June 13, 4 PM ET

HR Tech Conference Virtual: Keynote - Learning & Development's Next Chapter: Skills as the North Star


June 26, 1:00 PM ET

AI and HR: Transforming People Tech


The Skills Obsession: What a Mindset of Enablement Actually Looks Like

by Dani Johnson | June 15th, 2021


Karen Kocher, Global General Manager, Talent & Learning Experiences & Workforce of the Future, at Microsoft


What actually happens when your boss tells you one day that he’d like you to teach new digital skills to a few people … say, 25 million or so? You’re going to find out this week, because that really did happen to our great guest, Microsoft Global General Manager, Talent and Learning Experiences and Workforce of the Future Karen Kocher, who is leading the huge-scale Microsoft-LinkedIn global Skills Initiative. But important as that large-scale L&D experiment is, it’s far from all Karen wanted to talk to us about; think of the Skills program as an appetizer for a Learning and Skills banquet that includes life, career, and pay advice, as well as useful notes on credentialing and what transitioning to a ‘learn-it-all’ culture entails at company street level. Quite a woman. Quite a conversation. And quite a Workplace Story.



Workday hosted an exclusive webinar with the Workplace Stories team of Dani, Stacia and Chris in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. Find out more information and access content at www.workday.com/skills. 


We're also thrilled to be partnering with Chris Pirie, CEO of Learning Futures Group and voice of the Learning Is the New Working podcast. Check them both out.

Season Sponsor

We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this season of the Workplace Stories by RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; its one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.  



Five key quotes:

It's one thing to put training programs in front of people or to commit to launching content; it’s another to say that your commitment is to skills resulting in employability. But if you don't get the employment and the sustained employability, then you've spent a lot of time and you’re not achieving your desired outcome.

was the right thing to do also because Microsoft is a technology company. It's very difficult to expect people to buy and utilize and embrace technologies—like for example, artificial intelligence or machine learning or cybersecurity technologies. Companies can't buy and utilize these technologies if they don't have staff members who have the skills to work with them. We realize that, and so we want to do the right thing: we want to help people get skills and be employable. We also want to make sure that we have a pipeline out there of people who are skilled and savvy so that their companies, their governments, and their communities can take advantage of Microsoft's resources, knowing that they'll have the talent to optimize them and get the most out of their investment. So it's quite a win-win situation.

A skill is something that you can actually witness somebody utilizing and doing. And I think ‘capability’ is more about true experience—like I probably have a plethora of experiences, so if somebody says, “Wow, Karen's demonstrated a really great capability in storytelling, that means that I've probably watched her do that and do that quite successfully time and time again, so she's got a real capability. And capability might be like skill-plus, right?” I've obviously got the skill because I've demonstrated it, but it isn't just a one-time or a two-time thing. It isn't just a basic skill. It’s like I'm actually proficient in that.

If you're listening to this podcast and you haven't thought of becoming a data scientist, you just might want to do that, because that would be a really great occupation to pursue—or a data analyst, anything in the data field—have at it, because you'd be employed for a very long time!

I think it is over 3 million people who we've already successfully helped scale—that's in six months or less. And it is ultimately a global opportunity; I believe most of the early work that we did was for the United States, but I know that there is the intent of going beyond that.

Karen Kocher:

Data is the key—which is why if you're listening to this podcast and you haven't thought of becoming a data scientist, you just might want to do that because that would be a really great occupation to pursue—or a data analyst, anything in the data field—have at it, because you'd be employed for a very long time.

Stacia Garr:

We're talking with Karen Kocher, who's the Global General Manager, Talent and Learning Experiences and Workforce of the Future, for Microsoft. We talked with Karen about the Microsoft Skills Initiative, which was launched in 2020 and aims to help 25 million people acquire digital skills and then use them to get a new job.

Karen Kocher:

For me, the most profound point in all of the skilling conversation is that everybody doesn't have to think of it so largely because I think that overwhelming is where you see so many people drop out, right? They get three courses into a huge skilling initiative, and then they just stop.

Stacia Garr:

We also talked about how scaling and rescaling can feel overwhelming, but how an incremental approach can actually help all of us get there more effectively. And then we spent time talking about how almost all professions are being disrupted, and she shared with us five hybrid skills which everyone needs to be thinking about in order to maintain their skillset and their competitiveness, regardless of their industry.

You're really going to enjoy this conversation with Microsoft's Karen Kocher.

Stacia Garr:

Well, Karen, thank you so much for joining us here on this RedThread podcast, focused on skills. We've known each other for a number of years, but I am so excited about this conversation to hear about Microsoft and some of the amazing things that you've been doing there, so thank you so much for coming on.

Karen Kocher:

It's my pleasure; happy to be here!

Stacia Garr:

Well, we're going to start off with just some quick-fire questions to help our audience know who you are. Chris and I know you very well, but to help our audience get a sense of you, can you give us a quick overview of Microsoft, its mission, and its purpose?

