Exploring the Future of Corporate Learning – Insights from Learning Xchange 2020

Thiago Kiwi
Dec 01, 2020

“Digital transformation is now on steroids. This is a once in a generation opportunity” – it was with these reflections that Headspring, the executive development joint venture of the Financial Times and IE Business School, opened the first edition of its virtual summit Learning Xchange, which took place on 26th November. Twenty-one presenters and speakers from around the world considered the shape and future direction of executive education and management training.

Unsurprisingly, the impact of Covid-19 shaped many of the discussions and exchanges. But the consensus—among the human resources and learning and development professionals taking part—was that the business of executive education is surprisingly well prepared to take on the unexpected challenges of a world transformed by a global pandemic.

The clear and defining impact of Covid-19—and the fact that business has few other choices—is the move to remote working and homeworking. This has been sustained by digital adoption, a radical shift that began well before the pandemic hit. Instead of a knockout blow, the remarkable outcome has seen new opportunities for executive education.

A recording of the Headspring Virtual Summit 2020 can be viewed on-demand here.

Opening the Virtual Summit: The perspective of two global leaders on how the world of work has evolved and what lies ahead

  • Santiago Iñiguez, President, IE University
  • John Ridding, CEO, Financial Times

Key Insights

  • In this last year, we have lived in radical uncertainty, in times of extreme volatility … this experience has been an excellent opportunity to realise that technology is not a foe but is actually a friend. Santiago Iñiguez.
  • Businesses are having to adapt to the multiple, and increasingly complex, challenges and crises they have to face. Covid didn’t create the challenges but amplified what already exists. Businesses have no choice but to face them. And there has been an unprecedented shift in shareholder responsibilities from previous years, which are becoming more aligned with the priorities of society. The speed of change is hard to come to terms with, but we must. Digital transformation is now on steroids. This is a once in a generation opportunity. John Ridding.


Lighting the road to the future of work: Key insights for HR and L&D leaders 

“We can’t predict the future but can only look at trends and assume they will continue.”

  • Moderator: Andrew Hill, Management Editor, Financial Times
  • Sergey Gorbatov, Professor of HR & Organisational Development, IE Business School
  • Sofian Lamali, Global Head of Leadership Development, SABIC
  • Anna Thomas, Co-Founder and Director, Institute for the Future of Work

Key Insights

What skills do we need for the next five years? Andrew Hill

We don’t know for sure. We can’t predict the future but can only look at trends and assume they will continue. However there are some meta-skills that will help us: curiosity and the notion of purpose. Curiosity allows us the ability to learn through a process in the way that we’re doing with Covid. We were born curious. My hypothesis is that society, the workplace, school, etc are removing the notion of curiosity and we need to create space for it. It is not about knowing the answer; it is about your ability to learn through the process. Sofian Lamali.

Covid has hit us in the middle of this massive digital transformation. As a result there is a bias towards higher, technical skills. We need to combine these skills in new ways: leadership development program design and critical thinking need to be produced together. To manage the disruption that will impact on the workforce, we need to think creatively and experiment. Anna Thomas

Previously we were working in a more stable environment. Now things are shifting, so each organisation needs to focus clearly on the things that are changing. In the time of global pandemic, leaders are sending a message of ‘safety’ to employees. They need to create meaning, to make sense of what is happening. Sergey Gorbatov

Performance management: how do you measure the performance of people you can’t see in the office. Leaders have no option but to develop people so that they can step up their performance; leaders must manage productivity of knowledge work. Sergey Gorbatov.

Moderator: In training and development skills, what have you done differently to keep people engaged. How are you transmitting these skills? Andrew Hill

We are seeing an increase in technical skills, moving quickly from a face-to-face to a digital world. This has also changed the format of working. You can’t keep people working in a digital environment for eight hours a day. Sofian Lamali.

Moderator: How has Covid changed management priorities? Loss of the opportunity for instant meetings with people plays into leadership development. When you’re working with people directly you pick up signals. How do you replicate that in a virtual world? Andrew Hill.

There has been a management disruption in dealing with the business. It’s about making remote working really work, finding new ways of working, not just a change in management processes. Anna Thomas.

