Chris Pirie is the general manager of worldwide learning at Microsoft, focused on creating a digital, flexible, and scalable learning agenda that meets the needs of its global workforce of nearly 124,000 employees.
Pirie has had a front seat at the learning and leadership table for years, developing digital learning platforms at Oracle, serving on the board of the Association for Talent Development, and leading several NGOs in the space. He believes that digital disruption and the rapid pace of changing skills requirements are creating a ripe moment for the total transformation of corporate learning.
We discussed the trends driving the need for new learning strategies, and what leaders can do right now to best support the learning and leadership needs of their organizations.
Lisa Kay Solomon: Corporate learning and training have been around a long time. What’s unique about this moment in time?
Chris Pirie: Suddenly leaders care a lot about learning and skills at every level and across industry and the public sector. Building skills for the future used to be the exclusive domain of universities and colleges, with some gentle tweaking provided by corporate training departments to keep employees operating as good compliant citizens (see Starbucks) and prepare the workforce for their next role.
This is changing fast as skills development, and especially skills for the future, ramps up as a major preoccupation of our corporate and political leaders. There are several forces driving the accelerated change in the world, and thus, the urgency for organizations to ready and retool their workforces.
Here are a few of the most disruptive.
The Disruption of Digital Transformation. In the future (indeed now) many believe value will derive from data as much as from goods and services, and the skills and ability to collect, manage, analyze, and derive insights will be highly sought after.
The Rise of the Robots. The fourth industrial revolution is disrupting jobs at all levels, promising to automate white collar roles that were traditionally not impacted by automation. The shelf life of existing skills is shrinking, while new emergent skills are desperately needed.
The Demands of Modern Learners. What learners want and what they truly need may be at odds. Learners have less time to learn and want access to instant and more customized learning experiences, their expectations of “just enough, just in time, and just for me” access, customized experiences, and rich selection of media are set by their consumer experiences. But real learning—acquiring skills, understanding new paradigms, and changing behaviors—takes time and costs attention.
LKS: How has digital proliferation changed the nature of what we learn and how we learn?
CP: Thanks to the internet, both content and expertise are easy to access, but ironically hard to find. Content is often free and abundant, but this endless stream of content adds incredible pressure for the learner—there is now no excuse not to know, and yet it’s hard to judge the validity and provenance of the information. Do I take a corporate course or an online MOOC from a reputable school? Do I pay, does my organization pay?
As a result, many of the corporate training departments I meet with have a deep feeling of inadequacy.
Their traditional models of classroom and top-down knowledge transfer seem wholly inadequate for the task ahead. Across a number of surveys, a pattern is emerging: corporate leaders and employees want more impactful learning. But everyone (including the learning leaders themselves) demonstrates little confidence that training groups can respond in a meaningful way.
LKS: What do you see unfolding in the future related to corporate learning?
CP: The learning scientists are coming! Within corporations, we’re going to see a fundamental rethink of the role and responsibility of learning in organizations and the creation of a new type of learning organization. The learning scientists will draw on several disciplines to make time spent learning more effective and efficient, and to build a learning culture that unlocks the natural curiosity and learning prowess that we all have to provide competitive advantage to the organization.
Data Science. These hybrid experts will use the “digital exhaust” and apply sophisticated algorithms to search for behavior patterns to get a read on how knowledge and information flow through organizations and networks. Through these data-driven methods, we can see which meetings are productive, where pockets of expertise exist in the organization, who are the teachers, who are the curious, and what are the behaviors they exhibit.
Neuroscience. Secondly, we’re going to see continued progress in neuroscience to inform our understanding of how we learn and how the brain maps new knowledge and moves it from short-term to long-term memory. We’ll start to know what it looks and feels like to pay full attention and which social and physical conditions can accelerate or throttle the learning process. Organizations like NeuroLeadership Institute are codifying the research into workable models that help leaning designers to leverage those brain chemistry process and biases. I believe we will soon see diagnostic tools to help evaluate costly corporate learning programs against such standards and tools to help learning experience designers design for maximum impact.
Social Science. Thirdly, anthropologists and social learning scientists are exposing the inadequacies of the traditional corporate approach of “we’ll tell you what to think” against the natural state of curiosity and peer-to-peer teaching and learning that is always at work in organizations (but not always in service of the leadership strategy). We’re seeing the emergence of a radical re-think of the role of learning organizations, informed by social anthropologists, cognitive scientists, behavioral economists, and culture experts who are driving dialogue across the industry on the importance of engaging social and informal learning networks.
Computer Science. Cheap and ubiquitous computing power has already fundamentally re-shaped the learning process, particularly in the context of content development, search, social learning networks, and collaboration. As today’s knowledge workers use web hosted collaboration tools like Office365 and Slack, as well as professional networking tools like LinkedIn, they create a set of digital exhaust that is rich in information regarding how expertise and influence flow across an organization.
For example, agents/bots can recommend precise micro-learning content for a technical sales consultant based on the opportunities she is tracking in her CRM system and about to call on today—these engines learn from the research and learning habits of other sellers who have closed similar deals. How humans learn will likely not change, but the process will get a big assist as machine learning and AI specialists build technology that will help us gain new knowledge and skills more efficiently.
LKS: What can leaders do now to promote cultures and reinforce systems of learning within their organizations?
CP: In 2018, a Conference Board survey of the global C-suite revealed that talent and skills are the number one hot button issue for talent and organization leaders. Similarly, the Deloitte Talent Report for 2017 suggested that the phrase Learning Organization no longer referred to the training department, but was now a desirable posture for the entire enterprise. The role of the leader then is pretty clear: job number one is to care deeply about learning!
At Microsoft our inflection point was the announcement of our new CEO, a new corporate mission, and some deep soul searching on the need to shift from a “know it all” to a “learn it all” organization.
Here are three key approaches I’ve observed that Microsoft and other organizations are taking to build a deep learning culture to create sustained competitive advantage.
- Embrace a growth mindset culture by learning from failure, pursuing deep customer empathy, and celebrating curiosity
- Harness the social learning already happening across and between organizations and set your teams free to learn from customers and each other
- Remove friction. Use technology (whatever technology you have to hand) to build high-scale learning programs and knowledge networks that are woven into the fabric of work
Lastly, at Microsoft we are applying these approaches not just to our employees, but across our entire ecosystem, bringing modern learning culture and techniques to our partner and customer programs and building deeper customer trust by infusing learning principles into marketing and sales activities.
Teaching our customers and learning from them in equal measure is essential for both our own transformation and our customers’ digital transformation journey.