In this episode of “Bring Out The Talent,” we speak with Jerry Gschwind, President of Symphony Learning Partners, Learning Strategy Expert, and Senior TTA Learning Consultant. Jerry shares stories from his thirty years as a Learning Strategist and shares some remarkable stories from some of his notable award-winning projects. Jerry also takes a deeper dive into Learning Strategy, when to use a Learning Strategist, the core benefits of developing a Learning Strategy, and how to determine if a Learning Strategist is right for you.
Tune in and discover from an expert how a Learning Strategy can positively impact your organization’s learning initiatives.
Maria: [00:00:07] Welcome everyone to Bring Out The Talent. My name is Maria Melfa, and I am the CEO and President of The Training Associates, otherwise known as TTA.
Jocelyn: Hi everyone, I’m Jocelyn Allen. I’m a talent recruitment manager here at TTA, and we’re thrilled you’re joining us again. Back by popular demand, we have another co-host with us today.
John: [00:00:27] And my name is John Laverdure, Director of Learning Solutions. Thanks.
Maria: [00:00:31] We’re excited to have you join us again today, John.
John: [00:00:33] Well, I’m excited to be here.
Maria: [00:00:35] We are very excited to have our long-time TTA partner and remarkable Learning Strategist, join us today – Mr. Jerry Gschwind. Jerry has over 25 years of experience in the learning and development industry, helping clients across a wide variety of industries ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. Since 2008, Jerry has managed Symphony Learning Partners, a learning strategy consultancy dedicated to helping clients create and transform their most complex and strategic learning programs. Before starting Symphony, Jerry was Vice President of the Enterprise Solutions Business Unit of Global Knowledge, where his organization was responsible for the development and management of large-scale custom learning programs for corporate clients.
Jerry has held many key training positions, including a consulting manager at Accenture for seven years, where he assisted multinational corporations with complex learning challenges related to strategic technology and business process deployment. Jerry holds a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and a master’s degree in learning sciences from Northwestern University. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jerry.
Could you tell us what led you to this industry and what made you so passionate about L&D?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:02:22] You really have to be passionate about this industry. It’s not an easy industry to work in, for those of us that are in it. It goes pretty far back for me. My earliest recollection was in 10th grade. I was asked to write a paper in math. I don’t know why we were writing a paper in math, but we had to. So, I decided to write a paper. I don’t think my math teacher liked my paper that much, but I started to think, I mean, really, like nobody in my class, really like math? I kind of liked it because I was pretty good at it. But I could tell that no one in my class really liked it. So, I started to think about why people didn’t like it. And I wrote this paper that basically suggested that we’re teaching math the wrong way, that we shouldn’t just teach students the rules of math. We should let students discover the rules of math, and that would be a lot more fun, and I realized later that I was sort of on to something there as a 10th grader.
Then in college, I spent a lot of time working in a tutoring organization, working with local high school kids who were struggling. I learned a lot about learning through that process. Just hands-on. I see where people would miss a simple thing and then you could help them fill in the gaps, for example, like teaching somebody negative numbers, then they could do calculus. It was just that that “aha moment” when you were able to help someone learn something and that light bulb goes off their head, it’s just a remarkable feeling. So, I just kind of carried that into my career.
I started with Accenture as a computer programmer, but as soon as I discovered that there was a training division within Accenture, that was small and growing quickly, I jumped on that and then found an opportunity also within Accenture to earn my master’s degree – through a corporate program that they sponsored. And that was the Learning Sciences program at Northwestern, where I worked under Roger Shank. Roger has been very influential in my career. He’s all about making instruction that’s not boring and making sure that people are motivated. And it was a great experience and I think really that those key experiences were what fueled my passion and kind of continued to fuel it from here on out after
Maria: [00:04:31] You left Accenture. Were you clear on wanting to become a Learning Strategist? Was there something about your experience there that led you to where you are now?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:04:39] Learning Strategists was something I arrived at a little bit later. At that stage in my career, I found myself either really needing to choose whether or not I wanted to be a partner in a large consulting firm or whether I wanted to delve into learning – regardless of the personal financial impact it had on me. I decided to go with my passion as opposed to, you know, my bank account and did that. I wanted to work for companies that were completely focused on learning and training. That was pretty much it, and I started with a really tiny company, that I could ride my bike to, in Charlotte called Vision Corp. We did some really interesting stuff there and then work for Productivity Point, a technology training company, and then another larger technology training company, Global Knowledge. I just sort of followed my passion for learning and into a leadership role. Now we’re there, I started to see more clearly the strategic struggles that companies would have with large-scale learning programs and found myself in senior-level meetings with senior-level learning leaders trying to grapple with these struggles.
