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How innovative companies train their employees (Google, Amazon, Uber & more)

Have you ever wondered how Google share knowledge and create their own learning culture? Where the likes of Amazon and Microsoft are investing their training budgets to upskill and develop people? Or what the ethos is at companies that keep their training strategies under cloak and dagger? 

Whether you’re planning a wedding, holiday or your dream home, a little inspiration can go a long way. Looking at what others have done is the window shopping that helps you understand what might work for you. And the same should apply to your training and development strategy, whether you’re the one leading it or hoping to share some tips with those higher up. So, where better to glance enviably through the glass than with a look at some of the most innovative companies?

Google
Apple
Amazon
Airbnb
Uber
Microsoft
Netflix
Booking.com

Google

Whispering sweet nudges into Googler’s ears

Proving that you don’t need to shout to get people to buy into your development ethos, Google began using Whisper Courses to drive microlearning in 2017. Recognising that the majority of information learnt in courses was lost within days, their idea was to provide managers with a series of weekly nudges in the right direction. In their soothing wisdom, Google opted for the term Whisper.

“A whisper course is a series of emails, each with a simple suggestion, or ‘whisper’ for a manager to try in their one-on-ones or team meetings.”

Their trial run – which you can discover in greater detail here – was the concept of managers creating a psychologically safe team culture, by being given a 10-week Whisper Course.

 A sample nudge email from Google's Whisper Courses to develop leaders

Source: Google – A sample nudge email

Googler-to-Googler learning leads the training way 

This is just one half of the tale, but we bet you’re wondering what Google does to encourage learning among colleagues? The answer is another simple one: give them the platform to become both student and teacher

“A strong learning culture can better position your organization for future needed skill shifts and primes employees to think and act more like owners when it comes to their own development needs.”

80% of Google’s tracked learnings happen through their Googler-to-Googler employee network, where over 6,000 employees across the business have become volunteer teachers. They share their knowledge and skills in workshops, one-to-one sessions and beyond. Notice the word volunteers, there is no obligation to get involved. 

Instead, Google encourages passionate teaches who are experts in that content to deliver training, they’re interviewed for the position and given feedback/recognition throughout. Not only does this engage people, it cuts the costs associated with training and ensures the budget is only used for specialised training and niche content that’s needed. 

Google is not only a training innovator, they’re completely transparent about how they do it! That means you can learn from the best in the business via re:Work. It also made our job a little easier in writing this. Thanks, Google!

Apple

From Google’s transparency to a training enigma. Have you ever Googled ‘How Apple train their employees’? Being honest, we hadn’t either until it came to writing this. But what’s interesting is that little is known for certain, and the search results paint an interesting picture of how Apple has evolved over time… 

A short history of Apple training, according to Google search results

How Apple train their employees
Google search results for ‘How Apple train their employees’

In 2012, Gizmodo published ‘How To Be a Genius: This Is Apple’s Secret Employee Training Manual’, a pretty negative take on how they were training people to get inside your head through language. Gizmodo claimed that Geniuses were trained to “become strong while appearing compassionate; persuade while seeming passive, and empathize your way to a sale.”.

Fast forward four years and Shopify’s 2016 article on the tech giants indicated that the culture was instead about finding people already passionate about the brand and products. They also pipped us to the pun of ‘picking the right apples’. Although it referenced Gizmodo’s take, Shopify gave the impression that the focus had shifted (or was possibly all along) to creating value over prioritising sales. By 2018, A Guardian article focussing on the physical stores and Ron Johnson (who developed the concept) revealed that Apple had been able to “foster a sense of commitment to a higher calling while flattering employees that they were the chosen few to represent it.”.

What’s the training reality at Apple’s core? 

When it comes to training those outside their organisation, their ethos is that “designing world-class technology is only part of our job. Teaching you how to master it is the other.” But trying to discover their approach to employee development is like the iPhone X files! The truth is out there, kind of.. 

According to the New York Times, employees are discouraged from sharing their experiences. However, they were able to interview three former Apple employees that remained anonymous in 2014. 

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Apple’s training takes place in-house and year-round. They have full-time academic staff that design and deliver their courses, with employees able to sign up for courses tailored to their position and background on an exclusive internal website. They’re also assigned courses related to the product or part of the business they work in. All pretty standard so far, right?

Well, there is something interesting in the article, at least in terms of how Apple encourages people to think and develop. A course on ‘Communicating at Apple’ used Picasso’s drawings of ‘The Bull’—which demonstrate how something complex can be broken down into its essential, core components. If you look at how Apple’s products have become increasingly more slick with a decreasing number of buttons, you get the impression that this ethos goes from training through to product launch. 

