• A new world of learning

    SmartCEO and Drexel University gathered some of the region’s foremost experts on learning processes and techniques to weigh in on how learning has changed, and what companies can do to ensure their investment in developing employees pays off.

  • Learning together

    More than 20 Philadelphia-area executives gathered to hear the talent-development experts address the challenges of adapting learning processes to rapidly changing technology.

Talent development: Embracing learning as a process, not a program


Sponsored by Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business

Compiled by Tina Irgang

Photography by Zach Teris for David Michael Howarth Photography

This roundtable discussion was published in the July/August 2015 issue of Philadelphia SmartCEO. The following transcript reflects highlights of the discussion. It is not a complete transcript.

Training and development has always been a crucial issue for business, but the learning landscape has changed drastically as technology alters the ways we work with and process information. SmartCEO and Drexel University gathered some of the region’s foremost experts on learning processes and techniques to weigh in on how learning has changed, and what companies can do to ensure their investment in developing employees pays off.

Roundtable panelists

Larry Clark, VP of the Talent & Professional Development College, Comcast University
Moderator: Christian Resick, Ph.D., associate professor of management and corporate and executive education at Drexel LeBow College of Business
Rosa M. Colon-Kolacko, Ph.D., senior VP and chief diversity officer, Christiana Care Learning Institute
Somesh Nigam, Ph.D., senior VP and chief informatics officer, Independence Blue Cross
Dan Tropeano, executive director, UnitedHealthcare of Pennsylvania and Delaware

Click here to listen to the entire Roundtable discussion, or read an edited transcript of the conversation below. 

The learning organization

Why should companies consider instituting a learning organization? What are some of the benefits you have seen?

Nigam: I feel that we live in the age of Google. Traditional ways of learning, which were largely memory-based, leaders transferring their knowledge to their next generation of associates … obviously that paradigm has completely changed. The type of information all of us are getting flooded with, hosed with, whatever you want to say, will not allow you to use such a model to learn, a slow and steady way to learn. It’s a very dynamic environment, new information is coming in at an exponential rate. It requires organizations to respond in near-real time to retain their competitive position.

Colon-Kolacko: I think what is critical when you think about learning programs, is it’s more like a learning process. … In the past, there was an expert. Now we need to think about flipped classrooms and bring in the wisdom of the crowds, bring in the expertise that will augment the learning, in a way that’s not about the event. It’s more about how are we going to interact before that learning program, during the learning program, how can we connect that to motivation of the learner for the learning styles, and also the business goal that you’re trying to accomplish.

Tropeano: When I started in this business 20-something years ago, our cycles were probably two years. We could introduce a new concept, product, idea, and we could get a two-year run out of that. So you really had to train the person on whatever you were trying to do once in that two-year period. … Those cycles have shrunk to about six months now, and in all your businesses, you’re probably familiar with that as well. So we’re forced, whether we like it or not, to continue to have people’s thinking evolve with that six-month cycle. So training now went from a less regular thing to an all-the-time thing. … So we’ll start out initially, before a person may go to an event or some type of training thing, whether it is a one-day thing or a multi-month thing, there’s pre-work that happens in some type of technological format. So the basics are already taken care of when they show up, and you can really do more of the higher-end discussion and thinking. And then there’s typically a refresher at some point after the main event has taken place. And it’s usually months afterwards, to kind of just re-ground that person. But during that main learning, what we will typically provide them is real-world event issues, challenges that we’re experiencing in our business at that time, and as part of that learning, they will tackle with their colleagues that issue. And the real measurement for us sometimes is, did they tackle that issue, was a real-world solution developed that we were able to use, or could use or bring into our thinking?

Clark: I think every company, whether it’s in healthcare or finance, is now really becoming a technology company in many ways. … When I was at Microsoft, we got to a place in learning where we realized it took longer to build a training program for a new product than it took to build the product. And we said, we’ve got to really rethink learning altogether. Instead of programs and modules and things like that, we need to enable people to teach each other to become a true learning organization. So speed is one [thing]. The other thing is just complexity. The current model that we’ve got in business is that the organization operates like a machine, and there are people who are atop certain parts of the machine, and they’re kind of the experts who say what this part of the machine does. Well, that’s kind of changing because the complexity that’s in the landscape today, whether it’s regulatory or globalization or labor market issues or whatever, things are happening far too fast, and they’re novel situations that don’t really have precedent. So to expect one person who’s running a function to be able to tell the others how to respond to different situations is kind of foolhardy, and leaders are realizing this.

