TJ interviews abrdn’s Peter Yarrow

Degreed’s Conor Gilligan talks to abrdn’s global head of learning, Peter Yarrow. They discuss Yarrow’s belief in his colleagues and his careful approach to the latest trends in technology. Yarrow also explores capability academies and how they have proved successful for abrdn. 

Tell me a bit about yourself and your background?

I’ve worked in financial services for the whole of my career and for over 20 years in learning and development. To be perfectly honest, when I started my first job with Halifax Building Society in 1992, I didn’t really know what I wanted from my career … well actually I wanted to be a rock star but that’s another story.  Along the way I found that I had a skill for training new recruits and getting them to a good level of performance, mainly through observation and coaching (in which I had no actual training myself).  

I’ve always been someone who has learned from experience and from those around me, and one of the things I’d say is that at every stage of my working life I’ve been fortunate to work with great people. For a long time I’ve been interested in using technology in learning and development while also maintaining a healthy scepticism, which has probably stopped me from following too many fads. I do like to get to know the early adopters though as you can learn from their mistakes!

Something else I’ve realised about myself over the years is that I like to see continual improvement, so I’m always striving to develop what we do.  I think it’s important to look for ways to get better, which may be why I rarely get bored in my job.

What’s your current role and scope at abrdn plc?

I have the lofty title of global head of learning – never in a million years did I ever expect my career to come this far! 
I joined abrdn (originally Standard Life) in late 2016 and it was pretty much a blank piece of paper. The company has been through lots of change in a relatively short time, but what I think we’ve done well is to evolve the learning and development strategy alongside the needs of the business. Today, the team supports the whole organisation and has a pretty comprehensive offering as well as the agility to flex when needed. I think we’ve managed to get a good blend of ways for our colleagues to develop and what’s been particularly satisfying for me is that by using technology as an enabler, we’ve got our subject matter experts sharing their knowledge and expertise on a regular basis across a whole host of topics. 

The other thing we do really well is be accessible to the business. We’re proactive in promoting and marketing what we do, and we get to speak to lots of colleagues. We’re also prolific users of the various communication channels and never miss an opportunity to write an interesting blog or get our latest offering into business communications.  Sometimes our best work is just supporting business areas with advice and experience and helping connect them with others who can help.

In the past, I think I would have envisaged a ‘global head’ role being very focused on strategy and thought leadership. While I’d say these are things you need to do, I’d argue that with a small team I see it being more about making connections, getting my hands dirty and driving continuous improvement.

Recently Josh Bersin has mentioned the Capability Academy will be the next big thing in corporate learning.  How are you approaching this at abrdn?

I think that’s interesting.  Having seen various iterations of academies over the years, I would agree that focusing on capability is the best approach. I would say that though because it’s the approach we’ve taken.

Our first academy was launched in 2018 and focussed on management and leadership capability. Since then, we’ve launched further academies to support digital, data and change capability. 

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of linking academies too closely to a business function or area. From personal experience, what quite often happens is that the business goes through structure changes and the academy becomes outdated. You also have the risk of duplication across academies. When you focus on capability, you can dial up and down as needed, but you can also continue to develop the academy as the specific skills, knowledge and expertise you need change.

Ultimately, I think the great thing about this model is that capabilities are enduring, and you can replicate the approach relatively easily. 

Why do you think capability academies are important from a people and business perspective?

From a business perspective capability academies are a great way of focusing attention and energy on the skills, knowledge and expertise that will drive the future of the organisation. They are a vehicle to support change.

In my experience they also can cater for a wide audience … from technical experts to leaders.  From a people perspective, not only are they great for developing skills and careers, but also they are a demonstration of the investment being made in employees.  Importantly, by catering for different needs and audiences, no one is excluded. 

When it comes to capability academies, how have you engaged with business leaders on this topic, are there successes or learnings that you can share with the readers?
We’ve involved the business in both the development and delivery of these academies, making use of the great expertise that exists. Importantly, we’ve helped others share their work on a wider scale than they’d previously imagined. 

Our data academy has seen our data community play a pivotal role in delivering a literacy programme, which was highly appreciated in the company.  They’re also recording podcasts with leaders and sharing these through our learning platform. Our data science team did a brilliant series of webinars about the prototypes they’d developed for the business. This was a great way for them to share their story and also potentially generate more projects they could support. Very shortly, we’ve a series of design thinking sessions being led by internal experts as part of our digital academy.  This is another hot topic for us and supports our focus on our clients and customers.

My key learning points from developing this type of academy are to make sure the capability is a) one the business really needs b) has a large enough audience to make it feasible and c) has breadth so it can support a wide range of needs.

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