Nurturing Self Directed Learning

Although it was founded back in 2005 by two Romanian entrepreneurs,  the success story of UiPath got to everyone talking when the company reached unicorn status, in March 2018. Ever since, UiPath gained a reputation as a dynamic, fun, and people-oriented workplace. Also, in the learning industry, the word went that UiPath was experimenting with some interesting concepts. That’s why we were thrilled when Maya Camarasu,  Learning Program Manager at UiPath, accepted to answer some of our questions. Here’s what came out: A great discussion about  Self-Directed Learning, using Design Thinking in L&D, how to leverage internal tech talent to build learning programs, and the story of the People Development team.

Tell us a bit about how the Learning & Development Department emerged in UiPath? What were the first needs you focused on and why?

The People Development team (we switched from Learning & Development to People Development in 2019) was created approximately 2 years ago. At that time the company was growing very fast (up from 300 employees to 700 in less than 4 months) and we had  a recurrent and stringent need to help the emerging leaders, and in particular those who had not been in that position before, to develop the right skills fast. So that they could, in return, support their teams in this fast-paced, high-growth environment. At the same time, the company needed expertise from a team that could provide a global framework to show how people learn. That’s why in April 2018 UiPath recruited its first learning specialist.

Currently, the team operates as a center of excellence with 3 members (one VP and 2 Program Managers).

I know you first tried applying a Self-Directed Learning Framework but still felt something was missing. How did you come up with the idea? What worked well and what did not?

The Self-Directed Learning Approach was from the very beginnings ingrained in our learning philosophy, as a solid foundation that helped us with decision making. I remember the moment we created a Wiki page to present our team’s activity. We started with our vision that was saying:

“Meaningful learning at UiPath happens if you have access to it, if you have the context to apply what you learn in your daily context (performance support) and if it is supported/ guided by a manager/ peers/ mentor (someone) who helps you accelerate your growth.”

There were times when our colleagues asked us what they could learn, what is available to them. We answered that question with another question: “What do you want and need to learn in your role?” Sometimes people knew the answer, and sometimes they did not. We asked ourselves how we could help the latter. This is how the self-directed learning framework came into place. This time with a more robust approach and resources for each phase.

A lot of science goes behind the fact that learning how to learn is one of the top predictors for nations and individuals’ wellbeing. So, we really wanted to leverage this, especially in such a dynamic organization like ours. Plus, in a fast-changing environment, we stopped and looked at what was not changing. What we found is the fact that learning how to learn is something that remains constant. So, we asked ourselves: how could we leverage it?

Also, our team’s experience with personal and professional development showed us that if we created a framework in which people look closer at who they are, at their drivers, at their development needs, if they were able to formulate goals and strategies for fulfilling those needs and complete the process with a self-assessment, that would create learning autonomy and contribute to driving improved performance.

What was the first implementation of the Self-Directed Learning framework?

In November of last year, we decided to start a Self-Directed Learning pilot program with an open invitation to learning how to learn better.

In the background, we had a couple of objectives in mind:

  1. Provide a framework that could help our colleagues align their learning goals with business goals so that they could increase performance in their daily work. A deliverable of this goal was the creation and application of a comprehensive learning plan.
  2. Increase autonomy in the learning process. This eventually contributes to developing learning agility, as the learner is in the driver seat of his or her learning journey. In today’s workplace, learning happens everywhere and, in most jobs, you need to learn something new with each project/ program. How could we accelerate the way they immerse when it comes to different things?
  3. Offer access to internal learning opportunities at a moment when the learning budget was on freeze.
Self Directed Learning Framework

We started this pilot journey in November 2019 with 80 people from 8 different teams, and 5 different countries. We planned to run the pilot for 3 months with scheduled check-ins with the participants once every 2-3 weeks. These check-ins would provide insights and resources for each phase of the process. Below are the phases of the program on which we provided training, resources, and support:

By the end of January 2020, we were able to measure some progress in the number of completed learning plans (75%), the number of requests, and record an increased usage on the internal learning opportunities. Also, we ran some feedback sessions to understand what went well, and what we could improve. We tried to understand their feedback on 2 dimensions:

  • internal – depended on themselves;
  • external – depended on the others, the environment, etc.

