Building a capability academy: seven key steps

Mar 29, 2022 by Robert M. Burnside

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Capability academies are a hot topic in L&D, replacing the older idea of corporate universities. Building capabilities rather than skills results in better business results. Changing learning from something for a privileged few to everyone in the organization builds the power needed for the transformations. To drive business transformation, you need to build capabilities at scale. And social, cohort-based learning in a capability academy is the proven way to make this happen.

Here are seven steps to architect your successful capability academy.

1. Clarify the outcome you are planning to achieve.

As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up somewhere else. As an L&D professional, I can say from experience we often planned learning without first determining the outcome we needed to achieve. To avoid this error, start with these questions:

For example: when I was CLO at Ketchum, we needed to institute a new client-facing strategy. We needed our people to change the creative process they used to form client communications. Instead of going directly to a program that taught the new creative process and communication skills, we worked first to determine the desired outcome, which in this case, was more satisfied clients as measured by increased sales.

L&D’s part in this was to provide learning that increased client satisfaction and resulted in more sales. Having determined this outcome, we could then set about building the learning activities that would achieve it.

2. Determine the capabilities that will achieve the outcome.

Capabilities are what needs to happen. Skills are how it will happen. For example, in the project described above, the capability our people needed was understanding the client’s business goals and challenges so that our solution could be relevant. Among the skills needed were effective questioning and listening, identifying insights that were relevant to the client’s consumers, and shaping a strategy that could achieve this.

The less effective method would have been to build a program that taught the skills, rather than a learning architecture that would support the capability. Remember, capabilities are aggregation of skills: the “what” rather than the “how.” Shape the “what” first, then follow with the “how.”

3. Use a "both/and" not an "either/or" approach to building learning content that is both state-of-the-art expertise and experience-based practical knowledge.

Hold yourself accountable in every aspect of the academy that you build. Ask yourself constantly:

To answer "yes" to both, you need external experts who are studying this area across many organizations and internal knowledgeable colleagues who can speak from experience about implementing the ideas. The external expert can bring challenging questions that help practitioners see their work in new ways. Meanwhile, the practitioners can challenge the experts on why something might not work as hoped and evolve the ideas so they can work locally.

Many of the programs offered by Nomadic feature state-of-the-art knowledge alongside organizational leaders talking about how they have used it in their particular organization and situation. In the Program Problem Solving by Design, for example, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino discusses her book Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules At Work and In Life, while Tylea Richard, head of Thundress, shares the reality of how she used this type approach to her new product and new company.

4. Scale your capability academy for impact.

Often the outcome needed is an organizational transformation. This is frequently a huge change project that deals with the elephant in the room that no one has challenged before. Typically, we try to do many things at the same time, too much all at once, leading to the common advice: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

However, 10,000 individuals each taking one bite at a time consumes the elephant much faster. Think broadly about how to include everyone who has a relationship to the outcome needed. Asynchronous, digitally based learning is affordable and scalable across time zones. Everyone can contribute at their convenience, making this a great tool for tackling transformations that demand learning initiatives at a large or even global scale.

5. Architect for learning conversations that co-create the solutions needed. (Cohort-based learning is great for this.)

Using a cohort-based approach brings about many benefits: first, the group creates the knowledge together that will work for that group; second, relationships are built that bring about healthier functioning of the organization; third, everyone has a voice, all ideas are heard, and innovation is much more likely to occur.

In the Ketchum example, all 2000 client-facing colleagues in groups of 30 each, composed of diverse levels and geographies, were able to create the ideas needed to implement the new strategy. Cohort-based learning in a capbality academy allowed learners to not only gain the skills and knowledge needed, but also to have the discussions that helped them apply this to their work. Within six months, the organizational approach to client services had been transformed.

In fact, the change was so effective that clients were asking if they could take the Program!

6. Set the measures you will use to determine the capability academy’s effectiveness.

Learning has often faced the quandary of how to measure its impact on business goals. Part of the problem has been that, often, L&D has built programs based on hunches or intuitions, rather than research-based, measurable goals. Starting with a goal that allows for measurement is paramount to determining whether the investment you are making in the academy is a good investment showing measurable returns, just like any other investment in the business.

Sometimes, L&D thinks too small, conserving budget across many learning programs, without really having identified what it is trying to achieve. When you are outcome focused, scaling across the organization, focusing on capabilities and their related skills, and measuring against the outcome, then both L&D and the executive team find the reasons to make significant investments in learning.

7. Study the learning architecture of successful capability academies, then build your own (and prepare to iterate).

First, study successful capability academies. AB in Bev built a marketing capability academy with the eventual outcome of being recognized by the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity as the Creative Marketer of the Year. Ryan Verschoor, AB InBev's head of marketing capability, built the academy to achieve the goals of breaking down silos, making their marketing team more innovative, and deepening and celebrating creativity across the organization. For these capabilities, AB InBev saw that a cohort-based Academy with a social, collaborative learning style would be the most effective.

Nomadic's semi-synchronous Academy allowed the global team of more than 2,000 marketers, distributed across more than 40 countries, to learn and build their skills together in the flow of the work, without major time zone or logistical hassles. “The proof has been in the pudding," Ryan said, "in seeing the amount of engagement, with people interacting with their peers, arguing, discussing, debating, provoking." Their clear goals for their learning and their ability to scale this solution across a global team were both a key part of what made this initiative a success.

Having studied successful academies and why they worked, begin designing your own capability academy. This process will inevitably come with a lot of iteration, so consider starting with a trial group, then measuring to assess whether you’re achieving desired outcomes and making any changes accordingly.

The world we are living in now demands constant evolution. Keep this in mind as you build your academy. Expect change, stay nimble on your feet, welcome challenges and feedback of all kinds, and use fast, short experiments to test your approach before you make the deeper investments. Keep your network wide and growing both inside and outside your organization. And, please, remember to have fun and enjoy what you are doing. It’s a real privilege to help both people and organizations grow and develop.


For another example of a capability academy in action, check out our case study with PepsiCo. PepsiCo created their academy with a big goal: accelerate learning for more than 3,000 global marketers to create a new generation of leaders across the iconic PepsiCo brands. Ready about how they achieved this goal in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic with our case study about how digital cohort-based learning went from Pepsi’s back-up plan to their North Star of learning for business transformation.

For more information about our work building capability academies for some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Citi, PepsiCo, AB InBev, and more, you can also get in touch and we’ll reach out shortly!

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