Karen Kocher:

So Microsoft's mission, which is very clear and very simple, is to empower every individual and organization on the planet to achieve more. And within that, I think the purpose that we all wake up to and come to work for every day is quite clear; I mean, it's such a compelling mission because whether it's products, things like Microsoft Office or Teams or Edge, all the way through the Skills Initiative that we launched not long ago and are very focused on.All of those are such empowering activities and technologies and products, and so our purpose every day is to create technologies and experiences that will really help that mission come to life.

Stacia Garr:

And you mentioned the Skills Initiative, so can you tell us a little bit about your work, your job and just how you would describe what it is that you wake up and do every day?

Karen Kocher:

The Skills Initiative—first of all, I'll just touch on that briefly, because I think it's quite compelling. It was probably about, I'm going to say three or four months ago, that Microsoft announced that we were committed to providing 25 million people with the skills that they need to be employable as they go into the future.

And what's so compelling about that is it's one thing to put training programs in front of people or to commit to launching content: it's another to say that your commitment is to skills resulting in employability. Because I think that's like the Holy Grail for most people, right? A lot of people can get skills, but if you don't get the employment and the sustained employability, then you've spent a lot of time, you’re not achieving your desired outcome.

So we were really excited about that, and there's a lot of work going on across all different sorts of Microsoft teams and with partners outside of Microsoft in local and federal governments and country governments and big corporations—you can imagine how many people it takes to create that employability type of ecosystem. So that's really exciting and that's work that we're all involved in in various ways.

For my team in particular, we have a few bodies of work that are all related; there are synergies there, but at first blush, when you first talk about them, some people say, “Well, I don't understand why they are together?” So talent and learning experiences, I think is probably the clearest of all, right? We have responsibility for all of the shared services that it takes to create quality, consistent, and scaled talent and learning experiences, which include all of our talent processes like succession planning, talent talks, strategic talent planning, and then through all the learning related activities, which runs the gamut from global diversity and inclusion programming through manager and employee development in critical areas for the company success. And so when you say experiences, it's everything like designing an experience with the health of the employees, so that you know that it will be desired, it's necessary, it will be promoted, and ideally through that promotion and that influence, you get to that tipping point of capability building much more quickly.

So we design experiences all the way through oversight of the technology portfolio for the talent and learning that goes on, because that's the scale play, and then we also have the accountability for resources. They engage with partners and businesses to understand what's available for capability building and make sure that that's utilized and applied.

And then lastly, the operational and support aspects that go along, which is really everything from a help desk and those types of services to some groups that actually work quite proactively to community build. And again, to go back to that tipping point, we really make sure that the community is learning within itself, and that they are anxious to help each other apply because it's through the application, of course, that will get the most value. So we kind of run the gamut with all of these shared services that it takes for these talent and learning programs and activities to be embraced, and ultimately achieve their objectives.

Stacia Garr:

And just to clarify, that set of activities is both for the internal Microsoft folks and that 25 million within the Skills Initiative—is that correct?

Karen Kocher:

It’s first and foremost for Microsoft employees, and so we do some work that absolutely focuses externally. But first and foremost, we're definitely focused on the internal customer group. The external work is partially us, it’s partially a group that leads something known as MS Learn, which is an externally facing environment where people can go and take advantage of no-cost skilling resources—there’s work being done on the LinkedIn side because the LinkedIn learning solution is also a big part of the portfolio of what we're putting out there for people to use to get skilled. There's a whole bunch of us all involved, and we're one of them.

Stacia Garr:

And I know we're going to talk about this a bit more in detail, but one of my questions—just not being as close to it as either you or Chris, quite frankly—is why was there this big initiative around skilling 25 million people for future employability? Where did that come from?

Karen Kocher:

I've been with Microsoft about three years, and when I was first hired with Microsoft, my very first job was externally facing; it was actually 21st century jobs skills and employability, so it was basically the early precursor to the 25-million-person commitment.

And the primary reason was, well, there's two reasons, right? And one of them is just do well by doing good, kind of. And so the first part of that is doing good, right? And so it's the right thing to do to help people get skills and achieve employability. For example, we also have another initiative people may or may not be aware of, which is helping people in rural parts of the United States get access to broadband and Wi-Fi which they otherwise cannot get access to. And so we've helped millions of people get access to broadband and Wi-Fi so that they can do at-home schooling during COVID, and they can do all the other online activities that really help people progress.

And so in the spirit of that initiative called Airband was actually an initiative that preceded the 25-million initiative. And so we have a habit of just doing good, right? Which is again, the right thing to do also because Microsoft is a technology company. It's very difficult to expect people to buy and utilize and embrace technologies—like for example, artificial intelligence or machine learning or cybersecurity technologies. Companies can't buy and utilize these technologies if they don't have staff members that have the skills to work with them. We realize that, and so we want to do the right thing: we want to help people get skills and be employable. We also want to make sure that we have a pipeline of people out there who are skilled and savvy so that their companies, their governments, and their communities can take advantage of Microsoft's resources, knowing that they'll have the talent to optimize them and get the most out of their investment. So it's quite a win-win situation.

