Connecting people to information and opportunities to develop professionally is a value that is deeply interwoven into Thomson Reuters Corp.’s vision for the future, said Michele Isaacs, vice president and global head of learning and development for the company.
For an organization in the answers business, continuous learning is an imperative. Thomson Reuters is a mass media and information firm that employs roughly 45,000 people in 80 countries. The company’s internal social platform provides one example of this continuous learning. On it, employees can find other opportunities based on their skills and other factors. There are discussion forums and blogs, and as employees interact, they learn.
For example, in one post, a business unit president recently returned from vacation wrote about the books he read during his time away. He asked others to join the conversation about what they’d read on their time off. The entry elicited close to 1,000 posts.
“It was just a very distributed, very global conversation around what people were learning and what they were reading,” Isaacs said of the engagement. “There’s a part of me that’s like ‘Let’s not get in the way of that learning experience, but let’s help people understand that is a learning experience.’ The extent to which they can take something from that, understand the implication of it and apply it — that’s how learning happens in this organization — from and with and through people and experience.”
Over the past 25 or so years, Isaacs has worked in learning and development as well as in broader talent management roles. She said her career thought process was: Sometimes in one’s career, a person wants to make an impact on everything. Then, “There are some times when you just really want to go deep and solve some capability constraints that an organization has.”
For the past four years at Thomson Reuters, Isaacs chose the latter.
Her learning organization includes roughly 300 professionals around the world, and Isaacs leads a team of 30 employees in the company’s New York headquarters where they direct the corporate learning function. There are smaller learning teams based within business units or regions with specific functional objectives but beginning last year, Isaacs said she has been guiding the disparate departments toward a more unified organization with agreed upon standards, a learning philosophy, a framework for the technology platforms used and a vision for their own professional learning and development.
Vera Vitels, senior vice president for talent and development at Thomson Reuters, said the company has a clear growth strategy toward 2020. She said business leaders see opportunities where learning can bolster the company’s ability to compete in high growth-oriented markets. “We have the right energy from our executive leadership,” she explained. “We have the right investment. We have the right thought leadership from Michele and her team.”
Isaacs said Thomson Reuters’ strategy is built around its customers in industries like finance, law and government, delivering the best experiences, products and services it can to them. This has two implications for learning: looking at what capabilities the company’s vision requires of employees and how those skills can be built in a fast and meaningful way; and workforce development. Just as Thomson Reuters has its external customers’ experiences to consider, its learning and development organization is concerned about training experiences for its own customers — the company’s employees.
Isaacs thinks about how her team can help learners have a better learning experience. She said industrywide there’s still a gap between how people learn and how organizations support learning. “There’s certainly a tradition as you think about work and how it happens and frankly, how we’re brought up in the school system.”
With employees spread around the globe, relying on a traditional learning model where an instructor lectures a class full of people is unrealistic, and best practices show it’s not effective. Everything a person might need to learn is now in their back pocket, Isaacs said. This makes her question the role of the learning function in an organization and its movement from content creation to content curation. “Connecting people to information rather than sort of opening their heads and dumping information in — that’s the transition a lot of learning leaders are making.”
Isaacs said she seeks to strike a balance between getting out of learners’ way and delivering the formal learning experiences needed to help people do their jobs. A team of learning professionals from across the company works to stay attuned to employees’ learner experiences. Employees are the department’s customers, she said. Ultimately, meeting business goals requires making sure the customers’ experience with learning products and programs is engaging but also unencumbered.
To grow the capabilities the company needs to compete in the future, Isaacs and her team work closely with business leaders to understand their strategy, understand the skills the business units have in great supply and identify the critical areas where they are lacking. From there, Isaacs’ team uses its resources and expertise to design solutions that address the disparities.
Isaacs said Thomson Reuters emphasizes developing managers and leaders. The learning organization uses formal and informal programs to communicate what is expected from these leaders, what their role is and how they can be successful. The Management at Thomson Reuters program starts with a summit where people come together in person or virtually for a daylong session. They learn about their role, how it benefits the customers and company, and how it ties to the company’s values and the company’s strategy. During the summit, managers spend time exploring expectations, and they can attend 90-minute skill sessions to boost their performance. Sessions cover topics like giving feedback, coaching and setting goals, having difficult conversations and unconscious bias.
To supplement this programming, leaders have “booster sessions” where they continue conversations with their peers about things they’ve learned or challenges they’ve encountered via online discussion groups. Isaacs said the boosters are self-directed. A manager or other leader will volunteer to host a session, and Isaacs’ team assists them in setting up the engagement. The leaders guide the conversation, creating a community where people share experiences and strategies, and learn from one another.
Isaacs said the booster sessions grew out of an experiment the learning organization ran a couple of years ago. “We thought, ‘Who knows if people will take their own time to get together with their peers and find out what they do.’”
A key program component is its accountability loop, in which all managers, as part of their performance management process, participate in a manager effectiveness survey. At the end of the year, direct reports answer seven questions about their manager based on seven behaviors for which the leader was receiving development support.
Isaacs’ team measures the impact of the program by analyzing that data as well by looking at managers’ productivity, performance, engagement and attrition numbers. In addition to getting feedback from direct reports, the learning team talks to the managers as well as their bosses. “We find that if people go through Management at Thomson Reuters, their scores will improve from year to year,” said Isaacs, who also discovered that high performing managers who participated in the training saw their scores neither increase nor decrease. She said the finding underscores the point that everyone doesn’t need training or to be painted the same color. “But you need to have access to the ability to develop your skills when you have a need.”
Vitels said Isaacs has introduced rigor and discipline around measuring her work’s effectiveness. For AMaTR — Advanced Management at Thomson Reuters — a program for experienced managers, Vitels said Isaacs’ team created profile studies on what participants took away from the training and applied on the job. They looked at productivity increases, revenue increases, cost reduction and cost savings to monetize the overall impact. The verdict, Vitels said for every dollar invested in AMaTR, the business gets $2.48 in value in return.
Being able to quantify how well learning initiatives work is crucial, Isaacs said. “If the company is investing in people as heavily as it is, I’m the steward of that investment, and I need to be held accountable for that,” she explained.
Thomson Reuters acquired several companies since its most significant and publicized transaction — when Thomson Corp. acquired Reuters Group PLC in 2008. Isaacs wasn’t with the company then, but she said a shared value for learning among the parties involved has only helped her work leading Thomson Reuters’ learning and development strategy.
“When Thomson acquired Reuters, both had strong histories around learning and both believed in the power of learning,” she explained. “There’s a real strong belief that this is a place where people can grow and develop their careers.” With that as a center, for Isaacs, every day brings learning, experimentation and of course, application. Did it work? Yes? No? Wash, analyze, rinse and repeat.
While studying psychology at the State University of New York at Geneseo, she stumbled into a discussion about the psychology and motivation of workers: the thinking behind large groups of people in organizations, how an organization works with the people within it and how that ultimately leads to the organization’s success and customer success. Isaacs’ interest prompted her to seek out a professor doing work in this area. She assisted him with research and went on to pursue a master’s of science in organizational development at Johns Hopkins University.
Having spent time working in a psychiatric environment, which she said she found difficult, organizational psychology and development offered something the Buffalo, New York, native saw she could do for a living. It had everything she liked: Learning, what that meant for a work setting, and its implications on a large scale — all with the psychological bent that she found so interesting.
“I’ve always been the kind of person who’s got a couple of ideas kind of roaming around either waiting to be proven or disproved,” Isaacs said.
That kind of curiosity about the world and a willingness to make connections in new ways will increasingly be an imperative for learning leaders charged with helping their companies grow and compete.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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