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MIT Sloan Management Review: Tell me a little bit about Everwise Corp. What do you do? What sort of products do you offer?
Colin Schiller: We believe that all aspiring professionals should have the chance to reach their whole career potential. When we started the business, it was based around this idea that so many people out there are probably stuck in their careers. We asked, What can we do to help them grow, to help them break through those barriers?
We believe that even though people learn best in a variety of ways, ultimately they need to be learning from one another. At Everwise, we have a portfolio of products and service offerings that help folks first identify where they are and what it is they want to work on. Then our approach is to connect them to the people, resources, and feedback they need to be successful.
That may take the form of a mentoring relationship, or peer or group learning. In some cases, it may take the form of independent learning, with folks working on things on their own, taking that into the workplace, and applying it in the real world, but ultimately coming back and connecting with other real human beings who are invested in their success to help them grow.
What are the things you’re working on right now that you’re most excited about, that are really pushing the envelope or driving you from a practical level?
We started with getting people together one-on-one in what we think of as mentoring interactions. As we’ve grown, we’ve been guided by our users and by the market. What we’ve seen is more and more people wanting to work one-on-one but then wanting to work together in groups.
What’s been most interesting lately is when you think about the traditional model of training within an organization, which is: We’re going to bring somebody in from outside, sit down for a short period of time, transfer the knowledge to a group of people, and hope for the best. Some of the newer things we’re doing are bringing groups together and drawing on outside expertise, but also trying to find the expertise that already exists within the organization.
Are there smarter ways of saying something on a given topic? Let’s bring a team together, and let’s bring in someone else from the organization who is well respected in that area and who can benefit by digging in with that group of people and sharing what they know, but also figuring out ways everyone can practice together.
Two things are happening: We are (1) taking learning from being episodic to being continuous (an ongoing process with a group of people) and (2) looking for leaders within the organization. In the world of high-performing professional services organizations, whether that’s management consulting or law firms, that’s actually often done quite well. The partner or the senior person within the organization is almost charged with making sure they transfer that knowledge to the next generation of leaders.
But we see that less often in the broader corporate arena. We see folks doing this on their own. And when we look across our customers, obviously we’re always looking to see if the results are outsized. Where are people getting tremendous amounts of value? By creating groups for continuous learning and charging key leaders within an organization to help facilitate and drive that learning forward.
It sounds like the groups you’re talking about are within an organization. Do they ever cross organizational boundaries?
Here at Everwise we do both. One of the first things we came to market with was a mentoring solution that crossed organizational boundaries. And we continue to do that with experiences learning, experiences that we deliver.
But what I was talking about was actually within the organization. Now within organizations, you still do cross-boundary things that are internal to the group. But it’s a much more straight-ahead thing we’re seeing, and again, the question was, What are you excited about that you’re seeing out there? It’s this notion of, when it comes to learning within the enterprise, a lot of ingredients have to go into the mix.
There are a lot of good outcomes when internal leaders are plugged in. You get engagement. You get much better accountability and visibility into what’s going on, in which things that folks are trying are effective, whether it’s a particular material to review or activities they do day to day. And folks can also be much more agile and then can change up what’s being rolled out to their teams on the basis of what’s working and what’s not.
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Do you work with preexisting groups, or do you assemble the groups that want to learn together?
We do both. Sometimes we have folks engage us. If we’re going to be assembling groups that want to learn together, we’ve learned that you have to have a pretty high bar. This is the real world. As much as people say, “I want to learn” or “I need to do X, Y, or Z,” we all have hectic jobs and busy family lives.
So when we assemble the groups, we spend a lot of time asking, What is the hurdle here? How do we make sure that the folks who are going to engage are ready and have a deep interest in whatever the topic happens to be?
In a group dynamic, that’s really important. If you show up with a group and three-quarters of the people are checked out, you’re going to say, “OK, I’m not going to do this.” If three-quarters of the people have bought in, you’re going to say, “All right, this is good.”
In the pure software side of our business, we see organizations coming in. And often what they’re doing, frankly, is taking something they already do today — say, manager training — making it a lot simpler, and getting a much bigger impact. In those scenarios, the organization is going to put their own groups together, which may be aligned around their business objectives or learning objectives or whatever that may be.
We are happy to share our best practices around the right way to make sure that people are motivated. But really, the answer is both, and it’s driven by the customers and what they’re purchasing from us.
I think a lot of people are familiar with what one-on-one mentoring looks like. Can you describe a little bit more how this group works, how it’s assembled, and what they’re focused on? And then how do they continue a relationship? With a mentor, I can keep in touch with him or her on a regular basis, formally or informally. What places, whether they’re virtual or physical, do these groups meet in, and how do they create a sense of purpose around their meetings?
