Take aways from the ‘Corporate Learning & Corporate Universities’ conference

Read what impressed Nathalie Verbinnen, learning & development partner at TUI, during her attendance of the conference “Corporate Learning & Corporate Universities” (Berlin 6th to 9th June 2017). She signed up for this event with two clear goals. 1. “#learn”: get more practical insights on the main trends in corporate learning. 2. “#howto”: how do other organizations cope with the impact of the digital revolution and learning. 

I had the great opportunity to attend the conference “Corporate Learning & Corporate Universities” last week. I signed up for this event with 2 clear goals:

  • “#learn”: get more practical insights on the main trends in corporate learning
  • “#howto”: how do other organizations cope with the impact of the digital revolution and learning

Well, I’m happy to say, both objectives were met during this conference. Because of the quality of the sessions and the speakers. And because I met great colleagues from all kinds of organizations, all dealing with the same challenges as me. We managed to exchange a lot and share our good practices and challenges.

I’m not going to summarize objectively every session I attended in this article. My ambition is to share with you what I did take away and what I intend to apply, adapt or try. So, what you are going to read is quite a subjective view and personal reflections on the several interventions I attended

Part one: for the fans of “one liners”

I choose to start with a list of quotes and citations that I somehow managed to gather together during these 4 days. And that did inspire me – or forced me? – to reflect on my own today’s practices in learning: are those really future proof enough?

“How do you motivate people to learn?” – “First of all, get out of their ways”

I like the tone of this quote, reminding us, learning professionals, that we cope with adults, not with children. These adults know what they want to learn, they rely on us for the “where” they can find learning content to do their job. They don’t need us to take them by the hand and tell them “how” or “when” they have to learn.

“Learning is working and working is learning”

Do pursuit the transformation of learning & development from old to new learning. Where the principles of 70-20-10 are crucial insights. Stop trying to formalize learning and quit the quest for the holy grail of ROI on learning (where organizations already spent many years trying to translate the effects of learning into spreadsheet material. Just to prove the utility of training and their own reason to exist within organizations). It all happens in de “70” part of 70-20-10. And that’s during the job, not beside it. Still need a proof of the effect? At the end of a project, just highlight the learning elements that occurred during the project. And help managers/leaders to do so as well.

“Your best people are your best trainers”

Again, 70-20-10 applied to the best: peer coaching and mentoring is your most effective source. Where external trainers, facilitators, consultants can sometimes help you get new insights or an outside view on some topics, your own colleagues are the specialists within your organization. They are experts on their field of work and best positioned to share specific knowledge and skills. They not only are able to take care of learning transfer, they do so using the company own language and specific culture (without even being aware of doing so, it’s natural to them). So open the way for them, create the context that they need but don’t instruct them (too much).

“Reward your “learn-alls” instead of your “know-alls”

Not existing expertise matters most, the ability to gather new expertise and skills is the most important behavior. Reminding me of another quote by Arie De Geus: The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be only sustainable competitive advantage. Reward the ones that do invest time and efforts in getting better at what they do. Those who work on keeping up with their knowledge and skills in our VUCA world and share it with their colleagues. Those are your top performers, not the ones that are recognized experts but don’t share their knowledge within your organization and use this knowledge as a power to stay above others.

Part two: my – very – subjective summary of the sessions that inspired me the most

As I am a brave student, I did follow the whole program and attended every single session during the 4 days conference. Because one size does not fit all, some sessions (however very well brought) were less relevant to me. This is the reason why I will only write about the ones that did appeal the most to me: inspiring, challenging my beliefs, pushing me out of my comfort zone, or very practical and easy to apply.

# Pre-summit workshop: a corporate learning hackathon

Martijn Rademakers and Stefaan van Hooydonk were in charge of kicking off the congress and they did it in a very effective way. As this workshop was a “pre-summit” activity, not all participants to the congress were already attending. Still, with about 30 learning and development professionals their challenge was to get us all to work and have a hackathon on “how to be strategy-driven and learning centric” at the same time.

