With rapidly evolving skills, changing learner preferences, and innovative content platforms, Cisco is rethinking how we approach learning & development (L&D) for the new decade. The demand for constant reskilling in the workplace means that outdated L&D approaches of the past may not effectively take us into the future. Leveraging 20+ years of L&D experience at Cisco, we recently innovated the next generation of learning at Cisco to better prepare our 75,000+ employees for the future of work. In this blog, we summarize our recent webinar, hosted by Udemy for Business and Degreed, where we shared our ongoing L&D transformation. If you’d like to watch the entire webinar recording, click here.

Why we need a new approach to L&D

Global changes are affecting the workplace more than ever. New technology innovations like automation and AI are fueling the demand for constant reskilling at organizations worldwide. These realities are reflected in the following statistics from the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Jobs Report:

Employees are under pressure to evolve quickly, while L&D teams struggle to deliver timely, relevant training. Corporate learners today also want to consume online content on any device, anytime, anywhere. These external factors led to internal challenges at Cisco that we needed to address quickly to continue thriving in our industry. Through a massive overhaul of old systems, processes, and roles, we reinvigorated our L&D function with a fresh approach.

Internal challenges to our current L&D system 

Outdated learning infrastructure. For almost two decades, our legacy Learning Management System (LMS) was our only option for delivering content. Our homegrown point solutions worked on mobile, but inevitably contained a tool or page that wasn’t mobile-friendly. We needed a more modern, intuitive platform for learners to discover, consume, and track their learning. 

Siloed experiences. Our L&D teams were loosely connected, but closely aligned with their respective business functions. With this decentralization, each L&D team had its own website and catalog, and learners didn’t know where to look for relevant materials. We needed one source of truth for learners to find what they need when they need it.

Slow content creation process. We’ve had some amazing instructional designers who powered courses and programs throughout the years, but we found ourselves constantly running out of bandwidth. Technical tools and languages were updated frequently, and we couldn’t produce internal content fast enough. We needed a way to deliver high-quality learning at the pace of the market. 

Reactive mode. As an L&D team trying to do more with less, we spent most of our energy and resources on reactive programs that weren’t resonating with our audience. Our employees started going outside of Cisco to pay for their own external learning experiences like Udemy’s online courses.

Between our internal challenges and the rapid changes in technology, we knew we had to reshape employee development in a radically innovative way.  After many leadership conversations, we embarked on a major remodel of our L&D tech stack, work scope, and role definitions. Here are four ways we reinvented our L&D function at Cisco for the new decade.

Shifting our platforms, work, and roles

1. Shifting our L&D platforms

One of the significant changes we made was investing in more modern, user-friendly platforms. We needed to remodel the outdated user experience of our legacy LMS, which had been at Cisco for over two decades. Instead, we moved our focus from a monolithic architecture to stitching together best of breed platforms like Udemy for Business and Degreed using APIs.  

We can now curate fresh content and make it universally accessible. Degreed allows us to centralize and scale resources like Udemy for Business courses across the enterprise. The mobile-friendly interface of these new platforms also means that employees aren’t limited to desktop or in-person sessions anymore. Learning can happen anytime, anywhere, on any device.

This quality, variety, and flexibility gives employees more autonomy and transparency in their learning experience. We’ve always had a self-guided culture of learning here at Cisco, and these modern platforms are a major driver in powering that culture.

Given the rapidly changing landscape of modern technologies and software development practices, this empowerment to quickly discover and consume high-quality learning is very evident amongst our technical talent within Engineering. When new programming languages or development approaches start to become widespread, they quickly show up in the market-driven portfolio of Udemy for Business, and the highest-quality versions of those offerings are quickly made available to employees through Udemy for Business and Degreed. Rather than the L&D team running the risk of being a bottleneck for employee learning needs, we are creating an environment where learning solutions can emerge with the same speed of new technology adoption.

