HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

VP of Learning at LinkedIn Weighs In on Latest Learning Trends

In part 1 of this article series, I sat down with Tanya Staples, VP of Product, Learning Content at LinkedIn and discussed the latest learning trends and the strategic value of learning for business leaders. Today we’ll discuss handling learning among the 5 generations that currently populate the workforce. To listen to the entire episode, click here.

eldersJim: Let’s talk about different generations in the workplace. It’s a big topic. We have, by some counts, as many as five generations, and meanwhile, virtually every job, as you mentioned, requires someone to be capable of using a computer and staying current with technology. Obviously, training is a huge part of that. What kinds of learning trends are you seeing among and between the generations?

Tanya: I mean, we’re definitely seeing that all generations rank self-directed learning as their preferred approach to learning. That’s something that we see, but it is highest in Gen Z, and it is highest among Millennials, which is 43% and 42%, respectively. Fifty-nine percent of Gen Zs don’t think their job will exist the same way it is 20 years from now, so they absolutely understand why it’s so important to have learning. We also see an increase of a desire for mobile learning, especially from Gen Z and Millennials, who have essentially grown up with a phone in their hand, right?

And so we definitely, definitely see those trends. Like I said, we hear across the broad landscape that everybody would like to see more self-directed learning. It’s hard to carve out 2 or 3 days to go to an in-person class, but we definitely see from Gen Z and Millennials a slightly higher desire to engage in online.

Jim: What about the older generations? All the studies show, especially diversity studies, that it’s really important that they stay engaged, that they don’t feel ostracized, and that people don’t participate in ageism, and I think there’s some real stereotyping that goes on with older people and their use of technology. How would you suggest HR managers make their training available and easy to use for everyone?

Tanya: I mean, I think number one, it’s a matter of having a broad-based library, right? So that everybody can find something that works. The second is to really make learning safe and allow it to be self-directed so that if I’m feeling a little insecure about my Excel skills, I can kind of do that in a self-directed way without publishing to the world or having some assessment that’s like telling everybody how well I did it. Right? So it’s respecting some confidentiality and privacy with the individual learners. And then, more than anything, it’s a matter of thinking like a marketer. It’s a matter of really understanding like, “OK, I have these different demographics in my organization, and how am I going to personalize something for different parts of the organization?”

Again, to me, it always comes down to, if you really focus on what the business is trying to accomplish, what teams are trying to accomplish, and what individuals need, this is where I think the role of, again, that partnership between the L&D pro and business leaders, especially when you get into first- and second-line managers, when you can really use them to help understand exactly what skills you need to get developed. Then I think it works really well.

But the most important thing is a solution that’s broad, that allows everybody, no matter what his or her job function is, what his or her job level is, or what his or her age is, to be able to engage in something that helps with whatever it is each is struggling with at any given moment in time. The biggest challenge is to develop a program that lets somebody over here figure out how to learn SEO and someone over here learn Python and someone over here learn collaboration—it’s pretty tricky to develop that many programs. So by being able to focus on something broad-based that has a lot of breadth and a lot of depth to it, you can self-serve a much broader audience.

Jim: Great points. You mentioned that Millennials and Generation Zs were the most likely to want to use self-training. What about their overall interest in training?

Tanya: Those two generations I think for sure definitely see that what gets you here won’t get you there. They see loud and clear that things are changing very, very quickly and are very well aware that they’re going to need to upskill on a regular basis. Like I said, of Gen Z, 59% don’t think their job will exist the same way 20 years from now. So they are painfully aware that they’ve got to continue to evolve and learn their skills to continue to grow. Over a quarter of both Gen Zs and Millennials believe that the number one reason they would leave a job is the inability to learn and grow. So if they don’t feel their companies are investing in them, they’re going to move on because they definitely see that their career is in their hands.

I think Millennials in particular get a lot of flak for being entitled. There’s a lot of sort of snarky journalism that talks about Millennials being entitled. On one hand, I understand where that point of view is coming from. On the other hand, this is a generation of individuals who have watched their parents struggle, who believe that they’ve got to take their career into their own hands. They don’t have a pension at the end of the rainbow. They’ve got to work for what’s going to put them through their entire life. So they know they’ve got to upskill on a regular basis and be willing to change jobs and be willing to change companies, and they kind of have a limit on how long they’re going to be willing to stay with a company if they don’t see that commitment to them.

