Sammi Willden and Shannon Burke are the co-founders of SS Consulting, an L&D consultancy that helps organizations build agile and collaborative learning spaces and strategies. Their unique professional backgrounds and shared experiences have shaped their unique approach to learning and development.
In this article, they share their journey of building an L&D function from scratch in a start-up environment, the biggest challenges they faced in doing so, and the most valuable takeaways they've learned from this experience.
We are two learning professionals who were hired into non-learning related roles at the same startup company, Noom, over 4 years ago. We evolved in our roles to focus solely on learning and built learning programs from the ground up that served over 3,000 employees. While doing this, we discovered a lot about what learning & development (L&D) strategies work in current corporate culture and what strategies do not.
And now, it has become our mission to break down the traditional L&D mindset and unleash the power of invisible learning. In an effort to do so, we want to share the challenges and the benefits of starting from scratch that we experienced, the actions that we took to build and create an effective, scalable L&D function, as well as the 5 biggest takeaways we learned through it.
When we first began supporting the onboarding process at Noom, the training program was tiny, scrappy, and inefficient. There were 3 days of back to back live virtual webinars that were developed and led by SMEs with seemingly no connection between events. There was a “week 1 onboarding” Slack channel that was not managed and recycled every three days, even if the last cohort of employees were still actively using the channel.
In short, there was a lot of information shared in 3 days, very little expectation-setting, and the assumption that it would just click with new employees.
We both saw that learning could be so much more and decided to volunteer our time to support and grow the program. It started with organizing a document here, leading a training there, creating a slide deck, etc. But, before we knew it, the reins were being handed over and we were basically told the world is your oyster, go and build the thing!
Our main challenge was to build effective and scalable learning experiences. We needed to create an environment that supported the growth of existing employees while simultaneously supporting the needs of the company, which was on the verge of skyrocketing growth.
Our first instinct was to lean on our prior experiences, and industry standards and expectations. Although we didn’t have much experience in corporate L&D, we both had a wealth of L&D experience in other domains and could certainly lean on what had worked well for us in academia and regulatory compliance.
However, we recognized that our prior approaches would not work in this rapidly scaling, agile start-up space. So, we opted to embrace the start-up mentality and try something different!
Little did we know at the time that our lack of experience in corporate L&D was quite possibly the best case scenario for our endeavor to begin. We did not have a knowledge base around how to scale L&D programs at a start-up, but we also did not have bad habits or non-evolved beliefs that often come along with a long-standing career in corporate L&D.
We were able to unlock our creativity and truly embrace our L&D programs, by utilizing the experimental mindset embraced by the start-up. We had the benefit of being influenced by corporate culture and how the industry recommended we do learning, but we were not restricted by it.
To create clarity around what we wanted to achieve through our programs, our first step was to create a vision and goals. We did not want to create a traditional corporate L&D program that checked all of the typical boxes that define what an effective program should look like. We knew those traditional strategies would not truly demonstrate learning success and employee growth within the start-up.
Our vision was to create experiences that were meaningful and fostered a culture of growth throughout the company. From this vision, we created several goals and we evolved these goals each quarter. These goals served as the guide posts to our work, but they were also flexible enough to withstand the volatility of a scaling team. We were able to hold goals loosely, measure progress often, and learn from each goal we set.
As we began achieving our goals our small programs became significant…necessary even, to the organization processes in place at Noom. We began documenting our learnings and soon created a four-step blueprint that we followed when creating or optimizing programs.
Each time we hit the white board to brainstorm our newest program or strategize how to optimize an existing program, we aimed to follow a four-step process: start by building something small, collect feedback, iterate, then rinse and repeat. Through this process, we were constantly learning how to make improvements based on tangible results, and employees were learning and performing! And with this learning, came fast growth.
Every single time we launched a new version of a program (and there were a lot) we learned something new. We eventually embraced the notion that our programs would never be “complete”, but rather would constantly evolve. Our team grew to expect that after every launch would come a lessons learned session where we would discuss the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
As a team, we thought creatively about how we could iterate on the program to improve the positive impact on the learners we were serving. There were no limits to the ideas that came out of these lessons learned, instead we strived to find a creative solution that could potentially solve any problems that we encountered in the most recent iteration.
We had the benefit of being influenced by corporate culture and how the industry recommended we do learning, but we were not restricted by it.
Creating a robust L&D function had an impact that was greater than we could have imagined. Yes, employees were learning. They were reporting satisfaction and their performance indicated growth. But, possibly even more important, our work was fostering the creation of a continuous learning culture. Here’s how…
With our heads down and operating in survival mode for months, we developed several programs that not only effectively functioned, but did so under constantly changing parameters set by the company needs at any given time. Now, after having time to pick our head up from the work and reflect on what we had done, we realize the impact that we had:
The finished programs and their accomplishments were definitely a component to fostering a learning culture, but even more critical than that were the processes we developed to build, optimize and maintain those programs. The conversation transitioned from “What can we build to teach our learners about this skill”, to “how can we partner with leaders and employees to grow in the identified areas”.
By partnering with leadership, we were able to build content that was centered around the employees’ actual work. Instead of primarily classroom training, we built resources and partnered with leaders to utilize team meetings and 1:1 conversations to develop their team. Our impact and success was founded partnering with others, and other major results we saw were:
There are a number of valuable lessons that we learned along the way. Here are five key lessons we learned that stand out as pillars to our learning strategy to this date.
Lesson 1: Constant evolution is key to effective learning programs. When things are static, they cannot grow. When we are stuck in our ways we are not embracing the mindset of growth that we are trying to foster in our teams. Find the things that strike gold and capitalize on them and at the same time, don’t be afraid to toss out the flops.
Lesson 2: Invest your time and energy wisely. Man, oh man, did we waste so much time, energy, and money initially as we were developing programs. The biggest takeaway: It's okay to not be perfect. Just get something out there and see how it lands. Who knows you might be sitting on gold and not even realizing it. Time really is money and it’s important to not waste money due to hesitation.
Lesson 3: Learners don’t really want content (even if they say they do). What they really want is connection and a realistic tool kit that they can use in their day to day work. The good news is, this actually can mean a lighter content development lift for you and more time to invest in your learners.
Lesson 4: Learning happens outside of the classroom. Initially we would develop programs with the lens of “what is all of the content that this learner will come across on the job?” or “what are all of the skills this person could possibly need to be successful?” While these questions can be useful, they can also lead you into the trap of developing way too much content that never gets utilized. Instead, focus on how you can best set this person up for success in the future. How can you get them started? And how can you partner with them on the ground as they are doing their work?
Lesson 5: Establish a triage process. Training is not always the solution and it’s important to set up guardrails to ensure you aren’t overbuilding ineffective content. Before diving straight into development you need to take a moment to triage the request coming in. What is the actual problem you are trying to solve? What is the best method for solving your identified problem? The answers to these questions will give you clarity on what your next steps are and how to best deliver the solution.
Establishing the L&D function at Noom was one of the best experiences we could have had in our career. While the constant scaling and evolution of the programs was challenging, we learned so much about what it means to foster learning cultures. As we both transitioned away from our work at Noom we knew that this was work we wanted to continue doing. We had a strong desire to help companies grow and retain employees, especially in the current volatile times.
This passion led us to begin sharing our story and eventually evolved into the establishment of our learning strategy consulting firm, SS Consulting. Now, we have had the pleasure of working with several companies (and individuals) to create programs and experiences that drive meaningful learning in non-traditional ways.