Learning process

You see learning as more of a process — can you talk to us about some of the operational changes and how you’re actually using learning as a process tool, as opposed to a programmatic tool?

Nigam: Let me throw in the concept of machine learning. … Often, it’s better to give an example to bring it to light. For example, a few years ago, if you were trying to figure out who is a likely diabetic, who will develop a complication that has to be addressed, you would go, “Let’s take a look at the family history or ask whether they have additional weight on their BMI.” … But what machine learning does, it takes suddenly thousands of variables, which no one individual can really even assimilate, and asks things that you would never have otherwise accounted for. Certain communities have higher incidence of diabetes, certain ethnic groups have higher incidence of diabetes, people who live alone develop complications faster, folks have various religious and social beliefs that could mean whether they’re taking their medications or not, so now we have a machine-learning-based algorithm which actually learns every day who is likely to become diabetic. … [Machine learning] is taking all that internal knowledge, feeding in real time, learning in real time and providing feedback in real time. That’s one tool that we have found to be extraordinarily helpful in teaching our primary health coaches what to act upon. So this is very different from classroom modules; this is live and there is live feedback.

Tropeano: Any time my people go to training, there is a cost that I incur, right? So I’m always considering the cost balance of it, and it’s expensive. It’s expensive to take a person out of their job and send them someplace, especially in a national company like ours, where to make the value of learning worth it, you’ve got to fly so and so in from California and Bill in from Texas, and these three people from Philadelphia. … So one of the things we’ve tried to do when we pull those people out is get more value than just the learning. … Three for one is the ideal on anything we do. How do you get three positive outcomes for one activity? So whenever we do a learning activity, we try to reduce the expense by doing pre-work to get some of the simpler learning done through use of technology. But we also use learning to solve real-world business problems. But here’s the thing that technology has done to our business: The interpersonal interaction has really been reduced. … In a company of 125,000-plus employees, when you’re trying to get something done, it’s about internal relationships, and unfortunately the guy that’s doing part of your work is in Hartford, another guy or girl is in Minnesota and another one’s in California. So we’ll use these learning opportunities to bring these people together.

Colon-Kolacko: I would like to introduce another concept that we call more integrated, inclusive learning. … When [you] are sick and want to be more healthy, you will have a very strong opinion on the best way to serve you. You will have knowledge [where] in many cases we may say, “Well, you’re not a clinician, so you don’t have any expertise.” But the idea is every time that we want to learn, we bring the patient-centeredness to the conversation. Then we try to blend a clinical perspective that some time in the past used to be paramount to that patient experience, and then use blended technology for simulation. So we have … mannequins that look like people. We have a woman that looks really much like a woman and she gives birth. And the idea is that we bring together the clinicians, the people serving the patients, and also the ancillary staff, and think about only that procedure. [But] how can be build a relationship, how can we bring diversity and inclusion, how can we be more respectful to the patient that we’re serving?

Clark: Technology has created so many opportunities in learning that it’s astounding. We’re just trying to absorb them all and figure out different scenarios we can deploy. One is just the process of learning over time. I don’t know if people are familiar with David Rock’s work at the NeuroLeadership Institute, but … one of the things he said is best around learning is allowing people to break up learning over time. … It’s very helpful for us to think about smaller bits and spacing it out. We do this through project-based work, through MOOC [Massive Online Open Course]-style learning. We just introduced a course in our organization that is MOOC-style. We had about 300 people across the country participate in this. [It was] called Exploring Leadership, and it took place over six weeks. The connection that people establish through that time and the learning and the going back and doing missions and assignments and then bringing it back and sharing with peers, all that was astoundingly better than if we’d had them in a classroom, just remarkably so. It was about the same amount of time, cost far less money, and people got a lot more out of it.