How do you learn in a distributed world, replacing random conversations like you would have around the water cooler? You need to build relationships with people who are working from home: are you checking on them, giving feedback on progress? Sometimes people are demotivated. So don’t do anything different than you would do in the office but use the new channels to do what you were previously doing. Sergey Gorbatov.

Moderator: Online training was not always effective—the remoteness would distract from the training. How have you got managers to engage with training? Maybe we should put the technology to one side. Andrew Hill.

Do what you’ve been doing but translate it into a new learning language. There’s so much knowledge that you need to find new ways to curate it, to provide the right amount without overdoing it. Sofian Lamali.

You can’t put the technology to one side as it’s part of everyday life now. But it’s necessary to respond to different needs and recognise the limits of what we can do remotely. Relationship and team building, tactile skills, pastoral: we need to embrace these. Anna Thomas.

Moderator: The role of HR and the L&D professional. What’s your advice – with current uncertainty it’s not the best time for long-range vision. Andrew Hill.

Learning & Development are in love with processes and technologies but they need to get close to people. They should listen to their customers in order to remain relevant. Sofian Lamali.

HR professionals should be brought in at the technology adoption stage. Anna Thomas.

Understand the business and listen to people, but have your point of view. Sergey Gorbatov.


An evolutionary leap in learning: How technology will continue to rapidly redefine learning and development

“Learning needed some disruption. The industry needs a shakeup.”

Technology is helping L&D leaders meet their companies’ development needs with the same standards as traditional face-to-face programs. How can new technologies enhance learning? How can we bridge the gap in experiential learning? How can gamification, AI and data analytics elevate corporate learning?

  • Moderator: Martin Boehm, Dean, IE Business School
  • Belén Gancedo, Head of Education Spain, Microsoft
  • Michelle Nicoud, Head of Global Talent Programmes, Talent & Development, Maersk
  • Julia Tierney, CEO, Hive Learning


Key Insights

Moderator: The elephant in the room is Covid and online learning. If we fast forward a couple of months, is everything going back to normal? What is the value of online learning? Martin Boehm.

We need to decide when we need to be together and when it’s nice to be together. The feeling is we will go back to a hybrid solution. It won’t be all online forever. Michelle Nicoud.

Learning needed some disruption; the L&D industry needs a shake up because management doesn’t see the return on investment of learning. There’s been a massive rise of adoption of platforms during Covid. People say they’re getting more value because of outcome scores. And there are cost savings that online can bring versus face-to-face learning. Julia Tierney.

We need to avoid going back to the past – to classes and face-to-face. But we need to extend the value of digital collaboration. There is pressure from learners themselves to optimise the technology we use. Belén Gancedo.

Moderator: Are we seeing more micro/just-in-time learning? Micro learning is here to stay. But we’re seeing in students and participants that the attention span is reducing, especially in the younger generation—so engagement is key. Martin Boehm.

Before Covid most micro learning activity was in 10-minute bursts. Micro learning is much more important for the working life: engagement is needed to create value in making people do their job better. Browse, search, nudge – how quickly can you consume micro learning. Julia Tierney.

Typically when we’re working on a program we look at it in the sense of prepare, practice and perform and use microlearning in the preparation stage. We also look at how we use our learning management system and what we put in the learning library, depending on where a person has reached in the program so they can go in at the right level for themselves. In addition, we have created campaigns using social media channels anticipating people’s needs in the learning lifecycle, based on the skills we want to highlight in a particular cycle. There is a lot of strategy behind what you do when you’re looking at microlearning. Michelle Nicoud.

In the end micro learning is compressed training so it allows you to acquire knowledge quickly. Continuous learning needs a high degree of effectiveness. And one of the effective aspects is you can measure it. Belén Gancedo.

Moderator: What are the trends around training and leadership development? Martin Boehm.

What are people trying to get out of coaching/training? Support, accountability, sponsorship, to create more inclusion in different rungs of the organisation, creating stronger bonds and alignment. Julia Tierney.

What does meaningful support mean for mental fitness? The number one thing we’re hearing is that people want coaching – especially during Covid. Human connections and the sense of being seen, hearing and how we belong to the organisation Michelle Nicoud.

People who have one-to-ones with managers are more likely to be engaged. One-to-one is important. Belén Gancedo.

