Job skills training is critical to both workers and employers. Workers need the right skills to grow their current career or start a new one. Employers need to build a workforce with the skills to help the organization succeed.

Prior to Covid-19, many organizations and workers were already grappling with how to adjust their training plans and programs to fit an increasingly remote workforce. The rapid increase in remote work during the pandemic accelerated those efforts. And as we come out of the pandemic, many companies are making remote work policies permanent or adopting a hybrid work model (with employees splitting their time between an office and their homes). In this new work-from-anywhere world, employers and employees are rethinking both the types of job skills that are important and their approach to learning them.

In late April, Salesforce released Salesforce Learning Paths, a new tool to help companies adapt to these changes. Originally released in beta as In-App Learning with Trailhead, the system is designed to let workers access personalized, contextual learning directly from within Salesforce while performing their daily tasks.

I spoke with Heather Conklin, SVP and GM of Trailhead at Salesforce not long after Learning Paths was released to learn how the company has adjusted its online learning platform to meet these changes. Conklin also shared what Salesforce has heard from its customers about how they are reskilling their workforces and the overall workplace learning trends the company is seeing. The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability.

SEE: Streamlining the employee training process (TechRepublic)

Salesforce Learning Paths

Bill Detwiler: So, Salesforce has made a new announcement about Trailhead. Tell me a little bit about what you’re announcing, and then what is Salesforce Learning Paths?

Heather Conklin, SVP & GM of Trailhead at Salesforce
Image: Salesforce

Heather Conklin: Yes. So, today we have announced Salesforce Learning Paths, and it’s really bringing all of the magic of Trailhead directly into Salesforce. And, I know you’re a big Trailhead fan, and so many of our customers and people are. And so, what we’re really doing is bringing learning directly into the flow of work. So people can be, if you’re a sales rep working your opportunities, or you’re a service agent handling customer service calls, you don’t need to go anywhere else to skill up and get the info you need to do your job well, you can get it all right there, just in time as you’re working.

Bill Detwiler: Originally, I think Trailhead was aimed at engineers and admins to help them get the information that they need to build Salesforce applications, and integrations and do all that stuff. And, it’s really interesting to see this evolution over time of the platform would be used for other types of trainings. Was this kind of just a natural part of that process?

Heather Conklin: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve really been thinking a lot over the years about career paths on Trailhead. And like you said, we started with admins and developers, but that quickly, we realized that the success there can be translated to so many other types of career paths. And so, we will have 10 different career paths actually on Trailhead this year. And so, we are really just adding new things all the time and it’s helping people whether, again, you’re in a sales job, a service job, data analysts, business analysts. We’re really just trying to find different ways to help people continually skill up and get ready for their next jobs, their next gigs. And, we’ve seen a ton of success with it as well. We did a study last year where we found that 50% of learners on Trailhead say that, “Trailhead learning has helped them get a promotion or a raise at their company.” And so, we’re just really excited about the results. We’ve seen a lot of success from that as well.

SEE: 3 ways to help employees learn new skills (TechRepublic)

Covid-19 pushed more people to embrace online learning

Bill Detwiler: Well, let’s dive down into some of those trends that you were kind of talking about. Last year, of course, the world was dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. What were some of the trends that you were seeing taking place during that time period?

Heather Conklin: Well, everything changed overnight and we knew that everybody was sent home. People are working from their kitchens, from their bedrooms now, and that really means that people need new skills, and new ways of learning and being effective at their jobs. And so, when the pandemic hit, we actually saw a 40% increase in sign-ups of people wanting to come and learn on Trailhead. And, we saw a 50% increase in engagement on Trailhead as well. So, new people and just more learning happening. And we think with things like Salesforce Learning Paths, we’re only going to see that accelerate, because again, now this learning is directly where people are working, and so they can take advantage of it in the moment when they need it most, and immediately become more skilled and better at their jobs.

Salesforce Learning Paths home screen
Image: Salesforce

Remote work makes learning soft skills more important than ever

Bill Detwiler: Well, let’s expand on that too, because as we start to shift from the lockdown phase of the pandemic into, I don’t say post pandemic, or the new normal, those cliches that you hear all the time. But the pandemic was an inflection point in some ways, from all the people that I talked to in this area around work and the nature of work. And, we’ve written about that a lot and how we are moving to a time when hybrid work, remote work is going to be much more normal than it was in the past.

I mean, there are people I know that have been working remotely for a decade or more. But it seems the pandemic and the lockdowns, when suddenly everyone had to go remote, has maybe made it a more, I won’t say palatable, but just brought it to the forefront and showed how companies can still be productive. And they can actually, there’re some benefits to having an expanded environment or expanded remote workforce, because it allows you to recruit from a larger talent pool. So, what are some of those learning trends that you’ve seen more broadly around remote and hybrid work?