While a Steve-Jobs-inspired course named ‘The Best Things’ encourages “employees to surround themselves with the best things, like talented peers and high-quality materials.” Despite their cards being kept close to their chests, this gives the impression that social learning is happening behind the scenes.

Amazon

What’s Amazon’s current training strategy and rationale? 

When you stop to think about it, Amazon’s current approach to employee training seems so obvious. And yet, it’s quite rare that companies apply these ideas on a large scale. Amazon analysed data on their workforce and US hiring to determine their fastest-growing highly-skilled jobs over the past five years. 

These were data mapping specialist (832% growth), data scientist (505%), solutions architect (454%), security engineer (229%) and business analyst (160%).  In customer fulfillment, meanwhile, highly skilled roles increased by over 400%. Next, they put their money where their mouth was in 2019 and announced they would spend $700 million to upskill 100,000 of their US employees by 2025. 

This would enable people across the business to access platforms and resources that develop and move them into these higher-skilled positions. You can read the full list of new training opportunities and what they’re doing to build upon existing courses here, but here are some of the important takeaways: knowledge sharing, learning in the flow of work and microlearning. 

How Amazon plans to upskill its people

Amazon's Upskilling 2025 initiative to develop employees
Source: Amazon Upskilling 2025

Amazon Technical Academy equips people with the skill to transition into software engineering. Another proponent of peer-to-peer training, this was created by Amazon’s software engineers and uses project-based learning to ensure trainees understand how they’ll apply these skills in practice via tuition-free learning. 

Associate2Tech program is a 90-day course for IT support technician roles, in which they receive on-the-job training and Amazon pays for their A+ Certification test. With no degree required, there are little barriers to entry.  

The Machine Learning University, on the other hand, is open to those with a background in tech and coding. These six-week modules only require a half or full day of participation each week, during which Amazon Machine Learning scientists help them develop the skills needed to progress.

The idea that Amazon are taking control of the supply for their in-demand positions is an interesting one, but it could be what primes them for success. With the company and machine learning/tech growing at such rapid speeds, there’s no guarantee that the talent will be available to plug those gaps in the coming years. And, if better engagement, morale and retention is a by-product of upskilling their people, that $700 million could turn out to be a shrewd investment.

Isn’t there a risk that upskilled employees will seek other opportunities?

Perhaps, but looking a little further back shows that Amazon’s investment in people is selfless to an extent. Amazon Career Choice was designed to give hourly associates that had been with the company for more than a year the skills to move into four in-demand industries and occupations: Healthcare, IT and computer science, transportation, and mechanical and skilled trades. 

Jeff Bezos stated that “we pre-pay 95 percent of tuition, fees, and textbooks (up to $12,000) for certificates and associate degrees in high-demand occupations”. Inc. summed it up excellently in their coverage of the announcement: “Amazon has a lot of lower-wage, warehouse-type jobs that have higher turnover rates than much higher paying tech roles. Amazon effectively embraces this reality and figures: Why not make these important laborers as happy as they can be in the time they are going to give to Amazon?”

Airbnb

Becoming a superhost and driving employee staycations

Airbnb might have been founded in 2008, but by 2015 they’d already had an epiphany: it wasn’t just their customers that deserved a good host, their employees deserved a five-star experience too. Mark Levy, Global Head of Employee Experience, had only joined the company a couple years earlier, but he realised that:

“If Airbnb had a Customer Experience Group, why not create an Employee Experience Group?”

That’s exactly what he did, putting employee experience at the core of what they do. If the headlines are anything to go by, it was a move that paid off. ‘Airbnb, spearheading the employee experience’, ‘How Airbnb Became The World’s Best Place To Work’, ‘How Airbnb is building its culture through belonging” – these are just some of the articles you’ll find if you search for their approach to employee training.

Glowing reviews from Airbnb employees

With such praise and glowing recommendations about their culture, it’s no wonder employees are willing to share their experience at Airbnb. Which gives excellent insights into how they develop people. It’s certainly a case of learning from each other and being encouraged to have the initiative to self-learn. 

Let’s take the first point. Chip Conley wrote about his experience of joining the company aged 52 and with 20-plus years in hospitality, giving a pretty funny account of how he relied on listening to his younger colleagues to settle in. In fact, the article does an excellent job of summarising Airbnb’s philosophy at the time: Create, Learn, Play. The middle part of that sandwich involved looking “inside and outside for inspiration and learning”

Another employee, Mark Curtis, wrote about his experiences in 2014—the year between Levy’s arrival and the creation of the Employee Experience Group. It seems that the culture of learning in the flow of work already existed to an extent, and Curtis stated that: “Our culture, tools, and processes all revolve around giving individual contributors accurate and timely information that they can use to make great decisions”. He also added that “we default to information sharing” in order to provide engineers with as much information as possible so that they can find it and work autonomously.

