Priya Sunil uncovers how Siemens, Marriott International, 3M, AkzoNobel, and Fuji Xerox Singapore have leveraged custom-built systems to evolve the learning approach, while DKSH’s Christopher Schultz steps into the learner’s shoes.

Picture this – you switch on your TV, laptop, tablet or handphone and browse through a catalogue of learning materials, wondering which one you’ll pick today, but before you can do that, you find something interesting in the “recommended for you” section.

No, we aren’t talking about Netflix, but an AI-driven virtual learning library; or one like Spotify, that allows you to subscribe to specific channels catered to your role. Wouldn’t that be amazing?

What if, just by scanning an employee, you’re provided with a comprehensive report on their personality, skills and knowledge, which will help you better assess their culture fit and learning style. How much more efficient would that be for your L&D teams?

We asked our interviewees for their craziest L&D ideas, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. While we hope these initiatives aren’t too far off in the future, let’s pause and take stock of how they are working hard to make personalised learning a reality today, using progressive learning models, AI-driven platforms, and more.

Siemens: Leveraging AI-driven platforms to recommend personalised learning content

With a belief that one’s learning and growth journey is unique to the individual, global powerhouse Siemens is all for customised L&D. As such, employees can benefit from diverse learning activities that are considered meaningful and relevant to them, and driven by their interests.

These learning activities can be specific to the brand’s products, specialist knowledge and methodology, as well as business and process-specific expertise, shares Chinh Duong, Head of Learning & Development, ASEAN, Siemens.

In building this custom approach, managers are encouraged to engage in continuous dialogue with their employees on their learning needs, help them fulfil their potential and support their growth plans in their current job.

The team also conducts “learning needs” identification surveys that explore the individual and organisational demands for future skills development.

Chinh Duong explains: "The survey results help us to align and understand the business growth priorities, and gaps between an individual’s and the company’s capability. We then design and develop learning solutions that are specific and relevant to address those gaps."

To ensure learning remains dynamic for the digital age, the team created an online “My Learning World” platform for employees to find the latest relevant learning content that they can personalise and learn in their own time. The content covers a wide range of traditional classroom and virtual courses. There is also an internal video platform which contains both user and expert-generated content.

Apart from the above, Chinh Duong shares:

"Our internal social media platform connects learning communities and allows employees to access knowledge available within the company in order to solve problems and deal with specific challenges daily."

Given the platform offers access to a huge span of courses, knowledge modules, training videos, e-learning measures and global learning communities, Chinh Duong notes that it can be overwhelming for employees. "Our challenge is how to put this learning content into context for employees and provide relevant recommendations for them."

To address this, the platform is AI-driven, and continuously provides recommendations and personalisation for each learner. "Learners can also design their own learning path for learning and completion at their own pace."

The system comprises more than 15,000 learning resources available in multiple languages from internal and trusted external sources. Learners can not only access the resources anytime, anywhere, but they can also share their own learning playlists or content, and offer insights on specific topics. This makes growth more social, connected, and rewarding, Chinh Duong says.

Fuji Xerox Singapore: A brand new approach to the 70:20:10 model

Fuji Xerox Singapore, a provider of document services and printing technologies, adopts the classic 70:20:10 learning framework – albeit in the context of personalised learning, says Jacely Voon, General Manager, Human Capital & CSR, Fuji Xerox Singapore.

The first is step-in and step-up (70%), which means learning through completing daily tasks, resolving issues and refining their job-based skills; the second (20%) comes from virtual bite-sized learning programmes, and virtual facilitator-led learning; and third is online learning (10%), through the firm’s customised e-learning platform of hand-picked digital resources as well as LinkedIn Learning.

Different streams have different approaches for personalised learning. For example, the 70% approach is by individuals and linked to departmental and organisational impact while the 10% formal learning is tailored at a functional and individual level depending on the defined future skills by the department head.

To ensure a best-suited approach, the team first identifies the needs of personalised learning based on competency assessments, individual functional gaps for future skills, and talent and potential assessment. In the process, individual assessments and manager evaluations are carried out to identify any gaps, while also comparing the current functional gaps versus the future state of the organisation as well as the department. This gap assessment is then followed by building an individual development plan based on their training needs.

Amid all of this, coaching and mentoring are key to building personalised learning at Fuji Xerox, especially since 70% of the employee’s learning path is largely based on learning by doing. As such, supervisors are encouraged to take on the role as coaches and mentors to help professionals set personal goals and be accountable to those goals.

Over time, organisations will then inadvertently benefit from the personal and professional development their employees undergo,” Jacely explains.

While having a best-fit system works, Jacely notes it can be challenging given the modern workplace is “forever changing and new forms of collaboration and continuous learning are needed to keep up”.

In that instance, Fuji Xerox moved to address both learning needs through a hybrid model, where 10% is adopted based on a one-size-fits-all method, while a more tailored approach is applied for the other 20% and 70% learning systems.

