Chris Weller: 00:05
Depending on which statistics you read, artificial intelligence is either decades away or right on the verge of taking all of our jobs. One report from the Brookings institution found that roughly 36 million American jobs or about a quarter of the workforce, could be replaced by today’s technology alone. All that’s to say we need to care about skills, upskilling, reskilling, cross skilling, they’re all important in this new rapidly changing world of work. Deb Bubb sees this everyday at IBM, where she serves as the chief leadership and learning officer and it’s not just the hard skills like programming Deb wants to focus on. It’s the soft skills too, collaboration, communication, but that’s actually the second step if you want widespread learning. The first step, Deb says, is getting people to care.
I’m Chris Weller and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. In today’s episode, I’m joined by Deb Bubb, Chief Leadership and Learning officer at IBM, and Dr. David Rock, co founder and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. Our discussion focuses on leaders cultivating a sense of belonging, the importance of coherent learning and how skills have become a modern day currency.
Deb and David, thanks for joining me.
David Rock: 01:19 Thanks, Chris. Great to be here with you. Thanks Deb as well.
Deb Bubb: 01:21 Yeah, great to be with you both.
Chris Weller: 01:24 Deb, we’ve got a lot of interesting things to discuss around skills, but I know there’s a precursor for that, which is inclusion, helping people feel engaged so they stay motivated and I know there’s a story you’re fond of. Do you mind sharing it?
Deb Bubb: 01:37 So we were having a lovely dinner conversation with a friend of mine, closely related to the work I do in culture, leadership and inclusion and also fascinating to my parents who are at the table and my husband. It was just a very engaged adult dialog. And at the other end of the table were my 10 year old twins and my daughter stood up at the table and said in a very clear and curious way, “Hey, what you’re talking about sounds really interesting. I’d love to be included in your conversation. Could you explain it to me a little bit more so that I can be part of it?” And you could have heard a pin drop, you know. It was such a lovely, nonjudgmental, not emotionally reactive, just a lovely signal from the other ends of the table that while we were all enjoying a connected conversation and a wonderful Easter dinner, they were feeling a little alone at the other end of the table and hearing this exciting dialogue happening, just wanting to be pulled in.
And my colleague and friend, wasn’t sure exactly what he would say. You know, here, this 10 year old is pretty directly asking for something. And he turned to her and said, “Of course.” And she, with his invitation, asked a couple of questions and proceeded to participate very fully and very creatively in the conversation. And it really struck me in that moment, you know, what can I learn from her? How many times as an adult have I missed the opportunity to create more full inclusion? Wow. Just to have that language at my fingertips, like that is the skill we’re all looking for.
Chris Weller: 03:24 I love that story because it shows the curiosity to learn requires being included. Deb, tell me, you’ve been at IBM for several years now. What’s been really exciting for you lately around inclusion and skills?
Deb Bubb: 03:35 Well, you know, last year we really pivoted the focus from a leadership and culture point of view to this sort of data-driven, science-based and human centered approach and saw a five point increase in manager engagement and executive engagement. And I think really materially making a difference in the management leadership culture here. You know, the shift to empowering continuous learning, which moving from 7% of the learning happening in the digital context to 98% of IBM is having access to that content and actively growing their skills and their engagement as a result. And then in the diversity and inclusion space, last year, we made the biggest increase in representation at IBM in a decade.
David Rock: 04:23 That’s some amazing work. Congratulations on your first few years there. I love those three things. Data-driven, science-based, human centered. It’s a great guiding framework for how to think about learning. As you think about impacts that you and the organizations having, makes me think about the upskilling trend that’s happening globally or really reskilling trend I guess. And how is IBM playing in this and how you playing in this and yeah, what are you seeing around that whole reskilling trend out in the world?
Deb Bubb: 04:49 Yeah, I mean we’re thinking about skilling in all directions. So there’s reskilling, upskilling, new skilling, future skillings, you know, skills are definitely the name of the game. So my team is significantly involved in and deeply focused on how to create a really truly modern learning ecosystem that can move at the rate and pace of technology and soft skills today. So that means a bunch of things. It means some really fundamental work on improving the coherence and quality of the learning we provide. Really exciting news, we just signed a big agreement with the country of France to use your learning environment in combination with the content, some of the content we’ve been building through our new collar and apprenticeship programs to help with the reskilling and apprenticeship of French people and we’re pursuing similar kind of offerings with other countries in Europe.
David Rock: 05:56 That’s a really a kind of mind bending idea. An entire country is a client. We think we’re proud because we can work at the level of 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 people at once in the work we’re doing. And we’re seeing amazing data on rolling out things to hundreds of thousands of people at once. But you’re talking an entire country.