Maria: [00:05:46] Was that what hooked you – that problem-solving creative aspect of it?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:05:51] I would say so. I really liked meeting with customers and talking about their problems with them. I even got grounded by my CEO because I wanted to just be out on the road talking to customers and dealing with these problems. We had a weak quarter profit-wise, and the CEO said that you’re grounded for a little while.
But yeah, I think that illustrates that point really well. That’s where I’ve gravitated to. So then when I went out in private practice, I sought out opportunities where I would be face to face with customers helping with their problems. Then I realized – Hey, that’s a career, right? That’s something I can do. That’s a learning consultant or eventually kind of arrived at, Oh, I can. I think I can call myself a Learning Strategist now. If I can sit down with customers, help them solve their strategic learning problems, I guess that’s what that is. So, it was a very evolutionary sort of process for me.
Maria: [00:07:00] What made you decide to go on your own?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:07:02] So the business unit I was running at Global Knowledge decided to combine with an existing business unit rather than run it as a standalone unit. The company at the time was their overall strategy was focused on the core business. This was leading to the recession. I think they sort of knew that was coming and some had some feelers out and they kind of understood that the rainstorm was coming, so they actually sold off some things and trim some things. And then my business unit was actually a bit experimental for Global Knowledge to do custom solutions and to be out there doing whatever. Not just technology training. So, they just didn’t have a need for that business unit anymore, nor a leader for that business. So, I helped them combine that business unit and then moved on.
And to really answer your question, though, I thought, well, should I get another job with another learning company? I’d done this three times and I thought, Well, OK, you’ve seen this movie three times. You know how it starts. You know how it ends? Right? And you know, Global Knowledge was a great place to work. I learned tons there, working with senior executives, even working with our chief legal counsel on contracts learned a lot about contracts, you know? So, you know, I decided I felt like I had learned enough at that point from others.
Maria: [00:08:18] You certainly had a well-rounded background working with Accenture, Vision Core, Global Knowledge, and API.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:08:26] Yeah, yeah. I felt like I learned enough at that point and could figure the rest out. I remember wanting to start my own business, and I said to myself – what more training or foundation do you really need? You know, why don’t you just go ahead and set up an LLC and get going? And so, I decided I’d try it. I remember great advice from somebody who said – sometimes people give you advice and it like, you get stuck. Like, there’s no way to argue it. And it’s this friend of mine who is very entrepreneurial. He started a sub-business when he was in college. I mean, he was a very entrepreneurial guy and he said, If you never do this, you will regret it for the rest of your life. Like, dang, I can’t really argue with that. Or at least try this for like a year and shut it down, right? And but I’ve been doing it for 13 years now, so it’s worked out fantastic.
John: [00:09:24] So, Jerry, I’ve spoken to countless clients, and in discussing learning strategy with so many of them, it’s become clear that they all have their own definition of learning strategy, or it means different things to different people. So, I’d be really curious how you would define learning strategy?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:09:42] I would say learning strategy is helping people figure out what to do about their learning before they do it.
I feel like a lot of learning organizations fall into it without thinking it through – like what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. They tend to jump in, and they start designing courses or they start putting curricula together because they’re under pressure, they’re under deadline pressure, they’re under financial pressure, and they just have to get it done right. The business leaders are screaming at them, and they don’t have enough people, time, or resources. So, what I feel like learning strategy tries to do is, as a discipline, is to get people to stop and take a breath and just think about what they’re going to do before they do it so that they avoid problems. So, that they do things that are optimal, efficient, effective and so they do things that are aligned with their company strategy as opposed to going off the rails.
But I think there are a lot of different ideas about what learning strategy is, and I think that’s because there are a number of different flavors of learning strategy. A big one, I would say is operational strategy. For example, people who go into a really large company and help them like reorient how they operate around learning. So, they’ll take a learning organization that might have 300 people in it, or more, and help them look at the organization, look at the processes, look at how they develop courses, maintain courses, deliver courses, and measure all of those things.
Another largely used learning strategy is one that is really focused on strategic program effectiveness. That, I’d say, is a little bit more my focus. That’s kind of where I spend most of my time. I do both, but strategic program effectiveness is where I spend most of my time. I help people really think about how to make a big or really important program effective, even if it’s not big we need to make it effective.
I would say there are also little offshoots from that sort of niche strategic flavors like technical infrastructure. So, there is also learning technology strategy. There’s a lot to know about learning technology. So unfortunately for all of us who are trying to keep up with it, there are lots of different tools. For example, in the LMS market, last I checked, there were something like 500 or 600 legitimate companies in that space. It’s almost impossible to do a selection. It’s really difficult. So, there are people that will specialize in those niche areas of learning technology. I think that is an important flavor and the people that focus on things like measurement, right? There are experts out there that just focus on measurement. Another important and somewhat complex niche flavor of strategy. So yeah, I think there is some confusion because there are all these different aspects and dimensions to learning. But if you put them all together overall, I’d say the big idea is helping clients make sure that they know what they’re doing and that they are aware of what their plan is for learning, and that it has a good chance of success.