Stacia Garr:

There’s so much in what you just shared with us. If you kind of step back and think about what's hard about that, we're interested in what you think is the most challenging aspect of your work.

Karen Kocher:

The other part of the work that I didn't mention, because it doesn't fit in nicely with the talent and learning experiences piece was the workforce of the future and the future of work, which is the other big area of focus that is in my organization.

And so I would say—I don't know that it's the hardest. I would say the most important part of the work that we do is the upfront co-creation work with the employees or with whatever stakeholders we may be talking about: it could be customers, could be internal or external partners. And I think what we have learned is that it's really important to look outside of your own organization. And even in the case of the Skills Initiative, outside of the company, you really do have to co-create these types of opportunities with those that will benefit to make sure that you understand, what do they desire, what are their unmet needs? How do you go about crafting it in such a way that they will be excited and energized and intrinsically motivated—which from a skilling perspective is really the secret to sustaining your involvement long enough to get the skills—and then demonstrate those skills and then ultimately get a job?

And so I think that what we've learned is you really can't get to the point of intrinsic motivation or of true desire if you don't involve the people who ultimately will have to opt in. And so that's a big piece of what we have spent our time and attention on— rallying everybody throughout the community that we work in at Microsoft to appreciate what an absolute critical first step that is. And I would highlight that as probably the one that resonates most.

Chris Pirie:

Can we step back a little bit? You've been in the talent and learning business for quite a long time; I know that you participate in a lot of the conversations that go on across the industry. Skills is a broad concept, and one of the things that we've learned through our conversations is it means a lot of different things to different people. What does the word ‘skills’ mean to you?

Karen Kocher:

Agility and success. And all I mean by that is I particularly like the ‘skill’ word, although what's interesting is similar to the evolution between competencies and skills and now actually skills and capabilities, right, because I think that's now the word that you really start hearing thrown around is capabilities, right? Because I think ‘competencies’ was more of a ‘I know it,’and then this is just my way of translating it when I think of them. And The Knowing-Doing Gap,—where knowing it isn't good enough, like it doesn't help me to know it; I actually have to do it.

And I think that's what people think of when they think of skills. Like a skill is something that you actually can witness somebody utilizing and doing something. And then I think ‘capability’ is more about like true experience—like I probably have a plethora of experiences, so if somebody says, “Wow, Karen's demonstrated a really great capability in storytelling, that means that I've probably watched her do that and do that quite successfully time and time again, so she's got a real capability and capability might be as much it's like skill-plus, right?” I've obviously got the skill because I've demonstrated it, but it isn't just like a one-time or a two-time thing. It isn't just a basic skill. It’s like I'm actually proficient in that.

And I think that's why each time we make our way through the next stage of the evolution, it gets more and more interesting because ‘knowing’ was interesting, ‘doing’  is even more interesting because it has real impact in that person's life and that person's day and of course, for the business. And if you've got true sustained proficiency, that means you're now agile, right? You're able to be kind of plugged in and played in so many places in so many ways, because you're closer to somebody with real expertise.

Chris Pirie:

Got it. Now you have mentioned why perhaps skills and skilling is a hot topic in the context of Microsoft, right, to help get software deployed effectively and also from an altruistic perspective. But skills are everywhere at the moment—in White Papers from governments, leaders seem to be very, very preoccupied by skills. Why do you think this topic of skills is so hot?

Karen Kocher:

If I had to guess, I would say it's primarily because it's crystal clear to everybody that there aren't enough of them; there aren't enough people with the right ones.

Even last night, I was watching the PBS News Hour, and they had an entire segment on the fact that there's such a dearth of people with hard skills, like what most people would turn to the old language of blue-collar skills, like a plumber or an electrician. And they were basically saying that the rates are skyrocketing, because not enough people are interested in going into these occupations, and so you almost can't find people with these skills.

And I think that is the same thing with skills that are on the bleeding edge, right? Where, if I want a group of people to come to my company and do artificial intelligence machine learning, well, good luck—because there really aren't that many of them, or if I want real cybersecurity expertise.

I think there's so much pain in the system because people know that to make progress, they need people with these skills. Or to fix the infrastructure within a particular city, you need people with other skills, and everywhere we turn, we run into barriers and roadblocks so we just can't find them. And so I think that's why it's become just so obvious as quite the burning platform now.

Chris Pirie:

We had a great conversation with Rob from McDonald's on just this topic, and how perhaps apprenticeships, that dearth of apprenticeship models and what's going on in the tertiary education sector, might be fueling that was an interesting part of the conversation.

Karen Kocher:

The only other thing that I would say, Chris, because I completely agree with you. I had an opportunity when I first started with Microsoft because of the job that I was in, which was the skill, I had an opportunity to meet with and present to about 10 country presidents—like the president of Costa Rica, the president of Chile.