Jim: Let’s talk about remote workers. There’s this huge change in the last 10 years: More and more people are working from home, and that trend, by all accounts, is just going to keep going. Meanwhile, there is a demand for collaborative learning. So how do you square—and in just sort of collaboration in general, really—how do you square the need for collaborative learning with a remote workforce, and how are companies addressing that?

Tanya: That’s a great question. I think there’s sort of a few layers to that. I think on the online side, one of the things that we’ve done is add Q&A to the mix, which allows people to ask questions and start conversations with other people who are taking the class. So that actually helps to build some collaboration and community, and we do have the ability for L&D pros to actually turn on Q&A just for their companies. Let’s suppose I wanted to run a program for first-line managers, and they were all distributed around the United States, Europe, and APAC, right? I could put them all into a cohort and give them access to the Q&A, and they could kind of discuss among themselves—that helps make learning less lonely. So that’s one.

We also are just testing study groups, which is sort of a similar concept but less kind of facilitated by the instructor who lets people who are taking the course at that moment in time just be able to communicate on the topic as much as they are on the actual course itself. So I think technology is a great facilitator of people being able to engage. I also have seen companies use sort of online VC and in-person really effectively whereby what they do is they use the online component as flipping the classroom, where it’s like, “OK, this is our management 101 class. We’re going to bring 50 frontline managers together. Go watch these three courses on your own. ”

Then whether it’s in VC or whether it’s in-person, we’re going to do the online component that’s more workshop and facilitated from a role-playing perspective so that people actually have some practice. It helps eliminate kind of that sage on the stage, sit and be lectured at for a day or 2 days when you’re giving up precious time. Those are some ways that we’ve seen distributed workforces use our tools really effectively, and I think online actually makes it, in a lot of cases, a little easier to engage remote folks because they can engage on their time, on their schedule, from their location, and from their time zone versus when everything has to be in-person and you’re flying people here and there and the time zone does or doesn’t work. Right? So I think online is just a really great facilitator of helping with distributed workforces, which we’re absolutely going to continue to see more of, I believe.

Jim: Given the depth of LinkedIn Learning, you must have a pretty good understanding of and a pretty good finger on the pulse of what’s in demand. What would you say are the top skills that people are requesting to learn?

Tanya: There’s kind of two buckets of in-demand skills. There are always hard skills that people are needing to learn right now. It’s nothing that would be surprising: cloud computing; AI, artificial, or analytical reasoning; and user experience. Those are all some of the ones that we see as the most important ones. But more than anything, what we see is that 60% of senior leaders say that soft skills are more important than hard skills. I think that’s a result of kind of what we talked about earlier, which is that we’re seeing this need to constantly reskill, right? Like maybe 10 years ago, my company used .net. Now we’re on Java. Maybe 2 years ago, we were using this Java script framework, and now we’re using that Java script framework, right?

Those hard skills are going to change on a very regular basis, so there’s sort of this expectation that people know how to learn and know how to learn those skills. What that means is that the foundation of soft skills has to be really, really strong to be able to persevere through all of that change. So being able to roll with change, being flexible, having really strong communication, being a good collaborator, being able to negotiate, and playing nice in the sandbox with their peers—those are the soft skills that we see as really, really key for people to have mastered because without that foundation, I think it kind of used to be that the hard skills were the foundation, right? Like if you had the hard skills, you were good. And now, I think the reverse is there. The hard skills are going to cycle in and out, and so the soft skills are what are becoming really, really important.

Jim: I mean, soft skills are people skills, ultimately. And you kind of answered this before, but how possible is it to teach someone people skills through a computer?

Tanya: Well, I would say it’s as possible as anything else. I think that learning has two components. It’s having the information shared with you, and then there’s the practice element of it, and I think that having the information shared with you can absolutely be done through the computer. The practice element is the commitment that the individual has to make to say, “OK, I got what that person was saying. I’m going to go try that today.” It’s having that discipline to sit down, learn the information, and then have the courage to go out and try it. In some ways, the soft skills are really the key—it’s the courage to go and try something different. Right? Sometimes, you can do that a little bit more on your own. If I try something new with a pivot table in Excel, the whole world’s not going to see it or hear it, but with the soft skills, the stakes are a little bit higher if I try that out.

But that’s really kind of what it is: the commitment to be a sponge. That’s where the computer can really help and then be able to try it. And again, with things like study groups and Q&A that we’ve launched, that’s a discussion forum where people can actually have a conversation with it. And that’s where a lot of learning comes to where it’s like, “Hey, I tried this thing that you recommended in your video, and it went amazing, and here’s what I learned.” And someone else will come in and say like, “Oh yeah, I tried it, too, and this is how it worked for me,” right? Or someone will say, “Oh, actually, I tried it, and it didn’t really work very well for me,” and other people can kind of riff and help people kind of understand.