Nigam: That learning challenge becomes on a system-wide basis even more complex. How do you find that physician and change their behavior? We are showing them relevant information about what their outcomes are, showing them incentives we may have provided to change behavior and make sure that things like readmissions and better management of chronic patients happens … and what we have found is that earlier, we used to really deliver reams and reams of data to physicians, and they really had no time to take a look at it. And two years ago, we said, “Let’s change it and make it into simple visualizations and actionable information.” And suddenly the needle started moving because the direct link between that patient’s care and clinical staff to their own medical quality, and eventually the incentive, was all linked in one very simple visualization. So while we are thinking of solutions, I think data visualization should not be in the back seat. We need to bring it to the front and make sure complex information can be simplified using technology.

Cultural learning

Can you talk to us about any cultures or countries where you’re seeing specific differences we need to be aware of in the learning process?

Colon-Kolacko: I think working in so many different countries, one of the key lessons learned for me also has been thinking about the cultural differences of that particular population. When we think about diversity, we always think about only one thing — it’s race and gender. But in reality, there are so many differences in how people learn in different countries, how they manage change, how they can understand when you try to connect with them. … How can you design learning and change processes, customizing the process to that culture? … We were trying to translate everything into these different languages and spent so much money on translation, and when we started involving people, instead of trying to translate all of that, whenever we applied the cultural differences, we translated less content. So we can reduce cost, be more effective and connect the learning process to the relationships.

Nigam: At Johnson and Johnson, I had a similar experience. There is also a very different style of learning. In many Asian countries, it’s more collaborative style, and people sort of learn almost as groups and pods. No one is trying to be well ahead of everybody else. It’s a little bit different than the West, and certainly in the U.S., where I think it’s a lot more individual. I think those thoughts and cultural nuances have to be baked in, because things that work here entirely may not work in
other countries.

Clark: Prior to Comcast, I was at Microsoft for 12 years, and the international work that we did there very much supports what you’re talking about — we tried certain things by combining people from different cultures in different electronic learning situations. For technical training, which is much more rote, it worked brilliantly. Anything that related to interpersonal skills got very cultural very quickly, and it was much more difficult. But it was also extremely valuable for people to learn that what they’d just assumed to be the truth about the world, their world view, is really just one way of looking at things. So getting people together, even though it was much harder to get the outcomes, was really worth the exercise.

Nigam: In the West, health is a very personal topic. You wouldn’t want to be discussing it in a group; you want to talk to your doctor, the door is closed and you’re trying to learn with your health coach. In China, it was totally the opposite. They wanted to be in the little group, 10 people, who all are struggling with the same disease. They‘re more than happy to share their experience with each other. In fact, that’s the only way they felt that they were validated in their thinking.

Colon-Kolacko: The role of leadership is defined very [differently] in different countries. When we start thinking about, how are we going to define leaders, … you need to think about, in that culture, is it paternalistic? So who is a person that will have the authority? Sometimes we like to be inclusive and allow people at different levels to teach. But maybe in that culture, the leader needs to be someone you respect and listen to.

Selection criteria

What kind of criteria are you using — who are the people being asked to participate in some of your learning processes and programs?

Nigam: We started an analytics program, which actually Drexel faculty teaches, in the Independence building. … And what we’ve quickly realized now is that that program is turning into a leadership development program. So where it started out as just a training in analytics to managers so they can apply analytics day to day, what we found is that group of people really is now beginning to use analytics in developing new programs, processes, and solving key initiatives. … [To] create an analytically advantaged organization, it’s not just enough to have those traditional attributes of leadership, which could involve all the things that we look for in a leader — how do you inspire a group, how do you lead different processes, how do you lead initiatives, take charge — but I think the analytical thinking is becoming a bigger piece of that pie, because in this world we’re all data-driven.

Tropeano: How do you choose your people in what programs? The obvious is easy. There’s a skill that a person needs to have to do their job on a day-to-day basis. If you’re in this job, you have to go to this training because you have to learn this to do the job. Where it really starts to separate for us is when we talk about leadership training. And what are the criteria we use to identify leaders to go into training? As the business guy, it’s an investment to put a person into a training program, especially a leadership program, which for us tends to take place over large quantities of time — six months, a year. … So there [are] hard criteria and soft criteria. Every employee of ours has an annual evaluation where we’re tracking their development for the hard numbers, where’s your budgets, where’s your goals, but also the softer type of development issues, where it leads back to employee satisfaction. When I say employee satisfaction, satisfaction of the employees who are working for you. Satisfaction is not a happy index, it’s an engagement index. How engaged are you getting your employees into the business we’re trying to accomplish, and how are they developing? Can you develop others? So we’re investing heavily in those top-qualifying employees, that top 10 percent.