And what I was amazed by was not only their knowledge in the subject , they had real knowledge of the fact that they needed their elementary schools and middle schools and other institutions to really change in order to be much more focused on these skills that when people graduate from even high school, they have to have some of they have to have data proficiency. That they probably should be a data analyst at the point that they graduate from high school.

And they all knew this, and they were completely committed to revamping their institutions to try to do this talent, basically talent pipeline is what we think of it as. And so I just found it so fascinating that with all that they have going on, they not only had this appreciation, but they had a commitment and a level of energy to it that was incredibly impressive and more than I would have expected.

So I think that the good news is we're not alone in realizing it as Corporate America; I think that all around the world—whether it's a highly evolved country or whether it's a country, that's a little bit more on the early stages of a lot of this type of work we're talking about—I think that they just have that appreciation, which is terrific.

Chris Pirie:

And the other thing that we saw really, really clear in 2020 was that individual people seem to get this as well: we saw this massive uptake of MOOCs and engagement around learning of all different forms. And I think as you said earlier, it's kind of the change and uncertainty that might help people; one response might be, “Hey, I need to brush up on my skills.”

Karen Kocher:

One thing that really interests me is going back to the skilling side of things; a lot of people are interested in skilling once they realize that the skills that they have, or the occupation that they're in, are on the downtrend.

And so I think what's incumbent on us, and I know like at Microsoft we have LinkedIn. And one of the things that's really tricky about LinkedIn is they have all kinds of resources and tools that can help an individual understand, like where is your occupation in the trajectory of one that is increasing in need and opportunity or decreasing. And similarly, what about skills? Like what skills are the skills that are the difference makers, both in terms of compensation and in terms of occupation and employability?

And so, because what I've always learned by talking to people is if only they knew—like people don't want to stay in a job that is going to be outdated. They don't want to let their skills lapse, but it's almost as if we're all busy doing what we do every day and until some resource tells us, “Whoa, you might want to start thinking differently,” people don't. And so I think it is incumbent on all of us to figure out how to get the word out to people about where they stand in the path, the upward path and the downward path, with their skills, with their occupations, and what they can do to help themselves earn more, stay employable. These types of things are so critical.

Stacia Garr:

Well, I think Karen, that leads us really nicely to probably my greatest energy around this topic, which is around data. So I know there was a story a number of years ago. Now looking back seems very forward, thinking about, for instance, AT&T doing this, where they would highlight for folks, “These are kind of the careers and skill sets that are going up in our organization; these are the ones that are in less demand, and here's some learning that might help you make that transition.”

All of that was built on a foundation of data around skills and what the organization was going to need. So I'm wondering if you can talk to us a little bit about how you're thinking about data in this context, as it relates to skills, learning platforms—how are you communicating this information?

Karen Kocher:

Yeah, I mean, it's a terrific question and I think you're exactly right. I think that the data, as with most things these days, the data is the key, which is why, if you're listening to this podcast and you haven't thought of becoming a data scientist, you just might want to do that because that would be a really great occupation to pursue, or a data analyst, anything in the data field—have at it, because you'd be employed for a very long time!

So I think it's such a great question, and I think that is the key. Like when we first started doing work to try to understand how it is that we could go about helping people get intrinsically motivated to pursue skills and occupations that would better set them up for long-term employability.

The first thing we learned by talking to almost everybody was they just don't have the insights: they don't know where they can go to get data they would trust about what is going up, what is going down, and how they fit in all thatand what are the right steps for them to take? And so I think that a lot of these tools and resources that we talk about, they're set up for skilling, or  they're set up for knowledge transfer or for training, but somehow you got to get people to that point.

And so just having a learning system where people can go and self-serve content isn't really good enough; there’s gotta be a way to help people understand where they fit in all this equation. And then of course, once you've gotten them to understand that, they need to make some sort of a change.

By the way, the change may simply be additive. Like the trends that we're seeing most of are these what we call the five hybrid skills: and so the five hybrid skills to your point, Stacia, number one is data, right? So if you're a nurse, you need to be able to better work with and understand and influence data. If you're a Hertz Rental car return expert, you can see that they have those little handheld devices there—you need to be able to do the same. So really every occupation needs to be better at working with interpreting, influencing, with data.

So what we're saying to people is you don't have to move away from being a nurse: you don't have to move away from being a CRM expert—but you do have to incorporate a knowledge of data that will not only help you command a higher salary, but will help you stay relevant in the workforce. And so there's these five hybrid skills, but we have to help people understand these. And like I mentioned, what Microsoft is doing with LinkedIn, as part of our 25 million people that we're going to help skill, we absolutely have brought to bear—through MSLearn, through LinkedIn and other platforms,—the opportunity for people to understand what are those jobs, what are those skills?

And my recommendation would be for anybody, whether you're a government, a company, or a provider of skilling resources, to not forget that first step, where people don't complete skilling if they're not intrinsically motivated: and people are intrinsically motivated by knowing that they'll get a job, they'll keep a job, or they'll earn higher compensation to be able to provide better for their families.

