For the 2018 Corporate Learning Week – Silicon Valley conference, Matt Nawrocki and I from NovoEd acted as the chairpersons for the conference. Speakers and attendees came from a wide variety of organizations, across the U.S., and even abroad, to share their challenges and insights into today’s learning and development challenges. The theme of our conference was “Humanize the Digital Age”. Our location was in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco, the city’s most well-known tourist area, near the northern tip of San Francisco, with a hill right next to us where one of the iconic cable-car lines turns around, and where you can spy the orange rust-colored Golden Gate Bridge. This was actually a very fitting location because all of the attendees were convening together to step away from their day-to-day lives, and like, tourists, ready to see things with fresh eyes..

There were a great many interesting conversations, talks, and interactions at the conference. Here are five key themes that we observed from our perspective:

1. Nearly all companies are trying to transform themselves and see employee development as a keystone to transformation

There were large organizations, such as Facebook, Publicis, Yum! Brands, Edward Jones, and smaller successful former startups, such as Credit Karma, Atlassian, and Okta. All of them were dealing with rapid changes in their industries. Size doesn’t protect you from disruption. Size doesn’t insulate you from external forces that are rapidly accelerating. Size doesn’t affect your need to keep and develop your employees to be highly engaged and appropriately skilled to meet the challenges your organization is facing. Thus, across companies, across industry sectors, we saw a renewed commitment to developing the skills of employees, for two reasons:

  1. to increase employee engagement to keep and attract talent
  2. to build up the crucial skills needed for the organization’s employees to lead it into the future

The skills that participants were focused on, surprisingly, were the higher-level complex human-related skills: leadership, collaboration, problem-solving, and others. Though the need for technical skills training is perhaps greater than ever, those skills can be taught in a much more straightforward manner, through established training programs, boot camps, or libraries. This is where the theme of “Humanize the Digital Age” resonated. As the digital environment is becoming more complex, the increasingly critical skills include how to navigate that environment and work with others to leverage it as much as possible.

2. A key to business transformation is establishing a culture of learning

The business transformation efforts at these organizations are comprised of many things: determining the right corporate strategies, taking stock of existing skills and competencies, and determining critical gaps, then training or hiring to fill those gaps. A key aspect of transformation initiatives is generating a strong sense of urgency within the (sometimes complacent) organization. Thus, organizations need to create a mindset shift so that employees see the need to change and are motivated to act differently, based on what the organization needs. Thus, In the learning arena, the key is not just to supply the “right” training to the right people, but it is to establish a learning culture, where everyone is always striving to improve and update their skills – acknowledging that there is no cliff to mastery, that the treadmill never stops. The only way to truly mobilize people in such an environment is to have people see the treadmill as healthy exercise, to make us fitter for changing environments, rather than as a Sisyphean task where the ball is rolling downhill to the same starting spot.

So what have organizations been doing to build this culture of learning? Many are starting with leaders, revitalizing their leadership development programs to address some of these skills and mindsets. One participant talked about his organization’s high-potential leadership program, which intentionally puts emerging leaders in cross-functional groups to solve significant problems, in an effort to break down silos. Another talked about how her growing company is judiciously using executive coaching to establish goals and improvement plans for its promising leaders. Beyond the leadership level, L&D departments are looking to provide better quality learning experiences to all of their employees, through portals, platforms, and content libraries, and glue them together with recommendations or social connections to help personalize these for employees and contextualize them within the company values.

3. It is important to make early moves, to allow time to learn

The field of learning, as corporate L&D veterans know, is filled with a graveyard of fads and trends that are as predictable as flies circling honey. The same might seem to be true with all of the talk of various technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR). The examples of where these are being utilized are pretty thin and the use cases tend to be specialized. It is easy to understand skepticism and it seems safe to take a wait and see approach–by getting up to speed on these technologies, and bringing in training content for employees  (side note: for a great community learning journey on AI for HR, see this course)  –but to avoid committing too much until more beneficial use cases materializes.