Maria: [00:12:46] Do you see overlapping between a learning strategist and an organizational development consultant?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:12:53] Yeah, I think there’s a little overlap. I would say mostly on the operational side of things, right? So if you’re a Learning Strategist like myself who has experience running a business unit that’s focused on delivering learning solutions. You know, I would argue that you have some pretty good ideas for how you might want to organize yourselves even in a more internal sort of corporate industry setting and could work really effectively with an odd professional who might have deeper expertise in how to put teams together, how to incent those teams, how to compensation levels for those teams and then other talent development professionals who might have expertise in hiring and recruiting and retaining people. So actually, all of those specialties working together, I think can produce really effective results.
Maria: [00:13:46] What are the core benefits of developing a learning strategy instead of just kind of going into it and thinking all right, I’m going to start tackling this now.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:14:01] My advice of “don’t just start tackling right away”, comes from seeing and being involved in so many initiatives where I’m brought in late. I sometimes feel like that character in the movie Pulp Fiction. They call in the middle of the night and he’s somehow mysteriously like in a tuxedo shows up. They call him to clean up the body, you know, and you feel that way. You know, sometimes because like in the client will even say, look, we know this is terrible, but we’ve got to fix this thing and you just you wish you’d been there at the beginning. So that’s kind of the refrain. I wish I’d been here earlier. You know, it’s something that for me is very motivating as a strategist to have the opportunity to be involved with the client at an early stage, whether they know or not knowing that you’re helping them avoid pitfalls because you’ve seen so many of them and sometimes, they’re well aware. Like when you say, well, if you do, this could lead to this pitfall. And you know, what’s really rewarding as a strategist is that sense of gratitude that the client has for that. They say, “wow, I never would have thought of that, and that would be a horrendous mess. Thank you!” So, avoiding pitfalls that are based on your experience of either falling into them or seeing others fall into them is certainly a huge benefit.
I think there are real financial benefits to using learning strategies. I think with a Learning Strategist most would probably help you apply the “80-20 rule” – meaning that they would help you focus your energy on the things that are going to get you the biggest bang for your buck. Whether that be content or helping to point out certain sections of a content library that may not get any uptake. They will also make suggestions such as cutting certain things from your offering, whether it be that or whether it be just ideas for doing things more efficiently to help you avoid rework. So, you know, I think there are hard financial benefits as well. Another thing a Learning Strategist will help with is aligning your learning strategy with business strategy – which is so important. It isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but a Learning Strategists can really help you do that because the learning strategist comes in with an outside perspective and they hear your thoughts and help you refine that and line that up a little better.
Maria: [00:16:41] In your experience as a Learning Strategist, is it common that organizations have a separation between learning strategy and their business strategy?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:17:02] It would be good if a client was aware of that gap. For example, many times, a client might approach me and say they need a new learning management system because theirs isn’t working right. That’s a typical problem that I’ll get and then I go through and discover that no of their employees are using it because it’s difficult to use. So I’ll ask the questions like what’s in your learning management? What are you doing with your learning management system? And usually, you find that content that’s being delivered or the programs that are being delivered are suboptimal or not aligned with what their business needs. So, what I try to do in those cases, and I think that’s just one example, I think, is to help the client take a couple of steps back on what they think the problem might be and try to define what the real root cause is or what the bigger picture problem might be.
John: [00:18:14] Over the years working with clients, we start to pick up on cues pretty early in our discussions with them. So sometimes there’s some hesitance on the client’s part, or you can tell they’re taking a very tactical approach to this. Yet it’s something that’s very high stakes and a lot of time we’re bringing up the concept of, you know, it might make sense to at least do an initial consult with a strategist. And let’s make sure the path we’re taking here is the most effective and efficient possible. That’s how we initiate a lot of the learning strategy sessions, and usually, they’re quite grateful for that once they see the results.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:18:58] Yes and often we will see in a strategy engagement that it’ll take a turn. So, you think we’re going in to analyze problem x, and problem x might be something around employee engagement, right? Then maybe you discover that the employees don’t like the training. So, then we analyze and assess that problem and provide recommendations for that problem. But then when we get into it, we realize that the reason that employees don’t like the training has something actually to do with manager performance. So, then we have a whole new thing to tackle at that point.
So I guess as a strategist, what I try to do is be flexible and nimble and keep my eyes and ears wide open, knowing that it might take a turn and that might be really valuable for the client.
