Transforming How People Learn at Work: How to Get Employees Excited about Online Learning and Development

Panel discussion by Oliver Sharp, co-founder and Chief Solution Architect at Highspot; Kevin Williams, Head of the Global Initiatives, LTS, Sales Readiness team at LinkedIn; William Adams, Technical Advisor to the CTO at Microsoft; and Mike Dosenbach (moderator), SVP of Cloud and Connectivity at Mercedes-Benz Research & Development North America, at the 2020 Project Ascendance Summit.

In this panel, these experts discussed:

  • Using games and activities to make on-the-job learning fun
  • Providing a holistic, interconnected user journey
  • Integrating community and social engagement
  • Forming groups in various ways to become proficient in a subject
  • Improving the structure of learning events with breakout sessions
  • Measuring proficiency and using coaching

Making Online Learning More Participatory, Holistic, and Engaging

At LinkedIn, Head of Global Initiatives Kevin Williams said that they are trying to make experiences more holistic, which in their case means assigning producer roles to provide an interconnected user journey. The producer role manages the logistics for delivering seamless, video-based virtual training, including pushing slides forward, managing breakout groups, running games, observing themes in chat—and this role has been key in delivering an optimum experience.

Highspot, which works with companies on sales team enablement, is seeing a lot of non-traditional ways of learning, according to Oliver Sharp, the co-founder and Chief Solution Architect. Highspot has been putting a huge emphasis on games and activities and making the learning more participatory and engaging with breakout sessions. Sharp said that people are sitting at home and they’re a little stressed out, and everything seems kind of the same. If you can break things up, make it fun, make it into a game, and maybe form teams that are competing, that really makes the session come alive.

Sharp said that he’s a huge fan of role play, and sometimes he’ll give people in the room a little script, which could be about manager training or selling a product. No one else gets to see your script; only you get to read your script, he said. When you actually have to look someone in the eye and have that conversation with them, it is a totally different experience.

Learning in a Social Context and Building Communities 

William Adams, Technical Advisor to the CEO at Microsoft, said that the company is focused on integrating the community part of learning. In a study conducted a few years ago, Adams said  Microsoft asked some people what they were missing when working remotely. Employees who responded indicated they missed water cooler conversations, coffee conversations, lunch conversations—the serendipitous discovery of people and subjects.

At Highspot, they’ve realized how much the social context affects how well people learn. When you think about learning, you often focus on things like courses and training. But Highspot found, for its new people especially, that they had to build a connective tissue of social engagement to supplement their experience and get it closer to being what it used to be like in person. The social context is really key to learning, in Sharp’s view.

In this context, Adams said, community is the ability to gather a set of people and learn something. If someone wanted to learn how to do a multi-threaded C# application, they could sign up for an online class that six or seven colleagues can join, and form a crew. They spend the next two weeks on that subject matter and schedule when they’re going to meet. They also bring in experts who can facilitate and be available for office hours. After they accomplish their objective as a group, they may disband. You may or may not stay connected to those people for learning other things, Adams said—or maybe you’ve found someone to have that virtual coffee with.

They also created what they called a ‘designer’s table’ at Microsoft, modeled after the ‘chef’s table’ in restaurants. They held weekly sessions in which the designer, an experienced engineer, would sit with the group, go through various topics, and maybe assign a challenge like creating a paint program. They’d start with things like data structures, algorithms, and language syntax, and have a paint program by the end.

Sharp said that the completion rate for large online courses (MOOCs) is in the single-digit percentages because there’s no social pressure to finish, and no real consequences for not finishing. You also feel very isolated, Sharp said, so it’s important to find ways of doing exactly what Adams said: banding groups together so that people are supporting one another. A lot of learning comes from those less formal moments.

They use a “cafe” and a “playground” approach at LinkedIn, said Williams. The cafe approach is exploratory and facilitates peer-to-peer learning. The playground approach is a way of getting up to speed on certain behaviors, so that involves sharing best practices and doing teach-backs.

Having people around you helps with your self-accountability, Adams said, and leads to behavioral change. It’s going to lead to knowledge and being able to apply it. And as you get closer to being proficient or an expert, that’s when you need a group. You need the social construct to become proficient.

