Do We Need A 20% Time For Learning At Work?


For many years, 20% time was one of the most celebrated innovation tools going.  The simple concept explicitly gave employees permission to work outside of the business as usual stuff that makes up most of their day jobs.  What began at 3M attracted a number of high tech disciples.  Perhaps the most noteworthy of all was Google, whose Founders’ IPO letter made explicit reference to the policy back in 2004.

“We encourage our employees, in addition to their regular projects, to spend 20% of their time working on what they think will most benefit Google,” Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote“This empowers them to be more creative and innovative. Many of our significant advances have happened in this manner.”

What the policy did so well was that it made it explicit and visible that it was okay to spend time tinkering and trying new things, which for innovation really matters.  Of course, whilst the company was famous for adopting the policy, it was equally famous for dumping it after a decade or so.  According to various Google employees, in its final days the policy failed because excessive emphasis was placed on the employees core tasks, hence they were effectively penalized for diverting time and energy to non-core activities.

Time for learning

So how does this relate to learning at work?  If you consider innovation to be a means of adapting to the pace of change present in the modern world, then employee development has to be considered in the same light.  Indeed, an Accenture paper from earlier this year highlighted the importance of equipping employees with the right skills for the modern workplace, not least of which was the ability to work alongside the growing number of automated tools out there.

There is certainly an appreciation of this pressing need to upskill and ensure that we have the skills to thrive in the modern workplace, but questions remain as to who is responsible for this development?  A recent survey conducted by tech company BMC found that many workers believe it’s the responsibility of their employer to enable them to have the skills they need to thrive in the changing workplace.

“The massive digital disruption we are experiencing is forcing societies and businesses to create new learning  environments to train their labour forces so they are able to meet the demands of digital industry. The study also shows that employees want to be ‘digital change agents’ and are looking to acquire new skills, but are asking for employers to offer more training opportunities to meet requirements of the digital era. To put it simply, businesses that take the initiative to lead today will be those that others follow tomorrow,” BMC’s Paul Appleby says.

Learning on the job

It’s something that insurance giant AXA are attempting to facilitate via a partnership with MOOC network Coursera.  They’ve partnered together to offer relevant, on-demand skills training for 145,000 employees around the world.

“By 2020, the core skills required by jobs are not on the radar today, hence we need to rethink the development of skills, with 50% of our jobs requiring significant change in terms of skillset,” Stephanie Ricci, Head of Learning at AXA, told me recently.

The initial 3-month pilot program involved over 1,000 AXA employees from 48 countries.  On average, they committed 18 hours of learning, spread across several courses, with the average participant completing 2.5 courses during the pilot.

The pilot initially targeted early adopters for whom learning, and probably MOOCs themselves, are comfortable bedfellows.  The need to ‘cross the chasm’ and encourage the majority to participate prompted AXA to launch a summer learning camp aimed at HR professionals to ensure they’re fully on board with the program, its potential and how their work might evolve as a result.

Upskilling HR

It’s a topic that was discussed on a recent panel I chaired on the future of HR at EdTechX Europe.  Paul Hunter, Director of Digital Learning at the Institute for Management Development, proposed a new set of skills for HR professionals focused around HAVE (Humility, Adaptability, Vision and Engaging).

The latest Global Capital Trends report from Deloitte also revolved around the need for HR to take a strategic lead on all things talent.  With the shelf-life of skills shrinking, employees will be required to be learning all the time, the role of HR becomes one of curating the growing volume of free (or low cost), world-class content that is being provided by platforms such as Coursera, and supporting staff in the utilization of that content.

Whilst the delivery of high-quality, free or low-cost content is now here however, what persists is the impression that most employees are so snowed under with business as usual that learning and development is forced to become an extra-curricular activity rather than a core part of ones work.

So long as that continues, it’s hard to imagine the conflict between short-term, business as usual, and long-term learning for tomorrow being resolved.  Whilst employees might be able to pick up byte sized chunks of knowledge around easily absorbed topics, knowledge requiring more involved study will continue to be frozen out, very much to the detriment of both employee and employer alike.