Recessions and economic downturns happen. Many of us have worked – or tried to work – through more than one economic downturn. As training departments tend to be small compared to other departments, how do we stay relevant in tough economic times?
Chris Pirie from the Learning Futures Group sits down with the Train Like You Listen team this week to give us a little history of his experiences in training departments during economic downturns. He takes some time to discuss how this economy is different than others in his experience, and what the business case is for learning and development, no matter what the economy.
If you are interested in hearing more from Chris, be sure to check out his work and his podcast at learningisthenewworking.org
Tune in this week, and every week to learn more about what other professionals are doing to push our industry forward!
Transcript of Our Conversation with Chris Pirie
Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast of all things L&D in bite-sized chunks. Today we’re joined by Chris Pirie, Founder and CEO of the Learning Futures Group and all-around experienced training guru. Chris, thank you for joining us today.
Chris Pirie: Its great to be here.
Brian Washburn: So, Chris, as we always start out our podcast….we’ll always ask our guests to introduce themselves with a 6 word biography. Today we’re talking about the business case for training, especially in this environment of COVID. For me, I would introduce myself saying “I’ve always believed training is essential.”
Chris Pirie: When you said 6 words it made me think of my, kind of, motto. And my motto is to “do good work and have fun” and I think those 2 approaches are virtuous circles and if you can be in a position to do good work and have fun doing it, then life is great.
What Makes Training Effective?
Brian Washburn: Yeah, they say that if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. Now, Chris, you’ve led training initiatives at Microsoft, you’ve led the Board of Directors at the Association for Talent Development, and now you’re running your own business that’s focused on training, and effective training and effective practice. In your experience, what do you think are some of the differences between training that’s effective and training that misses the mark?
Chris Pirie: Well I’ve spent I would say 108 quarters in the software industry, helping people use technology to learn and to learn how to use technology… at Microsoft, at Oracle, a number of places…. And now I call myself an independent investigator into the future of learning for work. And this is a fun project, it’s a hard project. And boy, its turned out to be a very relevant project…right now. After a career of helping people learn at work there was a lot that we needed to do to move the profession forward. And I believe that we needed a kind of a new model for workplace learning because I felt quite a lot of frustration that we weren’t helping people be successful in a new world where information is free…and you’re inundated with stuff every day…and the skills, the shelf-life of skills is getting shorter…and your value to your employer is more-than-likely what you know. And so it felt to me that a lot of the tools we had in our profession were not living up to the needs of the modern worker.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Chris Pirie: And so I kind of set out to figure out what would be better and what would work more effectively. And that’s been the mission that I’ve been on with the Learning Futures Group and of course it’s been a lot of fun, and we’ve learned a lot. There’s basically 3 things that I’ve learned in the last 18 months around this new model for workplace learning….The first is, it better be informed by science. So there’s really great work going on in data science, neuroscience and brain science and also in social science around how people learn – how people learn in communities, how people learn as individuals. And you can think of, you know, a role that’s helping train people to be better learners is a really critical role in the future, when your value to your employer or your value to your customers is how quickly you can re-learn and un-learn and, learn new ways to create value for them. So I think that first thing is lets look to the sciences that surround us, the way including computer science and the tools that are emerging there, to take a more scientific approach to how we do learning in the workplace. Lets run experiments, lets collaborate and work out loud and do peer reviews…lets just get more scientific is kind of point #1.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Human-Centered Learning Culture
Chris Pirie: The 2nd thing that I learned is lets be human-centered. Let’s put people at the heart of what we do, whether that’s kind of human-centered design…. And then lets be business-aligned. Let’s be really delivering change behaviors and transferring knowledge in ways that create value for the companies that we work in. And there are some amazing things happening on that level…really often framed in the phrase of “learning culture”, building an environment where people can experiment, and fail, and learn from failure, and collaborate to learn, and create new knowledge. This, I think, is the heart of creating real value in organizations.
Brian Washburn: Do you feel like you were able to create a learning culture where you sat in Microsoft?
Chris Pirie: I mean, Microsoft is one of the companies, I think, that has done some really interesting experimentation in this space. There are other organizations… Novartis, for example…the CLO, Simon Brown, at Novartis…they’re trying to build a culture of curiosity. That’s how they frame it up.
Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm.
Chris Pirie: At Microsoft, the journey was characterized as a journey from being a know-it-all culture, where we had all the answers and we were the smartest guys in the room…
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Chris Pirie: …towards being a learn-it-all culture, which was, you know, we developed a mindset that said that we approached everything – including our customers and their business – with a sense of curiosity and a growth mindset. Real value is created in the future, not by me telling you what to do but by me bringing my assets and understanding how they can best help YOU, my customer, do whatever it is you do more effectively.
Brian Washburn: Yeah.
Chris Pirie: That’s a really different way of selling. It’s a different way of collaborating and it’s a different way of creating value and, you know, Microsoft has been on this extraordinary journey under their latest CEO, Satya Nadella. They’ve created an extraordinary amount of value, in part, by this new, sort of, mental shift and this culture that rewards learning and the creation of new knowledge through, sort of, learning platforms so… Yes it can be done, but also, yes, it’s very, very, very hard because cultures are things that are the sum of the parts, right?
