People Innovators: The Leaders that Will Flip Corporate Learning in 2017

Asking the question of whether or not your company should offer engaging learning opportunities is a waste of bated breath. Think back five years ago, when companies asked if they should be on social media? The answer is obvious now. Of course they should be. Those that didn’t invest in social media lost out to competitors and had a lot of catch-up to play over the last few years.

We’re in a similar mindset with L&D. Learning is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. We are convinced at Udemy for Business that the workplace learning revolution is here. Now is the time for action. At our 20th People Innovators Panel in San Francisco on December 8, we continued to pursue our vision for corporate learning by moderating a discussion around the ways people leaders are pushing the envelope to deliver better learning experiences at their organizations.

Death by a thousand decks

Old school L&D was all about presentation decks and ticking boxes. Today’s L&D is about innovating a whole new kind of training that is real-time, on-demand, and experiential.

“You’ve got to stop using the PowerPoint Deck on it’s own. It’s death by a thousand decks. Instead, there has to be human interaction and hands-on tinkering during your product or service trainings,” explains Cleve McMillan, Senior Manager of Education at the Dollar Shave Club.

For example, when training customer service agents on new products at the Dollar Shave Club, they let them get hands-on with all the products.

“Before our customer service reps get to see a product knowledge video, a one-pager, or even attend the product launch training, we send the product to them—in our case, shave lathers, shampoos, conditioners and body cleansers—in advance of the launch and with only the bare essentials on the labels. All they may know is that it’s a shampoo. This experiential training method allows them to explore with no boundaries and make up their very own personal views and opinions without the arm-bending marketing-speak. It was a real game-changer for us. On launch day, our agents were empowered with their own experiential stories and responded to inquiries using heartfelt authentic stories like my boyfriend loves this product because of x,” shares McMillan.

Through hands-on experiential learning tactics, Dollar Shave Club trains its customer service agents to communicate authentically about their products without the marketing speak and like they’re talking to a friend. The result? Dollar Shave Club enjoys higher customer satisfaction scores.

Transitioning from push to pull

Organizations are also moving away from traditional “push” learning models where learning is initiated from the top-down, to an employee-centric “pull” learning environment that blends the best learning experiences and pushes ownership onto the individual.

Valin’s employees came to their L&D department and asked to use Udemy for Business’ consumer-like and engaging video content. “As we transitioned from a push to a pull learning environment, we were one of the early adopters of Udemy for Business,” says Sue Czeropski, Director of Learning & Employee Development at Valin.

“Our sales team wanted to become more data-driven and one of our sales employees stumbled upon an Excel pivot table course on Udemy. He was so excited about the course, he convinced the VP of Sales and the rest of the sales team to take the course as well. Acquiring these new data skills has dramatically changed how our sales team views data and makes sales decisions,” explains Czeropski.

Building a culture of curiosity with the C-suite

As companies build a culture of learning, tapping into people’s innate curiosity is a key building block to better learning. However, this is only successful when there is buy-in from key stakeholders. If you don’t have the C-suite on board, change can’t and won’t happen.

“Our company infuses curiosity and learning into even the most routine tasks. For example, new product updates are released as discussions so people can ask questions. A culture of inquiry and dialogue is encouraged by our leadership,” shares Joanna Miller, Head of L&D at Asana.

Building a culture of learning also means being in tune with what employees want to learn. At Asana, they track the questions and issues that are trending on internal employee communication channels, and then tailor learning initiatives around those topics.

Word-of-mouth is the best metric for today’s millennial workforce

Although there are many ways to measure and track L&D programs, the most important metric comes from whether employees are willing to share the learning experience on social media or with their team. If the training was engaging and effective, employees should immediately want to spread the news. Beyond word-of-mouth, other key metrics included measuring engagement and usage, customer satisfaction, and how employees put their new skills into practice.

“For us, ​high ​engagement across the org​ and high manager engagement scores ​(meaning managers are doing a good job with their teams) ​​are really important outcomes​ of training and retained​ learning. We track employee engagement ​and manager engagement scores closely with data analytics and then dig in further by having lots of conversations​ and coaching sessions,” says Claudia Fry, VP of People at FiveStars.

“We have a pulse on whether ​managers​ are applying their new skills​ from the feedback we receive on the quality of 1:1s between coaches and team members and the follow through on those conversations to ensure employees are able to do their best work here​. Between those two metrics, we have a good idea on where managers stand with the tools we gave them.​ We ​design trainings to ensure that new skills can be used ​right away on the job​,” adds Fry.

At the end of the day, the main reasons employees thrive and stay at organizations is because of how they’re treated and the opportunity they have to learn something new. In the era of rapid technological change, people leaders that reinvent L&D will be likened to the premier social media gurus and leaders of 2008. They paved the way and were the first to the social media market. This is why focusing on L&D now should be at the top of every company’s agenda in 2017. That, or you’ll risk being left behind when 2018 rolls around.

Watch the full recording here:

Building a Grassroots Movement to Reinvent L&D

When I joined BuzzFeed 4 years ago, we had roughly 150 employees. We’ve grown to nearly 1,500 employees and although I personally don’t call us a startup anymore, we still operate like one. Our rapid growth has had positive but challenging implications for HR and training. We’re constantly promoting individual contributors to managers, searching for talent to fill new positions, and addressing organizational culture change in the context of an evolving environment.

Because we never stop learning at BuzzFeed, I wanted to share a few lessons around how we built L&D from the bottom up.

Build a grassroots movement at the individual employee level

People are hesitant about “corporate training”, especially when it’s top-down and mandatory. Instead, at BuzzFeed, we flipped the script and started at the individual learner level by building a grassroots movement for L&D. Rather than only tying L&D to business goals, we also looked at individual employee goals and how learning can help them address their specific challenges. Employees want action plans they can implement outside of the classroom. And they want it available on-demand when they need it. We innovated pilot programs with one team at a time in the beginning. When the rest of the company heard about what we were doing with the business team, for example, they also wanted to sign up for our new programs. This more organic, grassroots approach was highly effective in fueling a learning culture and reinventing L&D at our organization.

Crowdsourcing and community building in leadership training

The majority of our managers at BuzzFeed were new to their roles. This meant, as a company, we needed an effective leadership-training program. Like Google’s Project Oxygen, we crowdsourced the question on what behaviors make a great manager across our company. We distilled this into several key traits that make BuzzFeed managers successful, including being human and empathetic, communicating clearly and often, giving feedback effectively, and spending time coaching employees. We then built a learning and development program around these key behaviors we wanted to nurture in our new managers. We are launching a new manager orientation and recommended development path with a cohort community of other new managers. We combined formal training and a “Manager Manifesto” guidebook with informal meetups, slack channels, and on-demand online resources. The most important part is that we created a community of managers to share their ideas and support each other—and this has had a lasting effect.

The invisible hand of learning: blend formal and informal

As we grew in size, we started to innovate new ways to implement learning outside of workshops. We wanted to facilitate real-time support for real-time problems and fuel a kind of “invisible hand of learning”—where employees can seek out answers to their own questions. This involved blending formal and informal learning—reinforcing workshop sessions with on-demand online learning content as well as one-on-one mentoring. For example, we offered a “Coach’s Corner” which enabled managers to drop by and ask burning questions like “I’m about to do an interview, can you give me some key tips” or “How do I delegate more effectively?” These were real questions our managers were dealing with every day. We are also building out our video learning library that creates content in a very “buzzfeedy” way that’s unique to our culture.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I’d love to hear other ideas and lessons learned from your experience reshaping L&D at your organization. We are in the midst of an L&D transformation and there’s still much work to be done. We welcome any comments and ideas below.