Delta's Digital Transformation Journey

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Meet Brandon Carson

Brandon is an award-winning learning & development executive with extensive expertise in developing learning strategies and learning technology implementation for global companies. He is currently the Director of Learning at Delta Air Lines.

He's also a keynote speaker and best-selling author. His latest book, Learning in the Age of Immediacy: 5 Factors for How We Connect, Communicate and Get Work Done," explores how the digital transformation is affecting workplace performance.

We sat down with Brandon recently to discuss Delta's journey towards digital transformation, his role and experience, and where he sees L&D in the near future.          

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge that CLOs face when implementing more digitally-centered L&D strategies?

A: In my opinion, learning leaders face three key dilemmas right now:

1. Workforce Agility: I think learning leaders need to take more accountability for the workforce's ability to proactively lead and execute on digital strategies.

From now on, every worker at every level will be interacting with technology to get their job done, and every business has or will have a digital strategy. This means we can't rely on old training methods to prepare the workforce.

We need to be embedded more deeply into the workflow itself, we need to be able to drive a strong perspective on how to drive improved performance within embedded work systems and we need to stop thinking of training as a transaction that occurs beside or outside the workflow. 

2. Leading Through Complexity: We are at an inflection point when it comes to L&D. As the digital age continues to unfold, work systems and processes will get more complex before they get "easier." 

Business will be moving quickly to be competitive and will be trying new ideas and approaches at an increasingly rapid pace.

Many companies are creating "Chief Transformation Officer" positions and/or asking their IT, Marketing or CIO organizations to "drive transformation." 

I believe it's the L&D/HR organizations that should be in the driver's seat when it comes to leading cross-functional transformation for the enterprise.

We are the ones dedicated to the people operations and are best suited to understand what moves the needle from all the lines of business as it applies to our people because we span all the businesses.

This is where CLOs and learning leaders need to have business, technology and learning acumen so they can drive this transformation in collaboration with the dedicated lines of business.

If you scan almost any C-Suite at any corporation, do you see a former CLO as the CEO now? It's time for this to change.

Learning is now a primary conduit for the success of the business itself and we need to place the right people in the CLO positions, and start recognizing them as potential leaders of the companies themselves.

3. Formalizing Digital Etiquette: In the workplace of the future, it's likely that janitors will be more valuable than neurosurgeons.

When you factor in what robotic processes and automation will bring to the medical field, it's wide open what will change. 

CLOs need to help determine how to integrate "digital etiquette" into the workplace.

This encompasses emotional intelligence as it applies to digital systems, understanding how to train the workforce on deeper communication skills since there are so many different channels for workers to access/interact and recognizing the humanity from within digital systems.

We must understand that many of our digital systems are still new (some less than a decade), and we're still figuring out how to leverage them for productivity but also for forging new type of work relationships.

Privacy in the workplace will also be a key component of digital etiquette as we ask more frontline workers to attach objects to their body to help their productivity and their wellness and health.

L&D will be right in the middle of this–we must begin forming a perspective on this based on our company cultures, the legal environment and what our workforces expect in their workplace.

Q: There are so many exciting new technologies on the horizon... but how do we ensure learning remains "human-centric" in a digitally-driven world?

A: The primary focus of what we do in L&D and HR is people. That won't change. As we continue to move heads-on into the digital age, it's still the people that matter most. 

We know that AI and automation will touch and potentially change every industry. Over the next decade, we'll see the impact these technologies have on tasks and jobs.

We'll also undoubtedly see new jobs (and even industries) emerge–ones we can't even imagine today.

In 1900, 80% of the jobs in America were in agriculture. We know massive job shifts have happened in the past, but they've usually occurred over generations, allowing us time to re-skill people and ease their transition. This time may be different.

As technology drives more rapid change, we'll need to sharply focus on the human element and help people transition quicker.

This is not just a jab at corporations; it will involve government institutions as well, requiring us to reevaluate our educational systems from back to front.

We're still determining the key skills and behaviors required to succeed in the digital age, but the ones that seem to already stand out are critical thinking, creativity, digital fluency, innovation, leadership capacity and persistence.

These are all where humans can easily excel; we just have to start placing a premium on developing these capabitilies within our present workforces and the future ones. It's definitely not a time to be complacent.

Inside L&D at Delta

Q: What are your top priorities in leading learning initiatives at Delta?

A: I work in one of Delta's five divisions, supporting our global airport and cargo operations. We are relentlessly focused on ensuring an oustanding customer experience and we do that through scalable efficiency.