Maria: [00:19:59] What are some of the typical deliverables that result from learning strategy?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:20:05] The deliverables that I typically work on in a strategy engagement include program assessments and that sort of gets into two flavors of engagements that I most find most common.
One is – here’s a program. We’re having trouble with an existing program – it’s broken or it’s suboptimal in some way. Sometimes it’s not 100% clear what’s going wrong with it. So, I’ll help a client do a deep dive assessment on that particular program, looking at everything, looking at how it’s delivered, looking at the learning objectives, looking at how the learning objectives are applied in the course materials, looking over evaluation results, talking to people who’ve been through the program, talking to people who deliver the program, just exhaustively trying to figure out what the big problems might be. The reason you do that is so you can make sure that you identify what you could do – all of the things you could do to improve that program and then help the client prioritize.
Some of these programs are giant like eight hundred courses or something within a curriculum, you don’t want to just overhaul the whole thing for several million. You want to sort of cherry-pick or sniper fire the things that get you the most value. So sometimes I work with clients who really are just starting at the very, very, very beginning and they say, I’ve got an audience. I know they need education, but I have no idea how to do that. It may be an internal audience; it may be an external audience. So maybe a company trying to educate their customers, it might be a university trying to educate students. So, I’ll help them think through the basics of that program. So, what are the major learning goals of that program? How would that program be delivered? What would be, at a very high level, the blend of modalities, but another key deliverable is a learning experience design. This is something I do quite often.
So, for a client who maybe has been through the first two deliverables that I mentioned or they have some good ideas about what they want their program to be – a design helps provide the organization with a really clear vision of their program from end to end. From the point that a learner finds out about learning and engages and signs up and registers to the point that they’ve completed and or progressing to advanced levels or are becoming experts themselves and recycling back into the program as facilitators.
So, to make sure that the organization is on board with this is what a strategic program is going to do. And finally, I work on implementation planning. So, given again, those other three deliverables a typical client will want to know – how do we build that? What resources do we need? How long it will take? What infrastructure are you going to need to put in place or change the costs associated with all those things? What are the alternative models and what are the respective cost differences between those models? So, all of that analysis goes into an implementation plan.
Maria: [00:23:14] I can’t imagine not having a Learning Strategist involved in a project, especially at a large scope.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:23:20] Me neither.
Maria: [00:23:39] Do you believe some of the very large organizations do have this capability in-house?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:23:46] I do. Absolutely. I think large companies do a really good job of finding top-level talent. People with skill sets similar to me and having been a vice president of a business unit and a learning organization, I have a firsthand sense of what I think happens, but I also have a thorough observation of various people in various client organizations who are in that role and have the ability to be strategic consultants, I see what happens from that angle as well. I think individuals with that capability are taxed by their organizations to be leaders of people which is a good thing for them to do, but it also takes time away from their ability to be a strategy consultant so while they have terrific ideas about how the organization ought to function and how some of the programs are delivering ought to work, their time is limited because of all of the people aspect of the rules. I also think that depending on the background and experience of those individuals, their perspective can be limited like a typical career track might be when you work in three big companies and then your third big company you’re the chief learning officer. When you’ve worked in three big companies you’ve certainly seen a lot and you have that perspective of what it takes to operate at scale in a large company. However, at any given time, I’m working with 14 or 15 different companies, trade associations, universities, and startups so I get a lot more reps to use like a football team, right?
Maria: [00:25:24] Yes and each position is all different. You may throw or may run.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:25:27] I run a lot more plays than someone who’s inside an organization and goes to work at the same place every day but not at the same level or depth. I’m not seeing that story end, but I’m running a lot of plays so I think that experience complements this and can be very helpful to a senior learning leader that’s got a focus on other things and really doesn’t have the time to get into the details necessary around a learning strategy. Seeing this together, I think works really well and it can produce great results.
Maria: [00:25:57] This is a really great segway into a little bit more about Symphony Learning Partners. Can you tell us more about your capabilities and more about your team?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:26:08] Sure, this is also a bit of evolution because when I started Symphony Learning Partners, I knew I wanted to run a learning business, but I wasn’t laser-focused on learning strategy 13 years ago. I just wanted to solve clients’ problems and knew I could do that. A very common problem I found at the time and still is a common problem is helping clients use online learning and learning technology to transform their programs or to create programs that can be delivered at scale and content development is always a large part of that. Instructional design and content development are still a big part of what Symphony Learning Partners does. I realized what my capabilities were as a Learning Strategist early on, and I decided this is a business that’s going to do two things, it’s going to help clients with their strategic decisions around learning, and it’s going to help them execute it. It’s a pretty good idea because then it puts me in a position as a consultant where I’m never going to recommend anything to you that I can’t actually do and it really helps keep me honest and it helps keep me in the details which make for higher quality recommendations because I can see and feel a lot more what will happen if you execute a certain recommendation and I’m prepared to stand with you and support you in your journey all along the way. Other capabilities we have are instructional design, e-learning, and content development. We also get involved in program management and implementation. We also manage programs on an ongoing basis including learning management system operations on a small scale. We try to serve clients end to end after the strategy through the execution phase.
