Key Point for Traena:
Last Year, Uber hired a former-Harvard professor and started offering in-house courses to teach leadership and strategy.
This validates our problem statement that companies have a strong need to better educate and align their people, especially when the cost of failure is so high in this day and age.
Traena aims to fix this by effectively serving as an inexpensive outsourced 'Corporate University' so that leaders can train their people on whatever they need with the click of a button.
Full article from Forbes (w/ annotations) is below. Link: http://bit.ly/2nBhpSn.
INSIDE UBER'S EFFORT TO FIX ITS CULTURE THROUGH A HARVARD-INSPIRED 'UNIVERSITY'
The idea of a corporate university isn’t new. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously set up Apple University to teach company lore and indoctrinate employees in the company’s quirky ethos. McDonald’s Hamburger University teaches restaurant management skills and already has over 275,000 graduates.
But few, if any, startups have done it as quickly or with as much fervor as Uber. Given that the company has been lurching from crisis to crisis for more than a year, it’s newfound dedication to ‘educating’ managers and employees is not entirely surprising.
When national backlash against the company spiraled over its actions in a protest and its ties to Trump, more than 500,000 people deleted their accounts. When a blog post by a former engineer sparked a firestorm of accusations of sexual misconduct within the company, leading to an external investigation. The incidents were followed a string of federal investigations into its overly-aggressive business practices and a handful of high-stakes lawsuits. Eventually, the board forced CEO Travis Kalanick to resign. A new leader, Dara Khosrowshahi from Expedia, was brought in months later.
[Traena: Paragraph above highlights the high cost of failure these days when employees are not aligned with the company values and mission.]
To address the company’s large-scale and fundamental culture problems, Uber decided to pilot a corporate education program — a rare move for a company in crisis.
“Most of the time education programs are killed,” said Martyn Rademakers, a professor at the University of Amsterdam business school.
Between October and December, more than 6,000 out of Uber’s 15,000 employees signed up to take the classes in leadership and strategy, taught by Harvard professors. At a time when the company needs a cultural and business change, Uber is making a gamble that a corporate education program can accelerate its efforts to remake itself and turn the company into a place whose culture is celebrated, not feared.
INSIDE AN UBER EDUCATION EFFORT
Frances Frei’s official title at Uber is SVP of Leadership and Strategy, but internally she’s known as one of Uber’s biggest cheerleaders.
She famously wears an Uber-branded t-shirt every day at a time when some Uber employees stopped wearing corporate swag altogether. When she talks about the company, especially her interactions with employees, her speech is peppered with words like “awesome” and “amazing”. She comes across as someone genuinely in awe of the people she now surrounds herself with every day.
Frei started at Uber in the spring in the middle of the turmoil. The former Harvard professor turned administrator had already been a part of the campaign at Harvard Business School to bring about a gender equality, but as the New York Times also pointed out, became a controversial figure who drew a lot of ire from students. Despite the criticism, Frei is a widely respected academic and was brought on to figure out what the problem was at Uber.
When I met with Frei in a conference room turned her mini office at Uber headquarters, she eagerly dove into her diagnosis of the problem, grabbing an oversized sheet of paper from a nearby stack she keeps just so she can write out her thoughts then throw the paper away.
Then Frei wrote out the three ailments she found as the problem for the company.
First off, Uber’s senior executives weren’t working as a team and only had one-on-one relationships with Kalanick who oversaw them all. On the next level down, the 3,000 managers at Uber rarely had any formal training and many were first-time managers. Finally, the 15,000 employees of Uber didn’t have a common sense and understanding of the business’s strategy — a dangerous thing for an organization that was known for empowering an individual’s ideas.
[Traena: Paragraph above shows a great example of how even a company with billions of dollars in the bank often hasn't invested the necessary resources in training and development. Money is often not the issue - it the difficulty in building a training program. We look to solve that be automating training program creation.]
“Maybe that’s OK in some institutions, but not at an institution that gives so many opportunities to so many people. We’re all operating on behalf of the strategy all day every day,” Frei said.
Frei had started out at as a consultant in the spring before deciding to join full-time in early June 2017. Two weeks later, Kalanick was forced to resign.
