Kelly Palmer spent the early years of her career deep in Silicon Valley’s trenches of product development and corporate strategy. But one day she had what she calls a “mid-life career crisis,” and pivoted her own journey into the world of corporate learning. She went on to run the Sun Microsystems learning group, and as she got to know the greater ecosystem, realized how antiquated most approaches were. In 2012, she moved to LinkedIn to build their learning organization from the ground up, and then on to Degreed, an online learning platform for both business and personal development. In the new book she co-authored with David Blake, The Expertise Economy, she explores how to arm the new workforce with the skills and expertise they’ll need to succeed.
On what drove her to write The Expertise Economy along with her co-author, David Blake:
There’s a real learning gap in corporate America and the need for change in our area has never been greater. The pace of work in today’s world is moving faster than ever, thanks to the digitization of work and automation of tasks. We looked at the current state of learning and wanted to provide a guide on how people can stay relevant, and how business leaders can make sure their employees have the skills and mindset they’ll need to succeed in the future.
On how leaders should think differently about corporate learning:
In the past, most companies have tried just sending people to training and checking the box, thinking that’s all it takes to keep employees happy and knowledgeable. But there are two things that stand out about what companies should be doing differently: First, leaders need to establish a skills quotient—an understanding of what skills your company and employees already have. Once you have a score, you can set your future goals both for individuals and the organization. Second, leaders need to understand the huge role that technology plays in moving learning forward. We talk about creating a truly personalized learning ecosystem for each employee. Companies need to take advantage of AI and machine learning that helps re-think what learning can be, and allow people to access content that will help their own journeys.
On the emerging field of talent analytics:
There’s more data around learning than most people might think. There’s industry data to understand benchmarks, which skills are in high demand, and which will continue to be in demand. But there’s also data at the company level, the organization and team levels, and the individual level. A combination of all this data will tell the story of how your learning program can be effective. You also need to look across countries—in the book, we give the example of Singapore’s government, who rolled out a program providing all citizens with access to training programs around target skill sets needed in the country. The government made the decision to invest in their people, but first needed to understand the gaps. Any organization can do the same thing—start at a high level and work your way down to the individual.
On the question every CEO needs to ask themselves:
“Do I actually know what skills my employees have?” I’ve found, for most CEOs, the answer is no. Most people have been hired for certain skills related to their core job function. I’m a great example. I was hired to be Chief Learning Officer at Degreed, and also at LinkedIn. But if you were to ask my boss, “Do you know what other skills Kelly has?” Well, they probably don’t. They may not know that I used to run acquisition integration for corporate strategy. Every employee has skills outside their core competency that could be important for other parts of the company at different moments of need.
If you think about it, the biggest problem we’re trying to solve is that people don’t stay at companies for their whole career anymore. The average is now four years, but with younger employees, it’s now two years. And why is that? Because people want to learn and grow and have new challenges in their work. And, usually, they’ll move on when they feel like they’re plateauing in terms of skills. That’s because companies aren’t good at creating internal career marketplaces for their talent.
Imagine if CEOs thought of their talent as assets; if they could not only help their people learn and grow, but help the company win in the long run. Companies like Microsoft are doing this now, focusing on a growth mindset. They’re growing people from within the company, understanding the skills they have and the skills they need. Satya Nadella, their CEO, embraces the growth mindset, saying, “I want people who are learn-it-alls, not know-it-alls.”
On the old thinking of “why should I train someone so they can leave and use those skills somewhere else?”:
We’ve done research on this. If you look at data from the World Economic Forum and other sources, you can find the patterns. Reid Hoffman wrote a book about this, called The Alliance, that I’d recommend. People are saying, “I don’t necessarily want to switch companies. I want to grow. If I get another opportunity within my own company, that would be fantastic.” There’s data showing people will stay at your company longer if they’re given new opportunities to learn within your environment.
“Forward thinking companies encourage employees to learn every day, all the time.”
On corporate training’s brand problem:
Corporate training needs to be reinvented, and it won’t happen if we keep doing the same things we’ve done in the past. The reality is that training is much more complex than people realize. You can’t just sit someone in a room with a PowerPoint presentation and claim that they’ve been trained. The one-size-fits-all mentality doesn’t work. So how can we change that?
The default place for training has always been inside of HR. And that makes sense on one level, because it has to do with people. I’d bet the majority of people running learning in corporations are HR generalists who really want to help people to learn. But they really don’t know anything about learning, or they outsource it to a vendor who really doesn’t know a whole lot about how people really learn either. HR, in many companies, is designed for employee relations, compliance, and covering the company’s liability, but not necessarily employee development.
We’ve seen examples of companies starting to move learning outside of HR. Visa, instead of hiring their chief learning officer in the HR group, put the function in the strategy organization. Aviva in the U.K. created something called the Digital Garage for digital transformation and learning, completely outside of an HR organization, as part of their larger digital strategy. There’s a section in the book about treating learning as a product, which we’ve seen companies moving towards as well. As the chief learning officer at Degreed, I work for the CEO. I don’t work for HR. I think we will be seeing more of these shifts as people realize how critical learning and skill-building is to the future of companies.
On teaching employees outside of their core skill sets:
I’m a big supporter of setting a learning budget and allowing the employee to learn whatever they want. What we’re trying to do is create a learning culture, regardless of if the content is for personal or work-based growth. In most companies, training is something people hate, some mandatory compliance training that they can’t stand. So, we need to help change the perception of training, flip the concept to something they’re excited about, to feel like is a part of their larger career growth. Forward-thinking companies encourage employees to learn every day, all the time.
Learning, by itself, is one of the most important skills people are going to need moving forward. It’s going to become more and more important for people take it upon themselves to figure out what’s new, which emerging trends they need to understand. Your employees that love learning are going to be the most valuable employees. Learning agility—the ability to constantly, continuously learn and build skills—is going to be one of the biggest skills that you can have moving forward, and it should be part of every CEOs hiring plan.