That's what motivates people, and we somehow have to help that be at the front end of the process.

Chris Pirie:

And the role of LinkedIn, there is this so-called economic graph that they have, that they're just the picture they have of talent and talent movement, and opportunities, is a dataset that you leveraged in the context of the Skills Initiative to help people understand where opportunities are coming from.

Karen Kocher:

Yeah, absolutely. The economic graph is typically built on a community view. Now it can be be built on a company view for sure, but it's typically a community view. So as an example, I mentioned those conversations I had with the president of Chile, et cetera. We went into those conversations with an economic graph view of their country that shows inflows of talent and skills, where those outflows are going to, which countries are benefiting from the exporting of your talent. That shows where you have the most skill opportunities, based on jobs that are being posted as an example on LinkedIn, where do you have the most need and demand for certain skills that in some cases is going unfulfilled.

And so there's all kinds of great information there on the individual side. What's really terrific is if you go out to LinkedIn you can also very quickly just go out and to different parts of the site and see in your area what are the highest in-demand skills that are being solicited for. So, it's a great resource, and there's other good resources as well, but from the Microsoft perspective, I think we have a healthy recognition that it has to start with the individual being well-informed and triggered.

Stacia Garr:

I just wanted—because I think our listeners will be curious—you mentioned those five hybrid skills. I was wondering if you could share with us what the other ones are?

Karen Kocher:

This is actually based on, by the way, a paper Microsoft puts together on a regular basis. This one was called Predictions 2019 and Beyond. And in that paper, a good portion of it was devoted to the skilling subject. And what was called out was this set of these five skills that basically drive not only employability but, equally important for people who don't want to change their occupations, they drive a higher level of compensation.

And I know that this is a podcast, and you can't see what I'm talking about, but if you could, I actually have two slides in front of me: one lists the five skills, which I'll tell you what those are, and then the second slide actually shows five occupations, everything from a marketing manager, through a customer service manager, and pretty much everything in between and it shows the impact of the compensation on those jobs of having these hybridized skills versus not, and I'll give you an example, as I tell you the skills.

So the five skills are number one, big data and the analytics, which we talked about; number two, the intersection of design and development, and although I didn't talk about it as a hybrid skill, I actually talked about this early on when Stacia asked what I think was the most important body of work that my team does. And I mentioned that design work. Like, it can't be all about, “Let's just sit in a conference room and develop things that we think sound neat;” you really do have to get out there and work with your customers to design in such a way that it is inspiring, it is promoted, it’s utilized, right? So that's that intersection of design and development. Number three is sales and customer service. So I think we would all agree that as we are moving forward, everybody is a difference maker in whether somebody returns to your company or somebody walks away from the interaction feeling good. So everybody's gotta be somewhat sales-oriented, somewhat customer service-oriented, highly customer-centered.

Number four is emerging digital technologies—this one I think, speaks for itself. Everybody seems to know that you need some kind of digital wherewithal, and the level of digital wherewithal, of course, depends on the job you have, but everybody needs at least a basic foundation in digital. And then lastly is this evolving compliance and regulatory landscape, and the reason I really like this one is I always think of this as you don't get to use as your excuse ‘You didn't know’—"I didn't know that that was a regulation or I wouldn't have done that,” or “I didn't know that I needed to comply with that.” Long gone are the days where you get to say that and keep your job, people. Like, sorry, but you probably should have read that document or done that training because you needed to know that.

And so those are the five, and let me just give you one really quick example. So if you're talking about a marketing manager, a marketing manager who is a traditional marketing manager, they make on average $71,000. If you are a marketing manager who has a skill in SQL, you make $100,000 on average, that is a 41% premium because you have more digital marketing and data-based marketing expertise than in traditional marketing.

I'll give you just one other really quick example: if you're a civil engineer and you have the ability to work in more as a sales- and customer-centered, people-oriented individual, you command a 12% premium, so $87,000 on average versus $78,000. So what's important here is every time somebody talks about skills, we’re not suggesting that if you have a real passion in civil engineering or marketing, you have to leave the marketing function. You can stay in the marketing function, but these skills are such a difference maker, because if you're a marketing manager and you can command 41% higher compensation, I don't know of many people who would opt out of that.

Chris Pirie:

This is really interesting; this is sort of the disruption and the digital transformation of these professions, right? They're not standing still—they’re being impacted by the change that's going on around them.

Karen Kocher:

And although we talk about digital, a lot, of course, understandably, there are these five skills, right? So occupations are being challenged by one or more of these, up to different degrees. But I think if people keep their eyes on these five and work on getting to a reasonable level of proficiency in all five, your agility into other occupations or just more advanced levels of your own current occupation would be quite improved.

Chris Pirie:

I want to shift a little bit if we can. These topics have already come up, but when I think of Microsoft, I think of a rich tradition and history around credentialing, but also, I see this sort of emerging equivalent of credentialing, which is the kind of reputation that you might get through being active on a platform like LinkedIn. How does credentialing seeking and the tools around credentialing fit into this program, Karen?

