The Digital Adoption Show: How HR and Learning Departments Ensure Digital Transformation Success

Beth Loeb Davies
Beth Loeb Davies

Former Director of L&D, Tesla

Digital transformation has taken the forefront of boardroom agendas with global spending estimated to be as high as $454 billion on the latest tools and technology. With such high investments in digitization, there’s the quintessential question we need to answer in order to realize the ROI for these technology expenditures. And that is – how do we make sure that a diverse workforce, consisting of different generations of workers with different learning skills and needs adopt such technologies with the least amount of friction.

We asked this question to a prominent personality who has been in the HR and L&D space for 29 years. Someone who has worked in various senior-level positions in HR and L&D in companies like Apple, Gap, Microsoft, the latest being Tesla. We were super thrilled to have none other than Beth Loeb Davies, the former director of L&D, Tesla in the latest episode of our podcast – The Digital Adoption Show.

Beth has had quite the career path, starting off as a lawyer and then gradually moving into the HR and L&D field. She is a consultant, keynote speaker, and most recently has started her very own podcast –  Career Curves where she invites people who have had quite interesting career paths to talk about the challenges they faced, the decisions they had to make, and how they built solid careers and opportunities for themselves.

During our discussion with Beth, she talked quite at length about how companies should approach the delicate concept of digital transformation. She elaborated on the importance of putting people before technology, of discovering and innovating new methodologies to ensure seamless adoption of newer technologies.

For us, it was quite interesting to listen to Beth’s experience of being in the HR and L&D space over the years, her learnings, and how she mitigated the challenges that came her way.

Here’s the TL: DR version of our talk with Beth

  1. The concept of ‘invisible’ learning and development and it’s significance in today’s rapidly changing workplace
  2. The challenges with the introduction of new technologies and how larger enterprises have been streamlining digital adoption over the years.
  3. The importance of embedding a culture of innovation within your workforce
  4. How large enterprises like Tesla are shaping their training methodologies to suit different employee learning needs.

How HR and L&D Ensure digital transformation success by balancing people, process, and technology

Excerpts from the Podcast

Here is the transcript of the episode.

Why L&D and HR? Why did you actually choose that as a profession? 

I wanted to do something that was going to be more proactive, like helping other people. That attracted me to HR. I didn’t have any background or experience in HR at that point. And then the part of HR that allowed me to do that the most was learning and development. What I really discovered is that what I enjoy doing most, is empowering individuals. And so even in learning and development, I always excelled more when I was doing work that was individual-focused, as opposed to organizational focused, which is probably why my podcast right now is very focused on individuals and individual careers. But this idea of proactively helping other people is just been what drove me to HR and propelled me through my career.

What’s your take on the whole fresh perspectives and the change from the existing notions of HR and l&d?

 

Fresh perspectives are essential for HR. I’ve had a long career. 29 years. And I think what’s made me successful all those years, is making sure that I always keep my perspective fresh. Now, what do I mean by that? What I mean, is, I constantly ask myself, one question, and I’ve asked it throughout my career. And the question is, if HR or if learning and development were invented today, what would it look like? And the reason that it’s such an important question is that it forces me to think about the latest practices, the latest trends in the instructional design process and think about what’s happening in technology. It compels me to think about the way our business is changing and how it’s affecting our employees. I think about the modern learner and technology enabled solutions that differentiate from how we do things today to how we did them before.

I’ve been reading up on some of your blogs, and even listening to some of your speaking sessions. One common thread that stood out to me is about invisible learning and development. So why is that significant?

If learning and development were invented today, it wouldn’t be about a trainer standing in front of a room. It would be about those of us in learning and development really focusing a lot on infrastructure and tools, and how we’d go about creating an environment in our companies where everybody can be learning all of the time. It could mean that our roles in learning and development may be less visible than they were in the past. That’s the idea of invisible learning and development, where we’ve created the tools and infrastructure that enables people in an organization to keep learning continuously. And they may not even know that we’re the ones making that happen. But we are, and we have to just take confidence and take our own internal pride in knowing that we’re enabling that without necessarily having to be in the front of the room receiving applause. It’s critical right now that we’re using modern learning tools to enable learning across our organizations at the point of need, so people can get the help and answers when they need it. People in their jobs get stuck because more often than not, when they need an answer, or they need some new information they are unable to find it at the moment of their need. The more we enable people to find the right information right when they need, the more effective we will be in learning and development.