Over the summer, Frei had to focus on the first task: getting Uber’s executive team to work together at a time when the 14 executives had no CEO to lead them. Once the new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was hired in August, Frei turned her attention to the other two problems: how to train thousands of managers while also getting all the employees on the same wavelength when it came to strategic thinking.
It wasn’t a matter of convincing employees that things needed to change and taking classes was a good way to do it. The fact that the vast majority of employees were looking to get better actually surprised her.
[Traena: This is a key point: Employees WANT to learn and grow. They just need an easy way to do it.]
“It wasn’t what I was expecting to be completely truthful from what I’d heard from the outside,” Frei said.
Instead the challenge became how to do implement a new curriculum fast and while reaching enough people to really impact the company.
“If you want to learn, we want to teach you,” Frei said. “We didn’t know how to get over the scale.”
While teaching a large number of employees isn’t unusual for an education program, many companies wait until they’re large to be more efficient so that a corporate university makes more financial sense. GE, which is considered to be a pioneer in the field after it opened its Crotonville leadership institute, now says it spends over $1 billion on employee learning and development every year.
[Traena: Crazy stat - GE spends $1B / year on L&D.]
“They’re prevalent in large organizations, but what’s unique about Uber is that they’re small. And it’s unusual that a small organization would take on this expense,” said Jennifer Chatman, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
It wasn’t an option to fly all the managers out to headquarters from around the world for expensive training, nor would it have been practical to have Frei visit each office in the all of the countries Uber operates in to make sure managers (and employees) were on the same page.
[Traena: This is where Traena comes in - we allow any size organization to invest in their people like GE. No need for expensive travel or to coordinate schedules. Two way conversation on your own time.]
That’s when Frei’s experience at Harvard turned out to be the solution Uber needed.
While many online classes are typically just watching a professor talk into an online video, Harvard had constructed a studio called HBX Live. A professor still stands in the middle to deliver the lecture, but in front of the lecturer is a wall of 60 screens, which broadcast the students in the class.
These students are “on the wall”, Frei explains, creating a super intimate learning environment similar she says to classes she taught at Harvard. “It takes care that I don’t have to go all over the world,” Frei said.
The next challenge was how to bring the program to scale. If Uber had thousands of managers and employees it wanted to train from around the world, then it had to have more than 60 people be present in the lesson.
To Frei, it was also a non-starter to try and record the videos and post them online in the hopes that people would watch them. To her, the learning is too personal and employees who were “on the wall” and participating might have felt more awkward or discouraged to participate if they knew it was being recorded for coworkers to watch.
Instead, HBX Live had a feature where bystanders could watch the class, even if they weren’t one of the faces on the wall. Uber had its tech team work with the school to make sure it could support the employees that wanted to tune in.
The overflow from the 60 people who were on the wall became “observers” — sometimes as many as 1,500 people at once.
The first pilot of the program ran from October to December and included eight classes on leadership and strategy. One class, called “Build and Rebuild Trust” focused on an airline from the 1980s that needed to reestablish itself as a trusted brand (an obvious parallel to Uber after its year). Another class focused on leadership lessons from ancient Rome.
To make sure employees from around the globe could be a part of it, each four-hour class was repeated three times, including an overnight time slot at 2 a.m, to make sure all of Uber’s employees could participate at a time that was convenient to them.
Frei’s strategy to bring it to scale worked: Out of Uber’s 15,000 employees, more than 6,000 signed up for the classes.
“We have 6,000 people doing it in 60 days. I don’t think that’s ever been done at an organization before,” Frei said.
She was even more shocked when one third of all the participants turned in voluntary reflections on the lessons. She had to recruit other Uber employees to help her moderate the chat rooms and also give feedback on the reflections. They also aided in giving participation feedback to the 60 who were “on the wall” during the class.
“Because it was a pilot, we were just figuring out could we do it. And in reading the reflections, I’m blown away by how people are reflecting on it and now we’re seeing it in their work,” Frei said.
None of the classes are required for managers or employees — an idea that’s debated heavily in the corporate education community. So far, Frei has subscribed to the notion that those who take the class will naturally get better and emerge as more successful leaders compared to their peers who didn’t sign up.
