Facebook has made quite an impact since its inception in February of 2004. Millions of people use the site every day to connect with friends, share information and promote goods and services. The social network has spawned imitators around the globe, generated several highly publicized lawsuits, turned privacy into a question mark and been credited with helping to start a revolution.
It has been an interesting time for a company less than eight years old. Even as the 2010 movie “The Social Network” dissected the company’s leadership and origins, Facebook’s ups and downs made for a critically acclaimed Hollywood box office hit.
In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg played a fictional version of CEO Mark Zuckerberg as a smart college kid who took an idea and turned it into a phenomenon. The veracity of Eisenberg’s portrayal aside, few can deny Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg took advantage of his strengths, an idea that resonates throughout Facebook’s learning organization.
“People are likely to do their very best when they have an opportunity to play to their strengths,” said Stuart Crabb, Facebook’s head of learning. “There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the lightbulbs go off in managers, teams and individuals when they get the opportunity to sit down and think and talk about their strengths and how they play out at work. It’s an incredibly important filter through which managers, HR functions and CEOs should be thinking about performance improvement.”
Crabb, who joined Facebook some two and a half years ago from The Marcus Buckingham Co., said the learning industry has been tethered to some fairly sizable beliefs about what it takes to make organizations and individuals successful, beliefs that are increasingly less relevant to organizations like Facebook. Generational shifts are changing how the workforce perceives ideas such as recognition, feedback, development and opportunity. This prompted Crabb to reframe development to align better with employee demands and expectations, and strengths-based learning plays a central role.
For example, Crabb said traditional learning uses competency as a gateway to determine an employee’s ability and performance potential. “It’s actually a fairly flawed assumption because a focus on competency-based thinking excludes the emotional component that’s present in every task and activity: How does this work make me feel? What’s really important is recognizing that meaningful work — and engagement — is likely to come when managers find a way to tilt the job and the opportunities in the organizations to the strengths of the individual.”
The Facebook workforce is young, and much of the company’s learning offerings acknowledge that by not force-feeding employees lengthy, formal classroom events. Only the new hire experience, a two-day acculturation program, is more than one day. Crabb and his team have structured learning to appeal to a hacker mindset — the Facebook learning platform is about brevity, speed, a laser-like focus and effective assimilation based on internal stories, discovery through conversation, modeling and debate.
“We try to focus a lot on experiences,” said Bob Trahan, engineering director for Facebook. “We don’t necessarily throw you in the classroom. You have a stretch job and then there’s materials, resources and classes if that’s what will help your best to be better.
“When we talk about a hacker culture, to me that’s really about hackers learn by doing. They play around and learn on the go, and I think a lot of how we operate is really aligned with that. At Facebook you get that learning you need when you need it that’s highly relevant and tailored to your actual experience.”
Trahan said part of Crabb’s contribution to the organization is its centralized learning and development team. “When I think of a really healthy, successful organization long term, assuming we’re hiring well, doing a good job of getting rid of bottom performers and finding the right roles for people, once you’re doing that at scale what’s important is training your people, making them better and giving them the skills they need. Stuart’s team is pushing that lever,” he said. “Some of the really critical central things such as on-boarding have gone from tactical [procedures] — ‘Here, fill out this piece of paper, and here’s your computer and oh, sorry, your account doesn’t work so let me help you’ — it’s much more inspirational, motivational and really helps to set the tone for what it’s like to work at the company.”
Instead of long-winded, classroom-based training or creating what Crabb called a bloated, university-style training department, Facebook learning eschews most formal programming in favor of deploying e-learning, webcasts, roundtables, fact sheets, coaching circles, toolkits and other approaches to get learning content out into the community. What formal programming there is targets several critical groups the company regards as a priority, including the new-hire experience, manager effectiveness, situational leadership, individual contributors and the global sales and marketing group.
Crabb said in his 21 years working in the learning industry he’s never seen a company emphasize the new-hire experience more than Facebook. The program was created to compress the employee’s ramp up time to productivity. To do that, new hires go through a two-day cultural immersion before starting a 100-day on-ramping boot camp experience that provides access to tools as well as the learning components and performance management check-ins necessary to assimilate.
