TJ interviews: Degreed’s Todd Tauber

We talk to Todd Tauber about his work at Degreed and the future of corporate learning.

Reading time: 5m 30s.

Tell us about your talk at Iventiv.

At iVentiv’s Learning Futures event, which was held in April at Shell’s UK headquarters, I presented brand new research on how the workforce learns.

The research, which Degreed did in partnership with Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning unit, is unique in that it focuses specifically on the anthropology of learning — the collective behaviours, habits and values that shape how frontline employees, line managers, business and functional leaders, and even C-suite executives build the skills they, and their companies, need.

This perspective — what people actually do and don’t do, and how they make those decisions — is too often missing from L&D.

In fact, during the talk we asked the attendees, more than 30 learning and development leaders from some of the biggest and most innovative businesses in Europe, which disciplines had a strong influence over their strategies. Anthropology was dead last, behind psychology, neuroscience, economics, and even data science, which is a much more recent development for the L&D function.

We talk vaguely about impact and obsess over ROI, which has nothing to do with business performance. 

The reason this is so important is that so much of people’s learning and development happens outside of online courses and instructor-led classes. In fact, our data says only 43% or 44% of people took any classes or courses at all last year, and those who did only took one every three or four months at most.

Everyone knows this. And yet, in spite of all the talk of ‘design thinking’ and ‘curating’ and ‘marketing’, the vast majority of L&D processes, systems, tools — even jobs — are still optimized for creating and delivering classes and courses.

Think about that. How much can we really impact people’s performance, business results, employee experience, or even learning culture, if we only reach four out of every 10 people, and we only connect with those people a few times a year? Not enough. 

What are the major breakthroughs in corporate learning likely to be this year?

If I had to pick just one thing to focus on, its this idea of putting learning in the flow of work. There is a lot of energy and activity going into figuring this out.

Right now, most of those conversations are focused, superficially I think, on how to insert learning content into the software people use to do their jobs. It’s a nice idea, and it might actually be useful to a lot of people.

Around one-third of the people we surveyed with Harvard Business Publishing, for example, said they would find it ‘extremely useful’ to access learning content inside productivity applications like Word, Excel or PowerPoint. But more than a quarter also said that would be useless to them.

The numbers were less encouraging when we asked about job-specific apps like Salesforce or Jira (a tool for IT people), messaging or collaboration tools like Slack or Yammer, and especially HR systems like ServiceNow.


People are already overloaded and distracted. They just want to use their work tools to get work done. Meanwhile, L&D teams seem determined to give them learning everywhere, whether they want it or not. But just imagine those old pop-up advertisements all over your spreadsheet. If it’s not done thoughtfully, it’s irrelevant, or worse, an interruption.

There are exceptions, of course. One of the attendees at the iVentiv event told us about how she had quickly trained up thousands of seasonal food service workers using 20-second videos delivered on-the-job via WhatsApp. 

How can you ensure learning strategy improves business performance?

It starts with alignment, of course. However, that’s much easier said than done. Every CLO will tell you their learning strategy flows from their business strategies and priorities. But they don’t necessarily share the same goals.

L&D teams rarely measure their progress toward or impact on operational metrics, for example. Instead, we talk vaguely about impact and obsess over ROI, which has nothing to do with business performance. It’s a financial metric that tells you how you did, not where you’re going.

The success of L&D strategies is rarely being measured against progress toward business goals or metrics. Meanwhile, managers aren’t really giving their people guidance or feedback on their performance or what skills they should be working on, so instead individuals are learning what’s most important to them (which may not align with what the business needs). 

And they’re doing it mainly without the resources provided by their L&D teams, which means L&D teams not only have limited impact, they also have little visibility.

You want to ensure learning strategy improves business performance? Focus on those three things: Build the skills that matter. Get managers more involved. And find more relevant and consistent ways to connect the workforce to L&D.

Is this the year of VR in learning, and if not this year, when?

There is definitely a lot of interest in VR (and augmented reality) right now. But aside from a handful of high profile deployments, like Walmart’s, I don’t see much large-scale usage happening yet.

What I keep hearing is that it’s still too technically demanding or too expensive for widespread use. It’s not part of the mainstream training and development efforts. Most of the others are still just exploring, if they’re doing anything at all.

So no, I don’t think this is the year. Not yet. Far more people are working on APIs and analytics right now. In fact, there’s some shiny new technology every year. Last year, everyone was obsessed with user generated content, xAPI and AI. Before that, it was mobile, social, and video.


My point here is that all these technologies are just tools. But just because they’re cool, doesn’t mean they’re useful for everyone. And just because something is possible, doesn’t mean it’s practical. Adoption happens when new solutions fill a need better, faster or cheaper than what’s already there. VR is doing that in some settings, but it’s still very early.

What is next on the agenda for Degreed to meet the needs of the corporate learning world?

Degreed’s strategy is to help people and businesses identify and close the gaps between the skills they have and the ones they need to do their jobs, or to stay ready for whatever’s next.

We started by aggregating and curating content, but we’ve been investing heavily in data science and engineering — both to personalise the user’s learning experience based on things like their role, interests or goals, and to automate critical administrative tasks like auto-tagging content.

That work has led us to some exciting new possibilities, too. For example, we’ve developed a proprietary, dynamic taxonomy of skills that’s connected to job roles as well as learning content. Our clients can already use that to generate and customise a development plan based only on a job title in as little as a few seconds. Imagine if everyone could have a personal learning plan.

We have also put a lot of work into creating an extensive tool-kit for measuring people’s skill-sets. We’ve been beta-testing those with clients for nearly two years, and now we are putting all their feedback to work to improve the speed, accuracy and usability of all that data — for example, to bring more transparency and fluidity to internal career mobility and performance management.

So stay tuned. There’s a lot more where that came from.


About the interviewee

Todd Tauber is VP of product market at Degreed.


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