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The learning enterprise

To bring new and relevant skills to the workforce, organizations must encourage innovation and turn the entire enterprise into a learning team.


Every year, companies spend billions of dollars on their enterprise learning programs—more than $171 billion in the United States alone, according to a 2011 report from the American Society for Training & Development. Are they getting their money’s worth?

Not according to the recent Accenture Skills Gap Study, which surveyed more than 1,000 employed and unemployed US workers: Only 21 percent of respondents reported developing new skills in the past five years through formal training programs offered by their companies.

This failure to deliver relevant skills in a timely and consistent manner is being felt on both an individual and corporate level. For workers, frustration is setting in: Our research shows that although 55 percent of employees say they feel pressure to acquire additional skills, less than a quarter report they’re getting the support they need.

For companies, skills shortages are increasingly common. Despite growing unemployment in many countries, organizations from almost every industry are struggling to find people with the capabilities they need to deal with changing technologies, markets and customers.

If hiring needed skills is not necessarily the answer anymore, then companies must find ways to retrain the people they already have, which in many cases includes significantly upgrading skill levels and training people to move into roles with different capabilities. But that doesn’t mean operating in isolation when it comes to capability development. Quite the opposite: It means transforming your entire organization into your enterprise learning team—connecting people in ways that result in innovative ideas—and turning the best practices of internal and external experts into your own knowledge base.

In fact, given the learning field’s potential to deliver consistent, expert-driven, capability-based training to critical workforces, combined with new social media and collaboration technologies, the time has actually never been better for bringing relevant skills to the workforce while also encouraging the interactions that generate innovation and increase your organizational brainpower.


In this podcast, the authors explain that organizations need to do a better job of tapping into the full learning power of the enterprise, improving formal programs while incorporating the latest in social learning, coaching and collaborative platforms.

For optimum viewing, maximize the video once it is playing.

The social dimension

Social media tools have great potential to harness the experiential dimension of the workplace.

Most employees recognize that much of what they need to perform better, improve their skills and gain more knowledge is around them all the time: learning by observing colleagues, receiving coaching from a supervisor, having access to proven ideas and best practices, as well as simply getting on-the-job experience every day. Seventy-five percent of workers responding to Accenture’s survey build new skills through job shadowing, observing others and on-the-job experience.

The challenge for companies is to transform the inherently ad hoc nature of this informal learning into something with more structure and rigor. That’s where social networking and collaboration technologies are now beginning to create learning opportunities.

Social media is an inescapable presence today. It would be hard to find a major business that’s not asking people to follow it on Facebook, or that isn’t tweeting regular news about its products. But it’s one thing to leverage the enormous popularity of social networking to reach customers and manage brand awareness. It’s quite another to integrate social media into a core capability such as learning. Sound easy? It’s not.

What training professionals refer to as “social learning” will be a force in every organization, sooner or later. In the words of Claudia Rodriguez, vice president and head of Motorola Solutions Learning, organizations are at “a major inflection point” when it comes to the use of social media and collaboration tools in business—not just in learning but in everything a business does. “Gradually, social networking is becoming so ingrained in how we live that it will also become ingrained in the way we work,” says Rodriguez.

“The question is, how do we do it in a way that advances the business and also contains the risks? We are answering that question by providing more robust tools that make collaboration even more accessible and efficient to the broader internal and external ecosystem, while also educating users on how to be effective and more accountable social learners.”

Social learning is not without risks—some perceived but some very real: leaked information, learning programs that might be inconsistent and contradictory, productivity losses and a candor in exchanges that may not always be productive.

Consider the company that established an internal forum akin to a Facebook page. Direct reports to a senior executive were asked to post their vision statements for their organization onto his page. One manager did so, but the executive didn’t like it. His response—visible to everyone in the entire company—was that the manager’s posting wasn’t a true vision statement and would need to be totally reworked before it would be acceptable. Not something that’s likely to stimulate learning and the open sharing of ideas again anytime soon.