Heather Conklin: Yeah. I mean, we’re talking to companies all the time and our customers, we’re hearing a lot of similar things. And I would break it down into, there’s kind of three different categories of this, if you think about it. You’ve got individual people who are in their homes now working, again, taking those customer service calls from their kitchen table and that kind of thing. And, they’re trying to find ways to keep their learning going, keep their skills going, be effective in that new environment. There’s a lot of talk about how hybrid work really means that you need a lot more hybrid skills. The idea of soft skills being really critically important to success here. So you have the individuals, that’s the first bucket. The second one is managers, managers are trying to figure out how do they keep their teams engaged, and productive and effective at their jobs.

Salesforce Learning Paths: Learning Path examples
Image: Salesforce

And, gone are the days of where you’re going to pull everyone into a conference room and show them some PowerPoints to help them understand what’s going on. And so, we really need to rethink about how are we engaging our employees? How are we getting them skilled on the latest information, keeping them up to date. And then, the last bucket is companies. Companies have had to, obviously completely pivot to digital overnight with the pandemic. And, it has accelerated digital transformation in a way that we really just haven’t seen before.

And so, companies are trying to figure out how do they take their whole businesses, digital first and connect with our customers in completely different ways than they ever have before. And that in and of itself, requires a whole new set of skills. And, we’ve been calling those the digital skills. There’s a pretty big gap between where companies are wanting to go and some of the skills that they actually have within their companies today. So, we’ve talked a lot about how can companies think about scaling people up to make them able to keep up with the rapid pace of technology, with the new ways of working, with the new expectations of our customers in this all digital world. And so, really just seeing on all levels, there’s a real focus on, new way of work means that people need new skills and new ways to learn those skills as well.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

People want to learn in small chunks, not all-day sessions

Bill Detwiler: Well, I think that’s really important, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe hit a little more on what you’re hearing from your customers about that reskilling. Because, you bring up a very good point in that, those old skills of working in a face-to-face environment might be different than working in a digital environment where the planning is different, where the communication medium is different. And, it’s going to take time, I think like you said, for employers to make that transition. What are you hearing from those customers about that reskilling process? What types of tools are they looking to use? Like, I mean, obviously we’re talking about Trailhead being one of those tools, but even within that platform, there’s got to be unique types of training that they’re really looking at to be effective in reskilling that workforce.

Heather Conklin: Yeah. So a couple of things on this. We’re really finding, again, that people prefer just-in-time sorts of learning. And so, we did a study and found that 76% of people prefer to learn in small moments rather than in these big, long training sessions that we probably normally think of when we think of workforce training. And also, people have said that it’s easier, 80% of people say, “It’s easier to retain information when they learn it on the job.” So, we’re hearing a lot about things like experiential learning, and the idea that bringing learning into the flow of work is really so critical. And, that’s why we are moving in this direction with Salesforce Learning Paths. But, if we take a step back from that, those are really the people who are, we’ll say, already in a knowledge worker kind of job.

And, those people need to be updated and skilled on the latest technology, the latest business processes. Obviously things are changing really fast, we’re seeing new business operating models; and again, that digital transformation. So, we need to skill up and continue to skill the people who are already in knowledge worker jobs. But then, you have all of your frontline workers, and that’s something that I’ve been talking to so many different customers about. And, it’s definitely sticking out to me as something that is very top of mind for companies. I’ve talked to anyone from a major waste management company in the United States to a delivery and transportation company in Southeast Asia, to a financial services company in Africa. And, all of them are talking about how they have all these frontline workers who they’re actually looking at, how can they skill up those people to create career paths for them internally at their company.

So, if you think about a driver, a warehouse associate, a retail clerk, how can we actually help those people to build their technology skills? And, these companies want to actually find top talent from within their company who maybe aren’t in those knowledge worker jobs today, and really provide them with a pathway. And, they’re doing it to engage their employees, of course, and retain them and build talent. But, they’re also doing it with a heavy eye toward equality and diversity. And at Salesforce, that is a really important value of ours and we love seeing this. Just this idea that you can take people from non-traditional backgrounds, and you can put them into these jobs of the future in technology, where maybe they didn’t originally think that, that was an option for them, but they’re actually creating those pathways. And we, of course, love people doing that with Trailhead and we’ve seen lots of amazing success stories of that. But, there’s lots of different ways of learning and things like that, that can help people be effective in that environment.

