How learning drives business transformation

May 26, 2022 by Erin Becker

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It's easy to talk about how learning is transformative. But what does that look like in practice, especially when it comes to L&D's role in business transformation?

I had the chance to sit down with Matt Burr, Nomadic's CEO and co-founder, to discuss how learning can help drive transformations of all kinds—in particular, how the right kind of learning can empower teams to make a transformation their own, and why this moment is so important for elevating the strategic role of L&D.

Matt gave several interesting examples of transformations in the HR and retail world, and shared his vision for how cohort-based learning can spur transformations of all kinds. He also described why some people (including a former client at IBM) think we shouldn't be using the word "transformation" at all.

A few key points Matt made about learning's role in business transformation:

  1. Even for a digital transformation, the human side of the change is the most important. And the most difficult. Preparing your people for major change is key, and cohort-based learning can not only help tell the story of how their role fits in to the future of the business, but also surface key insights that can help make your transformation more effective and more aligned with the day-to-day reality of work.
  2. You can sucessfully carry out a transformation initiative, but in a fast-paced business environment, the process of transformation will never be complete. This is one reason creating a culture of learning and agility within your organization is so important!
  3. Transformations can be big, organization-wide initiatives, but they can also be smaller function-level initiatives that help support this strategic growth. No matter the size of the transformation, it's important to communicate the "why" behind the initiative. Collaborative learning is a great tool for doing this, and for driving employee engagement and optimism along the way.

Thanks to Matt for chatting with me. I really enjoyed this interview, and I hope you do, too!

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Nomadic CEO and co-founder Matt Burr on learning's role in business transformation

Erin: I’d like to start off by defining how you think of business transformation.

Matt: Transformation is a funny word with a strange history. Take “digital transformation,” for example. Historically, the phrase “digital transformation” has often been used to mean a particular kind of change, especially change around the adoption of a new technology. For a long time, people would talk about digital transformation and what they really meant was we're switching to a new system––we're switching our HR system to Workday or something like that. Over time, however, what people started to realize was that bringing in new technology can be complicated, but the harder thing is the human beings and how they operate in the new environment.

Erin: So the idea of transformation as we think about it now is really about the people?

Matt: Yes. The people are how you take advantage of the opportunities created around that technology. And the more recent history of the word “transformation” is really tied into this broader shift in what it means to be a digitally and technologically enabled business. From our perspective at Nomadic, we're thinking about it constantly from the human dimension. And asking ourselves: how do the people involved in this transformation need to think, act, collaborate, and work differently to take advantage of the new infrastructure, new tools, new technology, new sources of data?

Erin: That mindset shift that will make the transformation successful.

Matt: Right. Oftentimes, businesses aren’t achieving the outcomes that they'd hoped to get from the transformation. This is because there is a whole other dimension of learning that needs to happen beyond just teaching people tools or a new way of working. It’s a much more complicated learning task to change the way people see their work, the way they see their role, how they collaborate, how they interact with clients, whatever that specific shift may be. That human component is an enormous learning challenge. And it is primarily a learning challenge because when you learn something, that’s when you're able to see the world differently.

L&D for business transformation in action

Erin: Let’s talk a little bit about what this looks like in action within an organization.

Matt: So, one example. We were helping a large bank with an HR transformation, which was exactly the kind of digital transformation I mentioned earlier: it was driven by the adoption of a new HR system, Workday. There was already a company helping with the implementation of Workday and training people how to use it. But the head of Learning realized that there were much bigger implications for HR than just learning how to use the new system.

Erin: That’s where the mindset shift you were talking about comes in. That human element.

Matt: Exactly. In this particular example, HR had historically been the owners of any HR-related information. So if a manager needed to know what salary they could pay a new hire, they had to call someone in HR to get that information. For this reason, most of the HR department saw their role as essentially a gatekeeper of information. But in this new system, this sort of data was going to be publicly and transparently available for managers to directly self-serve.

