Learning at big companies

By Marc Zao-Sanders

4 minute read

Working in L&D at a big company is a great distinction and privilege. The job - to help lift the performance, capability and sense of fulfillment and purpose of thousands of people - is crucial. It’s also difficult. Red tape, globally distributed workforces, multiple languages, diversity of cultures, tall hierarchies, and the pressures of a public listing are just some of the challenges faced by large firms. These high-level challenges are palpable for those working in learning and development. And L&D faces specific problems too.

Talking in-depth to frontline staff, L&D/HR and board over the past few years, we’ve observed some patterns with regards to how learning happens (and why it doesn’t happen) at large firms. We’ve focussed on five which we understand pretty well and for which we can be of help. Seeing that others are often in the same jam may be helpful to feel reassured that these issues are common, and to find answers.

1. Proliferation of content

Most firms have bought several large libraries of content. Each of those libraries contains thousands of learning resources. Typically they’ve been bought in by different L&D staff over a number of years and there’s a degree of dissatisfaction with the choices made. Evidence of the usage, enjoyment and impact of these assets is severely limited and distrusted (see next section). Contract lengths and dates vary so it’s impossible to make a clean break.

There’s a lot of proprietary content too. Also amassed over many years, pdfs, videos, PowerPoint decks, word docs, and other digital (and non-digital) content lies on LMSs, SharePoint sites, intranets, extranets, communications platforms, cloud storage sites and local hard drives around in, around and beyond the company. Most of it is obsolete but a sliver of it is immensely useful. Almost all of it goes untouched.

Between these two classes of assets (libraries and company-owned), there are usually tens of thousands of mostly unused content assets.

So cull, curate and personalize. Before we let magpie even get close to a client’s resources, we ask them to take a scythe and reduce reduce reduce. This cull is the most important part of the curation process and usually gets from 10k+ assets to under a thousand. We preach less. Of course 1,000 is still far too much for an individual to make sense of so you’ll need some further prioritisation / personalization which is what our skills-based algorithms do. And so the user experience goes from 10,000 to more like 10. Cognitively feasible.

2. Bad data

There are usually some issues with data. Missing data is common, even for obvious fields like job role. There’s also a lot of bad data (by which I mean difficult to use). Data can become bad for a host of reasons e.g. business process changes (like changes to names of departments), corruption, or it renders in the wrong format.

Combine this with a lack of data skills in L&D and it’s hard to achieve the outcomes L&D professionals would like.

So fix your data! We do this in a few ways. For user data, we built a configurable chatbot. We use it to get fresh data from users which inform our recommendations. Although the data should exist in a HR system somewhere (and we can ingest this when it’s good), it’s often not complete or ideal. So as long as the context and UX is clear and positive, users don’t mind a small, one-off batch of questions in a quick chat dialogue. For content data - specifically the skills to which resources relate - we use a mix of: mapping, our own master skills framework, human tagging and algorithmic tagging. In a couple of weeks of hard work you can transform a bad data situation into a good one.

3. Platform fatigue

Almost every member of staff we’ve spoken to says ‘please - not yet another system to log into’.  Platform fatigue is pandemic. L&D people get this and yet there’s still an average of over 20 learning technologies in large companies and this number is growing. There’s an unfortunate irony that the overwhelmed modern worker is not helped at all by the overwhelming array of technologies designed to help here. Even multiple content libraries with very different user experiences can be off-putting.

So only consider new solutions which blend in by design. We built magpie to make existing learning ecosystems work better rather than to add to the technology clutter. Single sign-on and APIs enable us to fade, helpfully, into the background. Then all magpie is doing is making personalized recommendations, whatever the format, whoever the provider, wherever it sits.

4. Compliance

The spectre of compliance looms larger at big firms. In some sectors it’s almost everything L&D is concerned with. The issues with compliance are many, varied and deep-rooted (they involve the regulators, society, history and culture) but the upshot is that staff just don’t like it. No-one - neither L&D, HR nor line managers - like administering it either (but if you have 10 minutes, do read this extended HBR article about improving compliance programmes). That’s not good in itself of course. But what’s worse is that it tarnishes the reputation of positive, proactive, elective learning, skills development and personal empowerment.

So separate mandatory compliance initiatives from elective development. They are diametrically opposed: one is reactive to a set way of doing things (regulation); the other is proactive and infinitely open-ended. This is so important. We often get asked if we are willing to have magpie point to mandatory training. In the past, we have (mistakenly) considered this (though we’ve never actually done it). Reactive training resources look, feel and are completely different to the things your staff might choose to learn, given the right circumstances. It’s misleading and undermining to cage them in a single LMS.

5. Lofty aspirations

Despite the issues (and no doubt many others) described above, the aspirations of CLOs (and some CEOs) for learning are lofty. Most would like to inculcate a culture of learning, curiosity and self-determination. They would like the technologies and content they buy to reflect that, to seed people’s working days with just the learning they need, just when they need it, just where they are. They would like learning to happen more and become a more accepted member of the work family.

So consider delivering that vision and aspiration - in 2019. magpie’s intended flight path goes well beyond L&D. We believe, as many others do (Jane Hart, Josh Bersin, Charles Jennings, Nick Shackleton-Jones to mention just a few), that learning happens better if it’s more intelligently interwoven with work. magpie’s general product direction (including APIs) is towards productivity and communications software (eg Slack and Teams), ie high-usage, ubiquitous work technologies. We believe that the future of learning lies in this positive expatriation and settlement...wherever work happens. We can be up and running with a 3-month proof of concept in a matter of weeks. We could then be rolling out enterprise-wide in under six months.

If any of this is interesting to you (the issues or our solutions) and you’d like to talk about it, please drop me a line. (marc@filtered.com)


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