Manager effectiveness, or the strong manager program, has its roots in learning Crabb brought in from The Marcus Buckingham Co. It teaches managers the core aspects of their jobs: goal setting, ways to select new talent by aligning strengths with job needs, how to understand motivation, learning styles and feedback and recognition, all from a strengths perspective. After graduation, managers spend six weeks with an external strengths coach to reinforce program components.
Crabb partnered with The Ken Blanchard Cos. to implement its situational leadership concept, which helps managers apply themselves without assuming successful past behaviors and solutions are going to work in the future. The program is based on the idea that every problem is affected by circumstances that have to be individually evaluated because they impact a person’s responses.
“That’s been an incredibly powerful experience for our management team because it’s given them an opportunity to flex and learn how to try new things. Remember, many of our managers are very, very young,” Crabb said. “Some of them are in management positions for the very first time.”
Individual contributors have a few core programs as well. In one, Facebook learning has partnered with VitalSmarts to emphasize the importance of authentic communication in the company culture. “If we’re committed to openness and transparency to the rest of the world, we have to eat our own dog food,” Crabb said. The company will continue to roll the program out to its global business during the next year.
The global sales and marketing group is also a focus area for learning. Facebook produces an array of sales and product training for consumer products and supports hundreds of thousands of platform integrators like Zynga, maker of the games Farmville and Cityville.
“It’s a horrible cliche, but creating a learning culture is one of the single most important things that resonate in an organization full of highly intelligent, very creative individuals,” Crabb said. “The hacker mindset — the way individuals seek out new opportunities and step forward to find creative ways for the organization to be more successful in a way that leverages their own talents and interests — we’re trying very hard to inculcate that through all of our programs and systems. [It] is highly consistent with this creative zeal for innovation and constant self-improvement.”
Facebook is growing fast. The organization adds hundreds of thousands of users every 24 hours, and Crabb said the stream of product development and education that has to flow from that is never-ending.
“For the first time the world understands that staying connected is front and center within the Internet,” he said. “We’ve lived through hyper growth the past couple of years to become a global social utility, and that has translated into some great organizational challenges globally.”
Learning has been a solution to meet and surmount those challenges by helping the organization stay focused, nimble, current and relevant. Because much of the workforce does not find that classroom learning is an optimal way to grow and improve performance, Crabb and his team have shifted their thinking to adapt to the new order.
For instance, at Facebook feedback is not an occasional or even a quarterly process relegated to the structured performance review. It’s a continuous stream, one that appeals to Generation Y in particular, given their expressed desire for input, guidance and support from those around them. The company’s coaching circle program facilitates a socially connected culture because coaching is considered the single most important vehicle to support feedback.
Crabb said it’s not feasible to provide everyone with an executive coach, so he built a network of coaching circles across the organization. The program launched as a pilot at the beginning of the year, and there are more than 25 coaching circles running, with more popping up virally all the time. The circles meet once a week for a few months, require participants to make a commitment of confidentiality and to bring in the issues they want coaching on to at least every other meeting.
“What we love about that program is it puts responsibility for learning into employees’ hands and requires very little architecture and project management,” Crabb said. After the circle ends there is a 360 evaluation in which managers and cohorts participate.
Facebook’s learning organization has several priorities going forward. One is to ensure learning supports the company’s rapidly expanding international business. “Building out our global team is a huge priority as our business goes from being thought of as a startup to a big global networking player,” Crabb said. “I want to ensure the same kind of development experience that we’ve been so successful bringing here in the United States is replicated across our global business.”
Manager development is also key. The company has invested a lot in this area, but as the business gets bigger, Crabb said the more powerful and slightly more nebulous concepts of leadership become more important and require more attention. “It’s not enough for a manager to know how to administrate and execute,” he said. “We also need to help them understand how they lead, how that style affects the morale and motivation of their team and give them the opportunity to be better leaders.
“Third, we’re extending the work we’ve started with the coaching circle. Over time it has the potential to be a really powerful, ubiquitous learning vehicle for every person in the company.”
Kellye Whitney is managing editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at kwhitney@CLOMedia.com.