A Conversation with Simon Brown, CLO at Novartis About the New State of L&D and The Importance of Curiosity

June 16, 2020

A picture of Simon Brown, CLO, Novartis

Over the last few months, one thing is clear. Learning is more important now than ever. That’s exactly what we explored in the new report, “Leading with Learning: Insights and Advice About the New State of L&D.” We surveyed nearly 900 L&D pros, over 3,000 learners, and analyzed LinkedIn Learning data to better understand how L&D is helping employees adapt to change and what the role of L&D looks like in the new world of work. We uncovered some important trends, but the real magic is in the stories that learning leaders around the world shared with me about their real-world perspectives on those trends. 

One of my favorite conversations was with Simon Brown, the Chief Learning Officer at Novartis, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, based in Basel, Switzerland.

Tuck in for a few minutes for some great insights and actionable takeaways. And, please join our L&D Connect LinkedIn group to continue the conversation.

Executive championship was strong before and during the crisis

Amanda: Simon, thanks for taking the time to chat. Let’s start with the most interesting data point that we uncovered in the report. When we asked L&D pros globally if their CEOs actively champion learning in October 2019 for the 2020 Workplace Learning Report, only 27% reported that was true. When we asked them again in May 2020, the number jumped 159% with 70% of L&D pros reporting that their CEOs are now actively championing learning. What are you seeing at Novartis, in terms of executive leadership, and how they are prioritizing learning?

Simon: We are fortunate because we had strong CEO support prior to COVID-19. Our executives immediately understood that we had an important role to play in this crisis—to help our 90,000 employees who were suddenly working from home learn how to work remotely, use the new communication tools, and manage their time effectively.

Learning content shifted as employees moved through different phases of adaptation

Amanda: Interesting. That begs the question. How has the learning content shifted from the beginning of this crisis until now?

Simon: One of the first things that we did is set up a quick portal with content about how to use Microsoft Teams more effectively, as that was our primary chat collaboration and communication tool. It also covered areas like managing your time effectively when working from home and received over 15,000 views in the first few weeks. 

Then, the next wave of content was more around business disruption as we started to figure out what the new normal looks like. We needed to find new ways to work together internally and think about how to craft meaningful customer interactions. In a nutshell, we needed to reskill ourselves and build capabilities to help us operate in a different way. 

It’s all about finding that sweet spot that delivers exactly what learning is needed at the moment when employees need it.

Managers stepped up to support their teams

Amanda: It can definitely be a challenge finding that sweet spot, but my gut tells me that managers are a big part of the answer because they are closest to their teams’ challenges and opportunities. What do you think?

Simon: First, we are seeing a massive uptake in learning overall. For example, on LinkedIn Learning, employees spent 1,000 hours a week learning in January and that jumped to 7,000 hours a week in April and May. And, those hours were spent across the entire catalogue of courses and that doesn’t happen without manager involvement. Learning is not only being supported by managers, but they are now encouraging their teams to spend the time and even recommending courses.

Our aspiration is for employees to spend an average of 5% of their time learning a year and we’re starting to get there.  There was a 50% increase in learning hours at Novartis from 2018 to 2019. We’re hoping to see the hours increase even further this year.

Transitioning from ILT to VILT was all about learning the tools

Amanda: Pivoting slightly. Let’s talk about how you get there. Another interesting finding in the report was that the use of Virtual Instructor-Led Training (VILT) and online learning—or what we call blended online learning—is expected to continue to grow, even in a post COVID-19 world. How are you approaching the shift from ILT to VILT?

Simon: We have a virtual learning toolkit that includes best practices about how to use Microsoft Teams for learning, how to set up and run virtual events and how to transition traditional instructional design into the digital space with virtual whiteboards and breakout rooms. The technology may be new, but many of the techniques are the same. 

Reskilling and optimizing for what “good” looks like

Amanda: That makes perfect sense. I also wanted to ask you about closing skills gaps. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of L&D pros said that their focus is on reskilling and reshaping their organizations for a post COVID-19 world. Particularly as a pharmaceutical company, I’m sure that must be top-of-mind for you.

Simon: Absolutely. We are focused on reskilling key roles to support what the new normal looks like. For example, our sales team is accustomed to face-to-face meetings with their customers and prospects. Now, all of that activity has moved to digital interactions and so our sales team needs to learn new tools and processes. We have thought deeply about what “good” looks like from several perspectives including coaching, sequenced learning, and generally supporting the team. 

One thing to keep in mind is that our approach is more “rough and ready” than it was in the past. We are focused on getting learning content out quickly and then iterating and evolving as we go.

Curiosity at the heart of building a strong culture of learning

Amanda: I’ve heard that quite a bit from other customers and the good news is that employees understand that we’re all navigating this journey together. The most important part is that we’re all still learning and growing together which brings us to the culture of learning. In the report, 56% of L&D pros said that their culture of learning is stronger now than before the crisis hit. What are your thoughts there?

Simon: We have three pillars to our company culture - inspired, curious and unbossed.  The curious aspect of our culture helps to create a strong learning environment, encouraging people to learn, to experiment and to be constantly asking questions. I’ve just published a book called, “The Curious Advantage” that goes into detail about how curiosity is at the heart of the skills required to successfully navigate our digital lives when all futures are uncertain. It’s what we need a lot more of now to help us manage through this incredibly dynamic environment.

Simon’s advice? Stay close to whoever is defining the new world of work

Amanda: My last question. Now that we’ve moved past the initial COVID-19 crisis, what advice do you have for your L&D peers about how to keep that seat at the table?

Simon: Now that most CEOs are prioritizing learning, it’s more important than ever to stay close to whoever is defining what the new normal looks like. It might be the commercial team, strategy, or HR. When the new ways of working are discussed, L&D needs to be part of those conversations and address the reskilling and upskilling needs that will inevitably come up. That is the way to not only keep L&D’s seat at the table, but also continue to be a strategic partner shaping how work will happen in the future.