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How to train your staff if they live to be 100

During her recent visit to Hong Kong, Human Resources magazine met up with Jenny Dearborn, senior vice president and chief learning officer at SAP for an exclusive interview on longer careers, continuous learning, and the impact of culture.

In her role, Dearborn drives business impact by designing, aligning and ensuring execution of overall learning activities for SAP's 85,000 employees globally.

Q. How would you describe the state of learning within companies in Asia?

Across Asia there’s a very wide variety of levels of maturity in terms of the learning content, the actual course material, the way in which content is delivered - face to face, webinar, e-learning, virtual coaching assistant - as well as a wide variety in terms of the philosophy around the role of learning.

Q. In today’s market, employees aren’t guaranteed to stay with a company for long. How do you justify investing in the development of staff who might take off?

A common worry is: what if you invest in an employee, and they leave? But another way of looking at it is, what if you don’t invest in them, and they stay?

Aside from that risk calculation, it really is important for employers to understand their role as global citizens. Any company with a short term narrow view may come out on top for a while, but eventually they’ll lose. And with the current rate of innovation, they may start losing as soon as five years from now.

There’s interesting research from a book called The 100-year Life by Andrew Scott and Lynda Gratton, which maps out a world in which we live for more than 100 years, and spend as much as 70 of those years working.

Thanks to investments and developments in health and general technology, we’re living longer. What follows on from that is that we will be working longer, partly because at 70 or 80 you’re still smart and healthy and you’ll get bored if you don’t, and partly because the government can’t afford to feed you for 50 years of retirement.

So we’re starting to think: how do we plan for a 70-year career? What do people need to learn today so that they will continue to be employable, contribute, add value, be productive, and find joy and meaning from whatever they choose to do as a profession?

Corporations need to take this long-term view and realise they’re not just training their employees of today, but their customers of tomorrow and the people that are citizens of the country in which they operate. They need to take this bigger, more holistic approach.

Q. What do people need to learn in order to stay relevant throughout a 70-year career?

In our current model, you could study to be an accountant, learn the right skills, and then apply those skills throughout your career and nothing would change that much. Due to the development we’re witnessing now, however, the skills people are learning today may not be relevant anymore in 10 years. What’s more, some of the jobs people will be working 20 years from now don’t yet exist. So how do we train for that?

We need to adopt a new model in which we learn, unlearn, and then relearn. In this model, you go to school to learn, and then you work, learn, work, learn, work, learn - forever. In order to adapt to the rapid change, people will have to continue learning throughout their career.

So the foundation for that needs to be really different. The old foundation used to be a high school diploma, an undergraduate degree, and a master's degree in a particular subject, which you could then continue to apply. The new foundation should be critical thinking, problem solving, emotional intelligence, teamwork skills, cross cultural awareness, life skills, innovation, creativity, and so on.

Q. That’s a big change. How do you envision this shift will come about?

I think there’s a role for governments, and a role for corporations. The world is just changing too much to be static.

It is, however, something that will be hard. In a country like Singapore for example, they might find it an interesting concept, but they have a culture where they memorise. And that works for them - for now. Similarly, it could be a hard concept to implement in mainland China, because they’re very set in their educational approach, which currently works for them.

On the other hand there are some cultures such as Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, who are already very comfortable with the concept of continuous learning, and have an apprenticeship model as part of the education system.

Eventually, we’ll all have to get comfortable with the concept that we don’t know what we’re going to need in the future. In the old model, the world’s knowledge wasn’t doubling every year, and the rate of innovation and disruption was not that high. Now it is, and you simply can’t learn everything there is to learn.

All we can do, as countries and as corporates, is get comfortable with the knowledge that we will never stop learning, that we need to be constantly changing, and then make that a priority.

Q. For those companies ready to make learning a priority, what is the very first step toward building an effective learning culture?

The most important part is to have a clear vision of the corporate strategy, and of the company’s goals and objectives. Once you have quantifiable goals, you can determine what workforce you’ll need to help you achieve those. Compare that to your current workforce, and you’ll know which skills, knowledge, behaviours, and other attributes you’re lacking.

Then, you can talk about what the company needs to do to train, develop and enable the employees you have now to become the employees you need in the future. This will be your talent transformation plan.

It’s very much a process that involves senior leadership. And you don’t necessarily need a learning person, because it’s not a HR thing, it’s a business foundation thing. But HR should be in the room, and should be facilitating the conversation. The people who are articulating this are the business leaders. But HR should facilitate the dialogue and force the topic. That would be my dream come true.

Q. With so many different learning styles, methods, and types of training to choose from, how do you select the right one and measure its ROI?

For any learning programme to have a chance at being successful, every single class should be aligned to very specific measurable business outcomes. For every learning opportunity we offer at SAP, we know exactly what’s broken in the business that this programme is intended to make better.

You can find metrics in any business that indicate the quality of the current work, and the quality of the results. And for every metric you can line up the specific humans that are driving that result. So if a result is red on your scorecard, you need to find out which specific employees are driving that result, and what knowledge, skills, capabilities, and competencies they need to do that successfully. Once you know what's working and what's not, then you’ll know what to train to.

When it comes to measuring ROI, it’s not hard, but it takes time and discipline. One of the things that you can do is, holding all variables such as age, region, background, goals, and manager constant, take one group of employees that goes through a learning programme, and another group that doesn’t. Overtime, you can then track and compare the success of the two groups as benchmarked against their shared goals.

Photo / Drew Altizer

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