Learning can be a big job. Especially when that job requires joining fragmented learning organizations into a central learning and development function for 28,000 global employees — without losing best practices or innovations. Since 2007, however, Barbara Keen, head of global learning and development for biopharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), has been making it happen.
Historically, the company did not have a global learning function, so before the tough work began, Keen said she first had to look at how the function was structured. At the same time, the company had to pay attention to cost and spending as well as learning’s alignment with the business strategy. Then a continuous improvement mindset had to spread to ensure everything done to conduct learning business was being done in the most efficient way. Keen and her team worked to eliminate redundancies and built business unit learning plans to further increase process alignment and deliverables.
“We’ve gotten tremendous feedback from business unit leaders,” she said. “For the first time, they see the direct connection between the work learning and development performs for them and the execution of their strategic priorities.”
BMS is also having success with its learning innovation strategy — another strategic priority — and identifying new methods with which to inculcate learning and work. Part of that push for innovation focuses on advancing the company’s strategy to become a next-generation biopharmaceutical organization. Evaluating current Web 2.0 and learning 2.0 trends and what tools might be useful to enhance organizational culture, agility and entrepreneurial spirit produced a five-pronged approach to learning and development design and delivery and a number of technology-enabled methods to support that framework. That approach includes traditional classroom-based learning, learning on demand, social and collaborative learning, learning from experience and learning through coaching.
“In those last two, we’re attempting to automate how we make experts and coaches more accessible to a broader group of people through the use of technologies,” Keen explained. “We’re trying to create a portfolio of learning that enables learners to seek out learning when they need it and at the same time be able to build on their knowledge and improve their performance on the job.”
BMS’s learning function has a federated structure, a mixture of decentralized and centralized elements that converge to continuously expand the portfolio of offerings. Essentially, there is a central hub with highly technical teams that report into the lines of business but are on a dotted line to the center. That structure facilitates standardization while maintaining flexibility, meets established learning needs, and gives senior leaders and key stakeholders direct influence on future offerings — or missing pieces — that the function can provide.
Keen also has put several specific elements in play to ensure BMS is a truly global learning organization, including standardizing much of its content around key enterprisewide messages, teaching formal learning classes in native languages and ensuring translations are on point.
“We look for relevancy in the particular global market that we are in,” she said. “We launched one initiative that looks at how you design for global audiences. It’s not just about once you get done with development of a particular learning program. It’s how do you think about it before you even start to design that program? What things should you be paying attention to when you’re actually putting the program together?
“We’re also training our learning organization around the world to leverage the virtual classroom tool to improve our ability to connect with each other. It’s never perfect. We’re all in the learning curve. Some of my very talented graduate student interns who come to work with me as performance consultants or instructional designers are helping us a great deal in terms of taking everyone’s skills into the next generation.”
While all this work is being done behind the scenes to innovate, create and make the learning process more efficient, Keen is also gathering metrics to ensure resources are well spent. Part of this requires the learning function to actually determine what success looks like prior to any program or initiative launch and then measure results against expectations.
“We pay very careful attention to return on expectations for our learning sponsors, our senior leaders, asking them ‘What are you hoping to get out of this?’ [and] ‘What problem is this going to be solving for you?’ so we can get a good sense of what they expect learning and development to provide,” she said.
BMS examines the core metrics of most learning and development functions and uses learner surveys centered on three critical learning application questions: Do learners believe this learning is directly applicable to their jobs? Do learners believe they can execute against the new knowledge and skills they’ve been taught? Does the manager support learners in that work? These bottom-line questions for every learning program, discussions with senior leaders about their expectations and qualitative comments gleaned from program participants facilitate the company’s continuous improvement strategy for learning effectiveness.
“We’re looking to drive the successful execution of core strategic initiatives the company requires: What are the outcomes associated with learning and development helping with execution of company strategy? Is it helping the company overcome problems or needs? On the other side of learning and development is a lever we like to pull around engagement,” said Keen. “How are we helping our key talent develop in their careers? What are the outcomes of engagement in the form of discretionary effort and retention?”
BMS will continue to advance its next-generation learning framework in order to stay agile and keep up with the rapid pace of internal and external change.
“Our function has come a very long way,” Keen said. “I’m privileged to work with a very talented and highly engaged, excited, creative group of people. We’re all very proud of what we’ve built as a function over the past three odd years and look forward to more in the future. We will continue to evolve, the company will continue to evolve, and we’ll never stop innovating or looking for ways to be more efficient or effective.”
Kellye Whitney is managing editor at MediaTec Publishing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.