Maria: [00:27:53] Jerry, what would you say differentiates your team from other learning solution teams?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:27:58] I would say that this goes back to why I started the business, and one of the big reasons was that I was very interested in solving specific client problems and I was not interested in building a learning product and marketing that learning product. I was not interested in creating some sort of off-the-shelf solution that was scalable. I really was interested in meeting with people, hearing what their problems were, and trying to fix them almost like a doctor, right? That, to me, was appealing, in fact, I wanted to be a doctor when I first went to college, but I didn’t want to deal with blood and chemistry and stuff like that, but that mentality of wanting to solve problems for people attract people into symphony that have that same mentality, and the people that work that way are the people I enjoy working with and they enjoy working with me so we sort of naturally have formed a network and I feel like we approach every client as a unique problem. We are very curious about not just the training per say, but also what’s going on in the business and the organization because that often gives us some clues about what the training should be on whether it be the strategy or the implementation side. So, our curiosity and our the level of specificity that we put around the solutions for our clients if you look across our portfolio, you notice everything looks a little different. There are some similarities, but there’s lots of variety in the work that we do I think that’s because the attention to the client’s business needs and the client’s learning needs and all those specifics are at the forefront and that’s what I’ve heard from our clients. I’ve heard clients say things like your people understand our business better than we do or even Jerry. I think you could run this business unit now because of everything you’ve learned about this, right? That’s one of the compliments we’re always looking for.
Maria: [00:29:56] I was just going to say that’s got to be the best kind of compliment that you can receive after all is said and done.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:30:02] Yeah, it’s great to hear.
Maria: [00:30:03] Who do you typically work with at the organizations, are there any particular titles?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:30:08] Yeah, it’s a great question. It really varies. Sometimes it’s a learning leader. Sometimes it’s a talent development person or a person who’s senior in L&D. Oftentimes it’s a very collaborative project where I’m working with that person who has a lot of their own great ideas and wants help thinking through those ideas, fleshing those ideas out, substantiating those ideas with industry, best practices and some research and some assessments of their own and what’s going on in the organization and just doesn’t have the time to do all that. I’d say that’s one type of person and then another just general type of person would be someone who’s more like in the business a sales leader, for example or someone in health and safety or the president of a small company who doesn’t have a learning function and now suddenly discovered I need some learning and I don’t even know where to begin and how can I put that together? That’s a person who I find really fun to work with for different reasons. They’re usually really smart people that know nothing about learning so it’s fun for me to teach them the basics and they usually catch on really quickly and I get the added benefit of helping them solve a problem and educating them personally. As a strategist, that’s very rewarding.
Maria: [00:31:26] Do you ever run into situations where you’re working with one group in the organization and they’re very open and accommodating and giving you a lot of information visibility into the team, and then they bring in another group and they’re more challenging.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:31:40] Yeah, they are just challenging without the former easy partner. I will never forget an engagement; I was asked to help this learning leader help their team understand gaps that he was seeing in their work and how you know the effectiveness of the product and the process that they were going through to produce training and in this case, it was for a certified repair network, so it was external training and this internal organization was producing that training for the external world and it wasn’t getting very good reviews. He was trying to communicate this to his team, but he didn’t feel like the message was getting across. He wanted to bring in an expert, come in and help give his criticism some validity and I just didn’t know what I was getting into, and I showed up on-site and they didn’t have a conference room (maybe that was deliberate) so we did a WebEx meeting just after I flew long-distance and in more than one-time zone and then I never actually met face to face with most of the organization. They were very resistant to hearing any criticism and every observation there was an excuse and frankly wouldn’t get very far. You know, I think what I took away from that was asked a few more questions about the political landscape you’re getting involved with when you’re in that sort of engagement. I’m not sure there was anything we could have done to sort of soften the blow or do anything differently there given that was the objective that the client had but it was certainly a lesson learned in that department.