Forget the culture trip, tell us about their training!

Ready for the training-heavy, juicy part of the Airbnb rundown? If they think a course or platform isn’t up to delivering what they need, they’ll simply create their own. Which makes sense, given that it has to work in the culture as well achieve the goals. In 2016, they created Data University to improve data literacy among their staff, because existing courses just weren’t tailored to their data and tools. This comprised of multiple courses tailored to different roles, technical literacy and departments across the business. For example, “more intensive courses on Python and machine learning have helped engineers brush up on necessary skills for projects.”

In the months that followed, a total of 500 employees took one class and use of Airbnb data science tools rose from 30 to 45 percent. Interestingly, it wasn’t their first attempt at a project like this but it seemed to be their most successful. Product Manager, Jeff Feng, gave three reasons why he believed it worked this time around: Designing an accessible curriculum for everyone, working with leadership across the company to set data literacy expectations and finding ways to measure success.

Uber

When you start to unpick what training must look like at Uber, there are no pangs of jealousy, we’ll be honest. First, there’s the issue of training their 22,000 core staff but there’s also the slight issue of 3.9 million drivers across 60-plus countries. 

Those drivers are all over the world, speaking different languages and they’re often without access to a computer. When was the last time you hailed a ride and hopped into a car with a laptop on the passenger seat? Exactly. Bring all those drivers together physically and you’re probably looking at more air miles than most cover over the ground in a month!

The answer? Using a platform that enables mobile learning, in bite-sized chunks that drivers can find between fares. In South Africa, Uber used the Workforce Success platform EduMe to provide short and interactive sessions using an app. This resulted in time to first trip being 13% faster than face-to-face training, and it also reduced pressure, time spent and costs for the support centre.

In Mexico, Uber turned to Mindflash in order to deliver web-based courses to drivers. The content from live sessions was converted into PDFs, which were uploaded as courses alongside quizzes to improve and measure knowledge retention. As was the case in South Africa, mobile learning was also made available—giving the option to study between fares. Since, they’ve managed to deliver up to 30,000 courses in a single week, and record 13,000 mobile course completions in three months.

Microsoft

Some of the companies on this list really took some digging, Microsoft is an open book! In fact, there’s probably too much information out there, that’s how open they are. Below is a screenshot from Microsoft’s Empowering Our Employees page. And it certainly implies a culture of continuous learning, knowledge sharing and upskilling towards career development.

Screenshot of Microsoft's training and development approach

Tapping into AI for a better learning outlook

Let’s tackle the top point, that learning should be personalised and relevant. When discussing the topic of cybersecurity at the company, Ken Sexsmith, Director of Security Training and Awareness at Microsoft, revealed how they had tapped into the power of AI to empower knowledge retention and create a personalised experience. 

Using a tool from Elephants Don’t Forget, users began to receive emails with questions about training they’d taken and were given explanations for any incorrect answers. As Sexsmith put it, “On a given day, following a training you take, we will send you an email that says, ‘Hey, you came to training and we want you to answer a couple questions about the content.”

Sharing skills and creating a learning culture through Hackathon

Have you heard of Hackathon? Launched in 2014 to help drive a culture change where employees would take risks to improve the world for better, by participating in projects.

“One place for everyone to come together, experience creative and fast-paced collaboration, make a difference, and drive the culture forward.”

Don’t let the name fool you, this is not just for techies or coders, it’s a platform for everyone and their skill set. The projects range from assessing broadband availability, to helping the visually impaired get around more easily and even something as weird as ‘Designing for the Zombie Apocalypse’. These act as platforms for sharing knowledge and ideas, while giving people a different scenario to practice their skills in. 2017 welcomed 18,000 people across 400 cities and 75 countries.

Using gamification to engage employees and collect their feedback

Microsoft were using gamification before it was cool! Although you’ll find plenty of mentions and examples that they use it, the most common example is Communicate Hope. Created by Ross Smith to gather feedback on Microsoft Lync in 2010, “thousands of employees got on board and ‘gamers’ contributed at 16 times the rate of non-gamers.” – this was part of  Smith’s ethos that you need to get people excited about participation. 

Just a few years later, they used the Language Quality Game to tap into 4,500 users who assessed the quality of translations. They even included some poor translations on purpose. You might not think of these as training exercises, but their employees would become more familiar with the products, learn their faults and be given a platform to share their feedback, which would make them more engaged.

What’s next? Upskilling for the future

Microsoft recently announced that they will partner with education provider General Assembly “to close skills gaps in the rapidly growing fields of artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and data engineering, machine learning, data science, and more.” 