Karen Kocher:

I absolutely love the spirit of credentialing, because one of the things that we learned in the work that we started doing around 21st century skilling was for employability,—you really do need to be able to demonstrate that you have the skills.

And that's what employers told us—when we went out to employers and said, we need to know if we're going to skill people, and then we're going to bring you those skilled people, what’s it going to take for you to give them a job? That's like the last mile of all things skilling as people need to actually get the job. And what we heard over and over and over again from the employers was we need them to be able to demonstrate they have the skill and demonstrate they had the skill in a real-world, business-project context.

And so what we started to realize was that credentialing, to your point, Chris, is essential as long as the credentialing is based on what I just said. I think the good news is a lot of the credentialing over the years has moved in that direction and done so quite successfully: long gone are the days where you could sit down and just answer multiple choice questions and prove that you had learned whatever you've learned about a particular topic.

You really do most of these credentials, now in order to get the credential, you have to go in. A perfect one is back. I think this one that most people are probably familiar with, especially in the world with technology ,is the CISSP, which is the Cisco certification that at the time that it was unveiled was known as one of the most difficult to get, because you really had to be able to prove the ability to work with and apply the skills of electrical engineering and Internet security and all these types of topics. And it's evolved since then; so most of the credentials now are really good like that.

So I think that's what people need to be on the lookout for. And so we built into our skilling initiative, the credentials, because our credentials are based on real world projects and real world, hands-on demonstration of being able to do the job—and that's what employers want. And so if you're out there thinking about getting a skill, try to make sure that you also successfully get the credential and the credential is as real-world project-based, as it can possibly be.

Chris Pirie:

Just to wrap up on this, the 25-million-person Skills Initiative, do you know where it is in its evolution? You've got any sense of impact or progress?

Karen Kocher:

Yeah, it's a great question. The last I saw—and my data is about a month old—but the last I saw, we had already successfully helped several million people. So I think it was over 3 million people we've already successfully helped scale. And I think we announced it in like, say, May or June—and so that's in six months or less, we've already helped to deliver skills to millions of people. We were quite pleased about that, and it is ultimately a global opportunity; I believe most of the early work that we did was for the United States, but I know that there is the intent of going beyond that.

Stacia Garr:

We know that you all have famously focused on building alerting culture under Satya Nadella, and the shift to the Learn-It-All culture. We want to understand how that has impacted your work, and where you feel Microsoft is on that journey?

Karen Kocher:

There is no doubt that Satya has been the absolute best influencer of the desire to Learn-It-All at Microsoft that you could ask for. I mean, he's tremendous, he's just tremendous at that every day—he demonstrates the desire to Learn-it-All. He is learning it all, and he inspires and encourages others to do the same. That's been phenomenal, right?

It is interesting that what we're on the journey to do now, as Microsoft is, is to try to move the whole culture. I guess the way I can best describe this is people are very motivated to learn it all. I think our formal learning function and solutions are trying to catch up—and that's not a negative, I think that's just reality; formal learning for so many years has been more programmatic, and more push-oriented and more individual-oriented. I think what we're trying to do, not unlike most companies—and we're seeing some really good success here—is to move to much more of a social learning situation, much more of a peer-to-peer learning situation and much more of in the flow—people have heard that a lot—so that as people are working, they can benefit from acquiring knowledge and using that to create skill.

And that just takes a little bit of time, right? You need the knowledge and skill on your own learning team to be able to work in that way. Then you have to encourage and change the mindsets and the behaviors of leaders and managers in that direction, et cetera. So it's definitely a journey that I think most every company is on.

I think the great news is we have people that are inspired and want to be that way. Now we just have to be able to put in front of them ways of doing that that are effective as part of the formal learning process, and we're just moving in that direction and starting to learn more about it.

Stacia Garr:

I'd love your thoughts there on what the level of responsibilities should be though, of your group. Because it's interesting, right? When you're actually trying to create that culture, obviously the people who are in the broader organization need to have a fair amount of responsibility for that. And so as you think about this, where does that line of responsibility lie? What should your team be responsible for doing and creating versus what you would expect business leaders or managers or individual employees to be doing?

Karen Kocher:

We have a mindset of enablement. And I say it that way on purpose—we have a mindset of enablement; we don't necessarily have as much skill or capability in that area as we will ultimately need to have. But we know the right thing to do to create this pervasive learning culture that I described, right? Where people are learning as peers, people are learning as communities, right, where people are just in the flow getting what they need and taking advantage of it. Yes, we have to do things differently as a learning function, but primarily what we have to do differently is enable other people to do what they need to do.

And so a great example is user-generated content: there's no possible way the learning function is ever going to know as quickly as it needs to all the things that the people in the company need to know: the employees in the company know, even if it's just one or two, they know exactly what somebody will benefit from knowing next week. And so if they were enabled to generate that content and to put that content out into the ecosystem and others could easily find it and make use of it and do the peer-to-peer learning with that individual who posted it—that’s our job going forward.