John: [00:33:19] Jerry so when you are speaking with clients, I think it’s just a reality of the learning world that there’s often time constraints that we’re trying to work around and deal with. Can you shed some light on some of the higher-level timelines for putting together learning solutions?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:33:37] Yeah, it can really vary. One of the questions I always ask at the beginning of an engagement is what are the business drivers for this particular engagement, whether that be a strategy engagement or a program implementation engagement, or operational refinement engagement? Sometimes there are some very hard business drivers, right? We have a group of three hundred new hires coming in you’ll be getting every month, beginning September 1st so everything needs to be ready by September 1st. Those new hires are coming in and they’re going to be here so we’re going to run with whatever we have on September 1st and that program has to be up and running by then and then you have to manage everything that’s scheduled. In other cases, the timelines are a little bit wider open. So, I’m working right now and I’m in the midst of a strategic interview skills training course for a company that’s growing rapidly and from the get-go their whole attitude on this project was we want to get this right, even if it takes a while so I think this project is a single large course, but it will have a one-year anniversary before it’s launched because we’re going through another phase of revisions that involve diversity and inclusion, and they’ve also changed their branding along the way and we’re doing some changes there and they’re very comfortable with that long time frame in that particular case.
I guess we approach things based on what’s going on with a client’s business and we manage accordingly. So we manage to schedule or we manage to quality or we manage to scope what’s going on. Typically speaking, you sort of average everything out strategy engagements. The strategy piece is typically compact, so that will run typically a maximum of a couple of months, but more often six to eight weeks I would say in that time frame that usually is driven largely by the amount of time that it takes to get certain people’s availability for interviews or for review program implementation projects and they can last six months, depending on the complexity of the program. I’d say for a large-scale program that’s somewhat typical of a course we will knock it out in a month or two, depending on its complexity. We have needs that come through that are extraordinary in terms of time frame.
I got a call once from a client who said, hey, I need an e-learning course, and I said that’s OK, we can do that for you. It was for an existing client and that’s what we do and we can create an e-learning course for you. The problem is its time frame. I said, no problem, we are good at meeting tight timeframes. Ok, great. This is at three o’clock eastern time, and they said I need it by today. Really well today? In my world might it be two hours from now, depending on what you mean by today. It’s a West Coast client who says, well, by end of the day my time. So, I said great, I have five hours. The client says he has the content, all right now we’re talking, and we got that course produced in five hours. It was simple, it wasn’t very interactive, but it did get the information out there and we got it in their learning management system by the deadline. So, you know, it’s sort of every client, once again, is different. The business drivers are all different and we try to meet those needs.
John: [00:36:43] Jerry, one situation that seems to come up quite a bit, and it kind of ties with the time constraints and getting things done quickly is that I’ll hear from learning leaders we need to get something launched ASAP. But at the same time, we’re very interested in being thoughtful and taking a more strategic planned approach to this. How do you typically work with those clients that have this immediate deliverable need but also want to be methodical?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:37:08] That’s a great question and that does come up. What we try to do is run things in parallel and viciously prioritize. So if we can identify things that are known or certain you know a good chance of success without a lot of premeditated thinking, we sort of can get those pieces into the development design development pipeline. While at the same time, we were thinking through some things on the strategic end, and then if we need to influence those things midstream, we will. But then we generally try to phase work so that the things that are perhaps more complex and more difficult to define are delivered later in the project lifecycle. It’s some of that sort of project management trying to sequence work in a way that gives you the time to do a strategy while you’re knocking out the easy stuff. And then another technique is to think about your learning program. Like people think about software and think well, I need to get version one out and there’s nothing I can do about it, and I just don’t have time to be strategic about it, but I’m going to go ahead and do that. And then you really think about version one so you don’t invest everything in it you invest just what you need to get version one done and then in parallel or after you start your strategy and then that strategy will be directed at version two. But if you have that mentality that can really help because again, you’re conserving resources, you’re not burning them all on version one and then you got nothing left over because then what will happen is I’ll get that call I usually do a year later to fix the broken learning program, and that’s what you want to try to avoid, regardless of your time constraints, regardless of your budget.
Maria: [00:38:53] I think that’s a really important point to make and that we’ve brought it up a couple of times. But when it comes to the financial aspect, what you’re gaining is long-term benefits in that regard. You don’t have to come back the second time and say, hey, it’s me again, trying to tell you again what we needed to do the first time around and get it going. It’s an important point because that’s something that you don’t think about. It’s always at the end of the day, it’s like, well, shoot, this didn’t work, now, what do we do? So putting the investment upfront long term is going to create that better solution for them and I’m glad that you pointed that out. It’s just something that we always think about on the back end as we’re scoping these things out.
