Democratizing learning at Unilever

If you’re going to maximize your impact, learning and development needs to reach every employee. Hear how Leena Nair, Chief Human Resources Officer, and James Hu, Global HR Strategy Manager, are democratizing learning at Unilever. Find out why connecting every person with their purpose is the key to success. Explore how role modelling helps to make learning a lifelong habit. Discover how data reveals insights and proves the business value of L&D.

Demacratizing learning at unilever podcast

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A quick summary…

Don’t have time to listen now? Here’s a summary of the top tips from Leena and James:

  1. Connect every person to their purpose: Put in place plans to help everyone succeed in their purpose. Create a non-hierarchical learning community where people can share their knowledge and passion.
  2. Role model the benefits: Make every interaction an opportunity to learn. Lead from the front. Devote time to learning so others know they can too.
  3. Inspire lifelong learning: Don’t put an age limit on learning. Create life long opportunities for career development.
  4. Gather data and adapt your approach: Use insights to customize the learning experience. Adjust your work environment to support learner preferences.
  5. Prove the business value: Use your data to prove that people with purpose learn and perform better.

Top tips for taking a democratic approach to learning

1. Connect every person to their purpose

Unilever was built on three fundamental beliefs. Companies with purpose last. Brands with purpose grow. And people with purpose thrive.

This philosophy translates into an organization-wide HR strategy. Every person in the business gets a chance to discover their purpose. With the support of workshops and their Future Fit Plan, people can focus on growing and succeeding in the areas that matter to them. Unilever’s learning platform feeds them customized learning every day. Anyone who has great content, can upload it to the platform. Creating a non-hierarchical learning community where people share their knowledge, skills and passion.

Leena: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re packing soap in a factory, or you’re sitting at your desk doing accounts, all of us go through purpose workshops. We believe it’s important to find your purpose before you do anything else because it allows you to learn better.”

2. Role model the benefits

With competing priorities and deadlines, even a passion can become sidelined. How do you encourage people to make time to learn?

How you show up is important. For Leena, every interaction with a colleague is an opportunity to learn. She’s deliberate and makes time for learning. She stays curious and open-minded to other perspectives. Her profile on Unilever’s learning platform shows everyone that devoting time to learning is important to her.

Leena: “As leaders we’re leading from the front…The business can see what I’m learning and what points I’m getting. So, there’s a bit of role modelling. The more I learn, the more my team feel it’s okay to make time to learn. You know, if Leena finds the time to learn, so should we.”

3. Inspire lifelong learning

In a world of constant change, continuous learning is essential. Don’t put an age limit on learning. The opportunities for career development are lifelong.

Neuroscience has shown that our brains are wired to learn at any age. But it’s an example that’s closer to home that has inspired Leena. Her father continues to sign up for courses and learn new skills at 89 years old. Proof that the phrase “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks” is a thing of the past!

Leena: “Our human spirit for adaptability, for pivoting, for learning new things is actually very high. And we need to use that, push that and drive that further to make sure people are learning what they need to learn.”

4. Gather data and adapt your approach

A learning platform can be much more than a repository for content. Unilever’s platform provides personalized learning to everyone. From content to nudges, to learner pathways, the platform gathers insights and customizes the experience.

As well as personalizing content, data can help you understand how people want to learn. This knowledge allows you to create an environment that supports learner preferences.

James: “Towards the back end of the week, you naturally start to reflect on what happened this week. What can I do better? We know that Friday afternoons people tend to wind down a lot more. …[It’s] a good point in the week where you can look back and see what are the opportunities and then look forward on to next week.”

5. Prove the business value

Armed with data, you’re not just able to adapt and improve. Your insights can prove that learning has business value.

Leena and James started by identifying their active learners. Next, they checked how these learners were doing in their performance management system. This proved what they’d previously suspected. People who learn better, perform better.

James: “The Future Fit Plan is anchored on driving learning around your individual purpose. What we’ve seen through some of our internal analytics is…there’s quite a significant correlation between people who feel like they can then apply that to their jobs with productivity and performance.”

A quick recap

At Unilever, they know that people with purpose thrive. A democratic approach to learning and development brings this philosophy for life. Leena and James have five strategies for democratizing L&D. Connect every person to their purpose and provide structure that enables them to succeed in their passion. Role model the importance of making time to learn. Create life long opportunities for career development. Gather data and use your insights to customize learning experiences. And finally, use your data to prove the business value of a democratic approach.

Want to find out more? Check out the full podcast.

About Leena and James

With over 29 years’ experience at Unilever, Leena has taken on a number of leadership roles. She became Chief Human Resources Officer in 2016. She oversees employees across 160 countries, focusing on learning, development and well-being.

James is Global HR Strategy Manager. He connects what’s happening externally with HR strategy internally.

You can find out more and get connected with Leena and James on Linkedin.

On Leena and James’ reading lists

Find out what reading informs Leena and James’ approach to HR.

The 5 Personality Patterns: Your Guide to Understanding Yourself and Others and Developing Emotional Maturity, Steven Kessler

From motivation to communication, this book explores what’s going on inside people. It’s made Leena reflect and go inwards to understand herself better.

Design thinking

Design thinking provides iterative process for solving user problems. For James, understanding his learners and iterating solutions is key to success in his work.

Looking for more reading tips? Check out our book blog.

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