This personalised learning system, driven by empowerment, has accelerated learning based on individuals’ pace and appetite for personal growth.

"Because the very nature of work is constantly changing, our belief is that the 70:20:10 model can help to embed a more sophisticated learning culture at an individual, team and organisation level."

Further, this learning framework has helped employees to step forward to own their development and growth.

"Referencing our step-in and step-up approach, employees have volunteered to participate in different work groups across departments or teams to learn and work with each other," Jacely says.

"It not only helped to address the perception of favouritism when it comes to reward and recognition, it also gave employees the opportunity to be visible, and directly contribute to the organisation’s growth, while expanding on their horizon and increasing their competencies."

Marriott International: Market-specific flexibility driven by a common framework

An 80/20 approach is how Marriott International tackles its learning programmes, as Regan Taikitsadaporn, Chief Human Resources Officer for Asia Pacific, tells us, whereby 80% comes from the team’s common framework, while 20% gives the company’s markets the flexibility to customise where needed.

When personalising learning for its associates, the team strives to take a balanced approach between role, function and business unit.

"This is because the roles at our hotels vary depending on brand and size, and do not necessarily correspond to the business functions at the corporate level," Regan says.

"For instance, when we roll out training programmes to support hotel initiatives, we tend to specify the roles and departments that must complete the training. On the other hand, for our leadership development programmes, the target audience would be based on the various leadership levels."

The team recently launched an internally built personalised learning platform, called the Digital Learning Zone, that serves as a central access point to all Marriott learning content. It also allows associates to view the required and recommended training based both on their job function and desire to learn something new.

"We know that our associates want personalisation and ease of access, and this platform is intended to bring learning to our associates and make it easy for them to learn and grow."

What’s the journey like towards such a system? "When our business leaders surface a learning need, the first thing we do before initiating any design work is to consult with them and their stakeholders to assess capability gaps and to identify behavioural and performance outcomes," he says. "We do this in a number of ways, including surveys, oneon- one interviews and focus groups."

The team also identifies capability gaps during its annual talent review process, during which L&D captures key talent development and learning needs, which is then incorporated into L&D’s business planning cycle.

That said, not every journey is free of challenges. For Regan and his team, for instance, one key challenge when designing and developing learning programmes is creating content that is applicable to all markets without generalising too much such that the training loses its objective.

He explains: "We know that associates based in different markets have different cultures to adapt to, but we do our best to keep our learning programmes simple, yet meaningful for them to learn and grow."

Another challenge faced is local translations for the programmes rolled out. As the business continues to expand in the APAC region, there is an increased demand and need to offer the programmes in more languages.

"Sometimes, associates learn best when they are provided with training that is catered for them to easily understand, but on the other hand, we need to manage our resources and prioritise programmes that need translation for ease of learning."

Through it all, the results have paid off. The Digital Learning Zone, for one, has received overwhelmingly positive responses in the past few months, especially because the ability to deliver in-person learning programmes has been impacted by COVID-19. "Through the platform, our associates have been able to access not only Marriott-developed training, but also training from over 15 external learning partners on topics such as resilience and change leadership."

AkzoNobel: A development compass that leads you to the virtual learning hub

Experience, exposure, education – these are the three elements driving the 70:20:10 model of L&D at paints and performance coating MNC, AkzoNobel.

"We strive to keep everyone highly engaged in a diverse and inclusive working environment where we have the ability to build our careers through experiences and learning opportunities," says Marieke Bos - van den Berg, the firm’s Regional HR Director Asia.

The learning model was adopted with the belief that up to 90% of learning takes place outside formal learning activities, such as classroom training. The company then offers the important 10% formal learning opportunities via its AkzoNobel Academy, a virtual hub for learning. "The academy offers learning for general, functional and people management skills. As such, the learning is highly personalised to the type of role and level of the employee."

In order to leverage on this model, the team uses a voluntary online tool, the Development Compass, to identify the learning needs of each employee based on current and future roles. The compass includes a self-assessment based on relevant functional or managerial competencies, which also offers the option of inviting managers and colleagues to contribute to the assessment. Based on the outcomes of the Development Compass, individual development plans are created and progress can then be tracked.

Apart from the above, AkzoNobel also has a SuccessFactors Learn module linked to the academy, which allows the team to capture all learning opportunities in one space. "Furthermore, we offer several other virtual learning options such as Percipio, Gartner and IMD Research and Knowledge," she says.

She also highlights how a pandemic has expedited the future of work in "unprecedented ways".

"The social stigma of remote working is disappearing, companies are rethinking their workforce architecture, and an urgent need to upskill/redeploy employees has arisen."

"Going forward, I believe companies have a social responsibility to continuously upskill their employees. Embedding a learning culture as part of a company’s DNA is a competitive advantage!"