John: [00:39:32] So, Jerry, it would be great to walk through one of these projects that you’ve done end to end strategy, design, development. I know one of those clients is Unum, and I was hoping you could walk us through what that was like. And I know that was actually an award-winning program, the Brandon Hall Excellence Award in Leadership Development so it would be great to understand how you approach that.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:39:56] Absolutely. Yeah, it was such a fun engagement like you said, and was so rewarding as a strategist to be able to help put a strategy in motion and then also be involved in the implementation and execution of that strategy and to be around and see the results, you know it was always very satisfying. So, I was able to experience all three of those phases with Unum and with Tim Bolton, who was just terrific to work with at Unum. We started with designing the learning experience for their first formal front-line manager program, so you knew that they had some strategic challenges ahead from the business perspective. They knew that their business was changing rapidly, like the demands of their customers were changing, and they had already set in motion a strategy of transforming the company to an agile workforce, to an agile work environment, to an agile mindset, even so, this plus other things going on in the business, really drove first the definition of the core competencies we were going to focus on in this leadership program. What impressed me about working with Unum and what I was able to help them think through were those competencies that would give them the most value given their strategic priorities. So, for example, change leadership was going to be huge given the amount of change that the company was anticipating going through. So that was what ended up being one of the pillars of the program. And then we worked together to design a learning experience, and this was challenging because the unit has a large group of managers. They have about a thousand managers so this could not be an experience that was reliant on traditional straightforward classroom training. It needed to be driven online and it needed to be a lot of peer-to-peer evaluation and activity, and it could not have a giant facilitation burden otherwise, the program wouldn’t be executable given the large size of the audience so we designed a cohort driven social experience that was mediated through a learning experience platform. A simple way I can describe that as a more social version of an LMS where people go through the experience step by step, week by week together and discuss and work together, but the whole experience is mediated through online discussion and other online resources. When we were finished with the learning experience it was funny that I thought that might be the end of the engagement. I never wanted it to be the end, but I thought I just had a feeling that this is a big insurance company, they got a whole bunch of people that can knock this stuff out. It turned out those people were busy so Kim said, hey, let’s do this now or something like that I said, OK, what team should we pull together? And she’d said, I was thinking it would be you and me, so I thought, o well, OK, that makes sense. As I thought more about it, and we formed a two-person team and rolled up our sleeves we began to curate content from the public space, we began to curate content from inside of Unum and we each took a competency pillar, or we each took to competency pillars so, we divided and conquered, most literally, and we designed activities and worked collaboratively and built. The program was a very nimble two-person team with a little bit of help from some others, but we were lean and mean by definition. I want to say for about a four- or six-month period, we had the first version of this program up and running and got great results in our pilot. Going forward, we got really high adoption rates. It’s not a mandatory program, but we got hundreds of managers signing up every quarter, and over 80 percent, I believe, of managers reported that they were applying skills that they learned from the program, which is what we were looking for and it was very satisfying.
I also had the opportunity to meet with a manager focus group and interviews a year after and hear their lessons learned from the program and what they were getting out of it and it was again very satisfying. We were learning, for example, that this program helped form strong connections, networking connections between managers. We also found that the program helped managers and their supervisors form good relationships around the material in the program and there was a lot of discussion and sharing of what people were learning and doing in one-on-one meetings and that was another great positive byproduct of the program I think deservingly, as a result, won the Brandon Hall award.
Maria: [00:44:33] It’s an incredible story. I think it gets rid of that stereotype that Learning Strategists are just there to give advice and move on.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:44:42] Yeah, I try to avoid that.
Maria: [00:44:43] I think you’re single-handedly working to get rid of that. We appreciate all of your efforts, and you speak to it so eloquently. You make it easy to understand from a perspective of what is this and how is it going to lead to effective results. I can appreciate that because I’m definitely not the technical kind of person, so you’ve made it understandable for me. Jerry, I remember when you came to visit us a few years ago, you spoke about some of the work you were doing with Duke University, which was fascinating, can you tell our audience a little bit more about that?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:45:19] Absolutely. It is fascinating, I’d say more fascinating given what’s happening in academia. What we were initially engaged to do with Duke is to help them conceive of a brand-new certificate program out of their biostatistics department. The reason for this certificate program was there is a huge need for clinical research expertise in China and other developing countries. When you are doing clinical research, one of the trickiest things about it is acquiring patients with conditions that you can study. So, developing countries not only present a lower cost of acquisition for a clinical research subject, but countries like China will have a hundred people with a rare disease that we can only find two people in the US so there’s a huge interest among Chinese physicians and Chinese hospitals to learn these critical skills that can help us and if everybody is doing research, then we all as a planet I think, have a better chance of discovering medication that can help us all.