The more we enable people to find the right information precisely when they need it, the more effective we will be in learning and development.

You talked about how people adopt technologies. For any technology, there would be friction when it is newly introduced. How do you actually deal with that and is there a digital adoption strategy that you’ve been using over the years, to make sure that this is completely streamlined?

 

One of the biggest pieces of friction is that each person tends to think that what they experienced was the right thing. So they become very self-referential. For intance, if I say to a senior executive, I think we should look for managerial training, and that for such kind of training, we should look at some of the newest tools that are out there that allow people to use an app to both assess their skills and deliver training to them at a point of need. Now, it may be the latest and best answer, but the senior executive is going to say, well, 20 years ago, I went to a managerial training class. That’s what I did and so I think that’s what we should do today.

The problem, as you can see here  is that they’re not staying current in all of the latest trends. All they know is what their own experience was. And that’s tremendous friction for them and for us. So how do we convince them that these tools are actually going to create a better experience? That’s where we find ways to share what we’re learning with people. So that executives can see why you’re recommending this new way. For instance, we have to share with them the idea that the modern learner is asking for smaller bite-sized learning. The modern learner, even if they go to a multi-day class, is going to keep pulling out their phone and be distracted in a way that didn’t happen 20 years ago. This idea that people are very self-referential causes them to be stuck in the past, and can really get in our way for some digital adoption that we need to do.

 

What are those digital adoption practices that have stuck with you through all of these years?

The most important practice is that it has to be part of your culture. If you’ve got a culture of innovation, then you’re able to lean on that and say that it should apply in HR as well. And that becomes really just supercritical. The way you get that culture is it has to be embedded in everything you’re doing. It has to be in the stories you tell about the organization celebrating innovation, the things that you put on people’s performance reviews. When you’re evaluating performance, whether that’s ongoing, or once or twice a year, you need to be including it in there. The recognition of innovation and digital adoption, so that people see this is who we are, it’s what we value. It’s what we reward. It’s what we expect. It’s the stories we tell, so that way people understand why the company is moving into digital adoption.

The recognition of innovation and digital adoption allows people to see that it's what the organization values and expects. And it helps people understand why it is important going forward.

That actually brings me to your work at Tesla. You were in charge of the L&D at Tesla, from 2011 to 2017, where the workforce of Tesla grew from 1200 to 30,000. I’m sure there were a lot of things that you had to take care of with that sort of scaling up. So what was that experience like? What were the pillars for success for that?

 

I was in charge of learning and development. And what we really focused on first and foremost, was the culture of the company. So we recognized that when you’re bringing in that many people that quickly, the culture is really at risk, because everybody is going to come in thinking that what they did in the past was the way that they should operate in their new company. So we focused a lot on that early onboarding experience. And we focused that experience on the culture. We even looked at the culture in the recruiting process, and made sure we were bringing in employees who had the mindset that would allow them to be successful in our culture. And so what that meant from an onboarding perspective is that we, from day one would tell people stories about what it takes to be successful. We would use stories of success to illustrate what the values were, what we rewarded and what we knew led to success. So right off the bat, we focused on culture. And then the other thing that we did was, we would quickly pivot to whatever part of the organization was, at an inflection point in growth, so that we could get them to scale up quickly to meet the needs of the business. What I mean by that is, when I first came into the company, we were just starting to grow to manufacture. And so a lot of effort pivoted towards manufacturing. And we said, we’ve got to get that up and running. Because if that’s not up and running, nothing else is going to work. And so we would work on that and tried to understand what we need in manufacturing. What do we need for manufacturing, how can we help all of these people be successful. Once we had sorted that out, we could say, well, now that we’re making cars, what’s happening with the selling of cars, and once again, we would pivot, and then really focus on sales. We would ask ourselves what was it that we needed to do to help with sales. Oftentimes we would use the analogy of a vaudeville act where the performer is spinning plates on tall stakes and they get one plate on top of the stakes spinning, and then they put another one, and then another one, and then at some point, they’ve got to run back to the first one and get it spinning. Yeah. And that’s often how it felt. We got all these plates spinning in the air. But just because we’ve moved on to the next plate, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to run back periodically and give another spin to the first plate so that it stays in the air. But you know, it’s just juggling a lot of priorities.