We received the following answers, which were very exciting for us. Snapshot with the centralized feedback below:

When it comes to what worked and brought participants value, among the recurrent themes we had:

  • “A good awareness reminder for how you look at yourself, at what is important to learn, how to organize your time, and break down old patterns”;
  • “Useful resources to test the environment, writing them down, and having a discussion with your manager about goals – social pressure & accountability motivates you a lot more”;
  • “The process makes one become more aware of the company learning resources and tools”;
  • “The learner achieves expertise in the domain they’ve focused on”;
  • “Came up with the initiative to invest in a book club – we have this good habit in our team of recommending and reading the same book and then we meet for sharing”;
  • “I was able to identify knowledge gaps and planned time in the program to address those”;
  • “Found experienced people in the program that helped me with my learning plan”;
  • “The team was consistent in communication, good flexibility with the learning resources”;
  • “Clear timeframe, good cadence, many pieces of training I had access to”.

When it comes to what did not work and could be improved, we identified:

  • “Develop discipline on how to accommodate the time I needed to study and practice, I did not accomplish all learning goals”;
  • “When you’re telling someone  “you have to/ should” is not motivating, people need to have enough time to think about what they want to learn”;
  • “Maybe extending the process to 4 months or more and launching it in 2-3 different editions – would give participants a bit more time to reflect”;
  • “Analyzing the learning plans and seeing who else has the same learning goals could encourage social learning”;
  • “Would be great to receive feedback periodically on your learning, on the next steps. How would you know otherwise that you completed the program?
  • “Create a gamified system/ nudges with progress and who did what”.

Also, we asked the magic question: Would you recommend this program to a colleague? And, to our great satisfaction, the answer was always yes. Then we also asked: Would you see value in scaling up this program? Again, the answer was yes. This gave us even more energy to keep going.

After this first iteration, you decided to apply Design Thinking to the whole process. Could you tell us a bit about what tools did you use and what insights came out of using them?

After the first iteration, we wanted to learn about new ways to scale the program globally. We realized that we had some ideas about how we could do it, but we were not sure it would work. So, what we did was to connect with 2 of our colleagues. One certified in facilitating design thinking sessions and another one certified in running design sprints. We explained where we are, and what we plan to achieve. After we met, we decided to go with a mix of both methodologies, as our goal was so big. Moreover, we did not have much time on our hands.

The scaling up session was scheduled for February 2020 and what we did was to invite different personas of the learner in UiPath to the design session. Managers, individual contributors, and HRBPs. The purpose was to co-create a strategy for scaling up the self-directed learning framework.

We started with setting up the stage, generating hundreds of How Might We’s related to the experience of the program and the learners’ needs in UiPath. The part that I loved most was the one in which the participants in the room were able to create a vision that was so powerful and bold and was explaining our purpose as a People Development team in UiPath.

After COVID appeared we started using Miro as a collaborative tool with all its different functionalities. Before that, just the regular post its, sharpies, and many walls 😊.

The UiPath Team – Design Thinking Session

What did you learn from the process of using Design Thinking for Learning Products and Processes?

We learnt even more about empathy, about the real understanding of our learners’ world.

Also, we learnt to take on a more agile approach with having a core team take care of the program, but also engage different colleagues who could help us accelerate it on the right path. Such as colleagues specialized in machine learning, UX, or content curation.

Specifically, the process was very insightful from a couple of perspectives:

  • We learnt even more about our learners’ needs. Our universe got bigger and more populated. It was another powerful confirmation of the highly diverse environment in which we are operating and of the different styles and needs people have. We learnt that while self-directed learning fits like a glove some of our colleagues, for others things are not so straightforward. It is important to be aware of that;
  • We co-created the People Development vision for the next two years and the pillars that support it;
  • We were able to prioritize and do prototypes that were tested with each phase. Five is a good number of people for testing your prototypes. I highly recommend the Design Sprint book for more inspiration on this;
  • We challenged ourselves with how we could provide more learning opportunities in the workflow. That’s where the magic happens.
  • Don’t let one week pass by without making some progress happen. That was a very good KPI. Trust the process, it works. And this comes from someone who did not have the best relationship with failure.

