I remember the first time I opened Duolingo, on my way to meetings in Berlin. It was a magical experience—it just made sense so quickly. In the moments between takeoff and taxi, I could pop open the application and learn. I arrived in Germany knowing a few phrases to help me get around.
Duolingo wasn’t going to make me fluent. It wasn’t an immersion course. It was just simple. And that’s the point. The failure of most who endeavor for change is that, in the pursuit of perfection, they forget that users most often don’t care about what’s perfect. They care about what’s easy. They care about what fits into their lives.
As Chief Learning Officer at SAP, I have two responsibilities. First, future-proof our workforce during a period of rapid technological change. And second, enable our ecosystem to go through the same transformation and get the most out of our products and services. In both efforts, innovation at scale is the name of the game. With more than 102,000 colleagues and more than 2.5 million active members of our SAP Community, anything we do to drive learning and enablement must be effective with mass appeal. To deliver that scale, I believe we need to focus on three things:
- Fitting into real life
- Focusing on accessibility
- Being comfortable with imperfection
With these ingredients, learning in a digital world can be a powerful amplifier of change. Not just for the lucky few – but for all who deserve it.
#1 – Learning should fit into real life
We all know we should learn. Most of us have an innate desire for self-improvement. But at the same time, every one of us has a mass of responsibilities. Today, our time feels more constrained than ever. As we balance home and work responsibilities, learning gets pushed to the back burner.
Every time I sit down with a member of the SAP ecosystem (employee, partner, or customer) I ask the same question. “Where do you learn about SAP?” Often, the answer can be summarized in one of two words: Google or YouTube. Many old-guard learning professionals treat this as a problem. But I see it as an opportunity. An acknowledgement that our lives are more complicated than ever and those struggling for knowledge have found the easy and convenient ways of finding it.
People learn differently. And they learn when they’d like to learn. During my days in academia, Clay Christensen used to remind me that he told the same stories over and over again not because he had a dearth of ideas. Instead, he told those stories and taught those lessons continuously because he couldn’t decide when his students wanted to learn. He could just make sure the concepts were available when they chose to pay attention.
Last week I spoke with my colleague Jill Popelka, President of SAP SuccessFactors, about how we have to fit learning into real life. Sometimes that’s by ensuring content is in places like YouTube. Sometimes that means we need to facilitate a social conversation. And sometimes that means a few dedicated days for learning at a point of transition in our careers.
But one thing is for sure. Learning starts with the learner. And with near infinite options, that means our content needs to fit into the real lives those learners have.
#2 – Forget mastery and embrace accessibility
Mastery learning is a powerful concept. The highest levels of our educational institutions are optimized around learning in this manner. A graduate student studies under an academic who’s spent decades mastering their topic of interest. Years later, a PhD is conferred for a dissertation that few will ever read and fewer yet will care about. At Harvard we joked around about this being the most boring version of Harry Potter imaginable.
Yet, despite its narrow scope of impact, this type of mastery learning dominates much of our conversation around knowledge. We think about building paths that help people start at novice level and progress indefinitely. But why?
Digital learning offers such impact specifically because of its reach. It opens the doors for learners of all new varieties, sparking interest and setting folks down a new path. For those who were never before offered relevant knowledge, an accessible video can change their trajectory. Khan Academy grew because it was built for the average student without access to fancy tutors who were trying to make their way through math class. Khan Academy was never a format that could scale through university-level lectures. But it didn’t need to be.
In the same vein, when it comes to continuous professional learning, the internet enables us to reach as many learners in the SAP ecosystem as possible. With nearly 8 billion people on the planet, and millions in our ecosystem, our team acknowledges that not everyone needs to be a Computer Science PhD. If we focus instead on accessible resources such as forums on SAP Community, missions in the Tutorial Navigator, and BTP boosters in the Discovery Center, we can bring both knowledge to so many more.
For example, last month our focus on accessibility allowed us to hit a milestone of 5 million course enrollments on openSAP. The courses may not deliver us the next HANA, but they will allow us to reach every single person who wants to build their SAP skills, at whatever level they start.
#3 – Be comfortable with imperfection
I often remind my team: “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” Instead of waiting to deliver a perfect product in the future, we sometimes need to focus on delivering viable solutions that work right now.
Don’t get me wrong – we should still always strive to be better. But sometimes we need to be comfortable with imperfection. It’s for this reason that technology companies release beta versions of software before ironing out every bug. It’s why car manufacturers release new models each year, and why restaurants open to friends and family before the general public. And it’s why in a fast-changing digital environment, we must deliver learning that equips learners with the skills that they need now.
This requires listening to what our learners need and responding quickly. For example, when we heard that our ecosystem wanted more accessible content, we started to take the first steps to break down barriers to learning: we offered select Learning Journeys for free as part of the SAP Learning Hub, event edition at TechEd, bundled learning tools for partners into one affordable solution in the SAP Learning Hub, partner edition, and added flexible certification options by launching a new single-attempt offer.
We know these are not perfect solutions—and that’s why we’re not done yet. I hope you keep challenging us to do better and build learning that fits into your lives. I promise you: we’re listening.