3M: Encouraging learning through a rewards system

As a company that spans four business divisions globally, 3M sees the need to adopt different approaches from broad strokes to granular, so as to cater to everyone in the company. Thus, the brand’s learning systems are typically personalised based on its employees’ functional skills and competencies, while leadership skills, soft skills, coaching and mentoring programmes are common across all business and functional groups.

According to Stella Huang, 3M’s Area Human Resource Leader, Asia, these programmes are created to address specific developmental needs or to build future capabilities. Its 96,000 employees are split into these main segments – all employees, senior leaders, supervisors and managers (referred to as people leaders); employees who are recognised as having high potential; and production employees. "We believe that each employee should take ownership of their careers and development, and we provide opportunities and platforms for them to do so," she says.

"Our go-to learning platform/library is called 'Develop U', which has over 10,000 learning resources in more than 15 languages. Employees are encouraged to pursue L&D based on their individual development plans, which they have put together in consultation with their supervisors."

Thus, employees can access e-modules, TED Talks, videos, business book summaries and tip sheets across diverse areas, including data science, digitalisation, working on global teams, and more, on the portal. Given the brand’s global presence, these offerings are global in nature and its L&D strategy is then aligned to the business strategy for the year/future. The global priorities are then translated into the different areas, regions and countries it operates in, and employees are able to customise their learnings to address organisational/team expectations, individual challenges and career aspirations.

In developing the strategy, the team identifies employee needs through futuristic workplace symposiums and surveys; regular employee engagement surveys; focus group discussions and round tables; and two-way communication through town halls, impromptu virtual chats, and more.

The one challenge 3M faced during this entire process was that employees had not been enticed enough to learn virtually in the past. However, this changed with the coming of the workfrom- home situation across countries early this year.

"We are now in the right place at the right time, and it was only the question of proper marketing and promotion, and of course, senior leadership buy-in.".

To give further impetus to this, a new Learner of the Quarter contest was introduced, where employees who complete a minimum of three courses can enter a lucky draw. The contest drew many employees’ attention to virtual learning, while highlighting the benefits and attractiveness of this medium as well.

The registration and participation since the contest was announced has resulted in a hockey stick increase, and from an average of 30 employees for a virtual webinar in 2019, all workshops in the past quarter have consistently attracted more than 100 participants. Some have even reported between 300 to 500 participants.

"Thanks to strong support from our senior leadership across Asia and all the individual countries, the initiative seems to be heading for a huge success!" she says. "Besides the valuable skills and knowledge employees gain from the courses, I’m heartened to report that offering courses in multiple languages has also helped change mindsets and overcome long-standing barriers for our employees. Our key challenge is to maintain interest levels and sustain this platform over the long term."


Case study: Approaching personalised learning through the lens of the learner

What if there was an app where employees were able to customise their learning based on their goals? Christopher Schultz, Director, Group Learning & Organisation Development, DKSH, puts himself in the learner’s shoes for a personalised L&D strategy, in this exclusive with Priya Sunil.

Q As a learner, what would you look forward to in an organisation’s personalised learning system?

What I think most learners would appreciate is a learning interface like a fitness app. For example, I am using adidas Training by Runtastic. It asks me what my goals are, what my current level of fitness is, and then offers a range of customised workouts that guide me through each exercise. Afterwards, I rate how easy or difficult the workout was and how I feel. Based on my feedback, the app suggests different workouts to help me towards my goal. A similar interface, but for capability development, would be amazing!

Q What are the typical challenges in implementing such a system?

There are three challenges: budget is one, content is another – but the biggest challenge is having the right data to accurately assess employees’ capability gaps. To do this in a way that is accurate and works across all levels of the organisation, would be quite a feat.

Q One of the biggest things about personalised learning is that it may seem to be more expensive and time-consuming. Is this true, and if so, how do we tackle that?

“The perception of it being expensive and time-consuming is mostly about the creation of such a system. Once it is in place, it would be tremendously cost-effective and time-saving because it would deliver the tailored learning that was most useful.” 

Using Netflix as an analogy: if you just had to randomly sort through thousands of titles, you would waste a lot of time and likely not find something you really enjoyed watching. With the algorithms they have in place, you quickly find titles you will enjoy. Expensive to build, inexpensive to operate.

Q What is your advice to firms looking to implement a personalised learning system?

Whether it is a personalised learning system or any other learning and development intervention, the same question always applies: what problem, specifically, are you trying to fix? When you can clearly answer that question, you will be more likely to develop a useful solution.

Note: All responses shared by Christopher Schultz are in a generic context, and not in the context of the organisation he represents.


This article first appeared as part of a feature in the May-June 2020 e-mag edition of Human Resources, Singapore, and will appear in the upcoming Q2 2020 edition of Human Resources, Malaysia. Read the case study in the e-mag, or the full feature here. 

Photos / Provided