One example I can use is with an insurance company we work with. This organization is putting their own group together and running this themselves. They had training they had historically done for new managers within the organization, and at first they tried to take them to a classroom for a couple of days. There were some ups and some downs to that. Then they tried to say, “Here’s some learning — do this on your own whenever it’s convenient for you.” And again, they weren’t particularly happy with the engagement or the retention they saw.
They were able to put together an experience that lasted for 12 weeks. And within that experience, they said, on a weekly basis: “We’ll get all you guys together, but here’s some content and here’s our objective for the week. Here’s an assignment we want you to do and then come back here.” In some cases, the goal for the assignment was to report back to the facilitator about how it went. In other cases, it was to share with the group how it went and have an opportunity to connect and share their experiences.
We considered this a learning experience. A couple of live events were sprinkled throughout, all of which can be managed through the technology. And through that interplay, with a leader from the organization anchoring things as the facilitator, they were very pleased with the engagement. And that’s just around the questions of, “Hey, as we go through these things, what kind of drop-off do I have? Is this group still operating together? Are people coming back?”
Throughout the learning, they were asking for feedback. Because they had that group or peer dynamic of “It’s great that we all watched or read X, Y, or Z. But here’s something we all are going to try out with our teams and then come back and share.” They were able to really draw a lot more of that on the job, make it actionable, learn from it, and come back.
That’s the dynamic of a group operating on top of the platform. From an ongoing perspective, folks who have gone through that experience continue to have access to that group space. That doesn’t go away once they complete the experience. There’s that level of connection.
They also have an opportunity for a private perspective from us. That particular organization has now actually built out four or five more skills modules that folks can use. There’s the notion of being able to, on an ongoing basis, tap into an extension off that initial experience around building core manager skills and retain that connection to the folks who went through it.
It sounds like there’s a formal duration for the group, and then an optional, informal continued conversation or relationship afterward.
Yes, and continued access to all the assets that were created. Throughout the experience, folks are actually asked to make stuff and share it with others. And that’s a particular use case around the time-bound group experience. You can do these open-ended. But we tend to do them in a time-bound fashion because we have found that having a shared goal and working together around a timeline provides better accountability and engagement. But we also have plenty of customers who say, “That’s great, but I want the ability to allow folks to have more flexibility in how to engage.” We support it both ways.
Do you find that there’s an optimal size for the group for it to be effective?
It depends on the objective. For these groups, when it’s focused work around a particular skill for a customer, the optimal size is about 15 people. When you have about 10, it still works well if everyone is engaged. If you have more than 20, it can get a bit noisy.
We also have partners and customers who use this for much larger-scale things. We have a partner who runs a series of monthly webinars. They’re dealing with thousands of people attending each of these, and they’re leveraging the technology for people to be able to come in, register, and get access to prework. They have everything around that particular monthly event in one place, and they have a forum where they can connect with other people who are going to be attending. And then there’s some postwork that comes out of that. It depends on the scenario.
As they put together these groups, are they built around specific topics? And if so, what sorts of topics are particularly salient in today’s business environment that companies are really struggling to have their employees learn?
It’s similar to what you would see in your broader research. We see manager enablement over and over again. And that can mean different things to different organizations. Sometimes that has more of a cultural bent to it; sometimes it has more of a skills bent to it. But ultimately, manager enablement is at the top of that list.
We also see quite a bit of investment in and focus on diversity. That may be through the lens of women in leadership, or making sure the organization is providing support and opportunities to underrepresented minorities. We offer particular experiences for managers, for women in leadership, for high potentials, and things like that. When we think about the managed service we deliver, we have developed a take for those particular areas.
For instance, a big bio project firm is using us to facilitate development for women in leadership, and their take on this is very much around culture and networking. But a different insurance company is using us for a similar higher-level objective, and their approach happens to be very skills-based. They’re asking, “How do we do modules on communication and executive presence?” They’re putting them together for themselves.
There’s that higher-level need that’s probably fairly similar to what you all see. And where it gets interesting, at least from our perspective, is the approach that a given organization wants to take for speaking to that particular need or investment they’re going to make.
It sounds like a lot of the skills you are focused on at Everwise are soft skills. Is that correct?
That’s fair. And it’s interesting — from a strategy perspective, we have historically been focused on soft skills, because that’s an area where human connection plays such a large role. That said, we continue to see more and more demand from our customers for being able to layer some hard-skills development in there. But yes, our focus is on soft skills, which tends to be a little bit trickier and looser.
