Sandra Loughlin, PhD, oversees EPAM’s storied learning culture. A former faculty member at the University of Maryland, she came to EPAM in 2018 with a charge to study, codify, and improve the way we learn and to apply her insights to our clients’ culture. In the dialogue below, we asked Loughlin to explain why learning is essential for organizational adaptivity and to provide an inside view about how it works for our company. Read on and you’ll see why her deep understanding of this essential topic earns her an A+.
Why is learning the engine that drives business transformation, Sandra?
Legacy companies in every industry need to become very different versions of themselves. Instead of being, say, an insurance company or an apparel manufacturer or an automotive company, firms must evolve, to a significant degree, into software companies. This change is completely outside the expertise of most leaders in almost every organization. And it's hard.
Becoming a tech company isn’t just a matter of adopting language around technology. It involves a fundamentally different way of doing business. You have to think about your customers differently. You have to deliver differently. You need to budget differently. You have to be able to think creatively and strategically about technologies that you probably haven't heard about until relatively recently. On top of all this, your company has to get into one of the biggest and most challenging talent games in the market.
Achieving business transformation requires multidimensional learning. As a leader, you need to understand entire new fields—technology, data, product, innovation—deeply enough to be able to think strategically about your business through those lenses. And you need to learn fundamental concepts around changing culture, attracting and developing great talent, and leading change across the organization.
But that’s not all. Leaders aren’t just responsible for their own learning. You have to ensure that your whole organization is learning the tech material, the people stuff, the data. Your entire organization must be constantly learning because the environment changes all the time. This need is even more acute for industries where jobs are being automated, resulting in large numbers of employees who will need complete retraining.
One of your central ideas is the integrated talent ecosystem. The concept obviously is essential to EPAM's successful learning culture and for that of our clients. Can you explain a little bit about what it is and why it matters?
It’s a very tactical skills-based approach to doing everything along the employee lifecycle—hiring, retaining, and developing people. First of all, you must map the business and tech strategy to every individual's competency-and-skill matrices. Almost every company has a business strategy and job descriptions, but very rarely are those things connected. To achieve business transformation, to realize your business strategy, employees need to shift what they know and do, but few organizations have made that connection. To be successful, you need to figure out what are the skills and competencies required to drive your vision forward.
Next, you need to know when people actually have those skills. This means you need to assess skills in an authentic manner. Instead of asking someone, “Are you a team player?” a better approach is to ask the people working with the candidate about their collaboration skills. Use skill-specific peer and manager reviews and look at work product to assess the degree to which an individual possesses the skills critical to their role.
The third piece involves using those assessments to manage roles. In most companies when you promote someone, it's done because somebody knows somebody, or the candidate is a great networker or they are an extrovert and so on. It's such a fluffy, nebulous, non-transparent, and sometimes very biased process. A skills-based approach means that promotion and hiring decisions are based, at least in part, on demonstrated—that is, assessed—skills.
It’s not easy. But when you do this, you completely turn the learning economy upside down. In most organizations it's called a push; the learning & development group pushes content at people. Very few people actually take it up. But when learning is a prerequisite for promotion or keeping one’s job, the stakes are changed. Most employees want to grow in their career, and if they know which skills they need and you give them proper resources, they will pull them from you. That’s how you create a continuous learning culture!
It's about designing a seamless motivation structure that's built into roles, so that learning is part of what you do at your organization to grow your career.
The talent ecosystem is not just about training, right? You also emphasize talent development and management. Could you talk about how those things are part of a strong integrated talent ecosystem?
People don't learn just because someone talks at them or because they've glanced at a series of PowerPoint slides. They learn when they have some information that's been delivered to them and apply that information in practice. Also: It’s very important to have someone who knows more than they do looking at their work and giving them feedback and proper guidance.
Effective companies put such a system in place, and they create what I call “capability academies,” which are learning programs with coaching and feedback elements built into them. They also give people mentors. Every person in the organization has a mentor who can help guide them in their total career journey, not just in this one course or this one training effort.
When used in combination, the components of the talent ecosystem create an environment that reflects something called Theory One, in which you give people the right motivation and then the opportunity to learn. When you put those things together, it's incredibly effective.