Moderator: How would you summarise in a sentence your recommendation for the future of learning and development? Martin Boehm.

Collaboration and digital connections. Sharing opinions. Belén Gancedo.

It will probably be a hybrid future. Don’t be afraid to try things. Pilots are good ways to try things at low risk. Julia Tierney.

Be brave enough to test things and don’t be afraid of failure. Bring learners to the table to help design. Michelle Nicoud.

Keynote: The Future of the Learning Organisation

“The really interesting thing is how you connect people and machines together. People become superhuman.”

The world of business is facing its biggest shift since the industrial revolution. Adapting to this reality means shifting pre-existing paradigms and embracing new mindsets. The keynote session will explore the future of corporate learning and the role HR and L&D professionals play in creating a learning mindset, which will allow organisations to thrive.

  • Peter Fisk, Global Thought Leader
  • Gustaf Nordbäck, CEO, Headspring

Key Insights

Gustaf Nordbäck: How are you finding the world today?

Peter Fisk: I guess I find it difficult, confusing. I also find it incredible, looking at the ways the world has moved forward. In the past the world was largely steady state, we could predict what was coming next. A world that is now changing fast has been accelerated by Covid. People are changing their approach, companies are changing the way learning works inside their organisations.

What’s important is that companies don’t just try to recover when they come out of Covid. People have changed their lifestyle: learning, working and living digitally. A new generation of companies is rapidly emerging. We need to re-imagine how we do business, reset our compasses. Take a new perspective on how we are going to overcome big challenge— whether they are financial, environmental, social—to make sure businesses move forward in better ways.

Gustaf Nordbäck: Machine learning is playing a big role in what we can learn and how we can evolve our businesses. At the same time you have critical impact from humanistic learning. How do you see human and machine learning working in harmony, and operating in a learning organisation?

Peter Fisk: The really interesting bit is where you connect people and machines together. How machines can help people, and people help machines. People are becoming superhuman—using data to make better decisions. You can also sense what’s happening in the marketplace better, what customers want. Working as partners in much broader ecosystems rather than trying to do everything yourself.
One of the most interesting organisations I look at is Alibaba. They have an approach to strategy called the self-tuning strategy, or more generally the self-tuning organisation. The idea is that they adapt their strategy every day, not every year or every three months—in response to how their incredibly dynamic markets are changing. Being able to use data and intuition at the same time to make decisions, and keep pace with the changing world, is phenomenally interesting. At the heart is how you can apply technology and remain human at the same time.

Gustaf Nordbäck: I’m interested in the concept of personalisation. With technology and machine learning, we can now do what we’ve been talking about for 30 years: creating a fully adaptive personalised experience. That is incredibly empowering in facing the big challenges of up-skilling and re-skilling an organisation, allowing individuals and teams learn in a more autonomous and organic way.

Peter Fisk: Self-organising teams have a sense of purpose but work within a framework, and are incredibly entrepreneurial and individual, so this is a clue to how you can see teams as a major unit of learning. They are people who understand their organisation better, understand their customers and the technology.

If you take a company like Haier, the huge Chinese manufacturer of white goods, they have created ten thousand micro businesses of never more than a hundred people. They’re incredibly close to their customers, they’re entrepreneurial because they act like start-ups, and they act within the framework of a large organisation. They get the benefits of the shared resources, the investment and the distribution. They also have the freedom, the flexibility and creativity which you get in a start-up, and that is the way  you get the individualised and collaborative learning approach—and much more focused—within the benefits of a big company.

Gustaf Nordbäck: Another ingredient is a learning mindset.

Peter Fisk: I had the chance to interview Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, and ask him what he’d changed in Microsoft. He said there were two things. He created a growth mindset, in which within today’s world of dynamic change you experiment and try new things. Probably some ideas will fail, but that is a good way of learning. The challenge is that it could become anarchy unless you create a structure for it to happen. And secondly what Nadella did was give the organisation a clarity of purpose. This creates a framework in which the growth mindset of ‘empowered anarchy’ can happen, and also allow the company to thrive.

Harnessing the potential of the digital experience: The path to delivering experiential learning virtually

“Virtual has become the default but you need to bring people together.”