Properly designed and managed, however, social media tools have great potential to harness the experiential dimension of the workplace to deliver relevant learning experiences that reflect both proven expertise within a function or industry and timely access to an organization’s best thinking, wherever it might be.

Global learning

A social learning solution developed by Microsoft—called Academy Mobile—is an internal platform employees can use to share knowledge by creating and posting audio and video podcasts. The platform has been enormously popular, with download traffic up 115 times in its first two years.

Its value resides largely in how easily employees across Microsoft’s global organization can translate interactions, meetings or timely personal insights into content that can support better learning, performance and idea generation. For example, using the platform, virtual meetings can be captured, catalogued, indexed and converted to video or audio. Content is searchable, and learning programs are also organized and catalogued by topic, creating a kind of virtual curriculum. The academy is available on workers’ mobile devices as well.

The Academy Mobile platform is especially valuable to employees such as salespeople: It enables them to learn rapidly about particular products, solutions and sales techniques so they can capitalize on an immediate customer opportunity.

How does a Microsoft employee know what content is more valuable than other content? In part, through a ranking system from the users themselves. The ranking (from one to five stars) becomes a means by which the best ideas rise to the top because of their practical value. Employees can also interact and ask questions of content creators, generating a dialogue that may become as important as the original posting—and offers another indicator of what content is “hot.”

The ability to rate content sourced online will become increasingly important to effective enterprise learning. In its totality, the Internet is the world’s greatest source of learning but, to use the cliché, that’s a bit like saying that a fire hose is the greatest source of drinking water.

A company’s knowledge system might well provide a search capability and generate abundant content in response to a query, but then what? Content may be king but context is queen. To provide value to employees and enable faster routes to innovation, a search engine needs to aggregate results from a number of internal and external sources and then, as the Microsoft solution does, rank those results according to how likely the content is to support someone’s needs and intentions.

Technology optional

Not every company needs to develop its own social media platform. Many organizations will find that the social networks already in use by consumers have functionality that goes well beyond what they can create in-house.

Rather than trying to introduce competing solutions, companies should think about how to integrate commercially available (and popular) social media technologies into their own learning ecosystem. Using existing platforms like YouTube, companies have ready access to rich sets of tools that deliver learning in a format that has already gained widespread acceptance and popularity.

Social learning doesn’t even necessarily require technology-based tools.

Coaching and mentoring programs require planning and time from supervisors but little capital investment. They can also support employees who don’t fit the typical knowledge worker profile.

For example, at Tiendas Aurgi, a chain of automobile repair shops in Spain, a new informal mentoring system helped to quickly provide employees with new skills. Those whose skill sets were restricted to such tasks as changing tires were able to get the personal coaching, through a master-apprentice model, needed to perform more complex tasks, such as repairing clutches. The program improved overall shop floor productivity by more than 30 percent, which the company believes will potentially lead to a 20 percent increase in revenue.

Statistical evidence suggesting that some types of formal learning are failing to deliver value does not mean that traditional classroom training or e-learning is inherently out of date.

The right blend

The point here, however, is not to throw out everything organizations know about learning and supporting their employees’ performance and replace it with a user-generated social learning solution. The point is rather to recognize where different media and learning approaches are most appropriate and have the best payoff in terms of performance improvement—then to blend or chain these together for maximum impact.

The statistical evidence suggesting that some types of formal learning are failing to deliver value to employees does not mean that traditional classroom training or e-learning is inherently an out-of-date delivery channel. Rather, it is an indication that it too often delivers learning experiences that are not timely or relevant, and not linked to reinforcing knowledge, and so the program does not ultimately support an employee’s ongoing needs. In other words, formal learning isn’t failing because it’s formal but because it’s often poorly conceived and delivered.

It’s not uncommon to hear disparaging remarks in the learning field about how, in spite of all the innovations in electronic and web-based learning, as much as 70 percent of corporate training is still delivered in the old-fashioned way: an instructor in front of a classroom. But the fact is, formal channels are still the best way to deliver many forms of training when consistent knowledge and performance behaviors are what’s sought.

