George Westerman

Principal Research Scientist

Collaborating across the globe to advance corporate learning

Collaborating across the globe to advance corporate learning

Industry joins with the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab to rethink the rules of employee development.

By: Eric Bender

What is the real nature of the talent gap in companies? What is the best way to develop different types of employees?

Improving the effectiveness of employee programs is a major strategic challenge for corporate learning officers, says George Westerman, a principal research scientist with the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. “As with any major corporate investment, you need to show that you’re putting funds to the best use, and this is really tricky for many learning officers,” he notes.

Finding better ways to improve learning effectiveness is one key goal for industry partners in the Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), a new MIT global initiative that will collaboratively advance the state of the art in learning.

J-WEL was launched in May 2017 to form communities of leaders across pre-college education, higher education, and workplace learning. Each of these collaboratives gives its members an umbrella for access to a wealth of MIT learning resources. Much more importantly, J-WEL also is launching cooperative efforts to develop and share best learning practices. J-WEL is sponsored by Community Jameel, a social enterprise organization chaired by MIT Corporation life member Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel ’78.

“MIT has been a leader in putting our educational material out there so the world can access it for free or for a very low cost,” says Westerman, the faculty director for J-WEL’s Workplace Learning collaborative. “J-WEL will go one step beyond, to talk about the science of learning and employee development. Having the content is important, but it's equally important to figure out where to apply the content and how to make that as effective as possible.”

What corporations get in collaboration

The Workplace Learning effort’s charter is to work with industry leaders to advance the scientific understanding of adult learning, improve workplace training and upskilling, match education pathways to career readiness, explore new forms of workplace credentialing and certification, and guide research and policy on labor market needs and future jobs.

Let's say you have a challenge on developing machine learning skills in your organization. Not only can you work with us to do it, but you can talk to people from Microsoft, General Electric, and IBM about how they've already done it.

“The real value of J-WEL is being part of the collaborative process as we develop this,” Westerman says. “In addition to having access to MIT experts, you can do the research in your own organization, and you can work together with some of the best organizations in the world. Let's say you have a challenge on developing machine learning skills in your organization. Not only can you work with us to do it, but you can talk to people from Microsoft, General Electric, and IBM about how they've already done it.”

The program can pay off for mid-sized firms as well as giants, he notes. “J-WEL might help you figure out how to find people you might not normally have found, or to upskill your own people so you don't need to hire people from outside,” he says. “If you care deeply about changing your practices, it’s not an expensive proposition to join our group.”

Learning industry needs and impacts

The J-WEL community comes together twice times a year at MIT. At the first J-WEL Week in October 2017, the workplace learning collaborative chose five focal areas for effort:

  • Impact of learning: measuring the effectiveness of different methods of individual learning for both the individual and the organization
  • Workforce 2025: identifying skills that will be needed as a result of artificial intelligence advances, demographic trends, globalization, and other factors
  • Educational technology and platforms: creating technological solutions to enable more efficient, effective, and ubiquitous learning
  • Design of the learning organization: improving its roles and functions in firms of all sizes
  • Specific educational content for targeted skill development

The impact of learning workgroup, for example, “takes on one of the most challenging efforts we have in training, which is figuring how you can target your money the right way so you can get the best return from it and then demonstrate that return,” Westerman says. J-WEL is launching many experiments about which employees are the best to train for given jobs and which methods work best for what kinds of material.

“But our work is much broader than that,” he says. “In our Workforce 2025 efforts, we’ll also look at skill trends and skill gaps, which haven’t had as much attention. Digital innovation is changing the skills that companies need, and the careers of their employees. At MIT we are trying to give companies (and workers) the tools to understand how can they can be truly strategic about thinking about that issue, both for now and the coming years.”

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Digital delivery at scale

Unsurprisingly, digital learning is a J-WEL cornerstone. “MIT has been trying to leverage digital learning opportunities in innovative ways, so that it can provide flexible high-quality learning opportunities for continuous education for people anywhere, whether it's for knowledge updates or for career changes,” says Vijay Kumar, MIT associate director of education and lifelong learning, and executive director of J-WEL. “We are trying to see how we can provide customized, personalized learning experiences at scale, in a sustainable manner.”

Although a good teacher can personalize learning for students on a one-to-one basis, “a good teacher doesn’t scale,” Kumar notes. “But with digital learning environments such as MITx, we can leverage data and artificial intelligence. We have access to humongous amounts of data, and we have analytics that can really monitor how different kinds of learners are navigating the learning experience. We will be able to make the appropriate kinds of interventions, so that we can genuinely address people with different preparations, different needs, different aspirations, and different motivations.”

Digital learning also can be combined synergistically with classroom interactions to create new blended learning opportunities. One notable example is the MITx MicroMasters program, in which people around the world enroll in graduate-level courses on business topics such as supply chain management. If these students complete the course and pass an exam, they receive a professional certificate. Moreover, “If they desire and are qualified, they can come for an accelerated terminal master's degree program at MIT, and we have increasing evidence that people take advantage of that,” says Kumar.

Companies are starting to tap into such programs. For example, GE will guarantee a job interview to students who pass certain MicroMasters programs, because the company sees this as a promising pool of talent. “Major corporations are considering giving a certification to people who take some of our courses, which will help to show that these are not just courses, they are credentials,” Westerman says.

Leveraging digital business education will help firms tap into a growing global pool of talent. “If you just look for college-educated graduates from the U.S. and Europe, you're leaving billions of highly talented hardworking people out of your search,” Westerman notes. “We’re trying to find ways to help companies get through that barrier.”

“Every aspect of the learning process is prone to innovation now: how we deliver lectures, how we deliver hands-on exercises, what we value, who learns, and where they learn,” says Kumar. “J-WEL provides a forum where industry leaders and practitioners can collaborate with our researchers in understanding learning needs, in designing solutions, and in understanding how the competencies in the workplace will change.” Read more about J-WEL here.