Erin: So it’s this question of, where do I fit in now?

Matt: What are we, if we're not the information gatekeepers? And the answer was, actually you're here to solve complex talent and people problems, not provide information about salary bands. You're here to help managers hire the right people, or reorganize the division to be more customer-centric, or find talent that's going to help us thrive in cryptocurrency or whatever new shifts and changes are happening in the business. It was a totally different and much more complex mission. And it created this opportunity for them to be a much, much more valuable resource for the bank and for the company.

Erin: That’s a big change for the function, though.

Matt: And in order to get there, they needed a transformation in the way they saw their own role, and also to develop new skills that had not been important in the old HR world. Consultative skills, strategic skills, and design skills.

Erin: So it's really about moving past looking at the transformation as, “Okay, we're adopting this new technology and once everyone is trained on that we're good to go,” and instead saying, “Okay, we have this new technology, what possibilities does that open up for us, and how can the learning support that?”

Matt: Yes. Just bringing in the technology isn’t going to change the shape and the culture and the function of people in the organization. So the question becomes, how can learning support that side of the transformation? In a field like marketing, it's the same way. When you outsource a lot of the data gathering and analysis to these really powerful technologies, what's left are the creativity and the insights and the storytelling. The human parts of the work that are going to actually take that data and technology and turn it into real value. You can have a marketing automation platform that brings you all this data, but it's not going to bring you customers unless your marketing team knows how to creatively use and strategically make sense of that data.

L&D and business transformation: the learner’s perspective

Erin: So this learning focus clearly brings a lot of value to the organization, but I'd love to hear more about how using learning this way also can affect the learners’ orientations toward the change, too. “Change” or “transformation” can be scary words for some people, and you alluded to this a little bit in your earlier answer, with the HR team questioning, okay, what’s my role now in the business? How is this digital transformation going to affect my day-to-day? I can imagine that having an organization invest in you and give you the skills to thrive in that environment makes that change feel very different.

Matt: Totally. So that's one element: there’s this big change, and my organization is equipping me with the skills to manage it. But the other place where learning can be really important is in serving as a very powerful communication channel. If you get it right, it’s a place to reinforce the purpose of the transformation: how it connects to the future of the organization, how it connects to the mission of the organization. Done correctly, it’s a place for the leadership of a company or the leadership of a transformation to not just teach you the skills, but to reinforce the “why” and to open up space to talk about the transformation and to make it your own.

Erin: It’s not just that top-down communication, but a dialogue within the organization.

Matt: The learning should be a space to think about what this transformation means for you and to share those ideas with your colleagues. So learning is not just a signal that we're investing in you to get through this––although that's also extremely important––but it's also a direct medium for helping people find a new way of seeing or understanding the purpose of this transformation, and even more broadly, the purpose of their work.

Erin: Like you said, it helps with that aspect of the “why” behind the whole initiative.

Matt: That’s another thing that I think people often miss when they think about the L&D side of a business transformation. To go back to my Workday example, if all you've done with HR is teach them how to use Workday, but you haven't ever told them why it matters, the training is not very useful. It will probably be an annoyance: why do I have to learn this new thing?

Erin: In that case, the learning seems totally disconnected from the work. And that’s when you get issues with learner engagement, with completion rates.

Matt: Learning has a reputation for being just an add-on or a background thing. But in a transformation, learning works best when it's a core part of the way you're telling the transformation story. You can get buy-in from people from creating a great learning experience. And that goes both ways: throwing in bad e-learning as a part of a transformation is a signal that you don’t take it seriously. It's a good way to cause it to fail.

Cohort-based learning and transformation

Erin: So in thinking about that difference between good digital learning and bad digital learning, and how key that is in a transformation’s success, I was wondering if you could speak a little to the role of cohort-based learning in this. Because you talked about how important it is, amidst a transformation, to create space for peer-to-peer engagement and really promote that dialogue within teams.