It seems at some point you started working across-teams. Did you need a business case to convince managers to let those people help you with the project? If so, what points did you articulate when talking to them?

I guess we were very fortunate. We did not have to build a business case to justify their time investment. But what we did was to make sure that we calibrate with them first if they want to be part of this program. Most of them said yes. We offered support in terms of speaking to their managers and see if it would be OK for them to help with the program. But that was not necessary. Most of them positioned working with us as not only providing support but also a development opportunity.

I think this is very important. Just like any team you work with, to have a continuous check-in with availability to contribute, drive, and passion for the project and expertise for what needs to be delivered.

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Where are you now? Did you already apply some of the insights you gained?

YES! 😊 We are still having an agile approach. We know that we are running a marathon that consists of different sprints in which we empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Your employees probably have a different background when it comes to learning & development than the one you use. Usually, it is the L&D teams that organize pieces of training or webinars, and attendees’ role is simply to take part. That is why, the self-directed learning approach invited them to think about their own path & resources, not just be passive learners. How did people respond to that? Were they still asking for in-class training for any need they had?

So many questions in one. 🙂

The answer is that you will always have a mix, or at least this is the case for us. A mix between what is mandatory in terms of knowledge/ skills/ abilities (I say mandatory because, for example, a Product Manager cannot be a Product Manager if he/ she does not know the product), and what the other areas of development are. To address these needs, you will have a wide variety of resources/ experiences. For some of them, you will have the classical training, for some others, you will have self-paced learning paths, etc.

As a People Development team, we still organize training/ webinars, as for some people, from a methodology perspective, this is how they learn best. But what makes a difference in an organization, in my opinion, especially in one that is very diverse and has all functions (Corporate, Marketing, Sales, Product, Engineering) is if you as a person and as an organization have the North Star in terms of the knowledge/ skills/ capabilities you’re trying to develop. In our case, some teams are more advanced from this perspective, others are developing them now. This also influences the process of learning. Some of them know what is the foundation everyone needs, others are now looking at where to build ‘the house’. But this is normal, especially when things change so fast.

Training/ webinars/ learning events organized by the L&D team make a ton of sense if they answer these specific learning and business objectives. What self-directed learning does is to provide a framework in which you are more aware of the training/ learning opportunities that are helping you grow. So that you won’t enroll in a training/ webinar just because it is good to attend it, but because that experience is helping you achieve your goals.

This is the mix I was talking about: sometimes these training (catalog-like) help in terms of becoming aware of the opportunities that are available to you. Then you do your mix. But you need to have clarity around what “dish you want to prepare”. Is it a ‘soup’, is it a ‘dessert’? Then you have to start experimenting with the ingredients.

How did you convince them to use other learning methods?

When it comes to convincing our colleagues about other learning opportunities, we did not build the strategy around convincing them. What we did was to present to them all the formal learning opportunities available and invite them to think about the other informal resources or tools they could explore. For instance, finding a mentor, or organizing sharing sessions with their team and learning from each other, or starting a book club. Anything that is relevant and helps them. But again, you need to know how to work with yourself first. And here usually I like using this quote from Alice in Wonderland:

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”

What are your future plans when it comes to employee development?

We will continue building on the self-directed learning axis and on democratizing learning internally with peer to peer learning and learning communities. We try to do it by using automation, internal resources, and our colleagues’ drive and energy for continuous growth. Also, we continue to provide access to different eLearning opportunities. We always encourage our colleagues to go beyond the classic approach and gain clarity on what they want to learn, as there might be different paths for achieving the same goal.

Final thoughts

We do not believe in best practices, but we definitely believe in frameworks all L&Ds could apply to make their role more meaningful. Self-Directed Learning and Design Thinking are just two of them, and we are so happy to see learning professionals experimenting outside their comfort area. You can always follow Maya on LinkedIn to keep up with UiPath updates and we are definitely keeping her close to learn more about her projects.

Maya Camarasu is the Global Leadership Development Program Manager @UiPath. She's passionate about making learning engaging and meaningful by bringing together technology, people, learning solutions, and design.

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