How many committees does it take to design an electric toothbrush? That sounds like the start of a joke, but for Royal Philips, it was no laughing matter.
Founded in 1891, the Amsterdam-based technology company evolved from its roots making lamps by entering new technology sectors in an effort to remain viable. Though it was a titan in radios in the 1930s and inventor of the audio cassette in 1963, a slow-moving decision-making process run by committees on practically every level contributed to the company’s consumer electronics division falling behind when the online digital entertainment revolution hit.
In 2011, under new chief executive Frans van Houten, Philips again began to reinvent itself by limiting its focus to three sectors: health care, lighting and consumer lifestyle products. But that wasn’t enough. To survive in the quickly changing global marketplace, Philips had to change its culture from the ground up to react faster. It had to free up employees to “fail fast” and encourage them to quickly push out new products to beat competitors. And if the initiatives failed, they had to quickly scrap them and move on.
That shift in organizational thinking and behavior required a change in the company’s learning and development structure to more closely align learning with the business. Philips’ senior leaders thought the only way to do that was to tap a human resources manager who was more savvy about business processes than learning. Yashwant Mahadik, who joined Philips in October 2010 as HR head for the Indian subcontinent, was asked by then CHRO Carole Wainaina to lead the company’s learning transformation in 2012.
New Eyes, New Thinking
“I asked her, ‘Why me?,’” Mahadik said. “I told her that I didn’t know learning as a subject expert, but she said, ‘Yash, you have the right mindset and skills to lead this transformation, and you know about the company; you can figure it out. We want someone who can chart a new landscape and doesn’t have set experiences and ideas about learning.’”
Senior leaders thought the key to the company’s business transformation was to make Philips more entrepreneurial, to foster a more grassroots style of product innovation, based on actually listening to customers in each market, said Jana Belyusova, human resources officer for global enabling functions.
For example, Philips’ China operation was able to quickly develop a rice cooker tailored to better meet the needs of consumers there, and after a successful launch, the company repositioned the product as a multi-cooker to attract consumers in other markets. Similarly, after listening to dentists discuss how to better meet oral hygiene needs, Philips introduced its Sonicare electric toothbrush and AirFloss products.
Belyusova said Mahadik was a natural pick to lead the learning organization’s transformation. “Yash is very hot and keen on the learning culture, which I love. He’s really a business-minded guy, and he’s not necessarily interested in the number of courses we actually have in the system; he’s more interested in how we can actually enable effective learning to happen — whether that means some kind of system or process training, or making sure employees have access to social learning and other innovative types of learning,” she said. “That way, they can learn at any point in time, which is increasingly important for today’s workers.”
Mahadik’s route to learning leader is similar to the evolution of the HR function during the past three decades, from a transactional personnel department to more of a proactive enabler to get the most from human capital.
After graduating from India’s Bombay University in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in commerce, economics and accounting, Mahadik became an HR manager trainee at Crompton Greaves, rising to senior HR manager for the company’s switchgear division in India. In 1996, he moved to Colgate Palmolive Co. as manager of employee relations and development, assuming increasing duties across business units, including manufacturing manager for the company’s toothbrush manufacturing plant in Aurangabad, and then HR head for the supply chain organization.
During that time, Mahadik earned a master’s degree in business administration, specializing in international HR management at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. He then went back to India to serve as HR head for AstraZeneca and was a member of the senior management team responsible for running the company’s business in India and in the South Asia region.
In 2006, Mahadik became vice president of HR for Johnson & Johnson’s medical devices and diagnostics unitoperations in India. The next year he was promoted to regional vice president of HR for India, Pakistan and Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, with additional responsibilities managing HR for the unit’s Japanese operations for several months.
His experience leading enterprise-wide transformation initiatives at Johnson & Johnson captured the attention of Philips’ leaders, and two years after he joined the company he was chosen to lead similar transformative work in learning.
To ensure the company’s new focus on entrepreneurism and customer-centricity prevailed, Mahadik and his team first began to revamp Philips’ learning technology platform, retiring various regional legacy systems and phasing in a more contemporary enterprise-wide, media-enabled platform. Then using Lean analysis, they streamlined both the organization’s processes and learning content, focusing on courses that would build specific competencies to better enable employees to deliver on business needs.
Tapping the Experts
Then Mahadik said he immersed himself in learning and development research, particularly information on how human beings learn best. Next he queried Philips staff across business lines and functions to find out how they wanted to learn. For example, sales reps told him they preferred to learn via short videos and podcasts that gave tips on how to make an effective sales call or close a sale.
“That’s about the time they typically have while waiting in a client’s lobby before meeting with them,” he said.
He also discovered that most employees would take online learning courses at night when they were at home, but they were often interrupted. Hence, the learning was not as effective as it might have been in another setting.
To help him overhaul learning at Philips, Mahadik sought advice from industry experts like Charles Jennings, managing director for Duntroon Associates, who developed a version of the 70-20-10 blended learning principle that Philips subsequently adopted. Mahadik also worked with Deloitte Consulting to help instill a more leader-led coaching and mentoring culture. Deloitte helped to design Philips University and its corresponding academies tailored to specific business units, geographies and supporting functions.
“What I find fascinating about Yash, coming from the business side, was how quickly he was able to see what learning could do for an organization,” said Deloitte principal Bill Pelster. “Strategically aligning learning with the business was a very easy vision for him. He was able to quickly wrap his head around it to start pushing hard in this direction.”
In January, Mahadik took on a bigger role as Philips’ head of HR business transformation, IT and global head of learning, with a goal to build a permanent business transformation function at the company and drive its transformation agenda globally.
“I’m really proud to be in a company that’s been in existence for 123 years,” he said. “That shows there’s something in our DNA that’s so strong that we can continuously reinvent ourselves to stay relevant and create value for our customers. Given this context, learning plays a very critical role, as well as in the overall context of running the company.”
Mahadik and his team continue to improve the learning organization, and are in the process of developing more formal analytics to better measure success and tweak programs as needed.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Because the learning function serves roughly 114,000 people in more than 100 countries, Mahadik said the key to success is to focus on building “a standardized global approach with local relevance.”
For example, in India and China, he said the leadership style is very high-touch, and employees prefer to learn via one-on-one coaching. But in Europe, learning can be more self-service, particularly when delivered online. While the LMS and Philips University have global standards in place to ensure quality, each business unit and supporting function across geographies is allowed to tailor learning to match learners’ needs in that location.
Mahadik and his team are also tweaking the learning organization in response to new research, particularly in neuroscience, which he said has introduced a significant amount of insight on how humans learn best. Further, because there has been a major shift toward learning from social media and other networking technologies and platforms, he’s also focused on research discussing how and why people learn through social networking and interaction. He said organizations need to use these platforms effectively and adopt open-source and network-based learning and crowdsourcing techniques to capitalize on the development opportunities they contain.
“We are also witnessing generational shifts, and the younger generations have really adopted the social media platforms and technology for not just networking but also for learning,” he said. “All of these developments have kind of caused a learning revolution and one has to ride this wave and stay on top of it.”
Transformation of both Philips’ business processes and its learning organization is a journey, one Mahadik said has just begun, and as such, he and his team are essentially “still learning about learning.
“We feel excited about what we’ve achieved, but also humbled about what more we’ve got to learn and do to make things better,” he said. “We are surely moving towards totally transforming learning at Philips, and very soon our Philips University and our leader-led learning culture will create tremendous value for our company and its customers.”