern request: get as far away from home as possible.
“He really felt that one of the best learning experiences you can have is to get the hell away from home,” said Pontefract, the senior director of learning and collaboration at Canadian telecommunications firm Telus Communications Inc. “That notion really stuck with me. Life is about the journey. It’s experiential. It’s social.”
Pontefract treats organizational development and learning at Telus in much the same way as he has his life to date. Learning, Pontefract said, is ongoing; it’s something that is happening at all times, wherever, whenever.
“One can’t escape learning,” he said. “This notion that people think learning or in fact training is an event, I have this wish to ensure that they are wrong.”
He’s spent the last three years at Telus, which has about 35,000 employees globally, doing just that.
Since being headhunted to lead learning at the company, Pontefract has transformed the function from a 95 percent outsourced, formal instructor-led model to a 60-40 formal and informal learning split with 50 percent of learning being internal.
Learning at Telus is considered a “continuous, collaborative, connected and communicative process.” Success isn’t measured through transactions — or “bums in seats,” as Pontefract put it — but through increased employee productivity and engagement, each of which is managed through Telus’ detailed employee performance management process.
“Training, to me, is the adage that Michelangelo Buonarroti [the Italian architect, painter, poet and sculptor] once said: ‘Ancora Imparo,’ in plain English, ‘I am still learning.’ … Whether you’re a private, for-profit, higher education or K-12, learning is occurring in everything that we do.”
A Buzz for Learning
Pontefract uses technology to imprint a progressive learning and development culture at Telus, which makes sense. The telecommunications firm is already equipped with technologies that enable a collaborative learning environment, said Kate Harrington, vice president of learning and enablement at one of Telus’ industry peers, Rogers Communications Inc.
With that infrastructure in place Pontefract has helped to develop Telus’ learning culture, which includes a plethora of Web 2.0 tools, each created to streamline communication and learning. The company has its own version of YouTube called Habitat Video, Buzz — the company’s version of micro blogging social network Twitter — and its own version of Facebook called Habitat MySite.
“In a telecom company, having our own YouTube and things like that, maybe there are other organizations that wouldn’t be there yet — because we have the technology. We have access to it,” Harrington said. “But I actually think it’s going to be demanded of the organization. I think if you actually want to have effective learning, they’re going to have to get there.”
The notion that collaborative learning is best driven through technology is not new to Pontefract; he has held the idea close since entering the learning space roughly 18 years ago.
After his father insisted that he go away for college, Pontefract chose to attend McGill University in Montreal, thinking he might enter into a degree program in human health but deciding instead to pursue education.
When Pontefract graduated from McGill in 1994, he and his wife Denise ventured about 10 miles north of Montreal to a small town called Rouyn-Noranda. There they landed teaching gigs in a K-12 school, Noranda School.
Pontefract said the experience was wonderful, but the cold weather was too much for the couple. After a year at Noranda, they moved west to Vancouver, British Columbia, and both took jobs at another K-12 school, St. Patrick’s Regional Secondary.
It was in this teaching role that the 23-year-old Pontefract was able to combine education with his passion for technology and what he calls “open leadership,” which advocates a horizontal, collaborative, peer-to-peer type learning style.
During the next two years St. Patrick’s principal allowed Pontefract to wire the school. He built out computer labs and connected different forms of education technology throughout the classrooms.
He also refashioned the school’s library into a learning commons, with jukeboxes of CD-ROMs so kids could access Encarta and other learning tools and resources. Pontefract said the open space helped to push the books aside and encouraged the kids to use technology to learn.
By this time, Pontefract said he was thinking, “Well, this is fun, but I think there’s more to life than just being a K-12 teacher.” So he and Denise packed their bags again and went off to Canada’s capital, Ottawa, Ontario.
While his wife remained a teacher in the K-12 system in Ottawa, Pontefract said he decided to go a different route. In 1997 he chose to attend a one-year program with the Software Human Resource Council (SHRC), where he earned Novell, Microsoft, CompTIA and other certifications.
“I’m in this program and I’m thinking: ‘Well, this is cool … I’m now formulating my thoughts over how business and leadership is now merging with technology, which is now merging with education and learning,” Pontefract said. “By the three-quarter mark of this program, I actually had infiltrated the designers … I was making recommendations as essentially a 26-year-old punk, saying, look, this is how this [SHRC] program should really be run — and they believed me.”
This foray into instructional design led him back to Vancouver to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where Pontefract said he spent the next five years creating learning programs, such as the High-Tech Professional Programs department. He acted as the departmental program head from 1998 to 2002.