As these groups are formed, what are the factors that lead to successful outcomes, and what are those outcomes?
The factors that lead to successful outcomes are clearly defined goals, strong organizational support, and focus and high-quality engagement from the folks in the learner role. We’ve got a clear goal. We know this is important to the organization and the people who have opted in. That’s always best in our world — the people who have opted in are saying, “Yes, this is really well aligned with something that I want to learn and achieve.”
What does a positive outcome look like? And again, soft skills development can always be tricky, right? Because it’s not as if I scored 95 out of 100 on the test that was given at the end. But that’s the world we operate in.
The first thing we look at — which aligns roughly with the Kirkpatrick training evaluation model and things like that — is whether people report that they’re enjoying the experience. Are they engaging with it? Is it something they’re actually opting in and spending time with? You can look at completion and things like that through software, but it’s not just completion; it’s whether completion is driving engagement and a deeper understanding of the material that’s been covered.
Ultimately, we’re looking for people who report a change in their own behavior. Are they taking a different approach to things day to day within the organization and the work that they’re doing? Is someone else actually noticing this?
We consider a couple of dimensions that are taught at the beginning: Can we connect you with the people, the resources, and the feedback you need to be successful? Are the folks we’re putting you together with also engaged with the folks you’re learning from? Are the resources of high quality? Engagement is a good proxy for that.
Ultimately, the individual learner can provide feedback that he or she is seeing a change and would recommend it. But we also have feedback tools built into the platform where learners can choose to actually reach out to others at different points along the way who are not engaged in that experience, share what they’re working on, and ask for feedback about whether they are getting better.
We look at those dimensions when we think of what success looks like. When we deliver the experience, we break down and funnel that back to the organization. When organizations do this themselves, there is all this data, but there’s also the underlying feeling that the folks who have developed and rolled this out are getting to the point internally where they say, “Wow, we’re really seeing a change. Fundamentally, we see the data that’s coming back, and we know this is working.” That’s where we tend to see folks coming back needing more.
As you look forward to the next three to five years, what do you think the big trends are going to be with respect to employee learning and development?
I apologize if I sound like a cliché on this, but historically learning in the enterprise has been all about what human resources is giving you. I come in as an employee and I ask, “What do I qualify for? What have I been given?” And if you roll your brain back five, 10 years ago, maybe even longer, IT gave you a BlackBerry, and you used that. And you were told from on high what you can do, what policies were and what they weren’t. But now, we’re in a world where we all have our own device and IT needs to figure out how to support all of us, and that got flipped on its head.
That’s probably the biggest trend with learning. In our business today, because of how the world is set up, we are still typically coming in through an HR group and saying, “Here’s how we do it and here’s why what we do is valuable, etc.” Ultimately it’s going to shift much more into the hands of line leaders or individuals who are saying, “Look, I’m finding some things that work really well for me, and I want to be able to use this. And I want my team to be able to use this.” That’s the biggest thing that will be driving us forward.
Then, much like IT departments had to figure out how to react, respond, and support the needs of their user population, ultimately HR learning teams will need to do something similar. Now, as they think about investment decisions, they can’t necessarily dictate everything that everyone is going to use. They’ll have to ask: “How can we have a more flexible investment strategy? How do we effectively think about measurement?”
If we have specific initiatives we want to drive across the organization, how do we make sure the tools we’ve invested in are up to par with the things that folks are advocating we bring into the organization? Because that bar is going to be a lot higher than it was historically, when we’ve got a learning management system and a couple of training courses we offer and you need to come and visit.
We know everybody individually needs to be a lifelong learner. But it sounds like you also said the manager needs to recognize what skills are necessary and provide those resources. Is a role of the future manager to be an educator? To identify the content that his or her team needs and steer the team to that direction?
That’s a good question. An organization’s leadership sets goals around strategies and objectives that come down from the executive team. It’s the manager’s job to translate that into what his or her team needs to be doing every day. How do managers align the work their team is doing with the needs of the organization?
It’s asking a lot of managers to say, in addition to everything else, you need to think about the learning needs of the folks on your team. But it is the manager’s role to say, “Here are the goals of the organization and the specific things my team needs to be able to do.” And then to go back to the support they have within the company and say, “My people need help with these things. What do we have?”
If that’s not there, then it’s a shifting world. As a manager, that does introduce a bit more of a challenge. But ultimately, that’s what you are looking to do — to say, “What do my people need? What support do they need to be successful? How do I go out there and find that for them?”
