Learning and development have become one of the cornerstones of many companies’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as organizations seek to arm their employees with the skills needed to navigate the frequent change and disruptions, while also preparing them for ongoing digital transformation. In order for such efforts to be sustainable, companies must have a true commitment to fostering a learning culture, says Joe Whittinghill, corporate vice president of talent, learning and insights.
Whittinghill has spent more than two decades with the tech giant, including the last five helming its learning initiatives. His work was influential in the development of the Microsoft Learning Center and the creation of Microsoft’s Leadership Principles—a driving force in the company’s cultural transformation. Whittinghill recently sat down with HRE to talk about the role of learning in culture, particularly at a time of rapid reinvention.
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HRE: What were L&D leaders at Microsoft spending most of their energy on prior to the pandemic? And how did the pandemic shift those priorities?
Whittinghill: At Microsoft, we have long been focused on creating a culture of “learn-it-alls” by developing a personalized learning journey with cutting-edge learning and development, content, platforms and services. Our approach to learning has moved rapidly to be grounded in neuroscience, and more fully understanding how the brain functions, to truly enable our best work and best lives. While the pandemic hasn’t drastically changed our overall approach, it has certainly accelerated it. What has changed is the move to fully virtual, both real-time and asynchronous, and the development and optimization of these durable capabilities within our portfolio of available learning methods. Now more than ever, we’re looking at bringing new ways of learning to our employees and ensuring that we continue to prioritize a learning culture by offering time and space for learning.
HRE: What kind of work have leaders and managers at Microsoft had to undertake in order to learn how to more effectively lead amid the shift to remote work and the ongoing uncertainty?
Whittinghill: We agree that managers are one of the most influential aspects of an employee’s lived experience, and it is critical that we provide our managers with the right tools and resources so that our entire workforce can thrive. Put another way, we ask our managers to empower those who are working to achieve our mission of empowering others. Through these challenging times, we focused on building connectedness and social cohesion for leaders and managers with increased communication, interactions, community and support—so they work through the pandemic in the most healthy and productive ways possible given all the challenges this year has brought.
HRE: How has the pandemic impacted the link between leadership and culture?
Whittinghill: The success of our cultural transformation starts with the success of our people. And the success of our people starts with leadership. We believe that everyone can be a leader. You don’t have to manage people to be a leader. Research has shown that those who lead as well as people managers create the conditions and experiences that bring out the best in employees. In this digital-first world, it’s now more important than ever that our leaders enable flexibility in how we work, as individuals and as a company, to benefit our business and our community and ensure an inclusive culture for all types of talent and workstyles.
HRE: What role do you see in-person classroom learning having once the pandemic subsides? Will most L&D efforts have shifted permanently to online?
Whittinghill: Virtual learning has enabled us to more quickly scale, simplify and personalize learning, helping employees connect and collaborate across boundaries. While virtual learning has many benefits, we know that employees also gain social capital and energy from being together, in person, to learn. We see virtual learning as an opportunity to continue to augment in-person learning, and in many ways have the best of both worlds. Hybrid, also known as blended learning, will become as common as hybrid work.
HRE: In general, what impact do you think the pandemic has had on the role of L&D in large organizations in the long term? Has this solidified its value?
Whittinghill: The pandemic has made clear that every organization will need a system of learning for their employees and partners. As the way we work continues to transform at a rapid pace, we must equip our workforce with the skills, technology, learning experiences and opportunity to pursue the in-demand jobs of this ever-evolving economy. Organizations that foster a learning culture, where everyone is motivated to learn, teach and share, will be rewarded.
HRE: How did 2020 shape the pace of digital transformation for large organizations, including Microsoft?
Whittinghill: We are in the midst of the digital age, and we are learning that the experiences of organizations and people will be more challenging, more tumultuous and more ever-changing than desired. These past 10 months have served as the largest at-scale experiment the world has ever seen for remote work, transforming where and how we get work done. The pandemic has accelerated digital capabilities for many organizations, in both public and private sectors. While this evolution has been mostly successful, we have learned a lot from our colleagues in education about the criticality of preparedness for succeeding with virtual-only learning. This changing nature of work has shown that digital technology is critical, and we believe that businesses that build and utilize stronger digital capabilities will be more resilient and emerge stronger.