Still, Pontefract wasn’t satisfied. He said he knew there was something more for him to tackle, and that it was corporate.
So in 2002 Pontefract took a job with a small business intelligence products firm, Crystal Decisions, which was acquired by French company Business Objects not long after.
His roles there allowed him to experiment with some off-the-cuff learning tools. “No one really knew what we were talking about,” he said. “We were building things like the seven-minute trainer with a video camera, filming one of our instructors in front of a whiteboard, where he/she will be whiteboarding concepts … into bite-sized chunks [where] we put them up kind of [on] our own internal YouTube with a discussion forum.”
In fall 2007, German software company SAP AG purchased Business Objects, and Pontefract soon made his next move, joining Telus in December 2008.
“I was really handed the keys to help Telus push further ahead in its innovation with learning,” he said.
Lead and Grow
Since joining Telus, Pontefract has done more than introduce the company to the value of collaborative learning technologies; he has helped establish a culture of learning and development values that permeate throughout the organization, said Bryan Acker, a senior learning specialist with Telus who has worked with Pontefract for more than five years.
“Dan is a great visionary,” Acker said. “We didn’t just say, ‘Here are some tools.’ We introduced something that was Dan’s vision called the Telus Leadership Philosophy. We took out all the corporate speak, and we stripped things down to four key leadership values. These values then aligned to the performance review, and everything then tied back down.”
Pontefract said the Telus Leadership Philosophy “allows us to make sure every single team member has access to formal, informal and social learning-related activities, programs, opportunities [and] offerings. Essentially, it makes individual development a priority. There really isn’t anyone who we’re not touching across the organization right now [with learning].”
One of the tools that helps support Telus’ leadership values is its Career Development Portal, a wiki that provides an open and interactive career vision for employees. The portal includes things such as job profiles for leaders in the organization, access to research and videos — all of which are open to every Telus employee.
“No matter what role you’re in, there’s a picture of where your career can go — both vertically as well as some horizontal matching, and it’s been a huge success,” Pontefract said.
The portal also includes things like “Day in the Life,” a video series of people in certain positions that offers employees an informal glimpse into what certain career paths at Telus entail, Pontefract said.
The portal can help Telus employees answer questions such as, how did a certain leader get into his or her role? What is doing that job like? Pontefract said using an open leadership construct, as well as learning and social technology within a wiki — a website where users can add or share content — provides a valuable employee development experience.
Another learning program Pontefract has been chief in implementing is Telus’ “Lead and Grow,” a quarterly series that invites the entire organization to participate in formal and informal social development. A topic is chosen every quarter, and for a roughly six-week period the learning organization rolls out various learning opportunities, most of which are delivered through its technology platforms.
The most recent “Lead and Grow” series dealt with leadership and included 15 webcasts from internal and external executives. Mitch Joel, author of Six Pixels of Separation, and Canadian Olympian swimmer Mark Tewksbury were among the external speakers.
Everything during these types of events is captured on Buzz, and each video is also posted on Habitat Video.
“We’ve got 35,000 people, not just in Canada but in several countries, who might be interested in what we’re discussing about leadership,” Pontefract said. “So we do something like this to make it open, accessible and really to drink our own champagne.”
Although Pontefract has put numerous collaborative learning platforms in place at Telus, his greatest achievement hasn’t necessarily come from implementing a new learning tool or idea, but from his ability to influence the company’s team members to treat learning as a collaborative and ongoing process on their own initiative.
A situation arose recently where Telus was running out of Internet addresses to support its capabilities. It needed to adapt to a new version of a specific piece of technology, one that would’ve allowed it to have an infinite number of addresses.
Because the organization would have to understand the new technology quickly, Pontefract said an engineer in Toronto opted against creating an e-learning course or relying on a series of instructor-led offerings and built a wiki instead.
Inside the wiki, which acted as a sort of learning hub, the engineer set up a series of discussion forums, micro-blogs, articles, webcasts and simulated course offerings — a virtual environment where employees could learn about the technology shift formally and informally through discussions with peers, blogging and social media.
Having learned about the engineer’s actions after the fact, Pontefract said he called him up. “I said, ‘This is fantastic. What made you do this?’
The engineer told him, “I realize what we’re doing at Telus … so I found it natural to do it this way.”
“For me, that story really is the epitome of success,” he said. “You don’t have to tell somebody that learning is formal, informal and social; that leadership should be open; and that you can use some of these social technologies and collaboration tools to effect the change.”
Frank Kalman is associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.