We've constructed the airline industry's most advanced ground operations that ensures almost 6,000 flights safely take off and land as scheduled every day.

This is a massive operation and my team's right in the middle of preparing our workforce to ensure each customer and each flight is handled in the best manner possible.

We're training our agents on safety, customer experience and operational guidelines to standards that exceed federal mandates because the organization places a high value on what our customers expect and what we need to do to make sure they're safe.

Having said that, we never take our eyes off the key priorities: running a safe operation. We're constantly looking at where we can integrate technology to bring learning closer to the operation and determining where best to leverage different types of technology to transfer the skills and capabilities our workforce needs.

As technology drives more rapid change, we'll need to sharply focus on the human element and help people transition quicker.

We're leveraging mixed reality, simulations, action learning, immersive leadership experiences, eLearning and microlearning to create an "ecology of learning" in the operation itself.

Our priorities are all focused on determining how to embed learning into the operation at a level where training as its own operation is invisible.

Q: How do you measure the effectiveness of your L&D processes?

A: The effectiveness of our work is aligned to the KPIs identified by the business. We're beginning to collect our own internal productivity measure, but our value proposition to the business is based on how we move the needle in safety, customer service and operational excellence.

We tie learning initiatives to those KPIs and try as best we can to determine where we add value there. We're still trying to gather and analyze data to pinpoint where our differences lay–it's not easy.

Q: Where do you see L&D heading in the next five years, and what new technologies do you consider most promising?

A: I think the next five to 10 years in corporate learning will see more change than the last 50. As I mentioned earlier, we're at an inflection point in many ways–what path will we follow?

Will we continue to be an order-taking cost center losing relevance and finding it more challenging to prove our value? Or will we forge a strong perspective on what performance is needed to genuinely move the needle for the business and dig in and get our hands dirty with a deep understanding of the dynamics that make our business function, accepting responsibility for key business metrics? That's for each of us to figure out.

One thing for us to realize is the "digital transformation" is not all about digital technology. It's about business process, a growth mindset as it applies to the changing demographics and the impact of globalization on business and about the systemic change that will occur in every aspect of every business function.

Yes, technology plays a role, but it's not just that. Those that are important for learning leaders to understand, however, are artificial intelligence, the cloud and data science. Together, these three are the forces driving the digital age. 

Every business on Earth is or will be using them to compete in their marketplace and also to get their work done internally.

Any L&D operation not aware of (if not fluent in) these technologies will find it challenging to keep up with the imperatives of their businesses.

Q: What are your thoughts on the future of learning given the disruption that digital version is causing in many organizations?

A: I think we're under an intense period of disruption when it comes to corporate learning.

We haven't yet figured out how best to prove our value, to reorient ourselves and our functions due to the digital age and we're just now starting to have the conversations needed to best determine our path forward.

I often refer to the last several years as the "dark ages of training" because of the rapid and massive change.

What gives me hope is the fact that we're beginning a period of self-analysis, which should lead us to more self-awareness and then to a reinvigorated industry that moves us out of the dark ages.

Each time I gather with industry colleagues lately, we discuss the impact of this change and realize that the first step is to actually have these conversations.

At the end of the day if we keep our focus on the humanity of work, what it means to integrate machines with humans in the workplace, how we preserve the dignity of the person in the workplace and how we make sure technology always adapts to the needs of humans first, we will show our value and also preserve the ability for our leaders to understand our contribution.

Words of Wisdom

Q: You've worked in the learning space for the majority of your career–what do you think is the biggest lesson you've learned and what is one piece of advice you think all L&D leaders should hear?

A: Over my 25-year career, I've been in technology, retail and now the aviation industry. I've focused on technical training, sales training, leader development and other ares of human capability.

The one thing I've learned that spans these industries is that L&D plays a pivotal role in the two elements that make every company operate: its people and its culture. 

L&D in many ways can be the glue that keeps these together. If you look at any great company, they have two things: great people and a great culture.

I've seen the effect on the business when L&D is sidelined from advancing people and culture and is looked at only as a transactional or regulatory operation.

So the one lesson I've learned is to position the L&D operation so that it can be most effective at advancing the interests of the business through its people and its culture.

One piece of advice I'd give L&D leaders is to determine how best your L&D function can help create meaningful work for the workforce, how you can best advance the culture and determine how to place a renewed focus on cultivating a work environment conducive to the best health and wellness for your employees.

These all are truly the structural foundation for creating a great place to work, which I think L&D should be held accountable to helping to create.


This Q&A by Paris Armstrong, IQPC Marketing Coordinator, originally appeared on the HR Network's CLO Exchange page. To read more, click here.