So then, you know, there will be a lot of different teams that you’re training. So not the same kind of methodology is applicable to every single game, it has to be customized according to their work style and culture. Right. So what about those cases?

We always have to be thinking about our target audience first. The target audience across the company is going to be very different. One of the things that we noticed at Tesla, and I’ve seen it similarly at other tech companies, is that you end up with some big groups and big populations. So you end up say, with the technology teams, that’s one population with one set of unique needs. They also tend to be people who are tech-savvy, and tethered to their computers. Their ability to learn at a desk is going to be one profile, then another profile is of the people who are out in the field, whether it’s the salespeople or technicians. Those are people who may have a comfort with technology, but they aren’t frequently tethered to a desk. So now you’ve got to think about mobile technologies for them. Then you’ve got another population, which is manufacturing. They may be in a single location, like the factory floor, but they’re not attached to a computer. And frankly, they’re not even on their phones. So now what we need to be able to say is how do we reach these folks who may have used a computer or a Learning Station, only occasionally. And then, of course, the fourth group would be probably your general and accounting, so your support functions like HR and finance, which may be a little bit more likely tech savvy. But when you start to realize these different profiles and start to see that they really have different comfort levels with technology, different access to technology, and different needs, you really do have to design different solutions for them. So for instance, even though I was on the learning team, one of the projects that I was responsible for at Tesla was developing an employee app that allows access to information that otherwise would typically be found on our intranet. We realized that we were saying to them often, oh, you need information on this, or you need information on that. Go to one of the computers in the lunchroom? Well, that never worked. And so when we instead said, well, let’s create an app for them, a company-specific app, we actually found that they were happier because they had access to the information they needed, at the point of need, which again, is invisible learning and development.

So what are your favorite books that you would recommend to all who are listening to this podcast?

I probably would say I like books like The Truth About Managing People, which are simple, reads, gives practical advice that anybody can use even if they’re not a manager because it’s about, you know, just interacting with people.

There are a lot of new technology aids to L&D and HR which is coming up. So what are the ones that you’re really rooting for?

I’ve been a big fan of Degreed for a number of years because I think they really support learning across the organization in a real modern way. And the reason I say that is that people are learning from books, articles, videos, courses, online courses, and Degreed is a way that pulls that all together. So I’m a big fan of degreed and I also like where they’re heading around skills certification. And then I’m also really excited by some of the companies that are trying to create different apps about manager development and putting it in the palms of people’s hands.

 

We had Kelly Palmer, who’s the CEO of Degreed on the other episode of the podcast and you know, it’s it ties up pretty well. So as an influencer in the space, I’m sure there are many who you look up to as well. Who are they?

 

Good to hear you had an episode of the Digital Adoption Show with Kelly Palmer. She is definitely on my list of influencers. There’s also a gentleman named Todd Tauber from Degreed, who does a fair amount of research and writing. And I think he’s pretty interesting. And also Josh Bersin, he’s doing excellent work. What I love about Josh’s work is he does a lot where he takes a longitudinal view, where he paints for us where we’ve been and where we’re going. And I think that that is oftentimes really helpful. So that organizations can look at his work and even say, you know, where are they in the evolution. So I love his work. And then I think there’s also some really interesting work coming out of an organization recently started by Dani Johnson called RedThread research. So Dani, and Stacie Sherman, the cofounder have created RedThread research. And I think they’re doing some interesting work. And I’m excited by what’s going to be coming from them as they continue to grow.

 

What is the one word or phrase that comes to mind when I say digital transformation and adoption,

 

People plus technology that’s my phrase. And it’s not even such a bad idea that the word people comes first. Because I think sometimes with digital transformation and digital adoption, we get really excited by the technology. We work on it, we develop it. And then it at the end, we say all right now how do we get people to adopt it? And now we start at the end to think about people. And the transformation, the technology is only going to work if people adopt it. So people plus technology is the answer. And think about people from the start.

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