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    My job in higher ed with Lurlene Duggan, Chief Learning Officer at Microsoft

    Lurlene Duggan talks about the importance of giving people time to learn and how they expect a capability deficit in the workforce.
    Last updated:
    December 3, 2021

    Lurlene Duggan is the Chief Learning Officer at Microsoft Western Europe, responsible for landing the required curriculum for the entire Microsoft community - employees, customers and future generations - to align with the organisation's mission to empower every person and every organisation on the planet to achieve more. During this interview, Lurlene talks about the importance of allowing people time to learn and share their learnings, highlights some of the successful partnerships that Microsoft has with leading universities and tells us how Microsoft is preparing itself and its partners to cope with a future capability deficit in the workforce.

    How do you describe your current role as Chief Learning Officer at Microsoft? What are your main responsibilities and goals?


    Chief Learning Officer is such a big title that has lots of different connotations. For me, Microsoft went through a dynamic shift five years ago when Satya Nadella became our CEO. He has a very clear mission when it comes to enabling every person on the planet to achieve more. To do that, we have to give people the skills that they need to be successful.

    Microsoft adopted a very agile model which led to a new wider focus of our learning organisation and the creation of the Chief Learning Officer role. The role ultimately focuses on skills for internal employees, customers,  partners and future generations, particularly around AI and how that's going to frame and contextualise the roles that are needed in the future.

    My responsibilities are really to make sure that we're providing and landing the required curriculum across all of the audiences. 

    "We also look at the skills needed for future generations, particularly around AI and how that's going to frame and contextualise the roles that are needed in the future."

    What are the biggest challenges and rewards in your current role?


    It’s a big challenge to refocus organisations on giving people time to learn. People need to prioritise time to learn because it doesn't just happen. It’s very important to deliberately allow yourself moments to learn and then stick to it. One of the big difficulties for most people, particularly in sales organisations, is that they schedule time to learn but end up doing their emails or their expenses.

    As a consequence, they start to punish themselves psychologically because they failed to do what they set out to do; subliminally they begin to hate learning because they always fail - it's a vicious circle. I believe that the best thing someone can do for themselves is to stick to their plan. If you put time in the diary to learn then go and do it. Whether it's reading a book, participating in a course or following a MOOC online.

    When people give themselves that time, they feel a great sense of accomplishment.

    The most rewarding thing about my role is seeing people consume content and relate that learning to their role. This year we're really working  on landing more technical certifications and OpenHacks. This allows people to come into a room with PCs under their arm and work on a technical problem with other experts, apply their learning and putting the theory into practice. 

    Have you been investing a lot in online learning?


    Yes, we consolidated our online learning onto MS learn, which is our default go to certification site. It's the first point of access to learning for internal employees and external learners. 

    We also partner with some of the world's leading business schools such as INSEAD, Wharton and The London Business School to develop MOOCS that support the requirements that we have in our business from a sales and professional capability perspective. These work really well! I'm really pleased to say that Western Europe was one of the highest consumers of those MOOCS last year - learning when you want it - it's awesome! 

    You’ve mentioned the development of MOOCs in partnership with leading business schools. Are there other types of partnerships that you have with higher ed institutions?


    The MOOCS that were developed in partnership with universities have been exceptional and very well received by our internal communities. But a lot of universities are already leading the way in terms of content and already have established vehicles around building content so we want to leverage that.

    Recently, we developed an AI business school in conjunction with INSEAD, which is available on MS learn for everybody (externally and internally) to consume online. It consists of multiple modules around AI, by industry, and at the end you receive a certification. This partnership really broke new ground because the content is we open to the general population. We truly feel that this learning is important for our customers to consume, CxO particularly as it helps them understand where AI can support and help them grow their business. 

    With the amount of information available and technology advancing at an incredible speed, how do you ensure that learners have enough time to reflect and apply what they have learned in their work?


    It is important to measure the return on investment, however it is difficult to do so. We of course have internal metrics that we use to test the impact of the learning we ask our employees to consume. On the basis that we want to give people time to practice their skills we focus a lot on those practical events such as OpenHacks that are part of an internal employee certification journey.

    We also create learning cohorts and champion cohorts. Western Europe is comprised of 12 countries, excluding France, the UK and Germany, with a very diverse population so some learning styles don’t fit some subsidiaries or countries. We need to ensure we have that level of agility and this is where our champion cohorts work really well.

    For example, you bring a community of people in a similar role together and they get to share their experiences. This a big focus for us this year. My team are working a process across Western Europe to build those champion communities to let people come together to reflect and learn how to apply what they've learned in their work.

    "We need to ensure we have that level of agility and this is where our champion cohorts work really well."