For example, what Accenture calls an “academy” approach to learning is a way to ensure that specific workforces, such as finance, supply chain and sales, get high-quality and consistent knowledge to drive common understandings and common approaches to getting things done.

Learning is targeted to jobs and roles, and designed to fill specific needs and skills gaps. There is rigor to the curriculum because, frankly, no one wants different members of the finance workforce analyzing a balance statement in different ways. Formal learning is good at that—building common skills, ensuring shared understanding and making best practices available to everyone at the same time.

Properly designed, this approach can also be a way to improve relevance. An academy, for example, offers content tightly aligned to functional- and industry-based competency models and job frameworks so that learning is tailored to real and relevant performance needs. Content can be continuously updated by an organization’s internal experts as well as by academics and industry specialists.

The formal learning aspects of the academy can also be augmented by social media and collaboration opportunities, and other kinds of follow-on experiences to reinforce initial training. Without that, the learning program can stagnate and lose relevance and credibility.

However, many organizations actually block their employees from external social networking sites; their collaboration platforms may be adequate for internal use, but they are closed systems and offer an inadequate link to outside perspectives. By building social media hooks into formal learning solutions, an organization can leverage the biggest database of all—the collective experience of people both within and outside their own organization.

How can an enterprise harness the best qualities of both formal training and informal, social learning to turn its entire organization into a corporate-wide enterprise learning team?

Inventory your skills
Companies rarely manage their workforce capabilities with the same rigor they do their stock inventory—that is, through careful assessments of what they have versus what they need. Only 53 percent of employees responding to the Accenture Skills Gap Study said their employers document their skills. Even those that do skills assessments rarely go beyond a “dump” of basic resume data.

An organization’s strategic plans should generate a list of the workforce capabilities needed to execute business strategy, as well as a monetary value for each capability based on how critical it is to generating new revenues or reducing costs. Then, as with a well-managed supply chain, companies should compare the skills and experience they need with the inventory they actually have.

The gap between the ideal and the real can keep learning needs (and budgets) in line because it will sustain a focus on what people really need to be competent and execute strategy.

Identify interdependencies
A related, but more difficult, task is to identify the interdependencies between competencies. No worker operates in isolation. Everyone depends on one another, and every business function interacts with others, so identifying the most critical dependencies is important. It can also be helpful in developing the most useful social media-based support tools, identifying which parts of the organization—and which learning sources—need to be especially linked.

Locate pockets of expertise
The ability to identify particularly valuable content or performance behaviors and then rapidly get those into training vehicles is especially important to delivering on both relevance and timeliness. Several leading companies work to design learning experiences for a particular function based on what top performers are doing, right now, to be successful.

For example, the Eastern European unit of a major consumer products company was looking to improve the performance of its sales force. The company was able to identify specific behaviors of top-performing store executives and field sales supervisors, and rapidly embed those insights and approaches into training activities. Those activities were a blend of social or informal learning such as coaching, as well as e-learning modules and instructor-led workshops and classes.

Create learning chains
It is important to leverage many sources and modalities of learning, and to offer a variety of reinforcing experiences linked together over time. This can improve retention, reinforce knowledge and encourage behaviors that support business goals. This is an excellent way to combine the best of formal learning techniques with social learning as well as with such related areas as communications and coaching.

For example, one company with a supply chain academy combines formal training (both classroom and online) with informal learning that may come from Internet searches, podcasts, YouTube videos, professional research organizations, books and journals, as well as internal resources.

The keys to harnessing the best qualities of both formal and informal learning to create a true learning enterprise are relevance, timeliness and comprehensiveness.

So a search for knowledge and skills in a particular area does not simply turn up a course to enroll in or to take online; it delivers comprehensive results that provide information sources across a wide range of internal and external media. It is important that employees be given a choice in the medium and channel they use to learn, depending on their location and need.

