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Learning and Development at IBM: A Q&A

A man and woman talking in an office.

How do you find people with the skills you need for today and the jobs of the future? In a commercial that is now airing on major networks, Society for Human Resource Management President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, talks with IBM Chairman, President and CEO Ginni Rometty about how HR can drive a culture of skill-building. 

IBM is taking a multipronged approach to closing the skills gap and growing employees' skills, using tactics that include the development of in-house academies and the launch of a high-tech apprenticeship coalition with the Consumer Technology Association. 

The coalition is modeled in part on IBM's own Department of Labor-registered apprenticeship program, begun two years ago.

Recently, SHRM Online spoke with IBM's Deb Bubb, HR vice president and chief leadership, learning and inclusion officer, about the company's learning and development initiatives.   

The following comments have been edited for brevity and clarity and to include additional information that IBM provided to SHRM Online after the interview.

SHRM Online: You said during a recent panel that IBM was "shifting [its] thinking about reskilling." Please elaborate.

Bubb: We hire for learning agility, and we're trying to move from episodic learning to a culture of continuous learning. We have personalized learning journeys that come through our Your Learning platform, an AI-driven digital learning experience that can include immersive experiences. Folks can identify "hot skills"—artificial intelligence, design thinking, security, blockchain, project management—they might like to build toward for a future career.

We have 45,000 employee users daily on Your Learning, and 98 percent of all IBM employees use it each quarter. The platform includes videos, webinars, online lectures and articles, and it offers recommendations to employees based on their role, experience level and interests. It also offers learning in "success skills," such as leadership, mindfulness and business acumen.

We have a digital badge program. To date, more than 1 million badge certifications have been earned—many in AI. 

IBM also has various academies. Last year, for example, we launched the AI Skills Academy for employees to help them learn new ways to interact with AI-enabled tech and business problems that range from creating marketing apps to making a supply chain more efficient. That academy also helps employees understand AI tech and how it impacts their careers and the company.

SHRM Online: In 2018, IBM offered a new onboarding process but learned that new employees were less than impressed with it. How did IBM respond, and what was HR's role?

Bubb: Our big insight was to put the employee experience at the center of onboarding. It involves cross-functional work, IT resources, mobility experiences, legal and compliance. It's a very integrated experience. If each of those groups is evaluated on success alone, they may find they are executing the process well, but the employees may have 10 different experiences from 10 different departments. By shifting our lens, we were able to see gaps in the onboarding experience that were not visible to us before. We learned that people don't want to wait until they start the job to learn about the company. They want information as soon as they say yes to the job offer. 

We try to create onboarding experiences as much in advance as possible so new employees are focused on building personal experiences. We rely on lots of direct observation, design thinking and an empathy map to understand the pain points of onboarding: What are they hearing? What are they feeling, thinking about their user experience? 

"Good enough and getting better" is what we shoot for. Waiting until the process is perfect is too late.  

SHRM Online: I understand that IBM reached out to its employees to get their help in designing the learning processes and platforms. Please tell us how IBM did this. Did you use teams, surveys, other methods? 

Bubb: We engage with many constituencies. Among those we reached out to was our Millennial business resource group (BRG)—we have very rich BRGs—to provide feedback and test products and solutions. The same is true for our manager champions and sponsored users. We'll engage with them, show them prototypes to help us get a product out the door and ask the question, "What's the experience we're trying to create?" Our entire learning platform was defined in this way. 

SHRM Online: Is IBM involved with community colleges, universities and high schools in helping to create a skills curriculum, and does the curriculum use apprenticeship programs? 

Bubb: IBM started P-Tech, a public-private partnership that will serve 125,000 students this year in 13 countries and across at least 10 states. It allows underserved students to earn, at no cost, an associate degree in six years in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. 

We co-created the curriculum and have internships and mentorships for the students. The partnership has grown to more than 550 businesses that have joined us to design a new talent acquisition channel for different kinds of employees and to create more inclusion in technology.

We work with 19 community colleges, and that partnership includes IBM providing curriculum reviews and in-class subject matter experts.
Apprenticeships have been a huge focus since we launched our registered program. We're scaling it and have apprentices in 24 different roles, including HR, data science, software development and mainframe administration. These are roles that are critical to our business. Our apprentices are a mix of adults switching careers and people just out of school. 

My mother has her own reskilling story. She spent the first part of her career in teaching and sales and went back to school to become a network engineer.

SHRM Online: Please tell us about how learning and development informed your own career progression and trajectory.

Bubb: My career was influenced by saying yes to opportunities and being very experience- driven, and it was complemented by my education and learning experiences.

After getting my undergraduate degree, I attended law school for one year then took a break from school and worked for a small startup, where I was an HR department of one.

I had great mentors and coaches and took a lot of certification programs at community colleges to learn the basics of HR. I used my social work background, which had an emphasis on team development, to serve as a consultant working with individuals and families. I also worked with employers on transforming their teams and creating healthy workplaces.  

I returned to HR, working in employee relations, and gained a good foundation and depth in that specialty. My social work experience helped me look systemically at where opportunities and challenges were for employees, and I partnered with leaders to build stronger organizations. Along the way I strengthened my organizational development background. I eventually took a rotational assignment in operational HR, working in customer care call centers for two years. At Intel, I helped build a leadership culture and worked on CEO succession planning and leadership development. 

The solution to greater innovation, agility and full inclusion comes down to our ability to provide compelling learning that inspires lifelong skills. For HR and employers, this is our moment.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Using Government and Other Resources for Employment and Training Programs]

Bubb received her bachelor's degree in psychology from Stanford University in 1989 and returned to college five years later, earning her master's degree in social work from Smith College in Northampton, Mass. 

Bubb worked in HR for three years before moving into corporate HR as an organization development manager for Intel in Portland, Ore. She worked there for 15 years and was its vice president and director of global leadership and learning before joining IBM in 2016. 


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