LinkedIn’s Kelly Palmer Makes Learning Happen

The future of learning now, and it’s all about technology, personalize, curated content and social learning.
Kelly Palmer, CLO of Linkedin, Sunnyvale, CA | Human Capital Media

Kelly Palmer is a builder. Not the bricks-and-mortar, feet-on-the-ground, put-X-tab-into-Y-slot-type builder one might expect from a leader with an engineering background. Instead, the Issaquah, Washington, native is a kind of dream builder, one who was recruited away from Yahoo Inc. almost four years ago to build a learning function from the ground up at LinkedIn Corp.

With more than 400 million members in more than 200 countries and territories and counting, the professional network’s vision is a grand one: create economic opportunity for every person in the world. It makes a similarly big promise to its employees — to help them transform themselves, the company and the world — and learning is a key enabler of that value proposition.

That vision aligns neatly with Palmer’s personal and professional goals. As the company’s chief learning officer— with some responsibility for talent management as well as diversity and inclusion — she is in the perfect position to transform careers and lives.

“When you join LinkedIn, the promise from LinkedIn and from the learning and development organization is we’re going to enable you to transform the trajectory of your career,” she said. “You’re going to be able to build the skills and the knowledge to get better at the job you have today, but also get those knowledge and skills so you can get your dream job of the future.”

It’s an unusual idea. Organizations don’t, as a rule, concern themselves with an employee’s future prospects, even when learning and development is a priority. But this tactic, while a bit counterintuitive, is one way to secure the best talent; and talent is the bellwether with which LinkedIn will achieve its lofty, global vision.

Richard Socarides, head of public affairs at Gerson Lehrman Group Inc., a membership network for one-on-one professional learning, said he has watched LinkedIn’s transformation with interest, in part because GLG is a large consumer of the company’s products.

“To attract the best talent, which I think they’ve done, you have to approach the whole professional learning paradigm in a new way,” he said. “No matter how great your current place of employment, in three, five or seven years you’re going to be working somewhere else. That’s the new normal. LinkedIn is fully embracing that idea. It’s quite bold and something that’s really hard for people to do.”

The Engineer Brain on Learning

Technology is a key enabler for a value proposition around learning as a transformation tool. Palmer has worked in some facet of technology almost her entire career, including time at Sun Microsystems Inc. in the 1990s and 2000s. She began in product development and user-experience design and expanded into roles including director of Java tools engineering and director of product engineering. When Sun began acquiring companies, she was asked to expand her role of managing a 250-person organization in 2002 to help integrate some of the new acquisitions into the engineering business unit.

“I came to the point in my career where I was very successful, and I was doing a lot of interesting things, but I really didn’t feel like I was having an impact on the world the way I wanted to,” Palmer said. “So I stepped back. I did a little soul searching, and ended up going back to my roots in education.”

She applied for and got a job as the senior director of Sun’s learning organization in 2006 and simultaneously earned a master’s degree in instructional and performance technology — with an emphasis on learning technology— from Boise State University. Palmer said she had always loved education and learning for the effect it can have on people’s lives. She even earned a bachelor’s degree in English and communications from San Jose State University with the intention of teaching at the university level, before an aptitude for technology lured her away.

Some years later, while firmly entrenched in the world of work, she said she thought about quitting high tech and going into education in the nonprofit sector so she could use technology to effect change. She ultimately didn’t; instead she satisfied her philanthropic leanings in 2014 by joining the board for the Taproot Foundation, an organization that seeks to drive social change through pro bono work.

After four years at Sun in an executive learning position, Oracle Corp. bought the company in 2010, and Palmer took a role at Yahoo, leading a large learning organization as vice president of learning. She spent two years there before Linkedin recruited her in 2012. “It was an amazing opportunity. I haven’t seen many start a learning organization from scratch. It was exciting to think about learning as a blank canvas, to think about all the things we could do, how we could think about learning differently.”

Palmer said the learning community has been talking about the need to do things differently for decades, yet traditional learning hasn’t changed much beyond using newer, technology-enabled delivery systems. That’s the thing about having big, lofty goals. They can be tough to realize. But in her current role, Palmer has been able to shift the learning paradigm and put things in place that employees actually use.

“She’s definitely a big-picture-idea person,” said Patricia Wadors, senior vice president of global talent and chief human resources officer at LinkedIn. “So she surrounds herself with people who can execute and implement her ideas, which is great. Being self-aware is a good thing.”

Wadors said when there is a problem to solve, Palmer is loath to look at what has been done before, even if it was successful. Instead the CLO considers, “What will work right now?” Sometimes that means pushing back and looking long term vs. adopting a short-term solution, “which I appreciate,” Wadors said.

In addition to thinking like “an engineer” to solve problems, Wadors described Palmer as a thought leader when it comes to business development and company strategy. She was active in multiple facets of the company’s acquisition of Lynda.com in 2015. “It’s been fun watching her play in that space and evaluate the larger market significance and LinkedIn’s potential role in it.