Martijn and Stefaan gave us both their point of views and insights on learning. Martijn did a short presentation on the principles of strategy-driven learning, Stefaan did the same about the leaner centric approach. We were put together in 4 teams and asked first to reflect individually on the content they shared with us. What are your thoughts, ideas, questions,… after having heard more about both approaches, and write it down on pot-its. Then we had to share our own reflections with our group. Post-its were put on the walls, clustered by topic, explained to each other and we received the instruction to keep only one of them for each approach (strategy-driven learning and leaner centric). Not only the outcome, also the process mattered. So for example, my group was composed of 4 different nationalities, what did kind of  forced us first to check our common understanding of the words we used (as English was not our native language, but even so, to be certain that everybody gives the same definition to key words or “container” terms (like f.e. “disruptive”, “agile”, …). During the clustering of our ideas and questions, we decided not to follow the given structure of keeping both approaches separated. Clustering by content just worked better for us. We were quite proud of our result and our “unconventional” way of playing the game.

Content wise, the most important “take-aways” for me are the following. What collaborators want to enable them to learn is mainly freedom. Coaching and mentoring, no classroom or e-learning. Learning and development should act as a GPS, not as a pre-defined path. They give the destination they want to reach, we give them different itineraries between which they choose (fast, short, avoiding traffic jam… the same choices you can select on a GPS). We need to empower people to learn in a “pull” approach, not a “push” one. At Flipkart (the company Stefaan is working for), collaborators are even given a 300 USD budget a year in order to fund their own learning, the way they want. Only 3 % of the 30.000 employees use it for non-professional learning. But even so, those non-professional courses (like f.e. photography) enable cross-department contacts and stimulate the organization fluidness as a result. The main achievement results in “I learn – WE grow”. Another keystone of this approach consists in the “it’s not about learning, it’s about sharing” principle.

From Martijn’s approach of strategy-driven learning, I couldn’t agree more on the essence of giving employees purpose. Communicate clear goals and strategy, be open and transparent on the results that are expected. Everyone needs a sense of direction, we need to deliver a collective sense of the direction our organization is going to. And what is core to every organization? Culture of course, that provides, in a certain way, stability in a disruptive VUCA context. Even if the outside world and the market we are acting in is constantly changing, company culture gives us stability. The culture is the result of our common preferences (the DNA we share). As learning and development professionals, we do need to  provide a layer of informal network possibilities to our organization. So that employees can (virtually) meet and share knowledge. As long as the goals are clearly understood, employees are enabled to draw their own learning path.

# Practical learning innovation – the Googley way

How keen was I to get some insights from the Googley way of learning… Marc S. Ramos started his key note with a promise: he would give us 5 practical take aways. First he showed us a short Youtube film – as a metaphor on our learning and development job: it’s like cowboys herding cats… because our very 1st mission is to serve the business and help those “cats” to succeed. Within Google, they have over 30 different learning functions, facing the same challenges as ours: diversity of age and culture, variability and change, being relevant to the business and having speed beating efficiency.

Take-away 1: G2G. Or “Googler to Googler”, meaning that your best people are your best teachers.

About 75 % of live learning at Google is given by own colleagues, 10 % of employees are G2G’ers. They share knowledge and competencies based on their own interest to do so and their own fields of expertise. Even non-professional topics are allowed (most funny one for me was a course on “how not to dance as 17 year old at a wedding”). I heard the same principle before (Stefaan at Flipkart): even if the course is not relevant for the job, it facilitates cross departmental contacts and collaboration as well as organization fluidness. Some gameplay rules apply though on the skills a G2G’er needs (8 project oxygen attributes).

Take-away 2: 3-act structure.

Or storytelling as the most efficient communication way for leaders and for employees. As in every good movie or novel, every good story is built on 3 acts: setting the scene, confrontation/issue to solve/challenge and resolution. Inspired by Noël Burch, this also relates to the 4 stages of competence principles.

Take-away 3: one size doesn’t fit all.

Work with “personas” to help employees find out which learning styles do fit for them. Applying the user experience approach and creating personas help them understand their motivation to learn and help us (learning and development professionals) to identify who our learners are and how to serve them in the best way.

Take-away 4: do pre-mortems.

When facilitating workshops or strategic meetings, use gamestorming techniques instead of brainstorming, those are more effective. In a nutshell: brainstorm the “what ifs” – name and address the elephants – resolve.

Take-away 5: appealing material design.

On material.io, some useful guidelines when creating learning material that must be attractive and visual strong.

# Building the roadmap to true 21st century learning

An audience-driven panel discussion that started with the old mantra: convince your leaders. And if you didn’t succeed yet, you have to try harder. Further here are the advices and opinions that were shared during the discussion.