Matt: Yes––I think it goes back to something I was hinting at earlier, which is that if a transformation feels like something that's being done to you, then that’s really demotivating. The message can’t be: here are the five things you must do, and we decided this in the C-suite a couple months ago, and now it's your turn to go become this new thing that I want you to be. The reaction is going to be: “Okay, great, I’ll check the boxes.” A good transformation is very different: the message is, hey, this is why we need to change, this is where we need to go, and we need your help in shaping that. So it’s all about collaboration and connection.

Erin: And the social element of the learning is key.

Matt: Right, because it’s all about putting people in conversation. And to put people in conversation, you need to put them in cohorts, especially in large organizations. Otherwise it’s practically impossible to have meaningful conversations. When people can talk to their colleagues about change in a way that feels open and real and authentic, then it's much more likely that they're going to buy into it. They may not come up with the exact same five bullet points that corporate comms wrote six months ago, but they will have found a way to bring the transformation into their own work in their own life in a way that's meaningful to them. And it's going to actually be much more likely to be integrated into how they really work, rather than something that's been imposed from the outside.

Erin: And at these large organizations, the learners are much more likely to be closer to the work and have that day-to-day understanding of how to implement this change.

Matt: That’s the thing: if you're trying to transform a large bank, for example, there might be six thousand HR people, and they work in 213 different countries. How they're going to use and imagine their new role as HR people is going to be very different in those different contexts. Historically, change initiatives would specify the “five things” they needed their people to do and then distribute them. But to bring a transformation into reality, ultimately, you don't want everyone to have the same “five things.” It's better to start with five questions you want people to ask, then distribute those and see what comes back to you.

Erin: And cohort-based learning creates the space to have that conversation.

Matt: Yes. That's the other side of collaborative learning: you’re inviting people into the conversation, and you’re also getting an enormous amount of data that lets you know where your organization really stands. If the learning is a 30-minute PowerPoint followed by a quiz to make sure people listened to it, you have no idea what people really thought about that PowerPoint. If, on the other hand, you're getting 250,000 comments and they're being analyzed by AI and there's all this qualitative data coming back to you, that’s a different story. Maybe it's saying hey, you know, 75% of people had a super negative reaction to that idea, this conversation is telling us that we may need to take a different direction, we may be missing something important. A good transformation should feel like that––like a dialogue where you get feedback and refine. And collaborative learning is an essential ingredient for that feedback loop.

Erin: Especially in the context of the global organizations, many of those larger clients we work with, that ability to have your finger on the pulse of what people in different regions and time zones and even languages are thinking feels really powerful.

Business transformation as a continual process

Matt: That idea of a feedback loop underscores how this should be a continual process. And it underscores how there’s actually a bit of a problem in how we conceptualize the idea of a transformation. One of our early clients at IBM actually banned us from using the word “transformation,” and the reason was she said that a transformation sounded like something that ends. You’re going to start, and then there’s going to be a middle and an end and then, you’ve transformed. She said: that’s not what we’re doing here. This is a constant iterative process of adaptation to a very complex environment, and we are going to be transforming ourselves continuously. And she wanted transformation to be at the heart of what the team was always doing.

Erin: Do you agree with that definition?

Matt: I think the word “transformation” can encompass that sense of continuous movement and continuous adaptation and change. But it’s a powerful point, and it uncovers a real challenge in thinking of transformation as something you can plan in an old-school sense. Obviously, I don't mean you should try to change your organization with no plan. What I mean is creating a culture where there are new rhythms and ways of learning and collaborating that extend into the future, because today’s uncertainty and complexity is demanding that we change and we learn to think differently.

Erin: I agree––the most meaningful learning equips people with that skill set, or really, an orientation toward the world that is very much prepared for that and even excited about change. Yes, on some level that change is scary. But it can also be a great opportunity if you have the preparation and if you have an attitude of lifelong learning and a curiosity towards new things.

Matt: I think that to create transformational learning content, that attitude has to be infused into it: it's less about giving you a right answer than a new set of questions to ask, or a new way of thinking about how to move forward.