Colon-Kolacko: The other component of this learning prioritization that we need to be involved [in] is, what are the changes happening in our industry? In our industry, we just need to see the news. Healthcare is really changing dramatically. So what happens with the particular role that didn’t exist before, like health coaches for example, like case managers, these roles are becoming more critical. The pharmacist that used to only give you your prescription, now we expect the pharmacy to really follow up. … So we need to look into the roles that are changing, and also in our case, physician leadership is becoming critical. Normally, physicians want to just cure people, make people more healthy. Now they’re shifted to be leaders in this huge transformation.

Clark: At Comcast, we have roughly 90,000 employees in the cable system, so we need to figure out how to do this at scale. For broad-based strategies, the selection process is, do you work here? We want to democratize learning as much as we can and get as much information and knowledge and skills into the hands of the people across the organization and do a little bit less of the managing of it and picking. Even in leadership development, I know the Center for Creative Leadership makes the distinction between “leader development” and “leadership development.” They say leader development is when you’re developing individual leaders, [but] leadership development is when you’re developing the capability of leadership across the entire system. So from a broad-based perspective, we try to make it available to as many people as possible, through as many methods as possible.

Tropeano: It’s a retention tool as well when you say to somebody, “Hey, we’re going to invest in you because we believe in you.” There was one question we haven’t gotten to — how do you encourage these people? We don’t have to. Everybody knows that these things exist, and that’s what they’re striving to get to, is that level of investment from the organization. … Probably the least part for us is training in the classroom. … Most of it is mentorship … because what you’re doing today could totally change tomorrow, and how do you get them those more global perspectives of how the business is working? You send them to other places in the business where they’re not proficient, and you challenge them, you bend them, you stretch them in a very positive way. And you give them strong mentors along the path so when they hit those roadblocks, they have a safe place to go to say, “Holy cow, this is killer.” And you have a strong mentor that kind of holds their hand through those real challenging times.

Clark: Even the mentorship and sponsorship for the people who are doing that, that’s development for them as well, so it creates a virtuous cycle.

Tropeano: There’s a couple of folks that I mentor, and I always say that I walk away learning as much from them as I think they’re getting from me, some days more. Because especially when it’s a younger member of the team, where I’m this age and there’s stuff that I just didn’t experience, that I learned from them, and it gives me a much better perspective on what our future holds and how I can react to that. It goes both ways.

The wrong fit

What happens when you got somebody into this program, participating, but you realize they’re not a good fit? How do you handle that situation?

Nigam: That happens all the time for many other reasons too, right? You expect someone to be an analytical thought leader, and you find that they don’t have the right level of detailed skill, or someone who you designate to change a certain process, and they need to sort of be team players and engage with a large group of folks, they … are not very successful there. I think that a good, mature organization, and particularly a learning-oriented organization, needs to very quickly figure out, when do you have a round hole and a square peg situation? Try to bring it back, really play to people’s strengths, work on adjacencies where they really can enhance. So for example, a nurse who’s looking at a patient in a certain way, with additional data, he or she can do the job much more effectively, but if you suddenly make them in charge of the informatics system, that would not be the right thing. Same way the other way. Someone who’s writing algorithm and code, if you put them in front of a patient, there’s a lot of steps they need to go through. … This will happen more and more in a dynamic organization. We don’t have people who cookie-cutter fit to certain roles, and as we are trying to build people for new positions, there is no manual you can pull up and say, “I checked these 20 boxes, [so] you are good for this role.”

Tropeano: A lot of times when we’re doing this, especially this higher level, there’s a risk. People know there’s a risk [that] they may not succeed to the degree that they want to. … They’re pretty well-compensated, it’s not necessarily for the money, it’s not necessarily for the power, it’s really to grow and expand, and I think they realize and do some self-selection. If the organization asks you to take a risk, you have the comfort, especially if you’ve succeeded at a high level to this point, that you’ll have a safe landing. We’re fortunate — we’re a big company. We have a lot of diversity in terms of where people can fit in. If you’re a small organization, it’s maybe more challenging. But most of us work for organizations where we can find a fit.