Learning has to be integrated as a main asset for surviving your competition. Facilitate learning, don’t organize it. Serve the business, not your own HR processes. Be creative, training is not the answer, 70-20-10 is, so get the root cause of the learning need and educate your leaders in applying the “70” and the “20” on a daily base (as part of their job as a manager). Learning professionals should act as consultants to the business and not as a HR people. Starting from the organization’s strategy, l&d should provide e-learning and microlearnings (live or blended) that stimulate collaboration and networking through the whole company. Be marketers in order to promote the learning infrastructure you built, so that employees are free to find their own ways. Do align with the leaners using design thinking tools. All employees will have to learn more and faster in the future (and the future is actually today).

# Modern workplace learning

Dawn Livingstone, head global clinical development learning academy Bayer, shared with us how her own learning academy did shape up for the future. First of all, the team is not composed of HR profiles or trainers. She works with performance consultants, IT developers, marketers, graphic animators and designers, instructional designers…

As already heard before (during the panel discussion and other sessions), learning and development serves the business and the learner journey is as important as the customer journey. All the learning interventions are activity based learning (f.e. scenarios of issues that have to be solved, learners need to collaborate with others to achieve the learning). At Bayer also they work with “personas” in order to define learning styles and help the individual learner to create his own path. Here also, blended and bit sized learning do rule the place. The importance of good visual support (within learning but also in promoting the offer and infrastructure) is still growing. Therefore they use an easy tool to create augmented reality material (Layar). This in combination with the ancient old technique of storytelling as best vehicle for live sessions.

# Digital disruption

Dr. Reza Moussavian of Deutsche Telekom gave us a key note on the meaning of digitalization for HR, the whole workforce and the business. As mostly, it all starts with the leaders and the digital leadership. Pointing at the importance of virtual leadership, and self-management as a key skill, he uses gaming (f.e. Knack). Another important cornerstone of learning and development is the fact that employability is the responsibility of the worker himself. Providing them infrastructure and  tools to support them is the main activity of learning and development: open innovation, crowd collaboration, design thinking are the approaches that we do need to use more. Digital transformation for HR is all about connecting the dots between WHY (challenge the status quo) – HOW (explore, incubate and evangelize as new roles for HR)  – WHAT (understand the problem, simplify, prototype, fail fast, launch and learn as activities for HR). His advice is to start small, trust your employees as adults, remain human centric and… learn to unlearn.

# It’s not about perfect – it”s about doing!

Derek Bruce did a great job inspiring us with a honest and challenging story of how to apply Agile techniques to HR. Not the “container” word agile, the real practice of product ownership and sprints and backlogs…

As all organization, the ambition is to create a link between culture and vision of the company. And to act as a learning and development department that enables the company to realize its strategy by achieving goals on a daily basis. The starting point of the reflection was the challenge to fill some performance gaps and use technology in an optimal way because of the geographical spread of the workforce.

The key idea was to work differently as HR team. Because of the need to deliver solutions and leaning products, adaptive solutions to all kind of learners, technology based as vehicle. All those criteria brought to see the HR team as a developers team. So why not use the same management techniques and become agile.

Assessing the learning products that were needed, following requirements and principles were formulated around “learning moved towards 365…”:

  • Learning is a daily activity
  • Learning is something you do and share with your team and colleagues
  • The individual responsibility of the own learning according to the own preferences
  • Learning is measured by my successes and professionalism
  • Learning is technology supported, social and available at the own point of need

In order to familiarize the all company with the learning principles, this video was spread within the organization, and it explains it all very clearly.

Part 3: personal conclusions

I am certain that if another participant to the congress reads my notes, he or she would add a lot of other insights, or comment differently the sessions I wrote about. And this is the all point of learning. So if you did attend the congress and feel like adding or comment, please do!

As for me, I will mainly focus on the following topics for the months to come:

  • Work on a clear and efficient approach of the learners using personas
  • Remain relevant to the business and keep acting as a performance consultant rather than as a learning and development partner driven by HR processes
  • Investigate of the agile HR principles could help us speed up
  • Build further on the infrastructure (mix of tools, technology, live sessions,…) in order to let the leaners draw their own paths
  • Recruit more “G2G’ers” inside my company
  • Continue to stimulate collaboration and knowledge sharing between employees, using tools as Yammer f.e.
  • Help even more our leaders to communicate clearly on the company’s strategy and support them in thinking more “70-20” and less “10”

This blogpost was published before on Pulse and has been written by Nathalie Verbinnen, learning & development partner at TUI and former Group manager learning consultants at Wolters Kluwer Training.


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