“I don’t think education is best taught in a required way. I, in my heart, know that if you volunteer it will touch you. And if you’re forced to attend, it may or may not touch your soul,” Frei said.
[Traena: Completely agree. Best learning is self-driven.]
Attendance could become mandatory down the road if it’s needed, but the response to the pilot so far has other academics like the UC Berkeley professor Chatman interested in the outcome.
“I think it will be interesting to see if ultimately the 9,000 who haven’t done it yet if they don’t fare as well in the organization versus the 6,000 who were thirsty for change,” Chatman said.
Measuring the success and impact of corporate education programs has long been a challenge.
While there’s no standard metric for success, companies often experiment with “softer” metrics that show change is happening, said Court Chilton, a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In Uber’s case, Chilton said it could be as simple as building a word cloud to show how people talk about the culture or strategy six months ago versus now and whether the words employee use to describe it have changed.
The key is to continue reinforcing the lessons taught in the classes, otherwise the change won’t be there, he said.
“These initiatives don’t work if they’re just events,” Chilton said. “Something needs to happen downstream of the project. You can’t just ‘We did the program. Check!’ and then hope for the best.”
For Frei, the success of her pilot is based on whether Uber as a whole gets better, especially since over a third of the company has voluntarily signed up to do it. She doesn’t care about satisfaction surveys or people enjoying the class if it’s not making a difference on the company’s business performance.
“I know I’m a little crazy, but I’d like to say: Does our overall business improve? Because if leadership and strategy are so fundamental, shouldn’t our business improve quickly?” Frei said. “If you ask me, that’s what I want to be accountable for. If we can’t meaningfully make a difference on the business, then I don’t think it’d be successful, even if it was enjoyable”.
[Traena: This is an important point. Measuring success in this space is difficult and one we are focused on, but by no means have found a solution to yet.]
Any Uber skeptic would say that the undertaking feels like a feel-good solution to real business problems. Even experts say it takes more than just an online class to drive cultural change -- the business model has to change with it, says Rademakers, the Amsterdam professor.
“Learning is great weapon in the battle of changing culture, but if you just stick to an e-learning program, I’m afraid not that much will happen,” he said.
Frei argues that Uber isn’t investing the money (and it’s quite a lot of money, although she won’t disclose the sum) to just have employees feel like it’s a cultural perk or another checkmark on a to-do list. The number of voluntary reflections alone is evidence that employees are personally invested in the turnaround, she said.
“If it’s only feel good, first of all, they shouldn’t let me do it again in 2018. We don’t have feel-good time or feel-good money,” Frei said.
So far Uber’s leadership has bought into Frei’s corporate education vision.
The company decided to continue the program into 2018, starting in February. Instead of running all of the classes over 60 days, a “super intense” undertaking Frei says, the company will instead run one class a month. “That’s a dream compared to waking up at two in the morning,” Frei said.
While the curriculum will stay largely the same, Frei says future iterations will probably be more custom tailored to departments, like customer support.
“What I’m particularly impressed with the Uber version of it is how they’re trying to get people involved quickly and that’s important because part of the goal for training and development is to help people get a common language and mindset about the organization,” said Chatman. “It’s a useful tool particularly if you’re trying to spread it across the entire organization at a single moment in time and rapidly. That said, it’s not enough in and of itself. The key to true cultural change is consistency and comprehensiveness.”
During our meeting, I pushed back on Frei, suggesting that maybe the pilot was such a success because in this moment, Uber employees feel like they’re under pressure to really drive change in the organization after the year they’ve had. Could 6,000 people taking courses in 60 days be a fluke, not an early sign of success? What happens when the company finds its new normal?
Frei only smiled and stood by her belief in the employees. If that’s the next challenge at Uber, then she’s ready for it.
“That’s a very high-quality problem to have,” she said. “I’ve met these employees. I don’t think their desire to learn is because we’re in the year 2017. But I’d be delighted to have that as part of my objectives, to stir the desire to improve. It’s a super high-quality problem and I’d be delighted to do it.”