Duke has a special relationship with China, they have a campus in China at Kushan Kunshan, they actually have a local presence there. The established hospital in Beijing called Beijing Friendship Hospital, one of the earliest modern hospitals ever built in China, a large hospital in the center of Beijing and it has some relationships and ties with some of the professors in the biostatistics department so we decided to create this certificate program for that population in Beijing. It was a combination of when we first put a whole strategy around it in terms of what would the blend of learning be and what would the economic model be so we did a little bit of help with the finances around it as well. Considering different alternative models of delivery and development and all of that we landed on a blended model that involved creating a large library of statistics content featuring Duke professors and a series of webinars that would help begin the process of physicians working collaboratively and thinking through how to design a research study, and then a live seven-day workshop where the physicians in Beijing would work with Duke faculty who fly over there and actually go through the hands-on process of designing a research study and then presenting that study at the end of the workshop. It was a hugely successful pilot as a result, and we were asked to continue the program for a five-year time frame and doing two cohorts a year and that was sort of the program in a nutshell. We’re seeing interest in the material and the program in other institutions in China, but also in other institutions in developing countries around the world. So now we’re in the process of thinking through what are different learning paths, different ways to package this program up and deliver this program sometimes with facilitation, sometimes with limited facilitation, and to try to serve this need and basically help improve these skills that are critical for all of us in these countries where more research could be happening.
Maria: [00:48:42] That’s amazing. Unreal, right? Just yet another industry that you’ve put your hands into that’s such a cool experience.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:48:50] It’s also a Brandon Hall award-winning program.
Maria: [00:48:53] It’s fantastic, wonderful like a James Beard award, award-winning chef of learning strategy Gordon Ramsay Gschwind from now on, its absolutely fantastic and interesting. As we’re wrapping up here, Jerry, I want to give some perspective to our audience who are thinking about everything that we’re saying and deciding am I that organization that needs a Learning Strategist? So, if you were to think of imagining those lists that you get online, if you check off more than one of these boxes, you might be this person. If you can give a list of maybe three boxes that if you check off one of these boxes you definitely need a Learning Strategist. What would those three things be? Or if you have less, if you have more, what are those identifiers?
Jerry Gschwind: [00:51:23] Well, you know, as I think about clients I’ve worked with and the experience of meeting them and hearing why they are interested in speaking with me and what their problems are, a couple of things come to mind. One is learning leaders who have a huge challenge in front of them like a program that’s not working or a new program they need to launch and they can’t seem to find the time to pull it together and the answers that they’re getting from their people make them uneasy and there’s just something about it, and maybe it’s something that you can’t put your finger on, but when you say to your team, hey, we need to do this, I want to have a plan. The plan you get doesn’t mean you don’t feel good about it, t’s something about that plan that you can’t put your finger on it, but you feel like maybe it wasn’t thought through and maybe it’s a knee jerk reaction, maybe it’s just something you did before and so that could be a good time to bring in learning strategists to think that through a little bit more. Speaking of something I did before if you’re having trouble thinking of something, that’s not something you did before, right? That’s another good reason to bring us in because a Learning Strategist like myself or anyone like us that you know, has experience working with lots and lots of organizations and can bring different ideas to you, some bad, some good, but you know they will be different for sure, right? There will be things you probably haven’t thought of. You know, we were talking in this podcast about my experience working with universities, so I’m so grateful that I’ve had that experience. I think I could still be a pretty good strategist and have no experience working with universities but, having the long-term relationship with a major research university and working with faculty and working with the challenges that they face is a little bit different than the corporate space and how they handle those challenges which give us the fuel for ideas that can be innovative. I find that I bring a lot of corporate ideas into Duke, and I’m finding now that I’m similarly bringing a lot of thought that some of the things that we come up with on the university side into the corporate space and the cross-pollination can be really good. I’d say the other piece that I hear about when it comes to how do I know if I need a Learning Strategist is if you just feel overwhelmed or lost like I see more of this in people who are outside of L.A? so they’re in a functional role. I often will meet with people who have been handed training, like an operational functional lead and you know they just either come to the realization that they need training, or they’re told you need to do this training. We need a training program around this and you’re the best person for the job, but you’re not a learning person so you’re like man, I’m in charge of this big learning program, but I’ve never done a learning program before. That’s another, you know, why not? Why do that alone? Why do that by yourself? So I work with people who are in that position and I just helped them be successful and you know, it ends up being fun. As I said earlier, I love working with people that have an enthusiasm for learning but have never done learning before, it’s always a lot of fun.
Maria: [00:54:29] That’s great. So if you need a team member in learning strategy Jerry Gschwind is your man. I think that’s a great way to put it, If you need help making yourselves better then that’s the time to at least explore the opportunity of bringing on a Learning Strategist. Well, thank you so much, Jerry.
John: [00:54:48] Thank you so much, Jerry. Appreciate it.
Maria: [00:54:50] Such a wealth of knowledge. It’s so great to talk to you, as always, and we look forward to doing this again sometime. We hope to have you back! Thank you so much, Jerry.
Jerry Gschwind: [00:55:06] You’re welcome. Can’t wait to come back sometime! Thanks.
Maria: [00:55:09] For more information on today’s podcast guests and how they can help your organization, please visit www.thetrainingassociates.com Bring out the talent is a MuddHouse Media production.