Remote Learning — A conversation with Janice Robinson-Burns.

April 6, 2021
7 min read
“To forge ahead, Talent Leaders need new strategies and tactics.”
— Janice Robinson-Burns

How is learning changing? What can organizations do as they shift to remote learning? And how do you build a learning culture? fassforward ran a study on remote learning to understand the story behind these questions. As part of the study, we conducted qualitative interviews with over ninety business leaders, HR professionals, learning practitioners, and academics to find out how remote learning would change.

One conversation focused on the positive disruption of the pandemic. That was a conversation with Janice Robinson-Burns, Chief Career Experience Officer at Degreed and former Chief Learning Officer at Mastercard.

Excerpts from that conversation follow.

Reshaping learning for a remote or hybrid environment.

GAVIN: Janice, you have an interesting and unusual take on learning, informed, I think, by your background. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

JANICE: I didn’t come out of the learning space. I started my career in product management, then HR, then learning as a CLO at Mastercard. Being a product manager has followed me throughout my career. It shaped the way I think and how I approached the CLO job.

For example, over five or six years ago at Mastercard, we started on our “digital learning journey.” I know we were ahead of the curve. We were an early adopter of Degreed, and we used a social collaborative platform that translated in-person classes into digital classes. So the same format you would get in a Coursera type classroom, we did that about six years ago.

GAVIN: What did you learn on that journey?

JANICE: My first year in the role, I participated in something called the Learning Innovation Lab at Harvard. They do a study every year. The year I joined, they were doing a study on learning to learn.

At the individual level, what they found is that it's very hard for people who have expertise in a particular area, to unlearn because their expertise is associated with their identity.

The act of learning almost puts them into an identity crisis.  They have to unlearn (unravel part of their expertise)  and do something very different.

I think we’re all going through a little bit of an identity crisis right now.

What I have found is — within the corporate learning field in particular — most people who grew up through learning believe that the best way to learn is in classroom learning.

But if you break down what makes that in-classroom learning effective, it really is about the collaboration and connections that you have with people.

If you can replicate that — the collaboration and connections, then you can have the same impact, if not a better impact, in terms of experience.

Learning is made from component parts: building knowledge, connection and coaching, experiences that you have, the ability to fail and learn from that, and so on.

From those component parts, you can figure out how to construct a learning experience, or intervention, or program, outside of physical space.

GAVIN: What’s the biggest takeaway from going through that, for you?

JANICE:  What I think we've seen this year, has been driven by necessity. People didn't have the platform or experience to design in a remote or digital learning environment.

You can't just take content and stick it in an e-learning, or take a live class and put it on Zoom and get the same impact. You actually have to design for the experiences and the interactions that you would have in a classroom.

Remember also, that some of the most effective in-person classes happen over a couple of days. Trying to do that in a three-hour zoom session, isn't going to create that same experience.

You need the time and the spacing for people to reflect and absorb, and come back to it. That means learning may be over a longer period of time for shorter periods, where people have self-directed time and collective time, but we’re designing for that timing, spacing, and experiences.

The economic impact of the shift to remote learning.

GAVIN: Agree or disagree — Chief Financial Officers will be very happy about the ability to deliver learning to a larger group of people at a reduced cost.

JANICE: Yes. I believe that it's true. You can be a victim of your own success in digital learning. And that has an impact on the learning mix. When we started on our journey, the intent was never to get to 100% of courses online. It was to shift from 95% in-classroom to about a 60/40 split, where 60% would be in-classroom, and 40% online, we got to about 50/50.

This meant we were able to democratize independent learning and even structure guided learning for people.

But what we weren't able to do is to give everyone access to those deeper and personal learning experiences based on budgets.

The risk is that your CFO sees online as a cheap way to deliver learning on a platform. Since efficiency is a big deal for them, driving more if not all learning to the platform could be their goal.  That’s not the right formula.

You're going to have those people who are looking for operational efficiencies, just try to put as much learning online at a lower cost as possible. On the other hand, you're going to get pushback from the business owners who actually need people to upskill or reskill. They care whether or not they're getting the value out of that experience.

GAVIN: Say more about this perception of strategic value.