Brian Washburn: Yep.
Chris Pirie: Its not something you can just cull together a company meeting and say, right, “we all have a learning culture”.
Brian Washburn: (laughing)
Chris Pirie: Its a lot of work.
Brian Washburn: Yeah. And I’d love to dive a little bit deeper into lots of this. Because you’re touching on lots of different things, in terms of, you know, it better be informed by science, let’s be human-centered, let’s be business-aligned… Let’s talk about that “business-aligned” for a second. Because training is often seen as a cost center, so a drain on organizational budgets. In your experience, what’s the value of training for an organization?
Chris Pirie: Yeah, this is a really easy one for me to answer, I think, especially in light of the kind of growth that you see in companies like Microsoft and Novartis, and many, many others. They just take it seriously. Workplace training is a $240 billion dollar economic segment. It’s an extraordinary amount of money, so I don’t like to bemoan the fact that we’re underfunded. And I do think that we can do a lot better with that investment. So that’s my, kind of, point on that.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Chris Pirie: To me, human talent and ingenuity IS the value creation engine of most organizations. I mean, sure, if you build cars you buy a lot of steel and a lot of equipment, but how you put those cars together, how you design them and how you take them to market, that’s all the stuff of human ingenuity. And so if you don’t invest in your human capital and in your talent, then you’re not going to stay relevant. It’s as simple as that.
Training v. Learning
Brian Washburn: And you’ve been, kind of, in that, kind of decision-maker mode…in terms of “what do we spend money on? And what do we not?” Sure that you’ve gotten requests for more budget, you’ve gotten requests for more headcount, kind of just listening to what you’re talking about right there, in terms of training itself…good training….good learning programs can make a huge difference in terms of human ingenuity, in terms of what the organization can do. Is there something specific that you would look for that made the difference between approving requests and, kind of, giving the thumbs down?
Chris Pirie: Let’s talk about training versus learning. I think of training as skills and knowledge transfer, where we know the solution to a problem and we just have to get people to either exhibit the behaviors or have the set of knowledge to be successful doing that job. And I think of that as training. Like we know what the answer is and our job is to transfer that information to people.
Brian Washburn: Yep.
Chris Pirie: I think that’s becoming a less important element of what we do in L&D because with technology that can be done in real time, very easily through the tools that people use and so we can sort of minimize the effort that we spend on that sort of demonstrative, kind of, training with a capital “T”.
Brian Washburn: Yeah.
Chris Pirie: What’s really interesting to ME is the notion of learning. And most… you know, now its L&D, right, its not the training department any more its learning and development….
Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm…
Chris Pirie: And I think creating the space, and the conditions, where people learn is really the interesting work. So, for example, in learning you might not know what the desired outcome is, right? You might produce insights and knowledge as a result of the learning program. That’s interesting to me because that’s creating new value and new things. The questions that I always ask people when they were talking about budget was “How will your program scale…have a scale and sustainable impact that’s worth the amount of time that it takes for everybody who needs to consume it to consume it?” So I think, you know, when you talk about budget one thing thats very often forgotten in budget is the opportunity cost, right? If you’re building a program for 1,000 people in your organization and it takes them all a day to consume that program, it better be worth 1,000 days of lost productivity. And I think when you put that measure in place, the budget is trivial.
Brian Washburn: Sure.
Chris Pirie: So they’re the two things that I always ask do you think about before i write checks.
How Do You Support Learning & Development During an Economic Downturn?
Brian Washburn: Now checks get smaller and smaller in times of economic downturn and that’s where we find ourselves right now. Do you have any lessons learned from the last downturn – in 2008 – that perhaps people should be learning from and maybe even applying today?
Chris Pirie: I mean, I’ve worked through four major economic downturns so they will keep coming….it sort of goes with the territory in our economic model. But, seriously, I think what’s happening now is nothing short of an economic and human catastrophe, to be honest with you. I mean, this will have fundamental long-term consequences. And 40 million people unemployed – the highest level since the Great Depression here in the United States…its pretty much the same picture around the rest of the world. It FEELS SO much worse because we’ve just come off some of the highs, right? We’ve just come off the lowest unemployment that’s ever happened in the history of this country, and so this is a massive shock to the system. One thing that seems pretty clear is if the last recession in 2008 was really a product of economic mismanagement and the skills needed to get us out of that were fiscal skills. In this particular situation, what you need is a great people-leader, because this is really a tragedy, I think, that’s impacting people and is about people rather than about the economy. The economy will be impacted as a consequence, but this is really a human tragedy that we’re sort of living through right now. I’m building a course right now, actually, on, kind of, what to do next… that will roll out in September. And one of the cues for the course is something that was said by a guy called Rahm Emanuel, who was Barack Obama’s Chief of Staff. And he said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” And what he means by that is it gives you the opportunity to re-look at things and it also sheds light on things where work needs to be done. Things that when times were good, you know we were too busy and we didn’t have the time to think about what’s going on. And that is really playing out with some of the social disruptions we’re seeing now. People have the time to start asking some questions about “do we have the right set of values?”, “how we can be approaching things in the right way”. To me, of course, as I think about how this disruption has an impact on L&D and our business, I take comfort in the fact that one of the responses to this is that we need to be great learners.
Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm….
Chris Pirie: Right? We need to put aside all our assumptions, and all our training – frankly – from the past, and we need to think through how to respond. And that will require listening to lots of people. It’s going to require lots of conversation – like your great podcast. It’s going to require you to use what you have, right…what’s to hand. It’s going to require you to run a lot of experiments and to see what works and to see how we can create value in this new world. The good news is the secret – it’s pretty clear that our secret as a species has been our adaptability, right…our brain plasticity…
Brian Washburn: Yeah…
Chris Pirie: ….so we can learn, even as adults, and we can collaborate at scale and, you know, we’re really good at being agile and thinking our way out of problems. And for me, learning is at the heart of all this. And so, as we think about helping the 40 million unemployed people become relevant for the future, we think about our co-workers and how they can be successful when they’re in lockdown and only talking to each other through this digital medium. I think, boy, L&D and training has a mission like never before.
Brian Washburn: That – it really aligns with some of the conversations I’ve been having with other L&D folks is that this time around does seem different. That training budgets aren’t necessarily being squeezed but rather the requests for training and people in training functions, they’ve never been busier! For exactly – and what you’re saying right here kind of brings a little bit of “ah-ha”. This is WHY it’s a little bit different for folks in training this time around.
Chris Pirie: Yeah, I mean, it’s really a great point. There’s a lot of data. LinkedIN Learning just released a survey which basically said the same thing. We’ve got a seat at the table now…we have a sense of purpose now…and that’s a big change, I think, from the last…from even 6 months ago.
Brian Washburn: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. And, Chris, I really appreciate you taking some time just to share some of these, kind of, experiences and the collection of experiences that you’ve had throughout the course of your career. We’re going to end here just with a quick little speed round, again, just so that our audience just gets to know you a little bit. Are you ready for our…?
Chris Pirie: I’m ready.
Brian Washburn: …very difficult speed round questions… Here we go.
Chris Pirie: I’m so ready.
Brian Washburn: (laughing) What is your go-to food on days when you have to deliver a presentation?
Chris Pirie: Simple. Good cheese.
Brian Washburn: (laughing)
Chris Pirie: Yep. Don’t skimp.
Brian Washburn: (laughing) Is there a book or a podcast that people in L&D should be paying attention to right now?
Chris Pirie: Oh my gosh, there are so many books. Let me do podcasts first… You could, of course, listen to MY podcast which we call Learning is the New Working, available on all podcast platforms. Like the EdSurge podcast – that’s “Ed”, short for education, “Surge” podcast it’s a little bit broader about what’s going on in the education field. Of course, the #1 top-selling, top listened-to podcast on the planet is The Daily from the New York Times. That’s mission-critical. And, to be honest with you, I don’t think I would have survived living in America…everything I know about American culture I learned through Terry Gross and NPR’s Fresh Air, which I think is the top listen-to podcast in the world. So that’s podcasts…I know a lot about podcasts. In terms of books, I’ll tell you one of my favorite books that people don’t know so much about is called “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling. It really comes back to this data science and really understanding the world around you. It also has a very uplifting, kind of, subtheme as well so “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling would be my recommendation.
Brian Washburn: Excellent. How about training tech? Is there a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?
Chris Pirie: Yeah, use what you have. Whatever you can get your hands on…how can you put it to work? So right now, you know, we’d be screwed without the internet. And there are so many amazing tools that are essentially free. I found one last week recommended to me…it’s called Spatial.Chat. That’s “Spatial” with a “t”. You can basically host a party and people can move around this physical space and converse with each other. It’s an amazing way to collaborate online and there’s going to be more and more of that stuff coming to market. I’m a big podcaster. I couldn’t live without Audacity or Splice.com. Basically, whatever you can find on the internet that helps you put some humanity and person-to-person connection back into the online learning experience, use the hell out of it. Because that’s our job.
Brian Washburn: Yeah. Perfect. And we’re going to end here just with a little bit of appreciation and asking is there anything that you’re plugging right now that people should be paying attention to.
Chris Pirie: The podcast, I guess. It’s my research tool and it’s amazing…i love podcasting because you can just call up pretty much anybody and ask them to talk about their work and mostly they’re prepared to do that. So you get to talk to amazing people and so you can learn all about our podcast at www.learningisthenewworking.org. And sign up, join the conversation, let’s build the future of Learning & Development.
Brian Washburn: Well, Chris, thank you again for joining us. I really appreciate this. And for everybody who is listening, thank you for listening to Train Like You Listen. You can find Train Like You Listen on iTunes, on Spotify, iHeartRadio or wherever you sign up for podcasts. For everybody who has been listening, thank you so much. Have a great week and happy training!