And frankly, we do, for the most part, work with HR departments. But some of the best teams we work with are when a manager or a line leader has come to us and said, “My team really has a need for what you guys deliver, and I’m going to make that happen.”
Going all the way back, you said having a high bar for participant motivation is key. What’s driving that motivation? Are some people just inherently curious, or are there extrinsic factors as well?
Well, I’d say there are three levels. There is a subset of the population that is intrinsically motivated and curious, and they’re in a role that they have under control and they can say, “Hey, I’m going to dedicate x number of hours per week to my own development.”
There’s a second level where it’s a hybrid of intrinsic and extrinsic, where people are struggling in their roles, not necessarily in a bad way — maybe they just took on a big new role and some stuff is hard. But they have the maturity to realize they have confidence in themselves to do this, but they need some help and they’re willing to set aside the time to invest because they know that the payoff is a good investment.
And then the third is mostly extrinsic, which is someone who says, “Wow, this is a priority for my organization, and if I engage in this, yes, I’m going to learn,” but there’s a little bit more of, “Somebody is watching me, and doing this will accrue to my benefit. If this were totally self-directed, some things would probably get in the way of making time for this. But because it’s clear that it’s a priority for the organization, I can figure out a way to make the time. And wow, it turns out I got something out of it.”
That’s at least what I see. And by the way, those are three totally valid reasons for people to actually come and engage. I share all of that with the assumption of an outcome where someone actually learned something and it helped the person grow in the role he or she is in today and set the person up for the role he or she is targeting for tomorrow.
Is one of those three levels more common than the others?
It depends. The one that we look for the most when we do mentoring experiences is actually the second: the self-awareness of a need.
When you get the first, it’s awesome, but it’s less common in the world. The third is fine — it’s good when you have it and it’s what we see more in the groups that organizations put together, where it’s clear that this is something that’s important for the organization. People can learn something from it, and it will be good for them overall, both from a learning perspective and for their profile in the organization perspective.
Along those lines, what portion of the clients that use Everwise products are coming to you as individuals versus organizations?
The vast majority are organizations. We have always focused on going to organizations. When people come to us individually, we will support them, but it’s not something we prioritized as we built the business. But that may change over time.
You talked about how culture is a factor in all of this. What kind of learning culture do organizations typically have?
It varies pretty widely. The particular buyer who comes to us, whether it’s from a group within the organization or a broader group, is typically pretty progressive and looking to raise the profile of learning within the organization. We get fewer folks who are business as usual. Often when people come to us, it’s part of a larger change process they’re running.
It could be a centralized change process and we’re working with the chief human resources officer or chief learning officer, or a group within the organization, or a VP of IT or marketing who is simply saying, “I’m not getting the support I need. I’m hearing from the CEO that this is important and that we need to be investing in our people, but I’m not getting what I need, so I’m going to cull my own budget and I’m going to find it.”
In all those cases there’s change afoot, and when folks are looking for a new way of doing something, that’s when we tend to get brought in.
Are you seeing executives come to you for mentorship, learning, and training as well? And do their needs differ? And if so, in what way?
We have historically said no to executives coming to us for mentorship. Part of the thesis behind this business was that coaching for executives already exists. When I worked at Cisco Systems Inc. in San Jose, California, I was always struck by how the executive vice president of our group sent a note around to thousands of people saying, “Hey, everyone, I want you to know I’ve engaged the services of a professional coach, and these are the things I’m working on with my coach.”
Coaching exists for executives, and we have always said that there needs to be something better out there for the individual contributors, for the managers, for the second-line managers. We try to think about the director level in a tech company or something like that. That’s the scope we tend to play in, because we think that’s where you’re going to have a huge impact for the organization, and it’s particularly underserved by what’s out there in the market today.
With that being said, we have developed some offerings over the last 18 months or so that we have started to see some uptake on, which we call “Everwise Leader.” This is an opportunity for executives to come in and develop their skills as mentors, and our belief, and the belief of our customers who have been investing in this, is that helping them develop mentoring skills is actually a critical leadership skill.
We don’t get mentors for all of these VPs from these organizations. We actually bring them in. They do a bit of the group learning experience. We have some experiences — what we call “Master Mentors” — that run over the course of a year. And as part of that, we actually plug them in as mentors to other protégés through Everwise and give them some additional support and coaching.
It’s a skills-development opportunity for them, but around their skills as a mentor, which they can then use with the teams they’re responsible for as opposed to providing mentoring to them. The need is out there. Coaching has it well covered at a price point that’s appropriate.