JANICE: Business leaders, in my experience, don't care about learning. They care about skill-building and development. Learning for many business people is mandatory training, and they associate that with compliance training.

When it comes to learning, they don't actually give it much thought, or have much interest in that. But something that is going to help them achieve a business outcome — in terms of development or skill-building, they have a great interest in it.

When I consult with clients about building skills, strategies, or learning strategies, my advice is to stop focusing on activity-based metrics. And to even stop focusing on what they think are ROI metrics, where they try to prove value in dollars and cents because the CFO isn't going to buy that equation anyway.

If they can come to a common agreement and understanding with the business owner on the business outcomes that they are expecting from the learning intervention, then you get better buy-in.

Outcomes lead to relevancy.

GAVIN: So what would be an example of business outcomes?

JANICE: For a technology group, if you’re talking to the CIO or CTO, they clearly understood the need for continuous skill building because technology is changing so quickly. They know that there is no way that they are going to be able to provide all of the learning in-house. That means you have to get creative about how to keep their skills up to date. And the outcome that the CIO is looking for is, “do my people have the skills to be able to build new products in a digital ecosystem and to build solutions, in that ecosystem?” The outcome results in knowing that their people have the skills to develop solutions in our digital ecosystem. A second question is “can my people build faster, so they can develop and iterate on products faster?” That’s what you measure.

For a sales organization, the outcomes that they would look for are around the salespeople being able to penetrate organizations at a higher level, to drive greater stickiness in terms of relationship. But also, they needed to accelerate the sales pipeline.

An example of measuring outcomes would be related to see an increase in the rate of progress of the sales pipeline. When we did this, we saw an increase in the volume of products entering the sales pipeline for those salespeople who had been certified on the product. Their sales activity seemed to advance through the pipeline a little bit quicker. And we could also see a deeper penetration of contacts within an account and a stronger relationship at more senior levels within the organization.

So for me, business owners are much more engaged when you can show relevancy between what you're going to do in partnership with them and their ability to meet their business objectives or execute on their strategy.

Then they become really interested.

Learning culture.

GAVIN: You see a lot of PowerPoint with the heading “Learning Culture” how do you get beyond the slideware?

JANICE: That's a great question because everyone says they want to have a learning culture.

I like to break things down into pieces. First of all, what is culture?

It usually is a set of behaviors and habits that a group of people all adhere to its behaviors and norms. And so, a learning culture would mean that the organizational norms and the behaviors would center around continuously acquiring new knowledge, building new skills, and transacting on those skills.

But I think, at the core of that is curiosity. If you don't have a curious culture, you can't really have a learning culture.

I don't think most organizations build adequate processes, systems, or the accountability standard to truly drive a learning culture.

I think it's Microsoft, who used to be known and prided themselves on being the smartest people in the room.

And the CEO,  Satya Nadella, changed the narrative and the North Star. From being the smartest people in the room to being the most curious. They went from being know-it-alls to learn-it-alls. They created a culture where people are learning all the time. Because what we know today, is probably going to be outdated tomorrow.

Gavin: Curiosity is a very individual thing, and yet, you can create the conditions and enable curiosity, or you can also hire it into your business, or fire it out of your business.

JANICE:  I never thought the job of a CLO was to control or manage learning, I always thought it was to create the conditions for learning. The conditions where people felt comfortable being curious and exploring and listening to others. Becoming more knowledgeable, and wise.

You can't gain wisdom without experience, failures, and recoveries. That was always my mindset.

As a CLO you have to think, what are the conditions that help people to pursue curiosity? How do they continue to acquire new knowledge and get more experience?

Take a professional services organization, they’re a great example of a company’s learning culture. If you aren't continuously increasing your knowledge, your skills, demonstrating your level of intelligence, creating eminence in a particular area, you're not going to get put on engagements. And if you don't get put on engagement, you're not going to progress, and, eventually, you will leave.

There’s a clear connection between learning and growing. And a clear consequence for not being able to apply your skills.

GAVIN: I could listen to you talk about this all day. Thank you so much.

Click HERE to receive a full copy of REMOTE LEARNING - a how-to guide for business.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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