Chris Weller: 06:20 A few more people.
David Rock: 06:22 A few more people, I’m going to have to think about that a bit more. That’s really exciting and yeah, great to hear what you’re up to there. Do you have any data on the amount of learning people are doing? Is there anything you’re able to share?
Deb Bubb: 06:31 Absolutely. On average, IBMers are learning about 60 hours per year and that amount is increasing. It’s on the rise.
David Rock: 06:40 I’m curious, one of the upsides of these kinds of platforms I think is people being able to curate their own journey and kind of look for what they want. I think one of the downsides is the coherence challenge is kind of everything fitting together and you kind of, you know, too many models and that kind of thing. Can you speak to maybe the upside and the downside there and sort of how you’ve been thinking about that?
Deb Bubb: 07:02 There’s an inherent tension between variety and quantity, the ability to get to a really diverse rich mix of possible options versus the benefit of curating only a select few to get everyone thinking about only the most important content.
Chris Weller: 07:20 We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we’ll talk more with Deb about what makes some learning programs successful and others a big confusing mess.
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Chris Weller: 07:53 David, I wanted to get your thoughts a little bit on coherence more broadly. What is it about a learning platform or system that needs to be coherent for it to be sticky, to work? What does it even mean to be coherent?
David Rock: 08:05 Yeah, coherence is an interesting idea. We’ve been talking about it kind of generally for over a decade and then we started to really develop like a science of coherence and a real language of coherence. You think of it as like structural integrity of ideas, so if you imagine the field of architecture before they thought about structural integrity, right? Basically build whatever, sometimes it falls apart, sometimes it holds together. Who really knows why? Well, that’s where learning is right now. Where learning is right now is people kind of build stuff, sometimes it holds together, sometimes it falls apart. No one’s really sure why.
You can actually study it and what you’re really trying to do with any kind of design, any kind of learning design or change design or even culture work design is you try to make sure it has this deep structural integrity and we’ve been looking at like what really means and it’s like a very clear hierarchy, you know what’s foundational, what’s first level, what’s next level, what’s maybe out, like you know how it all fits together versus you’re never really sure where is the roof and where is the floor, you know, like what’s important here? And that happens a lot with learning. You also know that things fit together in ways that stay together. You’ve got point A, point B, point C. You know that A connects to B and B connects to C, you know those links are strong. You’re not like constantly going back and forth, like hang on, was A supposed to connect to C? What’s B doing again?
Chris Weller: 09:32 They makes sense.
David Rock: 09:32 A lot of learning is just really kind of unclear how things fit together. So there’s a hierarchy question, there’s how things fit together. There’s also the issue of kind of one tool for each task. So right now, you’ll walk into a meeting and there’s some conflicts happen between team members. It’s like, okay, I have 19 different models I could use here, which one am I supposed to use here? What am I supposed to do? And so having kind of one model or tool or… maybe two, that’s okay, but not like dozens. And so pulling out those kinds of tangles of issues. And then also we have, you know, different language meeting the same thing and we have the same language meaning different thing. So these are some of the issues that essentially make it kind of a mess of coherence.
One of the things that we’re finding is that when you have neuroscience as your foundation, you can continue to come back to that as a way of connecting everything together. So if neuroscience is your foundation, then when you do some education on conflict resolution, you’ll be able to come back to education you did on team dynamics and on feedback and on inclusion and on, you know, employee voice. Like all these things kind of have some common ideas.
Chris Weller: 10:45 They’re coherent.
David Rock: 10:46 They’re coherent, but they come to some common ideas that you maybe come at from a different way. So you’re getting embedding of a few ideas. You’re getting like a more and more solid foundation. You’re continuing to kind of deepen and push down the foundation rather than building new things.
Deb Bubb: 11:04 And it makes the whole structure stronger as you go. And you can see where that’s really important in some areas and in the most important areas where you need people to be able to think and work together. You can also see how it can be overwhelming to do that on every topic. For example, we don’t need to recreate that for Python. It’s a well known external construct. We don’t need to recreate that coherence, instead we can conserve that for something important like inclusion as David just said and I think ultimately create a much stronger underlying culture as well as a company that can learn new things faster in those spaces because as the foundation gets very strong and there’s lots more confident exploring, experimentation that can really build the culture and extend it.