2. Evolving our L&D work

Historically, we felt that our value as an L&D professional came from creating content, which took up most of our time. After launching our new platforms, we shifted from the slow process of creating content to curating a wide range of resources quickly and efficiently. 

Given the sheer quantity of courses available, we didn’t want learners to feel overwhelmed, so we’ve leveraged internal subject matter experts (SMEs) to help us scale. These internal experts help find and vet courses and then curate them into learning pathways. This added structure gives our learners a running start, regardless of where they are in their development.

For content we do create, we focus on Cisco-specific training and immersive in-person learning experiences. To accelerate our creation process, we are also using agile development approaches. For example, our new design sprints — an idea from Google Ventures — allow us to quickly execute programs using a mix of design thinking and agile methodology. 

Our immersive Leader Learning Labs is a solution that came from one of our design sprints. Each lab is a 90-minute session where leaders practice a skill, like difficult conversations, with improv actors in person. Another example is our lab on hiring. We created a digital game where leaders win by selecting the best, most diverse talent pool.

On a more strategic level, our increased bandwidth has allowed us to add value in different ways. We develop deeper programs, have more time to be consultative, and participate in conversations with leaders about business objectives related to learning & development.

3. Shifting our L&D roles

As the needs of our business evolve, we’re redefining traditional L&D roles on our team and leveraging new talent for fresh perspectives.

The key takeaway is that L&D teams should fuse all the different talents, new and internal, that are central to an agile and diverse team. We’ve reskilled traditional L&D professionals, recruited internal SMEs, and leveraged new perspectives to drive our collective efforts. 

4. Skills mapping at Cisco

Skills are the new language for us to understand the challenges employees face. A few years back, we embarked on a journey to map skills to jobs to prepare our employees for the future. We asked ourselves standard questions: What skills are in our organization? What skills do we need for the future? How can we fill the gap?

We sat down with our HR organization, now called People & Communities at Cisco, and started with a standard, off-the-shelf competency library. We painstakingly mapped competencies to all the different roles. But after a couple of months, we realized how challenging this was, and how much more challenging it would be to scale.

We went back to the drawing board and came up with something radically new.  We took our 3,000+ job titles at Cisco, mapped those to 200+ market-aligned job roles, and used a labor market data tool called Burning Glass to understand the skills associated with each of the job roles. Burning Glass is our aggregator that finds the top 20–25 skills for any given role based on job postings and the online labor market and matches them with each job profile. By focusing on skills rather than competencies and tapping into the vast content collection of providers like Udemy, we were better able to keep up with the demands of the market.

Once we had that information, we took it back to our stakeholders. They validated the mappings, shared what resonated, and made adjustments where needed. We’re now using this skills data in a variety of ways. We’ve injected it into Degreed, so when employees go into Degreed for the first time, they see skills associated with their roles in their profiles. Degreed can also suggest tailored content, like a relevant Udemy for Business course, based on the user’s skill profile, social activity, or group association. These skill profiles are updated when an employee changes roles, adding new skills associated with the role to those already in the employee’s profile. For example, if an employee moves from an individual contributor to a people leader, she or he will start seeing learning recommendations based on new profile skills such as “People Management” and “Leadership.”

This structure means that we can drive two kinds of learning. One kind is self-directed, where employees guide their experience with the element of choice. The other kind is top-down, where we are scaling key topics that people need to know for their jobs. Having these two methods of learning is not only complementary, but central to the type of learning culture we have at Cisco.

The importance of lifelong learning

The rapid pace of technological change requires that our employees and our L&D team become lifelong learners. By choosing innovative platforms, we give our learners a better digital experience while freeing up our time for high-value activities. Our team can now design more immersive in-person engagements and map the future skills required for our workforce.  

Overall, our newly reinvented L&D function enables us to be more creative, consultative, and forward-thinking. As a result, we’re elevating our value within the business as we prepare Cisco’s workforce for the new decade and beyond.

Page Last Updated: March 2020