Improving the Structure of Learning Events

Two hours would be too long when you’re constantly on camera, said Adams. You need to exercise whatever you’re learning, and keep things very short.

At the two-hour mark, regardless of facilitator strength, people start getting googly-eyed, Williams said. They’ve constantly had to dial down the length of time. They’ve also tried to really understand the audience by asking them what they want—kind of your human-centered design approach—and figure out what’s most scalable from there. That’s the hard part.

Sharp said it’s interesting to try doing the flipped classroom model, which means that you listen to lectures outside of class and do homework inside of class. Specifically, you can assign the course material that people can read or listen to passively, and then when they get together, it’s about engaging.

At LinkedIn, Williams said, his colleagues are spending a lot of time thinking about the reinforcement that comes right after anything in person.

 With Highspot’s group sessions, Sharp prefers only five minutes of talking before the first breakout, a period where you come together and have a little bit of a lecture, and then breakout, with most of the time spent on breakout sessions.

What They’ve Learned About Being More Effective than Before

These online tools are incredibly powerful, Sharp said. Though he loves the culture Highspot had of constantly getting together—that’s a really powerful thing, he said—he also thinks you want both.

Williams said that they’ve learned a lot about meeting learners where they are and making learning scalable. They’ve also learned how to expand the menu of what they can use to stimulate and make it more appropriate for the kind of learning they want to offer, which will improve learning facilitation when they return to the office.

What we see, Sharp said, and what learning research shows, is that it’s repetition that matters. It’s only through repetition that it becomes part of your behavior and changes the way you do your job. The one key person who can make a huge impact on that is your manager.

Let’s press the advantage for remote learning with a community base, Adams said. Let’s continue to see the value in this newer way of doing things, and then add physical as an augmentation.

At the end of the day, Sharp said, employees still have to do the same work that they had to do before. He manages the services team and they launch customers of various sizes up to giant enterprises. That still has to happen, so they have to teach people the same thing they used to learn. The challenge is that the context is different. They had the same goal and the same problem, but needed to get people to the same level of proficiency using a different set of tools.

How to Measure Learning and Proficiency

Sharp said you should think about measuring proficiency and measuring impact. In some disciplines, like sales, it’s a lot easier to measure impact, whereas it’s much harder to determine the impact of a training class on an engineering team. You have to look at a series of metrics: did they take the class, did they graduate, how did they rate the class, etc.—which is useful, but not interesting. What’s really interesting is if they learned anything. The extent to which you can actually measure that chain is powerful if you can do it.

In engineering, Adams said, they would measure things like, how many bugs are you introducing? How long does it take you to get a new feature out without bugs? How do you feel about your job? Do you feel well-equipped for your job? There are plenty of people who don’t, and that’s a learning problem. So there are different ways you can measure. The trick is, as Oliver said, don’t get stuck on the metrics of the class, because they’re not as interesting as proficiency, or the end result.

It’s Holy Grail territory to talk about instilling a culture of coaching, Williams said, and how you measure that. If there’s a gap between assessment of competence between an employee and their manager, there’s a reason for that gap.

In the sales world, Sharp said, there are products that will allow you to listen in on the conversations and give people feedback, so you can get very crisp metrics on how much coaching is happening.

Takeaways to Consider:

  • Assign producer roles to manage a specific aspect of online learning
  • Turn interactions into games and form teams that compete
  • Adopt a “cafe” approach for exploratory, peer-to-peer learning, and a “playground” approach for sharing best practices
  • Role play with scripts to practice and rehearse learned patterns and interactions in a sandbox environment
  • Assemble a group that meets for 2-3 weeks to study a particular topic or achieve a particular goal, bring in experts to facilitate and answer questions, then disband
  • Hold weekly sessions with an expert who addresses various topics and/or assigns a challenge
  • Exercise what you’re learning, make sure you’re incorporating repetition, and try answering the question both before and after you’ve learned the underlying material

To learn more about the Project Ascendance Summit, visit


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Sonia Steinway

About the Author

Sonia is a principal at Artemis.