Salesforce Learning Paths: Inline video training module
Image: Salesforce

Bill Detwiler: I’m really interested in that, because I think I’ve heard that from companies for a very long time, but there’s always been barriers to doing that. And, some of them are technology-based barriers, so you don’t have the right kind of tools that make it easy, as you talk about, to do that kind of inline learning. But then, there’s also been a time or a resource constraint. If you’ve got frontline workers, it takes time away from the work they’re doing to actually do this learning. I mean, we’re all kind of tired of being in nine hours of zoom meetings every day, I think, but there is a… Because that actually, sometimes to some degree can take time away from, hey, I’ve got a frontline worker, a cashier, I’ve got someone working in a customer service capacity answering calls. So, if I pull out of training for a half an hour or a day in the old days where you say, “Hey, we’re going to do a four hour offsite, we’re going to do a one-hour training session where you’re going to go listen to a PowerPoint presentation.”

There’s that barrier, which is time and commitment from the organization. In the customers that you talk to, I mean, it sounds like they’re starting to change that mindset a little bit. Is that what you’re finding?

Heather Conklin: Yeah. And, I think that things like Trailhead allow people to learn wherever they are and in small bits. I think that the idea of, again, pulling people into those multi-day trainings, that really takes people away from what they’re doing. But right now, we’re all stuck at home, but we have things like a Trailhead mobile app. People have talked about how they’re building skills as they’re just waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting to pick up their kids from school. There’s all kinds of ways that you can actually build learning into your life really, outside of work and continue to build those skills. And Trailhead being completely free online learning, that’s another thing.

Companies can actually take advantage of that and put that free learning in the hands of their employees, just make them aware that, that’s even an option and an opportunity. But, we’ve seen some of our customers who’ve invested in Salesforce and said, “They’re going to run their business on Salesforce and they’re going to digitally transform with Salesforce.” And they actually are saying, “It’s important for us to make sure that all of our employees, whether they’re the receptionist or the driver, or some of those office workers that everyone really has a shared understanding of this technology and what it can do for us as a company.” And again, just putting it into their hands and in this bite size, kind of easy to consume, you can do it on the side, sort of way.

SEE: How to develop your IT team’s capabilities (TechRepublic download)

2021 and beyond: Companies want employee learning to deliver business objectives

Bill Detwiler: And, what I think is really interesting being an old it guy and I’ll just provide this, a little bit of anecdote, is it really mirrors to me what a lot of companies were doing 20 years ago, 15 years ago around office productivity suites. There was a lot of training that was happening within organizations around word processors, and spreadsheet applications and database applications. And, you see that now happening with platform services like Salesforce. So wrapping things up, how do you see employee learning really evolving in 2021 and beyond?

Heather Conklin: To summarize some of the things that we’ve talked about before, I think we’re just going to see more and more of this. The idea of that just-in-time learning, really tying learning to business outcomes and making sure that people are learning the skills they need to be more effective at their jobs, and then companies can see the results of that, that that is definitely another trend that we’re hearing a lot of. But really innovation, the learning space is changing rapidly because of the pandemic and this digital transformation. And, I think that we’re just going to see new ways of engaging people and learning of helping them to continue their learning journeys, really a reliance on skills and bringing all of that together to find just new ways to help people be more, and more effective.

Bill Detwiler: And it sounds like you’re hearing from your customers, they want to do that too. They want to help their employees with that process of continuous learning, because as you said, you can tie that to ROI, you can tie that to better KPIs for the business. I’m interested, have you gotten a sense from your customers, what they’re looking for in terms of those ROI, those KPIs? Like is it, hey, look, we’re able to just grow great talent, and we’ve got an amazing pipeline and help people with their career growth. Or is it, hey, look, we’ve seen a reduction in negative customer service interactions, or we’ve seen an increase in sales that are positive. How are customers kind of gaging the positive outcomes of the re-skilling and having these new kind of training tools?

Heather Conklin: Yeah. I think one of the big things we see is that it’s really tied to that line of business. So if you are a sales manager, you want to train your sales reps to close more deals, and you want to see that by getting them the right information, they are more effective at selling and they’re able to get onboarded faster. They’re able to, again, close those deals. If you’re a service manager, then you’re looking for customer satisfaction, the ability to close cases effectively. And so, we really see it very tied to the individual roles and the work that they’re doing. And then more broadly, as a company, definitely seeing it tied more to things like employee retention, productivity. Obviously people have a lot of choice in where they work today and we’ve found that people who, or companies who invest in continuous learning are finding that their employees are more engaged, and they are more productive, and they’re able to retain them a lot better because of the opportunities that they’re able to provide.

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