In every sector, digital transformation has made customer focus more of a priority. But no more so than in FMCG, where brands are more comprehensively connected to their end user than ever before. So, how do you develop a workforce that lives up to new consumer expectations? Maybe by treating workers a little more like customers (and like people) than before. We spoke to Steve Thomas, L&D manager at Deckers Brands, about how his company is approaching new digital possibilities for FMCG. Read on to find out why the rise of digitisation hasn't meant the fall of human influence; in fact, it's meant the opposite.
What do you think is the most pressing issue facing the FMCG sector at the moment?
I think data analysis is the most important thing we’re missing. We need to know why people are and aren’t buying our products. Customers have so much more autonomy now - why are they looking at a product on our website and going to our competition? Why aren’t we targeting the right people with our products at the right time?
And do you think that’s something that is affecting L&D as well?
Absolutely. There’s so much data available now, but L&D needs to use it more effectively to provide experiences that actually resonate with people. Whether that’s through better personalisation and delivery, or just figuring out what content people actually use, there are so many insights it can provide.
When I look at what you guys are doing at Filtered, taking the data side and doing some really clever things with it so that it’s just set up and going. It emphasises how weak many L&D departments are in their data science skills.
All larger organisations have huge amounts of content in massive libraries that no one uses. We need to figure out how to engage learner populations, and data holds the key to that.
That use of data is much more established in other disciplines such as marketing. Are there other insights L&D could gain from looking at these?
Marketing’s a great example. It’s set up these days to be so customer experience-led and compelling in a sea of noise. You have to stand out to get heard, and we’re competing with that content overload for our people’s attention. Too often, L&D teams are completely self-absorbed and fail to ask themselves the key questions - why would someone care? We think we know what the business needs without actually asking the business.
When you look at tools like paid social, for instance. There are so many aspects that come into consideration, things like optimisation, return on investment, targeting. Reading people’s digital body language to pre-empt the kind of purchase - or learning content - they’ll need at any moment and making all the touchpoints far more conversational.
Also, branding is so important. The little things like having recognisable logos, colour and messaging all add up to a coherent experience that people want to come back to. And aligning those to your wider organisational mission gets people onboard and provides relevant context for them to reduce friction.
Have you found a pressing need to increase digital capabilities?
One thing I think we’ve been really good on is reacting to the COVID-19 shifts. Because more people are focussing on their health and fitness during the pandemic, they’re angling towards more our of fitness products, and because people are more into home comfort they’re keen on our slippers and comfort products. And we’ve been really good at shifting to capitalise on that.
That means giving teams the skills they need to be agile and react fast, for instance with our website team, updating the site rapidly to cover digital demand. When Selena Gomez and Rihanna were wearing our slippers on Instagram, that caused a big influx of customers - you have to be ready to take those kinds of opportunities!
What’s the biggest challenge in getting people digitally literate right now?
Trust. People don’t trust that L&D will provide them the experiences and takeaways they want because L&D doesn’t treat learners as consumers or clients, which is what they are. And most importantly, they’re human.
Learners are increasingly ignoring LMSs and going to unregulated, uncontrolled services like Google, YouTube, even TikTok, because it provides them the customer experience they have come to expect. Even if L&D has the materials, it needs to have the same customer-centric marketing approach as these big consumer oriented organizations to provide a great user experience. That means better branding, messaging, outreach, and data analysis, to give people the learning they want in the flow of work.
The shift to digital and working from home has subtracted the chance encounters you have in physical spaces. So, how are you thinking about creating those chance encounters again?
I think this, again, comes down to trust. You have to trust that people will take the time to engage in passive learning, not just facile conversation. In fact, I think trusting them, and not forcing learning onto them is the only way to ensure productivity. What we can do is just give them a location and let it happen, let social learning come to the fore. For us, that’s through Yammer.
What’s interesting though is that our store staff seem to be far more comfortable using the platform than our head office population. It might be a geographical thing, the store staff are in groups near each other whereas head office is less able to connect personally. Whatever the reason, I think that a big challenge for us to face is opening up the space for social learning higher up in the organisation.
We’ve talked about a lot of things L&D should do more of. Are there any sacred cows you think we should get rid of?
Where to start? There are way too many long-held traditions in L&D that have no evidence behind them and just don’t work. Take learning styles. Granted, we all learn in different ways, depending on the need, but a component we all miss is more simple than box grids, psychotherapy, even emotional intelligence: talking to people like human beings and treating them as such.
Also, more generally L&D needs to stop venerating ‘Learning’ or ‘Engagement’ and focus more on actual performance. The engagement and learning parts come from people feeling like you’re helping them do their job better.
We need to differentiate between training (systems and technical stuff to enable me to do my job) and development. Development is something more personal and helps you move forward as a person: grow, push your limits and boundaries.
Until we distinguish these two, and raise awareness of both, we're fighting an uphill battle.
No one wants to sit there and do an hour-long systems training or compliance course (those should go in Room 101 as well), so they’ll just psyche themselves up and get it done. And that’s what most people think of when they think of L&D. It’s bonkers to not try and move away from that as fast as possible.
What are you working on to futureproof learning in your business for the next 5 years?
One thing I’m doing to develop a learning culture is setting up a series of very open and free discussion workshops. I use pictures as starting points and just see where it goes. People really love the format.
I use the same pictures each time but the discussion evolves with each iteration and each group. It’s a really good way of democratising learning while keeping it structured in a way that supports the evolution of that learning culture. And just allowing people to put a face to the name - supporting the brand of L&D in the company.