Learning and development has become a huge focus for many organizations and individuals today, driven partly by the disruption of COVID-19 and the need to rapidly adapt. But are organizations going about their L&D strategies as effectively as they could? People Matters asked Nellie Wartoft, the CEO of mentor media startup Tigerhall, for her take on the challenges facing L&D today and how organizations can get more value out of their learning investments. Here are the highlights of what she shared.
There's plenty of content available these days, but the conversation seems more focused on how to get learners to actually pick it up. What are your thoughts on the matter?
Enterprise learning hasn't changed a lot in the last 10-15 years. Many companies are still investing in classroom training, and even for those which have moved to video learning, their platform is often not as user-friendly as it should be.
One problem with learning platforms today is that they aren't competitive in terms of ease of use. Instagram, Netflix, online shopping—these are all one-click functions today. But learning platforms still lag behind in comparison, and many learning tools are not mobile-friendly either. So if we want to make learning consumer-friendly, we need to make it more customized. A big part of that is design—UI/UX, how to tap into people's attention, how to meet people's expectations around content—these days, Netflix and other programming has raised the bar in terms of content.
And then you have the selection of trainers, both online and offline. Some trainers are great, with solid thinking and experience they can speak to. Some are out of their element because they don't have that subject matter expertise, or they come across as inauthentic because they try to teach content that isn't theirs. Some are credible, and some are questionable—for example, would you respect a leadership trainer who's never led a company? The choice of the person you learn from is a massive thing in learning. Look at Instagram or YouTube, where viewers follow individuals in a very natural way. If that could be incorporated into learning, it would really help with engagement.
Between "traditional" learning such as modular courses or formal workshops, and online learning that allows people to learn as and when they choose, what are the pros and cons? Is one approach more suitable for certain kinds of skills and knowledge than another?
I personally believe a lot in blended learning and using a wide variety of formats and tools. I don't think you can achieve everything with just one learning format—you can't educate an entire company just with classroom training.
Blended learning starts with a model that uses digital tools to provide a very high degree of convenience and allows people to tap into things on the go. And that model will provide 90 percent of learning because it allows you to cover the basic skills and the topics that don't require classroom training. Leadership skills are a good example of a topic that you can pick up just by listening to a seminar, or reading and then reflecting, without needing to sit through a workshop. On the other hand, if you're learning skills that require an instructor's guidance, like Excel or coding, it might make more sense to have an in-person class.
So you take that 90 percent of basic skills and consumerize them, make them convenient to access as and when the flow of work and life allows. And for that last 10 percent that needs learner to go really deep, you provide a more interactive, personal experience, whether in-person or virtually.
Also, when you design a learning program, you need to keep in mind that people have many different learning preferences. Some people learn better by reading, others learn better by listening. Some people need external processing—they need to meet people and interact. And other people need to practice the skill on the job to learn. The key to a properly personalized program is to utilize blended learning to match someone's learner profile.
How can employees' and their managers' better identify the kind of skills they need to acquire?
Everything has to start with self-awareness. That really should be the basic module everyone goes through first because it is the root of all learning. And after that, the decisions about learning have to be made by both sides. But many organizations take a very top-down approach: they have the attitude that "we are the employer and we know you best, so we will tell you what to learn."
The truth is, the employer doesn't know you best! If there's any platform that could be said to know you best, it's something like Google or Facebook, that has an enormous amount of data about your preferences and behavior, your browsing habits. So the question really is: how can a learning platform be more like Google or Facebook? How can a learning platform know you better than you know yourself? That's where the key lies—in tier two needs analysis, in machine learning, in user data. Many organizations still send out surveys, but the results you get from surveys are always going to be aspirational. People respond based on what they want to do or what they think they are good at, which isn't necessarily accurate.
Managers and leaders frequently express concerns that if people spend time on learning during the working day, they won't get their work done. What's your take on that?
Everything in any organization boils down to the attitude of the people at the top. If your top leadership doesn't believe in talent development, then time will always be an issue, because their focus will be on short-term goals and results.
The problem is, if you don't do learning today, you'll be fine. If you don't do it tomorrow, you will also be fine. But if you don't do it in the next five years, you'll be out of business. And very few people realize that. We're always interested in tomorrow, never in the five years. You only realize the mistake after you've reached that point in the future, and then it's too late. So organizations really need enlightened leadership to prioritize learning and spend time on it. And that's also where I think HR leaders can play a role, by starting small and building cases to prove the value to the leadership.
Have you seen leaders change their mind on that attitude? What convinced them?
For sure. One of the companies that we work with, for example, is a large global tech company headquartered in the US with about 8,000 employees around the world. They're trying to drive a mindset change for digital innovation and digital transformation, and what the leaders saw was that their direct reports started coming to them with solutions. And that is a massive difference for them because as leaders, they get people coming to them with problems all the time. Having someone come to them with solutions for a change—it's something they feel directly.
We also measure mindsets, to prove that people's attitude and mindset changes from the start to the end of an engagement, and leaders tend to be impressed with that as well. Behavior change is great, but the kind of mindset you have is what will drive the business forward or backward.
What about HR? Given that HR will be responsible for a good part of driving learning, where do you think they should start?
Self-awareness! That's not entirely a joke. Having dealt with HR professionals for close to 10 years now, I can see it's not easy for them. Very often, they don't have full awareness of what they can do to add value to the business, and there's also a little bit of fear—a little fear of technology, some insecurity about their own position, a lot of concerns about how they can get and keep a seat at the table, how they can have more business impact.
The thing is, the business impact comes through having the data and the technologies: making full use of these to understand what the organization needs, and with that understanding, creating the strategies you can apply to the organization to help drive initiatives like digital transformation.
And I do think at the same time that HR professionals can do a much better job influencing senior leaders to buy-in by using the right lingo. Use their business language, understand the business, understand what are the pain points for senior leadership. What is the hindrance to growth? What does leadership want? For example, if you have a leader who is very focused on revenue, and if you can pinpoint the fact that more revenue can be achieved if the salespeople are better relationship managers, then you can position soft skills training as being a good revenue strategy. Make it outcome-driven. That's a language I rarely see HR professionals speaking, and it's a core, actionable skill that HR leaders can focus on learning.