Nick van Dam: "Video is the killer app for workplace learning"

28 Sep 2019 By Jeremy Hazlehurst

The L&D expert says the future is about reskilling employees – and that means we must rethink how we use technology

It’s widely acknowledged that the key to meeting the future needs of our economies and societies is being able to retrain and reskill the workforce. That sounds relatively straightforward, but it’s proving an insurmountable concept to grasp and is asking profound questions not just of individuals and policymakers, but businesses too. How do they encourage employees to take control of their learning to future-proof themselves? And what is the balance of investing in development vs technology and recruitment as the economy shifts even more rapidly?

Few experts are better versed in grappling with these issues than Nick van Dam. Formerly chief learning officer at McKinsey – the powerful and profitable management consultancy whose ideas have reshaped both the public and private sectors – he is now teaching learning and development leadership at IE Business School in Madrid. People Management caught up with him in the Spanish sunshine to talk learning mindsets, immersive experiences and weathering Brexit.

How do economic changes affect how we should view the role of learning in corporate environments?

Over the next five to 10 years there will be significant shifts in terms of the work that needs to be done, what will be done by humans and what will be done by machines. The upshot is that everyone needs to be upskilled or reskilled. 

Globally, the average employee does 36 hours of formal learning a year. Increasing that might help, but it’s not the answer. Instead, we need to turn the workplace into a learning place. Two-thirds of people say they learn nothing or hardly anything in their job. 

Organisations like consultants, tech firms and big start-ups have learning on the job in their DNA, but in traditional corporate businesses people are still locked into a role with specific tasks. We need to redesign how people work. 

What can HR and L&D professionals do to aid that shift?

It’s about creating a ‘learning for all’ culture. Many HR leaders run talent programmes for high-potential employees, which means more than 95 per cent of people are left behind. The people development philosophy should be to develop everybody. That means more than acquiring a digital learning catalogue with 10,000 learning units and telling people they can take any course. Very few do. Instead, we have to develop lifelong learning mindsets. 

But just as you can’t say ‘be more innovative’ and expect people to innovate, you can’t just say ‘adopt a lifelong learning attitude’. You have to give people an incentive, especially because those with lower education levels are often not thrilled by the notion of going back to school. It’s far more effective to say ‘are you interested in retiring when you choose to and being financially secure?’ And ‘if you want to stay long-term employable, the big thing is to continue learning’. Shifting the storyline can change mindsets.

That sounds like a major undertaking for L&D.

L&D must win leadership support to do the things I’m talking about: create a learning culture for all, work out how to turn the workplace into a learning place, address people’s learning mindsets and work out how to use big data analytics and technology to do so. Organisations will only have successful digital transformations if we have digital-savvy leaders. Also, if we don’t train them, a lot of people won’t have the skills for the future. The 36 hours [of learning] won’t solve these problems.  

In the context of lifelong learning, does the 70:20:10 model continue to make sense? 

I always reframe it as a 90:10 model anyway, because the 20 per cent coaching or mentoring happens on the job. So 10 per cent is formal learning and 90 per cent is informal learning. The danger is that organisations focus on the 10 per cent and hope people figure out the rest. L&D and HR need to design the 90 per cent as well. 

A good example is Microsoft, where, instead of waiting for a leader to give them feedback, people are trained in formal programmes to ask their leader: “How did I do? What can I do better next time?” It’s learning by design. 

Is the discussion about the different learning styles of different generations overhyped, or does it resonate with you?

Some of it is stereotyping and generalising, because people are very different. Millennials range from 27 to their late 30s. They can be at different lifestages with different expectations about work. And a 22-year-old gen Z may be more savvy with technology than someone in their 50s, but does that mean people in their 50s can’t work with technology? No. 

It’s true that we teach differently now, but not because young people have changed; it’s because we know a lot more about learning. Having people in a lecture room for five days doesn’t produce results, but five days in an immersive learning experience does.

What digital tools are effective in delivering learning? Do virtual reality or augmented reality, for example, genuinely work?

They will have a role in very specific circumstances – you can walk a team round a plant using VR, instead of flying them there. But video is the killer app when it comes to education, and video on a smartphone especially. It can be used for storytelling, and we know people learn from stories. It can be used for instruction, walking someone through how to do something, you can have interviews – and you can do it all in one or two minutes. 

That said, it’s not just a matter of grabbing your iPhone and recording someone. You need to think about what you want to achieve. It needs to be very focused, relevant and engaging. 

Do you worry about our commitment to learning in the face of economic challenges, particularly Brexit in the UK?

A venture capitalist friend of mine says he invests in people, not plans, because the moment the ink dries the business plan changes. In fast-changing environments, it’s all about having the right leaders, the right mindset, the right talents who supplement each other, and the right capabilities. That’s what makes for success. 

In terms of productivity, employee engagement is vital. When people are not engaged, it has a huge negative impact on productivity. And we know learning has a huge positive impact on engagement levels; people feel more appreciated and valued, and are therefore more willing to put in the hours. And ultimately, they are more successful. 

HR Case Team Lead (FTC - 12 month maternity cover)

HR Case Team Lead (FTC - 12 month maternity cover)

Leatherhead, Surrey

A competitive remuneration package


Temporary ER Advisors & Senior Advisors

Temporary ER Advisors & Senior Advisors

Birmingham, England

£14.00 - £20.00 per hour


Head of Reward

Head of Reward

Surrey, England

Up to £80000 per annum + bonus


View More Jobs

Explore related articles