Create responsibility for learning among employees
Employees need to understand that they cannot be merely passive recipients of training. One of the more positive results from the Accenture Skills Gap Study was the finding that more than two-thirds of workers surveyed believe they bear the primary responsibility for their ongoing skills development. But they also need to understand the current and future demand for their own skills and the value of skills they could develop, and then be proactive participants both in their general career development and in any specific re-skilling they may need or be interested in.

Of course, the organization needs to support employees and harness their energy as they work to upgrade their skills, helping them develop learning plans and providing them with access to expertise, often through the social learning tools discussed here.

For example, global retailer Carrefour has implemented a social learning pilot at a number of its stores, involving about 1,000 employees. The program has enabled workers to identify skills they wish to develop, and then find experts to help them do so. Employees identified a learning gap in a simple database, then shared it with their supervisors for approval. Once approved, the need was posted, and experts volunteered to work with individuals to help them develop new capabilities. Preliminary results have been impressive, with the pilot stores reporting a 267 percent increase in sales of specific product lines.

Keep learning continuously aligned with business needs
It is critical that organizations keep an eye on how well learning is aligned with business goals and needs, particularly as these programs grow. This can be especially important when it comes to dealing with social learning and networking, which, because they are still early in the hype cycle, may engender an enthusiasm that needs to be tempered by operational realities.

Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, vice president and general manager of Learning@Cisco, which delivers product training and career certifications at Cisco Systems, is adamant on this point. As she wrote in Chief Learning Officer magazine, “Business needs come first, social learning second.”

To reach Cisco’s global audience of employees, partners and customers with timely information and training, the company created a social learning environment called the Cisco Learning Network. But the idea, as Beliveau-Dunn stresses, wasn’t the social learning platform for its own sake; it was about serving the needs of the business. The development team spent considerable time upfront to understand the business needs that the platform was meant to address.

The drive to ensure ongoing alignment with business needs has generated innovative approaches at high-tech company Motorola Solutions. As Claudia Rodriguez explains, the audience for learning at the company is extremely varied—employees, channel partners and customers. It’s also global, but organized into four geographic regions. So in developing innovative learning, Rodriguez has to balance and align with different levels of priorities.

Globally, learning development leaders are joined at the hip with global business leaders to ensure that the training strategy—from new product and solution introductions to service offerings and skills in sales and marketing—stays in lockstep with business objectives. The regional leaders in the learning organization then validate these priorities with their go-to-market colleagues and adapt the scope and delivery timing to best suit each region’s specific needs.

Rodriguez and her team have developed tools, processes and communications plans (formal meetings multiple times a year, plus ongoing engagement) to obtain input, prioritize training development and drive alignment at those two levels. It’s important to have one common vision for training development not only for strategy reasons but also for management efficiencies. Notes Rodriguez: “I develop one list of priorities that my head of design and development can plan against from a capacity planning perspective.”

She concludes, “At the end of the day, what we get out of this governance and planning structure is alignment with all the right stakeholders, true visibility to what’s going on and then ultimately even the ability to measure the impact of all those key priorities and validate that they are helping to achieve the company’s business goals.”


Social learning represents a shift, and a major opportunity, for organizations. It enables the exchange and delivery of timely, relevant knowledge and can bring people together—inside and outside the enterprise—to generate fresh thinking and potentially profitable innovations.

At the same time, it’s not the answer to everything. The key is to plan the right learning and collaboration solution for the right need, and to blend formal with informal to reinforce knowledge and build new skills.

As they seek to harness brainpower through social media platforms, integrated with formal learning, organizations should bear in mind the same kinds of development rigor and consistent delivery that has brought them success in the past.


Diego S. De León is the global lead for learning and collaboration offerings and capabilities within the Accenture Talent & Organization management consulting group, and the lead for Talent & Organization in Europe, Africa, Middle East and Latin America. He is based in Madrid.

New York-based Terry Nulty is the lead for Accenture Academy, a suite of online learning environments focused on improving the skills of critical workforces.

Geirean Marcroft is the lead for learning and collaboration offerings and capabilities within the Accenture Talent & Organization management consulting group in the United Kingdom. He is based in London.