Our job is not to try to outpace everybody in the company, knowing what they know and create content for it. It's to enable the employees to do that same thing with businesses. And so we're trying to go through this activity of saying, what should we be the enablers of and the governors of versus what do we have to be the doers of? And actually, over time—and we're already seeing it happen quite quickly—we’re becoming the doers of a lot less and the enablers of a lot more.

And we're actually finding out from the businesses and from individuals in the businesses that that is their preference: if it's simple, intuitive, clear that they can do their part in this in a way that is quick and easy and impactful, they're happy to do it. They don't want us to do it, they don't want to wait for us, but we just have to be the enablers. And I think that is a different mindset and it's a different skill set.

Chris Pirie:

It's a hard journey, isn’t it, I think, for a lot of L&D teams, because traditionally it was very much a sort of guided learning, a lot of the artifacts we have are very directive and controlling, and to get out of the way, I think, is kind of hard for a lot of learning teams.

I think perhaps the word ‘Experience’ in your job title, a function title might be a sort of clue to how you're thinking differently about that. Is it about creating experiences for people, rather than creating content?

Karen Kocher:

Absolutely, yeah: I think it's definitely the experience and what's great about it is it's not just the experience of the quote-unquote learner—it’s like, what do you want the learning experience at Microsoft to be broadly? And if you want the learning experience to be one that is rapid and agile and expertise-driven, you go through the principles that we have, then right away you say to yourself, there's no possible way we, as the learning function can do that; we just can't, we don't have the expertise. We can't be as quick as the guy out there in the field, who's just learned that from a customer.

And so once you get your head around the fact that the right answer is enablement, I agree with you, Chris. I think that us learning folks, we have a tough time with that because we perceive that our value comes from the widget ready, the value comes from the program, but the value doesn't come from the program The value comes from the person, ultimately and as quickly as possible, having that knowledge, having that skill and being able to contribute to the business more quickly. And if our best part in that is enabling other people to do things versus doing it ourselves, then we've actually made the right decision and we're doing what is our most value-add part of that.

But it's just a different mindset. I think people are afraid of giving up control, because in control, somehow, we see our value.

Chris Pirie:

I want to steer the conversation to the future of work. I mean, we've talked a lot about the future of learning and where we are. I know that's part of your role and we've just gone through an extraordinary 12 months where, in some respects, it feels like the future has been accelerated, and in other respects, if it has been blown up completely! How are you and how is Microsoft thinking about the near future of work and what we all have to do to sort of prepare for that?

Karen Kocher:

March 18, 2020, Microsoft went home. We've been home ever since for the majority of the employees with some exceptions. And we did exactly what you said, right? We had a White Paper on the future of work at Microsoft, and it had a vision in there and in a strategy and some plans, and we assumed it would probably take us five years to get to the end of the White Paper, right, where we'd be ready for White Paper #2. And it ended up being a 12-month White Paper!

And so, yeah, I think that that's not unusual for many people. In fact, yesterday, we just had a conversation with Bob Johansen from the Institute for the Future. And he said, if this situation has taught us anything, it's that the three-horizon model, what you really need to do is have horizon one and then move three in front of two, because you really don't have the luxury anymore of two, because two takes a long time.

And I thought that was so profound. It's like, and that's exactly what happened to most companies with COVID is that we took what would have been three—horizon three in our case, would've been five years from now—and it became horizon two. And so we announced on October 7th that Microsoft would be moving to a hybrid, flexible workplace. And what that means is that every Microsoft employee can work less than 50% of the time from home without any approval whatsoever—which is a big shift for those of you that know Microsoft; I mean, we've always had flexible work arrangements, but we were also quite a campus-oriented culture. And so the fact that everybody can now decide to work at home, you say two days a week or two, two and a half days a week, is pretty amazing without any sort of approval at all. And so there's a lot more in there, but we have absolutely started to move quite significantly to this hybrid, flexible work environment, giving employees much more empowerment to decide where and when and how often to work in a way that's best for them.

Chris Pirie:

Just on the future of work: what do you think about this kind of next phase, ‘horizon three’?

Karen Kocher:

I'll just use us as an example. I mean a hybrid work environment is a really difficult set up to perfect, right? Some people who are in the office, some people who are never in the office, and then you've got the people that are a blend of both.

And just take some basic things: how do people who are never in the office have equal access to opportunity as people who are in the office all the time? And that's a hard thing to figure out and to do. And that's everything from the mindsets of leaders to behaviors of managers, to the skills that an employee has and how they use those skills to get access and be involved and included.

So many things there. And so I would say what we're most focused on is we feel good about the model that we've selected; it’s now a matter of learning everything we possibly can, and then applying those learnings so that we can be a high-performing company with the culture that we have that has worked so well, but in a hybrid context.

And I think that's where we're going to see our ‘horizon three’ in this new world now, and I would say that most companies probably feel similar. Like we ended up in the model for all the right reasons quite quickly, but now making it a model that you can actually grow within as a company and succeed, and have people feel equally good about and be engaged in is going to be a really time-consuming and difficult thing to do—but I think it'll be really energizing and inspiring.