But this would be a mistake. These technologies are already taking hold in other areas of our lives –from Netflix recommendations and newsfeeds to military training and disaster planning. The rate of change of these solutions is changing so fast that once the treadmill starts going at breakneck speed, you already want to be on it. One of the sponsors of the conference, Inspired eLearning, had a demo running of a VR environment where through a headset, you could work through a scenario to catch security procedure lapses in a virtual work environment. When you are able to make the learning visceral by engaging more of the senses, it goes a long way in making learning stick.

An even bolder move was made by the advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe. Sr. VP Carol Sinko talked about a major initiative at the firm, a digital personal assistant to help employees (who opt-in) to provide information from across the company’s entire only resources, to answer their questions, via their phones. This personal assistant is called ‘Marcel’, after the company’s founder. This bold bet on technology can help with a services firm’s biggest challenge, knowledge sharing across industries and geographies. The upside of the benefit necessitated a big move to try to realize the benefit, particularly in a fast-moving advertising & media industry, with growing numbers of niche players.. Needless to say, the audience was surprised at the level of commitment put into bringing the Marcel app into existence.

4. It is inevitable that we all need to become technologists

A good deal of the conversations had to do with technology, not because this was a technology conference, but because technology is transforming everything about learning and is on everyone’s priority list. We had a good session from BJ Schone of Atlassian (itself a great technology company, serving software development teams within organizations). BJ walked us through his journey of exploring and selecting a learning experience platform (LXP), a growing category of tools that provide a portal-type experience to collect and serve up learning objects to employees (and outside third-party content). It was a whirlwind tour and introduced us to a dozen vendors in the space. \(As a note, my own company’s platform, NovoEd, provides a deep learning experience for critical learning journeys, such as leadership or onboarding, and integrates to allow an LXP or an LMS as the front end to launch those learning journeys).

All of us now need to become, to some degree, technologists. We have to be savvy enough to understand the new emerging ‘tech stack’ of product and solution categories that enable learning within organizations. L&D leaders can always hire technologists to help advise on those decisions, but these technologies will affect the learning experience and user experience of our learning programs. Thus, we each have to pick up this mantle and become savvier technologists. We need to be able to see where the holes are in our tech stack, to understand how AI algorithms could play a role in various situations, and establish some broad vision for how these different tools would work together and serve our various needs in service to providing better, more effective learning and growth for our employees.

5. The key still boils down to the human elements

The final takeaway was the most prominent one at the conference and flowed throughout the conference. In the face of all of the business challenges, and in spite of all of the focus on technology, was the focus on the human element. As one of the participants said between sessions,

The more powerful machines get, the more human humans have to be.

Some discussion around leadership development focused on finding ways to provide more one-on-one coaching to leaders, and getting people to work together cross-functionally in groups. The conference started with Lindsey Caplan talking about in-person gatherings and how to to get the most out of them. We ended the first day talking about the power of story, with a talk from Kevin Finke, Chief Storyteller at Experience Willow. Kevin noted that storytelling is at least 40,000 years old, with deep established resonance with how humans operate. The challenge he posed to the group was whether we tell learners the story of the learning journey we want them to embark upon or the “story of the course”? So much training content is labeled with a simple description or learning objectives but doesn’t tie that to what this means for people. The theme of “Humanize in the Digital Age” was fully reflected in our sessions and conversations.

Overall, it was a stimulating conference, largely because of the diverse people and organizations represented, and the discussions that we were able to have. People freely shared their challenges, how their organizations are tackling them, and I believe everyone came away from the conference with several “Aha”, “I didn’t know that”, or “That’s a great idea” moments. In this rapidly accelerating age, when we are trying to operate at the important crux of learning, technology, and transformation, it is helpful to find a like-minded tribe. We all made connections that we hope will endure beyond the conference.