4 Lessons for Building a Learning Culture from Slack’s Head of L&D

Ariel Hunsberger

Head of L&D at Slack

July 12, 2018

Over the past several years, the landscape has started to shift for Learning & Development (L&D) professionals. Whereas we once spent the vast majority of our time and energy simply trying to build buy-in for learning initiatives, my peers and I are now seeing a widespread understanding of the value of learning programs. At Slack, we have amazing levels of support for learning throughout the organization, so my team and I spend less time building the case for L&D programs and more time thinking about how we can use learning to define and shape our culture. It’s been great to be part of this evolution, and for L&D professionals to be able to devote our creative energy to thinking about what kinds of learning offerings will help us create companies where everyone can thrive and grow.

I was recently invited to speak on the Udemy for Business People Innovators Panel in San Francisco, where I shared my experiences as an L&D professional and my approach to the “big, hairy, audacious goal” (BHAG) of building a learning culture. These are a few things that I’ve learned along the way and that guide our approach to L&D at Slack.

1. Let employees choose their own path and remember learning is social

One of our L&D program’s guiding principles is to allow employees to choose what they want to learn. We decided that none of our L&D programs should be mandatory, except for compliance and security training. We opted to take this “pull approach” to learning because adults learn better when it’s their choice and people absorb more information when they have chosen to engage in the learning experience. We offer a wide variety of learning opportunities both online and in-person and let our employees choose what interests them the most.

Our in-person trainings are not only a learning opportunity but also a social and team-building opportunity. A huge draw for our learners is the chance to meet other team members and hear about what their peers are doing and learning. As a result, we build in plenty of time for discussion and hands-on learning so employees can interact with each other. Getting to hear a talk by an expert will draw a good audience, but the chance to meet peers and understand their work is an even bigger incentive. As our organization grows, people don’t always know what their coworkers are doing every day, so attending a training provides an opportunity to build community and strengthen relationships and empathy between different parts of the org.

Slack’s platform is a collaboration hub, and it’s also ideal for delivering bite-sized chunks of just-in-time learning. People can self-serve information when it’s relevant—it’s as easy as doing a search through a Slack channel to find the resource or link they need, or checking the pinned items for that channel. This enables employees to learn and absorb information at their own pace, and access guidance exactly when they need it. Slack can also serve as an online social channel that keeps the learning conversation going post-training and lets employees recommend relevant courses or articles to their peers, and ask each other for advice long after the in-person workshop concludes.

2. Tap into the natural passion employees have to be teachers and mentors

Even if you’re an L&D team of one, you’re never really alone. You likely already have people at all levels of the organization who regularly give talks at conferences or in other forums. Don’t be afraid to add these people to your roster of instructors and presenters—it’s great development for them as well!

At Slack we’re lucky to have dozens of courses on engineering topics that are taught by internal facilitators who raised their hands to share their knowledge and experience with their team members. As an L&D team we know that we don’t need to be the source of knowledge on everything ourselves—instead we should always leverage our internal experts, from individual contributors to executives, to give talks and facilitate learning experiences.

We have several mentoring programs started by employees with the goal of supporting under-represented groups, and making Slack more inclusive and more welcoming. There’s been incredible momentum within the company by employees who want to help mentor our new hires and make them feel at home at Slack. It’s great to have the entire organization saying “How can I help?” and “How can I make this a place where everyone can succeed?” Creating a diverse and inclusive culture is not something any individual team can do alone. Instead, we have to tap into the enthusiasm and energy of our employees to help the company achieve our goals.

3. Create a high bar for transparency and feedback

We have a high bar for transparency and candor at Slack. Not only do we make all our L&D discussions and materials available to everyone, but we make the majority of our channels public and share all of our post-workshop feedback through those channels. Every comment goes into the public channel, so the entire organization can see what people liked and what they didn’t like about each learning experience.

My heart definitely beats a little faster when those feedback channels light up—but it’s how we learn what worked and what didn’t. Our L&D team does a great job of modeling how to receive feedback, and the channels allow us to show how we use this feedback to constantly adapt and improve our learning programs. To reinforce this culture of feedback, we also publicly recognize people who provide their input and reward people for displaying their vulnerabilities. When our L&D team teaches people how to give and receive feedback and then puts this behavior into action, it goes a long way to spreading a culture of feedback at Slack.

4. Make sure learning is not too far away from everyday work

At Slack, we think about work as learning and learning as work. We build this expectation with our employees throughout each learning experience and touchpoint. We hold individuals and managers accountable for driving learning by integrating it into employee performance reviews. We also make sure learning opportunities aren’t too far away from the work people do every day. For example, our employees are already using Slack to collaborate on projects in channels with their teammates. They can then easily jump to our learning channels to get answers to key questions on their projects, whether it’s how to use our data structures or how to give feedback effectively. Learning and work both take place within Slack. For us, learning is only ever a click to another Slack channel away.

Finally, it’s important to remember that creating a learning culture is not a single moment; it’s an ongoing process. I hope the learnings I’ve shared here will spark some ideas for you to try out at your organization—and I’m always happy to chat and share ideas with other L&D folks!

Get more tips on building a learning culture from me and my L&D peers on the People Innovators Panel. Check out our event recap blog and watch the full panel recording here.

Ariel Hunsberger is the Head of L&D at Slack and a speaker at a recent Udemy for Business People Innovators Panel in San Francisco. She’s an educator and facilitator with a background in language acquisition, and she loves thinking about how to provide learning and growth at every stage of employee experience.
Slack is the leading global collaboration hub that makes people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant, and more productive. From global Fortune 100 companies to corner markets, businesses and teams of every kind use Slack to bring the right people together with all the right information. Slack is headquartered in San Francisco, California, and has eight offices around the world. For more information on how Slack makes teams better connected, visit slack.com.

About Udemy for Business:

Udemy for Business is a learning platform that helps companies stay competitive in today’s rapidly changing workplace by offering fresh, relevant on-demand learning content, curated from the Udemy marketplace. Our mission is to help employees do whatever comes next—whether that’s the next project to do, skill to learn, or role to master. We’d love to partner with you on your employee development needs. Get in touch with us at business@udemy.com

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