Colon-Kolacko: I want to add that we need to also be very careful of the systems we use for selection. … In Christiana Care, we have what we call leadership behaviors. We spent a lot of time, it took us almost a year — they are not competencies, they are behaviors we want to see in our leaders. We use them for selection, we use them for performance reviews, and we also use them to self-assess. [If] we’re going to select an individual to move them to a top level, does this individual have the leadership behaviors that we’re looking for?

Tracking success

How are you tracking the success of these initiatives in your organization?

Nigam: I think we tend to be very, very data-driven in our healthcare world. … So for us, the ultimate parameters that define success really are, for example, [are] our diabetics more in control in our population? Our congestive heart failure patients, what is their hospitalization rate, and what have we done year over year? Fortunately, we have national metrics to compare, regional metrics to compare, we have methodologies that can show [whether we are] moving the needle in healthcare. … But one factor which I don’t yet have a good answer for, and we’re building solutions to measure is, all the changes that you’re making analytically and insights that you’re getting through machine learning, how effectively is it translating into actionable process change? This is a softer metric.

Colon-Kolacko: We’ve been working on a talent-development scorecard, so we measure how is the student or the learner doing, and what is the impact on the business? … So as a manager, what is the behavior you want this person to change, what is your perception of that happening? We also ask 90 days, 120 days afterwards. And also we’ve been working to correlate that to business results.

Tropeano: We do an annual Vital Signs Survey. It’s not measuring employee happiness, it’s measuring employee engagement. And every manager, every leader with five or more reports, gets the survey of those reports, and the scores given. Our national average is 77 percent, so if you’re doing better than 77, good, if you’re doing less, there’s issues. Out of that come actual items in regard to how [well] or [poorly] you’re doing that you have to execute during that year.

Clark: For operational training, we usually build our learning around specific operational metrics, and then we do 30, 60, 90-day studies following that. For leadership and professional development, we measure based on talent metrics, which are things like how many people do you have in the pipeline, how many internal promotions are you doing versus external, and how all that is trending.


Audience member: What I’m seeing [with my clients] is a lot of focus on hard-skills training. No one is focusing on how to be a professional, how to work with my colleagues. Do you have any experience or insight on the importance of fundamentals training, especially for new managers or entry-level people?

Tropeano: Especially for younger workers, they are extremely intelligent and a lot smarter than I was when I was coming out of college. Intelligence, analytical thinking — not lacking. Some of those softer skills, and I think technology has something to do with that, in terms of relationships [are lacking]. So if you’re a small organization, even if you’re a big organization, the power of mentorship. We don’t quantify the cost, but it’s a low-cost way I believe to teach those soft skills. And it goes at all levels. I’m at a fairly high level at my organization, [but] I still have a mentor. There’s always somebody above you. And there’s people that I mentor as well.

Colon-Kolacko: We have like 3,000 people at the entry level, so it’s not only the physicians and the nurses, and they normally come together to organize and we have a facilitator. They identify a skill set that they want to learn and we provide ad hoc education to them. Ad hoc education can be similar to the MOOC concept. You can have like a media club, a book club, and then you connect that person to a leader that may be an expert in that area, and that creates kind of connections with leadership.

Nigam: High-tech startups, many of them are [age] 50 or under entrepreneurs rolling up their sleeves, working day and night trying to get something done. And what I found interestingly, there’s a lot that we can learn as a large company from them. … And we both have a lot to learn from each other. I would be loath to give our processes to a young company that is trying to be the next Google or Facebook.

Clark: We have professional development as part of our responsibility for Comcast, and we have a very heavy focus on managing your work, managing your career and managing yourself, and breaking out what it is that people can learn. We’re a very collaborative culture, we kind of swarm the ball like six-year-olds playing soccer sometimes. So how do you collaborate well? How do you get along with others? How do you represent our values? … I don’t think there’s anything that we do that doesn’t apply to a small organization. We have to do it at scale, so we have to use different delivery models for it, but I think conceptually it’s exactly the same. People are people.

Tropeano: No matter how small you are, [it’s] understanding what your values are, kind of putting them to paper and making sure every employee that you hire understands what your values are. Because at the end of the day, if you can teach them and they understand what your values are, and you send them out into the world and they come up with challenges, they can rely back on those values to answer those questions, or to take on that challenge. And that’s the biggest training we’ve done over the last few years. CEO

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