Good content is key, but experience is transformative. Content is becoming a commodity and is easily available online form multiple platforms, often at virtually no cost. But true transformation does not occur from ‘academic tourism’. It happens when people are truly engaged in a learning experience that enables them to assimilate the use and purpose of a specific skill. In an online environment this is particularly hard to achieve, but L&D leaders must bring learning to life. Virtual reality, online simulators and AI have a key role to play in improving learning experience.

  • Moderator: Teresa Martin-Retortillo, Executive President of Exponential Learning, IE University
  • Elisabetta Galli, Global Head of Knowledge, Development & Talent Management, Santander
  • Berry Lumpkins, Global Director of Leadership & Talent Development, DP World
  • Daniela Proust, Head of Global Learning Campus, Siemens

Key Insights

Moderator: An open question to the panellists: Covid is a once in a lifetime opportunity to change an organisation. How has learning and development changed and what are the skillsets? Teresa Martin-Retortillo.

L&D played a major role in Santander’s aim, announced in 2018, of moving from a very powerful and first-class commercial bank into an open financial services platform. Moving from a traditional organisation into a new business model. For HR this was challenging but very exciting, having to rethink roles. Sixty per cent of employees needed to up-skill – and the challenge was how to do it in a sustainable and fast way. Identifying the critical skills of the future, and not surprisingly, digital transformation. Elisabetta Galli.

We’re a tech company so when I think of L&D at Siemens we’re on a huge transformation. And we couldn’t foresee how much Covid would change things although we were already on the way. So when disruption comes can you keep up with the pace, and change and adapt quickly? It’s about motivation, inspiration and making learning relevant. Daniela Proust.

The role of L&D in DP World is in supporting and transforming the business. I started at DP on March 8, so I just had time to set up and then started working from home. The whole company was forced by Covid to go through a digital transformation programme and L&D became a highly impactful team that works virtually. We built connectivity across the business, especially in the first few months when people were hungry to connect and learn what was happening. We encouraged our senior executives to be authentic as possible to work in the new environment. Berry Lumpkins.

Moderator: Covid has accelerated what you’d already started. Research has shown that 60 per cent of the companies surveyed focused on up-skilling the workforce for strategic skills. This was not a side project but core to delivering the new. How have you made virtual learning more engaging and effective? Teresa Martin-Retortillo.

We started before Covid so our people were more prepared. We made a very thorough and deep analysis of the content of learning – we rebuilt and rethought the learning content for the new challenges. We moved L&D people from traditional roles, acquiring new skills and experiences from external knowledge. Elisabetta Galli.

You need to discover what is going on in the community. What is being discussed. That will determine what content is required in learning. Designing a journey and providing options, to make it more engaging. Daniela Proust.

Of overwhelming importance is engagement. It is easy to lose the attention of the participant virtually, so the instructional design has to be impeccable. Just a few minutes at a time. Berry Lumpkins.

Moderator: How do you do face-to-face when it’s disappearing? Teresa Martin-Retortillo.

Virtual becomes the default but you need to bring people together—but you also need to be careful about the objectives. You can do much online. But physical interpersonal interactions are important for driving innovation, among other things. Daniela Proust.

The community get-together will never disappear, but you can have synchronous sessions virtually as well as in person, for communities to share experiences. Elisabetta Galli.

Moderator: What are the new skillsets that are required for the L&D team? Teresa Martin-Retortillo.

Number one: rethink instructional design. Secondly, learn virtual facilitation skills: what may be good in a physical space doesn’t transfer easily to a digital, so we needed to up-skill some of our partners. Thirdly, invest in media production: professional lighting, professional mics, cameras, etc to set up a mini studio in people’s homes: these have a positive impact on the learning experience. Berry Lumpkins.

I agree with Barry but also data management and digital marketing are needed. Data that you pull out in real time, reading the performance of the participants. Marketing – you have to treat everything as a product like a campaign. Restructure what you’re offering based on reactions in real time. Elisabetta Galli.

How you use learning analytics is an interesting question and we’re just starting to embark on this. In the past it’s always been post-event, looking at what people have done. So you need to employ user data to turn people using the learning platform into learners. Bring the most relevant content to the learner through algorithms etc. Skills will become part of the new. Daniela Proust.