David Rock: 11:49 It’s interesting, we’ve actually found, and I haven’t seen hard research on this, but I’ve heard a lot of organizations tell me this and I’ve seen some writing that there’s such a big difference between technical skills and soft skills when it comes to learning. And I’m curious about your take on this Deb, but for me, I think of technical skills, people kind of know they need them and they think they’ll feel better if they have them. If their job is to code with Python, they sort of know they need it and they’re going to feel good about themselves. With soft skills, people generally think they don’t need them and they’re worried what they’ll learn if they like start learning. So there’s sort of this history of soft skills never really working as self-serve, whereas technical skills kind of do, but yeah, can you speak to that at all? What’s your experience been?
Deb Bubb: 12:33 I think one of the biggest pivots we’re making is to this whole concept of skills as a currency and when you break down any topic or any capability into its component skills, you can see a lot more of what’s happening. It gives you a lot more opportunity to apply the kind of rigor you’re describing in terms of the underlying science of what that skill is and you can know whether someone has it or doesn’t have it. When you apply that to a technical skill, you can see very clearly whether or not someone’s performing the skill or not performing the skill and as even more senior jobs become described in this skills as a currency kind of framework, I think that’s going to be an interesting pivot and revelation for us about how interested people are in acquiring and navigating these different skill domains.
And I think when you think about that in the context of soft skills, it gets a little more interesting for people. We haven’t really thought about soft skills broken down into their components in this way precisely. And I think often soft skills get conflated with the more general idea of personality and who you are and preferences. And so again, when you break them down in a sort of science-based way and start to think about, these are actually skills I can practice and apply, these are domains I can stretch my natural preferences or my personal training to encompass a much broader area of competence. And it can be quite empowering, also quite threatening. And so I think there’s a great opportunity for learning to make a difference in both of those domains. And I think soft skills are going to get much more important as AI gets more prevalent. You know, our ability to actually leverage creativity, communication, all of the soft skills, it’s just going to get much more important and so more important to study and master.
Chris Weller: 14:30 One thing I wanted to pose to the two of you is, and kind of on this coherence track, is how do you incorporate new skills that are right now unknown and unknowable because you want to make sure things are coherent, but you also can’t always prepare for everything, so how do you fold in new things that make sure that they kind of layer into what you already have?
Deb Bubb: 14:49 I really like what David said about building a solid foundation for us, things being data-driven, science-based and human centered is sort of a nice broad foundation for how we think about critically evaluating our leadership learning and inclusion strategy and content. I think building those kind of clear foundational components helps in deciding what’s in or out, whether something’s new, how to include it, how to incorporate it, and does it make the overall frame stronger or not? What outcomes does it lead to, lets you explore learning in a more objective and outcome-based way as opposed to someone’s idiosyncratic view about what’s necessary to learn.
David Rock: 15:33 That’s really true. Deb, one more personal question maybe, we’ve been working together for three years at IBM and previous roles and I remember when you first learned about our work and you were excited about the potential of neuroscience as a framework for culture and leadership work, what do you find as being the impact on you? Personally, I guess of kind of understanding your own brain and getting into that and how have you found the language of NeuroLeadership helpful to you?
I think it’s incredibly helpful. I mean, I’m a psychologist and a social worker by training. Having a digestible, consumable language for what it means to be a good leader, what it means to apply these concepts at scale has been incredibly empowering for me. You know, I mean, I think it’s accelerated my own growth and given me tools to communicate about deeply important and sometimes overlooked concepts that can be incredibly empowering in relationships, in leadership at scale and so for me, it’s made the work even more interesting, even more powerful and effective. And I think really a lot more scalable. I work in a high technology company and have worked in the high technology industry most of my career, and using the language of science to communicate about these deeply human topics, I think makes them digestible and powerful for an audience who might otherwise not see it as theirs.
Yeah, it’s really important to speak in that, yeah.
Deb Bubb: 17:13 Has allowed me to create like a currency of inclusion to speak across difference in a way that’s been quite powerful. So I can’t say enough about what a difference it’s made and how powerful the language and the constructs are.
David Rock: 17:28 Thanks. I appreciate that, yeah.
Chris Weller: 17:30 Yeah, that’s a great note to end on. Thank you Deb and David for the wonderful conversation, appreciate it both.
Deb Bubb: 17:36 You bet.
David Rock: 17:36 Thanks. Thanks so much Deb.
Chris Weller: 17:43 Your Brain At Work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organizations more human by rating, reviewing and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain At Work is Noah Gelb. Danielle Kirshenblad is our editor. Gabriel Berezin, our associate producer, and Brian Crummins, our sound mixer. Original music is by Grant Zubritsky, and logo design is by Ketch Wehr. A special thanks to Deb Bubb and David Rock, and to you, for listening.