Erin: Can you give an example of what that looks like in practice?

Matt: We're talking to a client now who has a retail function. The retail enterprise, they have these complex warehouses, and they’re planning to digitize. They want to digitize the entire organization, how the warehouses work, how the stores work, all of that. And there are so many things they’ll need to teach along the way. A learning professional could look at a situation like that and say to themselves, oh my gosh there are 10,000 different skills that I have to teach to drive this transformation.

Erin: Overwhelming.

Matt: Yes, because then I need to go find 10,000 courses that cover all these different things, and I need to get them all out into those people, right? So we spend years and millions of dollars finding those ten thousand things, only to find out that, well, actually we didn't have quite the right 10,000. Meanwhile, no one ever told anyone why they were doing that or why it mattered. No one ever focused the organization’s attention, because everyone was so busy with all those little things.

Erin: And what does that look like, done well?

Matt: What if the whole company came together first, and learned why we're doing this and understood what's expected of people in this new world? What if we taught them as a part of that how to go find the best tools to do the work in this new environment? That is better than trying to guess the 10,000 things they’ll need.

Erin: To go back to the language we were using earlier, it’s empowering people with that “why” and then trusting them and respecting their expertise, and that if you equip them with the right broad-level skill set, they'll be able to dig down into that 10,000-things level on their own.

L&D today: the center of business transformation

Matt: Yes, and that’s a different posture and a different way of thinking about the world for a lot of learning professionals. Because for a long time in digital learning, it's been our job to fill up the thing. Get all the courses and put them in the system. Now, you need less content and fewer courses and learning experiences. But the ones you're left with all need to be amazing. They need to change the way people see the world.

Erin: That’s a totally different approach.

Matt: It’s very, very different from filling up a learning management system with e-learning courses. Now, you're moving into the culture sphere, into the media sphere, into the sphere of really understanding your audience. It can be very scary, because one thing that's nice about being in the background with the learning management system is it's relatively low-pressure: the CEO is not calling to check to see if everybody's taking their compliance courses, right? But when learning is driving every part of the transformation, you are going to get a call from leadership. And they are going to ask, is it working? Do you see real, meaningful change in our organization that's coming out of this experience?

Erin: A lot more pressure.

Matt: And that pressure can be exhilarating, but it can also be petrifying, unless you're equipped with the right tools, the right partners, and the right content to be confident that you are doing that. If everything’s in place, you will have the answer, and you will be able to say you yes, these things are changing, and here's the data to prove it.

Erin: Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we touch on?

Matt: We've been talking a lot about the big transformational initiatives. The CEO-driven reimagining of the whole of HR, or reimagining of an entire marketing function. But there are smaller-scale versions of this, and there are ways to still bring these same lessons about transformational learning down to smaller tasks. Take the example of retail warehouse digitization. Someone might be just responsible for the store managers and the retail environment. But preparing learning for the store managers will also help drive and connect up to a bigger transformation. And it’s still important to communicate the “why” of the transformation, and to create collaborative learning experiences for them to meet and connect with each other in cohorts. All of that matters.

Erin: So it’s important to tell the story of these smaller-scale transformations too, and how they connect up to the larger business goals.

Matt: One of the traps of transformations is to think that it's always just these big things but, in fact, a transformation is usually lots and lots of small things that start to harmonize and go in the right direction. You don't have to be the CLO or the CEO to think with a transformational lens about the way you're developing and delivering learning for your people.

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For an in-depth look at learning for transformation in action, check out our case study about how they implemented a cohort-based learning experience for 2,000 global marketers. In particular, it focuses on how the social and collaborative learning experience helped drive innovation. Not only do the cohort members learn from each other within the marketing capability academy, but their comments, questions, ideas, and observations all become a record of insights that can lead to new initiatives and solutions, both within the marketing function and beyond.

For more information about our work building transformative learning experiences 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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