“She’s not afraid to try new things,” the CHRO said. “It’s part of being a big thinker. She will look at what sticks in our culture and employee base and can we modify it. And, she’s an active learner herself.”

Intersection of Technology and Culture

Every learning program at LinkedIn reinforces its culture and values. Its products, vision and mission are part of the same conversation beginning on new hires’ first day. Onboarding involves a New Hire Roadmap, which outlines week by week a list of things they need to do to become successful and productive in their first 30 days. Further, the roadmap is gamified, with a progress bar across the top to show the employee exactly how they’re doing during the experience.

Next employees can access a tool called The Transformation Plan, which aids their efforts to get better at their current job and think about their career in the future. “We serve up skills in this program so you can pick what you want to focus on,” Palmer said. “Then you can drag and drop curated learning assets into this transformation plan, and track your progress over time against those career goals.”

The platform upon which all of this happens is called Learn[In], and it’s a far cry from traditional learning management systems, which Palmer said often don’t do what learning leaders want them to do. “One of the first things I did was hire a couple of developers and said, ‘Let’s build this learning platform that will allow us to do curated content, to build a new hire roadmap and this transformation plan so that we can do with learning what we always imagined we could do.’ ”

After the transformation plan, learning strategy diverges even more from traditional approaches. For instance, instead of the popular 70-20-10 model, Palmer uses a 70-30 model. Traditional learning is a bit antiquated, she said. Worse, the lecture model — where people get in front of people, then learners memorize facts and take tests — has found its way into the corporate world.

At LinkedIn, she said 70 percent of the way people learn is to get information when they need it, learning in context of how they do their job, or learning in the context of how they want to move their career rather than use prescribed learning competencies or learning paths. That translates to a heavy use of readily available online content. Some of that content is LinkedIn specific, and the company’s offerings were greatly enhanced by the Lynda.com course repository.

The other 30 percent includes classroom training, and that’s not all. “A few years ago people were under the impression that if you did a lot of stuff online, you were saying that you didn’t want to do anything in person anymore; I couldn’t be saying anything further from that,” Palmer said. “But the fact is people don’t have time to sit in in-person activities a lot.”

Instead, when people do step away from their busy jobs to spend time together, it should be done in intact work groups where they’re solving real problems and practicing activities they can immediately apply on the job. For instance, last year Palmer and her team developed a four-week program called Conscious Business to help employees put LinkedIn’s culture and values into practice on a day-to-day basis.

Collaborating effectively, improving relationships, how to communicate with co-workers, how to solve problems, how to act with integrity — the program covers all of these ideas in a variety of ways. Participants learn in cohort groups and through videos, knowledge checks and practice activities with co-workers in real business scenarios. They can share via a discussion board, and meet weekly with a facilitator to synthesize learning. “It’s minimal time in person, but very powerful. That’s an example of the future of learning: It’s blended, pedagogically sound. It takes it to a whole new level,” she said.

It’s All About the Data

Analytics, learning insights and dashboards are in constant use at LinkedIn. The company uses data to mitigate the challenges associated with information overload, something all learners suffer given the amount of information coming at them on a daily basis. Managing that overload is also why Learn[In] actively curates content for employees rather than just making it available.

An employee’s Google search to learn more about social media might produce thousands of hits. A Learn[In]  search, on the other hand, serves up the eight or 10 best, most relevant pieces of learning content to help employees find what they need when they need it. Today, the company handles content by topic area, but Palmer said it plans to individualize curated content based on an employee’s existing skills and those the employee hopes to acquire.

Wadors said Palmer often bases learning strategy on data, which the typical learning leader doesn’t. For example, “If people look a lot at how to code in mobile applications, she’ll see the trend and validate the need for the skill to business leaders: Should we develop learning? Are you trying to hire for it? Should we develop a solution?”

GLG’s Socarides said that kind of evaluative, learning-based approach to solving business problems is necessary for today’s professionals to be successful and stay innovative. “The pace of innovation today requires all top professionals to be lifelong learners,” he said. “And at the center of that is taking a big-picture approach to what learning means.”

Big-picture thinking is what LinkedIn, and Kelly Palmer, are all about. It’s likely a match made in heaven, given both want to have a hand in changing the world.

“We have this notion of dream big, get shit done, and know how to have fun,” Palmer said. “That’s a bit crass because of that one word, but the idea is that dreaming big is part of who we are as a company. If I’m leading learning at LinkedIn, I have to dream big and make things happen.”

She said CLOs in general have to think differently about learning because the future will be more about inspiring people rather than controlling them, helping overwhelmed learners find what they need when they need it and using talent analytics differently to measure learning impact. There should be no more butts-in-seats-type data. “It’s about using technology to mirror back what people are doing with learning and how that can help them with their jobs or to navigate their careers.”

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