What about the idea of hiring people for the aptitude and desire to learn, not skills per se? It sounds like what companies really need are people who are going to learn no matter what the circumstance, and who are driven to learn.
That is one of those nebulous things that is actually more important to hire for than any sort of technical skill, because technical skills become obsolete every couple of years.
There are ways to look for that, but it's not something that’s easily displayed on a resume. “I'm a continuous learner.” What does that mean?
LinkedIn Learning and other content houses bank on the idea that people want to demonstrate their learning through badges from online courses. And that’s having an impact, but it isn’t universal. I don't know about you, but I feel like I'm a pretty continuous learner and I have never done a badged LinkedIn course.
When I hire, I ask: “How do you stay up-to-date in your field? What are you reading? Tell me.” Then I listen to how specific their responses are. They should be mentioning certain publications or conferences, or that they've talked with experts, or that they’ve accessed trainings offered by their employer. That gives me an imperfect but real sense of how they approach the continuous learning that is critical for their role.
Let's talk about specific referenceable examples of how you've augmented EPAM’s delivery engagements with education. Can you point to an example of this?
EPAM has had a very long, very successful history with a certain global financial services firm. We have been a good engineer partner and that client, like many of our clients, asked: “How are your people so good? We can't find people as good, and we can’t create them. What is your magic?”
So we explained the reasons we're successful and the client said: “OK, come do that to us. Come help us.” We’re in the process right now. This is one example where we take a number of components of our people approach, our learning programs, our ecosystem, our engineering culture, and our tooling and actually tailor all of that to the client. They're so excited about it, but they're overwhelmed at how much work it is. We have to guide them to do it, but it's their job. We can't do it for them. Thankfully, the client sees the results of the talent approach live every day—the teams we have on the ground there—and that is motivating them to do the hard work to shift their talent approach and power through the organizational changes it requires.
Let's talk about human-centered design and its role in creating effective learning projects.
Let me begin by saying that people tend to be very, very bad at calibrating what they already know, what they need to learn, and when they have learned it. And they don't necessarily want to work that hard.
So human-centered design (HCD) is important for certain aspects of creating learning programs but by itself, it is absolutely not sufficient—because people are not reliable self-calibrators.
When we talk about learning, for example, some people say, “I have visual learning style.” That's not a thing. There's so much research showing that that is not actually a thing, but people will say that because they don't actually understand their own learning mechanisms.
People also often assume they will learn effectively by just getting a link. But they don't make the time for the content or, even if they consume it, they don’t often recognize day-to-day situations when they need to apply it. They don't know how, and they can't do it. HCD-only approaches to education often result in a messy, poorly designed system. That’s why traditional training approaches—give people access to content and they will come—results in such low ROI.
The smart way to design a learning program is to employ the science of learning and change but rely heavily on people to help us understand how what they are learning applies to their job. “OK, we know that you need to learn cloud. Where does that show up in your job? Where should you be using this knowledge?” We also talk to their managers, or people that report to them, because, again, people themselves are not necessarily accurate in their self-reporting.
The result of this approach is learning programs that result in meaningful outcomes that are aligned to the demands of the target role.
One more question. You’ve said: “Great engineers aren't hired, they're developed.” That is, we don’t hire EPAMers, we grow them. Can you talk then more generally about viewing education through that growth lens and how organizations can begin to start adopting it for themselves?
I guess this goes back to the first question and why education is core to business success. Technology, the competitive market, and customer demands are constantly changing. This means companies and all of their employees have to grow to learn, constantly. It’s not a one-and-done situation. When leaders embrace that fact and see education as a necessity for growing the business and maintaining relevancy, they will be much more likely to achieve transformation and maintain a competitive advantage.
How can companies do this? A big part of the answer is the talent ecosystem because it bakes in learning and your organization's cultural expectations. Those capabilities can be built. You just require employees to have them and nurture that throughout the process.
When I say: “You can't hire an EPAMer,” it's true. You can't hire an EPAMer, from the technical skills or mindset orientation. All of that stuff gets built along the way. The ecosystem is what really determines what we spend money on, talk about, care about, and measure. These are all things that truly drive a successful business culture.