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Crowdsource Your Employees Before Investing in Learning and Development

A boeing sign in front of a building.

You want to invest in learning and development (L&D) that resonates with your employees? Ask your employees for ideas.

That's what Boeing did, crowdsourcing and surveying its 141,322 employees. They weighed in on the voluntary poll with more than 40,000 ideas about how the world's largest aerospace company should invest the $100 million it had pledged toward a workforce development program.

The Chicago-based company e-mailed a customized survey to workers and made it available on branded iPad "idea stations" set up in its factories around the world. It also offered managers the option of polling their teams and recording responses on their team members' behalf. Employees voted on four categories of L&D investments

Improving technical development programs received the highest number of votes, followed by reskilling for jobs affected by technology disruption; providing modern, accessible learning; and offering support for the first level of managers at Boeing. Results were provided in real time during the survey period to encourage employee participation.

Employees also could submit ideas for other ways to invest in L&D. Suggestions included increased work-swap and rotation programs, new tools and software, rapid prototyping, and enhanced options for continuing education. The company's first new educational offering is an online network of resources focused on areas the employees identified.

"A majority of our learning programs were instructor-led or required training" and took more traditional forms, said Bethany Tate Cornell, vice president of leadership, learning and organizational capability at Boeing. The company already had invested more than $1.5 billion in tuition assistance and has the Boeing Leadership Center near St. Louis for aspiring leaders.  

However, "we knew that our learning approaches needed to change and become faster," Cornell told SHRM Online in an e-mail. Her department is the primary steward of learning at Boeing and helps develop learning strategies for the entire company. The company wanted options that accommodated individual learning, she noted, so employees could gain skills for today and the future. 

"The online offerings will make learning more accessible to employees at all levels of the company."

Boeing is partnering with, an education technology company with offices in the U.S. and the Netherlands, to make learning more accessible to employees at all levels of the company. Workers can access online lessons, certification courses and degree programs. Employees also will have opportunities to enhance their technical skills and understand industry trends and tools.

[SHRM members-only policy: Professional Development: Professional training, certification and membership policy]

What Boeing is doing demonstrates a sizeable investment and commitment to developing its employees, said Mike McGowan, managing director and practice leader, leadership and talent, for BPI Group in Chicago. The HR company is headquartered in Paris.

Crowdsourcing employees for L&D ideas is unusual, he acknowledged, noting that many companies mistakenly leave the decision on format and content to a few people in the organization. 

"Unfortunately [that training] often goes to waste because the people don't use it. The people don't adopt it because they don't see the value in it, or it might be too time-consuming" to use. "Boeing did the complete opposite," McGowan said, likening its approach to market research. He thinks the result will meet users' needs.

While crowdsourcing might generate ideas that are not feasible or that don't make sense from a company perspective, he noted, it goes straight to the end-user to find out what employees want and need to develop their skills. He offered the following recommendations for organizations wanting to emulate Boeing:

Seek ideas from the people who will use the training. Make sure whatever program or technology that is put in place meets the end-user's needs. McGowan recommended asking workers about the types of training they would find meaningful and useful.

Keep the personal connection. "A lot of companies fall in love with technology but … the [personal] connection part is often missing with just a tech-based [training] solution. There is no substitute for in-person learning," McGowan said.

Many companies with corporate universities are moving to a decentralized L&D approach, he said, by using local sites for in-person training. This allows employees to make personal connections during group mentoring and coaching sessions, some of which can be done virtually and in person.

"There are still many different tactics to build that connective part of learning without flying everyone all over the world" to global headquarters.

Make sure training aligns with the organization's strategy. McGowan noted that in the past companies traditionally focused their time, effort and money on business strategies, but those strategies have had a high failure rate because organizations didn't account for developing the employees who would execute those strategies.

He called Boeing's approach to L&D a best practice because it sought out employee feedback on the content and form of training they want.

"It would be great for other large and small companies to follow a similar approach." 


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