    Photo Credit: #OpenHack Amsterdam by TechNetblogs

    Do you give employees a specific amount of time to learn and reflect or do employees chose how to use their work time for learning purposes as well?


    It depends. Some subsidies or countries create moments in people’s diaries to give them the opportunity to learn while other subsidiaries leave it to the individuals to find the best time to learn by themselves. We also encourage collaborative learning. For example, we had a group of 60 senior people come together to consume the 1st week of a MOOC - which lead to very interesting discussions and a great dynamic. 

    "I believe that companies that don’t invest in people’s skills see their employees as a commodity."

    I believe that companies that don’t invest in people’s skills see their employees as a commodity. At Microsoft the direct is clear - we apply a growth mindset - to invest in people’s skills so that they can achieve more for themselves and their customers, so their managers are very mindful that they need to allow time for their teams to learn.

    A few years ago, corporate learning was dominated by classroom learning and executive education but nowadays you have new players, new learning methods and different types of certifications available. How do you think universities can adapt to these changes?


    I think forming partnerships with leading tech firms is really important and making sure that the course curriculums stays current and up to date with the evolution of what's happening in the markets and the workforce.

    I know - certainly from Microsoft's perspective - we've got an amazing education team in place who are doing some very innovative things across their markets and I would advocate that universities in general should reach out to make sure that they are engaged. It’s part of the team’s remit to develop tech skills for education and we're here to help universities do better and businesses to keep evolving.

    What’s your view on the concept of lifelong learning?


    I always say that everyday is a school day. For me it’s threefold.

    The first thing is acknowledging a moment when you've just learned something because it can just be a moment. It could be something interesting that a colleague shared in a conversation that you didn’t know before. I think those moments are really important.

    The second point is that as you move through your career, you need to be very mindful of what your end plan is and complement that with learning. Learning can be anything from reading a book, doing a course, or having a really good mentor that's going to point you in the right direction to build relationships or to buddy with somebody who's in a role that you think you may want to get in the future. It’s important to have that kind of mindful planning of how learning is going to support your career.

    Finally, it’s important to consume the content that's recommended for your current role. I don’t believe that learning ever stops. Particularly at Microsoft, we will keep our internal employees - our business and the speed of its evolution is ever increasing, so there will always be something new to learn.

    I think lifelong learning allows you to build an incredible journey. Personally, I made a big career change seven years ago and went down a very different path. I had to take a leap of faith and decided to learn and do something new. These moments of bravery and deciding to learn and do something new can lead to exceptional things.

    Many people say that you learn by doing and also from making my mistakes. How can an organisation foster experimentation and allow room for error?


    At Microsoft, we actually reward people for leveraging the work of others and for sharing their work with other -  including sharing mistakes and reflecting on what they would have done differently. So as part of our performance reviews and our one to one coaching sessions we encourage people to reflect and ask different questions such as: "What was your business impact?"; "Talk to me about a time when you did something and shared it with the wider community"; "What did you learn from that?”.

    This opens up a really transparent and honest dialogue about what didn't go so well, why it didn't go so well and what can be done differently going forward. We want to make sure that people leverage the work of others and collaborate better. 

    A recent McKinsey study states that by 2030, as many as 375 million workers may need new occupations and to learn new skills. Do you agree with this? What are these future skills that people need to learn?


    Yes, this is absolutely one of the key drivers of our learning focus . We know that within the next two to three years, we're going to have a capability deficit in the workforce.  I think that one of biggest gaps will probably be in the area of AI and we are looking to fill the gap through MsLearn. 

    "We know that within the next two to three years, we're going to have a capability deficit in the workforce."

    There are a lot of roles out there today that simply didn't exist five years ago. I believe we're going to see another potential jump around the area of AI and that’s why we are creating more content to help our customers and our employees get ready for that shift.

    We understand you also direct drama productions which can also be a powerful learning tool. How do you think drama and performing arts can be used as a learning tool?


    At a simplistic level, role play and rehearsing is a great way to hone skills. Even a simple thing such as recording yourself and playing it back is a great way to analyse your skills. From an education perspective, drama and performing arts is a very effective way to encourage peer to peer interaction, storytelling and stage presence.

    What do you think learning and development will look like in five years?


    I think that technology is going to really push forward how we collaborate. I think MOOCS are great and we have an amazing opportunity with online content but for me the big shift will be the way that students use that content to collaborate with their peers. There’s a really good example from a Professor at the University of New South Wales, who enhanced the experience of his students and transformed the classroom and learning experience through Microsoft Teams, a collaboration app.

    "The big shift will be they way that students use that content to collaborate with their peers. "

    In this video Dr. David Kellermann explains how he used Microsoft Teams to get 500 students to work together as a team and build a learning community.

    My Job in Higher Ed is a monthly series. Take a look at our other interviews.



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