So I think it’s absolutely possible, but we do have to remember there’s sort of, like, imparting of knowledge, and then there’s practice, and practice, no matter what it is, hard or soft skill—you got to be willing to have the courage and discipline to try it.

Jim: What other trends do you think we should expect to see impact learning and development over the next few years?

Tanya: I think it kind of goes back to the fact that technology is changing at a very rapid pace. I think that as the cloud continues to emerge, there’s going to be a lot of digital transformation that continues in a lot of organizations that people have to be ready for. I think that the soft skills are going to continue to be the most important thing, and I think, based on the trends we’re seeing, I think that it’s really good news for L&D that most senior leaders are starting to really be aware that learning is something that’s really, really key and something that can help differentiate their organization. I think that a lot of companies are pivoting to be very talent-first organizations, which is really only going to help everyone in HR, including folks in talent development and L&D, be able to be heard and have a voice at the table.

I think employees are demanding a very, very positive employee experience, and of course, you have the tech industry kind of leading the way on that as to how to create these amazing employee experiences. So I think with all of that kind of coming together, it’s going to be, I think, kind of a really great, amazing day for L&D to be able to partner with the rest of the organization and really help drive business impact through making sure people have the learning that they need to be successful in their careers.

Jim: I really just have one more question. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumbling about a lack of talent because we have such a low unemployment rate, and people are looking for other sources of talent that maybe normally they wouldn’t have considered. And among that is people without 4-year degrees. I saw the CEO of IBM talking about this—how the company trains all its employees and constantly upskills them, and it doesn’t put a particular evaluation on whether they’ve completed a 4-year degree or not because it has the infrastructure to give those people the knowledge and information that they need, provided that they’re good learners in general. I’m just curious what your thoughts, as someone who’s so heavily into the realm of learning, on that are.

Tanya: That’s a great question. And I don’t think there’s sort of like a right or wrong or one-size-fits-all answer to that. I think that we’re definitely at a place where people are questioning the value of a 4-year degree. I think people are questioning kind of the efficacy of it. And does the time and, more importantly, especially in the United States, the expense justify it? Because essentially, we’re graduating students with mortgages to pay off to try to get them set up. I think for some people, depending on the job they want, depending on the company they want to go to, and depending on what’s available to them, maybe they don’t need a 4-year degree. Maybe they do, but maybe they don’t.

I also think a 4-year degree offers a series of benefits. What I personally think is that a 4-year degree offers a lot of benefits in a lot of cases: You’re not living with your parents anymore, you’re learning how to manage your finances, you’re learning how to live on your own for the first time, or you at least have some degree of freedom, right?

Jim: Yeah.

Tanya: There are other life skills, in my opinion, that you learn in a 4-year degree that you don’t necessarily learn if you just jump straight into the workplace. It gives you that safe landing zone, and so I think that really, the 4-year degree, if people think of it as “If this is what I need to get a job, this is the ultimate one silver bullet I need to get a job,” well that may or may not come to fruition depending on what you study and depending on what you do in your summers or in your free time in terms of work experience and internships. But the most important thing about the 4-year degree is that people think of it as the opportunity to learn how to learn because more than anything, it’s not the skills you learn in a 4-year degree that are really what are going to set you apart or set you up for success.

Maybe they will for the first year or 2 of your career, but more than anything, it’s that you can prove that you have the ability to learn on an ongoing basis. You have the ability to teach yourself when something new comes to you—you figured out how to master it. That’s really what I think the 4-year degree in a lot of ways becomes, and then it comes down to a personal choice based on a whole variety of circumstances, including what’s available to you in terms of the jobs that you want to secure. So I think we’re at a point where people can be successful with or without it, and it’s really an individual choice based on so many different factors if it’s really worth it.

Jim: Great answer. Learning how to learn. I was going to say that—you beat me to it. But just because it’s so important, right? Just sort of a quick follow-up: That’s something that seems like it should be at the beginning of a training regimen in general, like how to sort of give people tips on how to absorb information. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there.

Thank you again, Tanya, for taking the time to join us today.

Tanya: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

Jim: You’re most welcome. Listeners, we are always interested in suggestions that you might have for what HR Works should cover next. Feel free to reach out to us on Twitter at @hrworkspodcast with any thoughts or concerns that you might have about the podcast in general. Thank you for listening. This is Jim Davis with HR Works.