Stacia Garr:

As your team looks to enable this new workplace, what type of skills do you think your team's going to need? And then also expanding out to the broader organization, skills that they're going to need to adapt to this new environment?

Karen Kocher:

For the group that I lead, what we're really focused on are the skills that help you be a really good leader of a listening system. Because one of the things that I think we're all realizing is, we don't know nearly enough to be able to make the decisions with confidence that we'd like to; these listening systems are really critical. So it's good because, back to the data conversation that we had at the beginning—what are the right listening systems? How do you get those signals? How do you decide which of those signals to pay most attention to and invest more time and effort into, et cetera?

And so I think that's just really critical because as we work towards stage six, which means people can be back in the office and working as normal, we need to know how are the countries that are closer to stage six, what are they seeing and what are they experiencing, and what kind of changes may we need to make across our ecosystem based on what they're learning and seeing?

So this whole listening system concept becomes really critical—and that's not for just us, that’s also for managers. Because if you're a manager and you're managing a hybrid team going forward, you don't have the opportunity to sit in the conference room and see the physical cues like you used to. You may be in a conference room, but you may have people that are in all different parts of the world. And like, how are they socially cohesive? How do they have that team bond that will help them endure through a really tough period of time or a really hard project?

And so we're trying to figure out what kind of data do we even need to give to managers so that they can understand the status of their team in these behavior areas that are so important for success in a hybrid environment. And then once they have the data, how do they know how to interpret it so that they know what actions to take? There's a lot there.

So those are the skills that we need—and then of course there are skills that managers and leaders will need to work well in this new way. And there's just a lot there.

Chris Pirie:

We've covered a lot of ground, and I'm just looking at the clock; was there something else that we should've asked you about skills that Microsoft, Karen, that’s top of mind for you?

Karen Kocher:

The only thing that I would say is it really goes back to hybrid skills. I mean, I think for me the most profound point in all of the skillful conversations is that everybody doesn't have to think of it so largely. And I think that is unfortunately, sometimes where the conversation goes—it's put in front of people as if you have to think about it as a new career, like a new job, like upend, everything you've ever known and move from whatever you've been doing to something dramatically different.

And I think that's frightening, and understandably, to people and it's significant, it's time consuming, maybe expensive. And so I think if people just took a step back and said, what skills could I acquire that would help me be more employable, even if it's simply as what I am right now, I'm more employable and a better wage earner, then it's more like bite size, right? I can pick up some digital skills; I can pick up some customer-centric skills or some design skills or data skills, and I can make progress, and feel really good about myself, and also get some good outcomes out of it, without it feeling so overwhelming—because I think in that overwhelming is where you see so many people drop out, right? They get three courses into a huge skilling initiative and then they just stop.

And so, that would be what I would say as a wrap up, back to those five hybrid skills, I would say that pay attention to those and start to work on those. And then if you're really into it and you start to see some great outcomes and you want to bite off more, sure, go ahead and do that. But I think people would be set up for success if they attack it more in that way.

Chris Pirie:

And of course, what you're talking about there is a growth mindset, and the sort of curiosity drivers that we talked about earlier as well.

Stacia Garr:

So our closing question, and this ties back to kind of where we started with this whole thing, which is actually around purpose, the whole podcast collaboration that we're doing. And so we like to ask everybody about their own purpose—and really Karen, why do you do the work that you do? Is there something that inspired you to do that work?

Karen Kocher:

This is going to sound funny, but I'm a very big proponent of mysteries: like I love mystery books and I love mystery shows, my mom got me into that when I was a kid.

I love problem solving, so I tend to look at all of this as ideally, proactively a way of solving a problem. And for individuals, the quote, unquote, the problem is we all want to be valuable, right? We all want to be long-term in this case, employable; we all want to have valued skills and be recognized for things. And so when you look at it that way, you say to yourself, well then what is the problem in all of this, right? What's preventing all of that for everybody we know? And I think that's when you start to think about ways that we can really help people have better experiences so that they do want to participate, like they're just energized, and in that energy, they then sustain and acquire these skills.

I just have always loved this because I think that there are so many problems in all of this. I'm not necessarily for everybody, but for so many people and that if we can figure this out, it makes such a huge difference in the lives of really everyone. And that's what gets me up every day to come in and keep looking at this and working on it.

Stacia Garr:

One final thing we want to ask. People want to learn more about you and your work, where can they find you?

Karen Kocher:

Find me on LinkedIn—it’s ‘K K O C H E R’—and I'd be delighted to chat more about any and all of this with anybody who's interested.

Stacia Garr:

Thanks for listening to the RedThread Research podcast about the near future of people and work practices: please subscribe and rate us on the podcast platform of your choice and share with your friends and colleagues. You can find additional materials, including our research and research agenda, at www.red thread research.com.

Chris Pirie:

We are very grateful to Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; its one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.

Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team, Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.