Moderator: There’s a theme here about data becoming part of the L&D function. What is the full potential of digital learning? What do you wish you can do in the next three years? Teresa Martin-Retortillo.

Having the user in the centre, in the driving seat. The user can pull from the platform what they need. They can plan their career ladder but expand the possibility of learning. Use what’s relevant for your job, but also learn from people who aren’t part of your immediate work environment. The user decides: it’s push versus pull. Elisabetta Galli.

The potential of fully leveraging virtual reality and augmented reality technology for soft skills. This is not available yet, but we need a learning system that’s as good and as sharp as people have in their private lives, at home – Netflix etc. Berry Lumpkins.

Learning is becoming a fundamental core of the business strategy of the company. We need to be smart about how to push learning content by creating pull. People follow people, so they can push content themselves as the ‘expert on the topic’. Daniela Proust.


Secrets to success: How hybrid learning has been used to drive impact

“2020 has mostly been about wellbeing. Now we need to align strategy with wellbeing.”

The need to adapt to digital learning, while meeting new development needs arising from remote working, has forced CLOs and CHROs to accelerate learning transformation.

  • Moderator: Liz-Ann Gayle, Global Head of Learning and Innovation, Headspring
  • Stacey Burns, Senior Manager Learning Development, EY
  • Mona Al-Baker, Program Manager Enterprise Learning, Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences (KFAC)
  • Anna Bouman, Program Manager Leadership Development, ABN Amro
  • Sonia Guisado, Training & Development, Digital Learning, Meliá Hotels International

Key Insights

Moderator, Liz-Ann Gayle: This session will adopt a case study approach by hearing examples from the panellists.

Sonia Guisado, Meliá Hotels: We introduced the Stay Safe Program. We had to close our hotels during Covid and retrain all our staff about dealing with the virus, with a focus on wellbeing. It required mobilising learning for thousands of employees.

Stacey Burns, EY: We were already thinking about developing future-focused leaders. What has changed has been the pace of acceleration. The future is now.

Anna Bouman, ABN Amro: A month before the lockdown started we had already begun a leadership development program for our senior executives, so there was a need to accelerate the program.

Mona Al-Baker, KFAC: For us it is different because we are focused on offering learning and development programs to the private sector here in Kuwait. So we have been promoting online learning.


Moderator: The theme I’ve heard from you is acceleration. What are the advantages and challenges this has brought? Liz-Ann Gayle

We have two types of employees: those in the corporate office who are now working at home, and hotel-based employees. It’s been about keeping the former engaged. With the latter, we’ve had more time for training – creating collaborative groups on different topics – for example emotional wellbeing. Sonia Guisado.

We thought we had three to five years. It’s now been about winning the hearts of minds of our people to engage in learning. How do we make learning memorable and iconic? Do we press pause or move forward? If we need to acquire skills for uncertainty, we need to embrace learning. We’re being open and honest: we’re learning as we go, we’re experimenting. So we’ve being saying: come on the journey with us. Let’s be really aspirational about this. We can now do things that you can’t do in a physical environment if you don’t need to travel, if you break down geographical barriers. For example, a Masai elder from Kenya dialled in and talked to our senior management team about how the nomadic wisdom from his culture had applicability to our context for leaders today. Stacey Burns.

When the lockdown hit us we had to decide whether we should continue the program or discontinue it for now. But it is even more important to be connected together and stay on track with our strategy It has given us the opportunity to involve the international community, because travelling to the Netherlands is a huge expense from Asia and America. Anna Bouman.

Before Covid nothing was online with us, so we had to shift perceptions. We now have applicants online and more interest from L&D departments because there are no travel expenses. So how do you get people to talk together in online programmes? And keep them online? We’ve had to redesign programmes, delivering them over a longer period with shorter individual modules so as not to drain them. For example, engagement through gamification, online collaboration. Mona Al-Baker.

Thiago Kiwi

Head of Marketing & Communications at Headspring

Thiago is an award-winning marketing and communications leader with over 10 years of experience in the global higher and executive education sector. He holds a Bachelors in Communications and a Masters in Political Communications & Marketing from the University of London, as well as multiple executive and leadership development certifications. When he's not busy studying for a new course, he's growing vegetables in his allotment or training for his next marathon.