They’re aiming to upskill and reskill 15,000 employees for AI-based roles by 2022. Microsoft will therefore be a founding member of the GA’s Standards Board and help “define skills standards, develop assessments, design a career framework, and build an industry-recognized credential for AI skills”. The pair will also work together to create an AI Talent Network that sources candidates for project-based work and for hire.

Netflix

You’ll hardly find anything about Netflix’s training strategy or culture from the last decade, and yet they’ve been credited with reinventing and revolutionising HR. So, while we can’t tell you exactly how they train their employees, we’re sure you’ll agree that this deserves further investigation.

In 2009, Netflix shared a 126-slide presentation titled Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility, sharing some ideas that were pretty revolutionary at the time. Ideas like employees deciding the vacation time they thought was appropriate are still seen as madcap by some. The argument in those 126 slides has convinced many more people their approach is the right one.

Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility 
Source: Netflix Culture: Freedom & Responsibility

The learning takeaways from Netflix’s iconic presentation

  • You demonstrate consistently strong performance so colleagues can rely upon you.”
  • “You learn rapidly and eagerly.”
  • “Avoid top-down decision making.”
  • “We support self-improvement.”
  • Scepticism of independent silos because “work that requires coordination suffers.”

What do we actually know about training at Netflix?

Well, the fact that a Quora reply has become such a commonly-used resource highlights that Netflix’s approach to outward transparency has evolved over the past 10 years. Today, finding information on exactly how Netflix train their people is a well-kept secret. But, let’s look at what we can learn from that infamous Quora question.

Netflix weren’t kidding when they said people get their opportunity and a big challenge to sink their teeth into! The engineer who shared his onboarding experience revealed that his first product was Netflix on Apple TV. Also, the idea of collaborative learning seems to carry through the company, with new starters meeting senior management, CEO Reed Hastings and a dedicated mentor as they settle in.

Booking.com 

The first lesson you can learn from Booking.com is that knowing your internal audience is crucial. It’s easy to forget sometimes, but you should consider your employees with the same attentiveness that you’d give to your customers. Recognising the number of millennials in their workforce, Booking.com turned to Udemy for Business as they searched for an “online learning platform that could help its younger employees develop their technical and leadership skills to grow individually and push the company forward.” 

The goal was to encourage them to develop new skills and use those to seek out new opportunities in the company, as opposed to new opportunities somewhere else. They were steered in the direction of management and leadership development, public speaking, data science and web development. Having access to the variety of courses and flexibility to learn on the move through the app appealed to the younger generation at Booking.com.

As you can learn from Udemy’s case study, this signalled a move away from just providing a learning budget to employees and the low adoption rate associated with this. Instead, the average learner spent five-plus hours on the platform, and a particularly enthused employee summed up why:

“Using Udemy’s iPhone app, I managed to download an amazing course just moments before boarding London Underground and ended my 45 minute train journey (quite boring usually) feeling so empowered.”

Sometimes, upskilling is the only option. Adapt like Booking.com!

Upskilling seems to be a theme here, and it was an approach they also employed when finding developers who could operate with Practical Extraction and Report Language (PERL), Booking.com’s coding language. The issue was finding the finished pearl, and they realised they’d need to crack a few training oysters in order to build their collection. Plus, they’d need to do it on a large scale.

The solution, find developers familiar with other coding languages and use Geekuni to train them during their onboarding process, something they’ve done for over 350 employees. Because their existing teams don’t need to provide this training, it ensures their productivity isn’t affected and enables them to onboard developers on a greater scale. Using the same company for this process ensures consistency. Communication between Geekuni and the onboarding team leads at Booking.com means the company are up-to-date with progress and how ready that person is to move into their role.

What did we learn from these training innovators?

You probably noticed, but we mentioned the word upskill(ing) a lot in this piece, 11 times in fact! But as our Amazon and Microsoft examples showed, it’s important to understand which skills are in-demand before you develop them. Otherwise, how do you know if you’re closing the right skill gap?

Social learning, knowledge sharing, peer-to-peer, however we dressed it up in this piece, popped up time and time again. That’s because the best resources are sometimes your employees, especially for providing contextual and business-relevant learning. Besides, if Google are happy enough to shout about it on their blog, it’s probably worth a go.

Our last two lessons go hand-in-hand, use microlearning to make the experience manageable and deliver it on mobile to allow learning flexibility. The Uber example was the perfect one, because if drivers had time to kill, they could learn through short lessons, videos and quizzes. But how is that any different to commuting time for your employees? It’s not, and that Booking.com employee was so enthused by the experience that he felt empowered leaving the London underground. If that doesn’t tell you about the power of mobile learning, nothing will.

One last thing, learning this way isn’t some sort of exclusive VIP club for the biggest, global companies, it’s something you can experience for yourself. There’s no waiting line to trial HowNow, you’ve just got to fill in a short form and your journey to learning innovation begins. 

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